Written by Amy Novak
The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn. ~ David Russell
I believe that one of the hardest parts of being a Novice not just in Obedience, but in any dog sport - is that you have to make a very definitive decision about how you want to go about training. For Agility, you have to decide which handling system you want to use, what kind of contacts you want to teach and how you’ll teach the weave poles. For Tracking, you have to decide the method of teaching food drops, scent circles, scent in a bottle, etc. For Obedience, the biggest decision is whether or not you want to use corrections in your training.
The issue itself wouldn’t normally be so big, but the fact that the opinions are so completely opposite of each other is what causes the anxiety. For people who believe in a purely 100% positive approach to training, where you can’t even give a negative verbal response and can’t even say “No”, any amount of correcting a dog could be perceived as brutality and ignorance. Their argument is that corrections can cause fear or avoidance, and any mistakes the dogs make are the handler’s fault for not being clear enough on training. Also, since training is supposed to be a happy occasion, why pollute it with anything negative?
It seems like most people are in the middle. Very few people are willing to train their dogs with extremely harsh corrections all of the time. The majority of people believe in positive training, but also that giving corrections (ranging from a mild verbal “no” to collar pops to throw chains and beyond) shows the dog that whatever behavior he just did is wrong. Most people are willing to try to find a balance of positive and negative to show their dog what they’re trying to teach them.
Most novices by default will use the training methods of their trainer, because they don’t necessarily know that other options are available. For example, Layla uses a two on / two off approach for Agility contacts, where her front two feet are on the ground and her back two feet remain in the contact zone of the obstacle. I didn’t even know that some people use a running contact. Where the dog runs thoroughly through the obstacle and runs through the contact zone. Or that some people teach a modified version of that where the dog runs through the entire obstacle and contact zone but stops with all four feet on the ground. I had no idea that there were other ways to train that. It doesn’t really matter, because even knowing other methods, I’d still stick with the current choice. Maybe when I have more experience in handling I’ll try something new, but I’m happy with it for now.
For Obedience though, whether or not you’re comfortable with the type of corrections your instructor is advocating is something you’ll know from the start. It’ll probably be pretty easy to figure out if you believe that any kind of collar corrections would ruin your dog forever, or if you’re okay with the concept of throwing something at your dog if they run away, or even pinching or twisting your dog’s ear. I personally think it’s kind of like parenting. There are some parents who believe in spanking their kids (or worse) and there are some parents who believe that any kind of punishment will cause the child lifelong problems. It depends a lot on your personal beliefs and morals. Regarding the physical abuse and discipline on children, the middle ground now is that spanking is wrong, but corrections are right much like dog trainers.
Not that I’m comparing dogs and children. In general, dogs are much better behaved! But how you feel about dealing with behavior is likely something that remains constant, regardless of what you’re dealing with. For me, the choice was pretty simple finally, there was something that didn’t cause me hours of laying awake in bed, worrying about my decisions! I figured that since I give people corrections, dog training shouldn’t be different. I don’t have children yet but I do believe that people should be corrected, too. For example, my boyfriend Pat has the very annoying habit of leaving a sponge in the kitchen sink. It drives me crazy because it doesn’t dry out properly, and then can harbor bacteria, and then isn’t really very clean when you go to use it to clean a dish. I gave him some warnings about it but I guess he thought they were empty threats. Now, when he leaves a sponge in the sink, I put the dripping wet, smelly, bacteria-filled sponge right in the middle of his pillow. I have to say, after the first time, he hardly ever does it any more. It’s been many months. He’s forgotten here and there, but not constantly like before. Just ignoring it definitely would not have fixed the problem, and even though a shock collar does have possibilities, I think the sponge-on-the-pillow is a more appropriate correction.
When it comes to how I train Layla, I am okay with using physical corrections. We used a throw chain in Agility when she would get the zoomies. They weren't stress zoomies, they were "I don't need you around, silly human, when I can do all these obstacles without you much faster" zoomies. We haven't needed to use that in a long time, and now she understands that we're supposed to be a team. I am okay with using collar corrections during Obedience. I'm okay with those physical corrections, but I'll never trim her whiskers for conformation. I think that's an absolutely senseless and painful experience just for the sake of fashion. I was curious about whether or not it really hurt the dogs, so I tried snipping one of my eyelashes. Trust me, it hurts! It was surprising since your eyelashes fall out all the time, but when they're still attached to your eyelid and you try to cut them, it's really painful. I don't care if her face doesn't look as clean and smooth as other dogs; I don't believe in invoking pain just for the sake of beauty. Having said that, I don't judge people who do trim whiskers (the huge majority of exhibitors), and I don't judge people on their preferred method of corrections, either.
I've been told that at some point, usually in adolescence, most dogs will challenge your authority. I'll never forget the day Layla growled at me. I'd gotten her a very special bone, and when my brother went to walk past her not with any intention of touching her at all, just to get into the next room she growled at him. I thought it was a coincidence, so I had him walk back past her and of course she growled again. Then I tried walking past her, and she growled at me, too. Well, that didn't last. I hear it's not considered appropriate anymore, but I alpha rolled her, and I'm very glad that I did. There was no anger in it; I didn't even have her by her throat. I pushed her side with one hand and took the bone away with the other. I did give it back to her after she showed me that she wouldn't growl anymore. She hasn't growled at anyone since.
When I worked as a veterinary technician, there were a lotof owners who believed that their dogs were "just expressing themselves" when they would growl or snap at us. They would laugh at how "precocious" their little darlings were as they were dangling from our clothes. The owners would also have a fit if you gave any kind of negative response. They didn't even want you to say "No" to their dogs, because you'd be "ruining their creativity." The dogs weren't artists, so I don't know what creativity they needed. They were bad mannered terrors. I understand the theory behind purely positive training, but I think it doesn't work if the dog doesn't have the basic skills needed to be a good pet.
A common reaction to any methods different than whatever is being used is that “Doing (fill in the blank) will ruin my dog.” The pure positive people think that corrections will ruin their dog, and the corrections people think that ignoring bad behavior will ruin their dog. With the exception of the people who use only very harsh corrections not the ones that balance positive and negative, but the purely negative trainers. I think that if you’re taking the time to train your dog, spending time with them and bonding with them, you won’t ruin anything. You can’t ruin something that you care so much about and love so much. But there’s a difference between not being willing to try a new training method and being morally opposed to something. If you really, truly object to what your instructor wants you to do, find another trainer. You might not ruin your dog, but he’ll pick up on your discomfort and unease and then won’t enjoy himself anyway. By then, what’s the point?
One good thing about dog training is that you can always try another technique to train something. Just because I’m okay with correcting Layla doesn’t mean that I think the same corrections would work on all dogs. If I ever get a dog that’s sensitive, I would have to change a lot about the way I train. The fact that there are so many different ways to teach all of these behaviors is proof that people have disagreed with certain methods and decided to use their own. The fact that there are so many dogs competing, and winning, that have been trained using different means is proof that there isn’t just one set way to train a dog. Some ways just work better with certain dogs and trainers. As long as you're open and willing to change, there are always new methods to try and new ideas to work with. The best training method is the one that makes you and your dog grow and evolve as partners and teammates.