Lab and his ball

I’ve been assisting with a puppy class for the last few months and we often get questions from dog owners after class about “other equipment” they could use to solve problems. Most of the questions are about heeling, “What magic piece of equipment can I buy that will stop my dog from pulling me down the street?” This past week was no different. A woman with an adorable 4 month old lab asked about choke chains. Since the lead trainer was right there, I just answered, “I train differently,” and stepped aside for the trainer to answer the question. It’s not my class, so it wasn’t the time or the place to discuss my “equipment.”

My quick, blurted response started me thinking. I do train differently. I train differently from most of the trainers I know, I train differently from most of the trainers I see on TV or who write books, and I train differently from how I trained 20, 10 and 5 years ago.

The “equipment” I use is a clicker. The definition of “clicker training” is, “Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it.” It sounds simple, and it is, but the click is so much more than a marker for desirable behavior. It is an agreement between the animal and the trainer, “I’ll be good.” The animal will be “good” by giving a behavior and the trainer will be “good” by giving the animal something it wants. This is a purely mechanical skill. You don’t need to have a relationship with the animal for it to work.

The click turns into so much more when you do have a relationship with the animal. It becomes language, trust, giving, sharing, and joy at spending time together. It’s also incredibly addicting, like two really good friends that can finish each others sentences. You want to spend more time with that person because you “click.” But, we shouldn’t forget that we are having a relationship with a different species; one that has its own instincts, behavior, phases, and learning abilities. Although, when we remember that it’s even more addicting.

Most dog training is based on the Victorian idea of man’s superiority and that humans are obligated to demonstrate that superiority (stuffed head on a wall, anyone?) Humans are at the top of the species chart and all other species should bow to our greatness and allow us to control them. If they don’t allow us, we should make them obey. You can try explaining this to someone training a tiger, elephant or dolphin, but you’ll probably get laughed at. You can’t “correct” something that can smash you or run or swim away. And while that’s a problem that humans are intelligent enough to solve, it doesn’t answer the question about why we’re still clinging to the idea that we have the right to correct animals at all. After all, they have their own instincts, behaviors and learning abilities that have developed by either evolution or God, (you take your pick on which one you follow.) Who are we to say that evolution or God is wrong?

If we look at evolution theory, dogs started hanging out with humans because of our trash. The village trash heap provided freebie food if the animal was willing to leave the comfort of the forest. For those more adventurous animals, if they allowed humans to approach, they’d get the freshest trash. Thus began the long relationship between dogs and humans. It started with the food, but it was built on trust, “If I approach, I’ll get better food and you won’t hurt me.” With a full trash heap, I’m not sure the dogs would have kept approaching if they were hurt by the villagers.

Which brings me back to why I train differently. Correcting dogs breaks that first agreement, “If I approach, you won’t hurt me.” While training is about getting our dogs to fit into our human world (excessive barking is a problem when it’s done 10 feet from a sleeping neighbor and stealing items off the kitchen counter can be deadly,) we need to remember why we have dogs in our lives in the first place – companionship. Would you accept a public scolding or face slap from your best friend for doing something they considered wrong? When I look into the face of a dog getting corrected I see the confusion and despair from the break of trust. Traditional / Leadership training has changed the relationship to, “I’ll endure your corrections to get food.” This may be why we have so many behavior problems with dogs. We’ve confused dogs with weird rules, inconsistent rewards and punishment, and moved them to a state of learned helplessness so they can’t do anything without our permission. When they rebel and try to get something, anything they can control, we correct them more. If we were talking about a relationship between two humans we’d label it “toxic.”

I have 3 dogs and I’m not the “pack leader,” meaning the mantras of “You must eat before your dog,” “Never let your dog go out the door first,” or “Never let your dog sit on you,” don’t exist in my house. I do need to be a teacher. I help them when things are scary, I help them understand that my human world has bad things they need to leave alone, and I help them when we’re playing the “click” game and they’re confused. When a lesson isn’t learned it’s my fault for not explaining it properly or rushing the lessons, which led to confusion. My girls are my best friends, travel companions and partners in crime and I’m thankful for their company, so much so that my praise cue is, “Thank you.”

I train differently

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