category: Training

Life is My School

I’m a big believer in knowledge.  Education, be it in a class environment, online, through books, seminars or conferences is important in every aspect of life.  However, I also believe that there is no education quite like the education you’ll get with hands on training.  The “just do it” process of learning much like the lessons I learn by experiencing life,  is the method I use most in almost everything I do.  If I’m interested in learning something, the first thing I’ll do is buy a gazillion books and DVDs on the subject and then immediately begin putting what I read into real life applications. It’s this method that allows me the practice I need to truly understand what works, what doesn’t and where I need to improve.

I used this method when I first began to learn about photography.  My formal experience began in college when I took a few semesters to satisfy certain requirements.  From that experience, I moved forward and just started shooting.  The more I shot, the more I experimented and the more experience I gained.

Twenty years ago, when I got my first puppy, a Giant Schnauzer we named Sax, I did the same thing.  I remember my first beginner class with Sax.  We were in class for all of ten minutes when the trainer fitted him with a choke chain and began to show me how to utilize it.  He was five months old.  A week later, she replaced the choke with a pinch collar because she wasn’t getting the “proper” responses from him.  She asked Sax to sit.  He didn’t.  He hadn’t yet been taught.  I thought teaching was what class was supposed to be for.  She gave a jerk upwards with the leash which elicited a shocked yelp (not only from Sax but the majority of the people in class).  At the same time, she pressed downward on his rump to make him sit.  It made me extremely uncomfortable.  My gut instinct told me this wasn’t right.  But I suppressed that instinct because I thought they knew more than I did.  After all, they were dog trainers….I was not.

Next was teaching him how to walk on leash and this is where I began to realize that this type of training didn’t teach, it forced.  Not only did it force, but with a dog like Sax, it actually encouraged aggressive behavior.  The more she jerked, the more it frustrated and antagonized him and the more he became reactive.  It didn’t take long before he jumped at her and bit her hand.  Her response was severe, and punishment included several consecutive yanks in which he screeched and tried to get away.  I walked up to her, took the leash from her, left and never went back. Even with my lack of experience I knew this couldn’t be the only form of training.  I knew there had to be a better way.

Thankfully, dog training is no longer so medieval.  While there are those trainers that, for whatever reason, can’t let go of the old ways of training, there are many more, like Victoria Stilwell of It’s Me or the Dog, who believe in a training method that encourages your dog to think for him or herself.

Victoria Stilwell It's Me Or the Dog

When I train, I give the animal the respect he/she deserves and teach based on encouragement, motivation and positive reinforcement with the end goal being an enhanced relationship…a trusting friendship.  I’ve learned much in the way of animal behavior and training in the last twenty years with the majority of my education coming from a life lived with animals and my work at Quincy Animal Shelter.  A one size fits all program just doesn’t work when it comes to training.  In every instance, it’s the animal who shows me how it will best learn.

This weekend, I attended the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants conference.  I had the opportunity to hear presentations from Dr. Nicholas Dodman on compulsive behavior, Dr. Frank McMillan on the psychological aspects of abuse, neglect and trauma on animals, Lisa Clifton-Bumpass on cross species training, Kathryn Lord on sensory development in wolves and dogs, Dr. Sheila D’Arpino on food aggression, Steve Dale on enriching environments for dogs and cats and Bob Bailey on behavioral economics.

I can’t even explain how amazing it was to be in a room filled with such great minds.  Minds who encourage building bonds with your dog or cat in a way that resists force, dominance and fear.  Thank you IAABC for putting this together and thank you to everyone willing to share their knowledge so that I can better myself.