It’s spring, verging on summer.  And with spring comes puppies.  Every year, new puppies show up in my neighbourhood – it’s always fun to see them scampering about.  This year a new little puppy moved in a few doors down from me.  She’s cute as a button, about 4 months old.  Her parents are typical new puppy owners, in love but somewhat overwhelmed, and worried about everything: she hasn’t had all her shots!  I am going to screw her up!  She cries all the time and the neighbours are going to call animal control!

Ah, the joys of a new puppy.

Just a few minutes ago, as I was sitting at my computer doing work – my “real” work, rather than writing on my blog – I heard yelping and squealing.  I knew it was the new puppy by her pitch and voice.  I hear that puppy yelp a lot, and I’ve seen them struggle with training.  Every now and then I do my best to give a few diplomatically dispensed tips.   A dog-owning neighbour directed them to a good instructor and I thought all would be well.  But even though they’re now three weeks into puppy school, I have not seen much improvement in how they are managing this puppy.

As I listened to the yelping puppy, I thought perhaps I should go out and offer to give a few lessons.  Before I could, however, I heard a woman screaming.  One of the other neighbours was watching him apparently give this puppy some fairly harsh corrections on a choke chain, and the puppy was panicking.  The neighbour was horrified and started yelling at him to stop, and threatened to contact the Humane Society.  

I stepped out, as did many other people in the neighbourhood, to see what was going on.  The puppy owner was defending his actions, as were a couple of other people.  “That’s how you train a dog!” one bystander shouted.  “No, it’s not.  That’s cruelty!” replied the distraught woman.  I wasn’t sure if I should get involved, but I felt I had no choice.  I know the owner of the puppy didn’t mean to hurt his puppy.  He is overwhelmed and frustrated and, as I learned after speaking with him, had been taught by his new trainer – one randomly selected and not the one who had been recommended – that this is what you do with a puppy.  

As the yelling carried on, I walked over to the puppy owner.  So did another dog-owning neighbour.  At that point people stopped shouting.  I quietly told the puppy owner that I was afraid that I agreed with the woman who considered this cruelty.  I have a relationship established with this person, so I hoped he would take what I said constructively.  We chatted for a bit and he explained that his trainer taught him these methods, and had given him the choke chain for the puppy.  Did I mention she was 4 months old?  Her fur was worn off and her throat was red.  She was shaking.  I pointed out that perhaps these methods work on some dogs, which is why people still advocate them, but they clearly were too harsh for such a sensitive puppy.  But not to worry, I could teach him how to work with her using gentler methods so he would still have the behaviour.  I suggested that he purchase a Gentle Leader and then offered to give him some private puppy training classes.  I also encouraged him to fire his trainer.

Interestingly, his trainer apparently told him not to use a gentle leader, that it teaches the dog nothing, and that a choke chain is a better tool.  Now, I am fully aware that the use of the gentle leader is controversial for a number of reasons.  For one, it is still a form of compulsion and mishandled, can indeed cause harm to the dog.  Second, and this was the point of that trainer, it is a crutch.  The dog doesn’t actually learn to walk nicely because of a gentle leader, what it learns is not to pull on the head halter.  But the same is true of the choke chain.  If you do no training, but use either implement, taking off the tool will lead to the dog pulling again.  

The reason the trainer prefers the choke chain is apparently because it allows the dog to make a mistake, and then be corrected.  For how can they learn if they don’t make mistakes?  

I know where this woman is coming from.  I used to think this way also.  And I explained that to the puppy owner.  But now I think differently.  Puppies (dogs) don’t learn what we think they do from making mistakes and being corrected.  In our logic, we think they learn not to do the thing they were corrected for doing.  But in fact, many dogs will actually learn something quite different, such as not to trust their handler, to be afraid of what they were looking at when they received the correction, or to become afraid of trying something new.

Using corrections is very tricky and is all about proper timing and association.  Very few of us have the timing to use corrections properly, and none of us have any control over what the dog is going to associate with that correction.  Take Mira for example.  Last night in agility we introduced the teeter.  Mira is very, very smart.  She is extremely quick to figure stuff out – good stuff, and bad stuff.  We put her on a low teeter (about 6 inches) and in about 30 seconds she was running back and forth and banging each end.  My instructor said that was probably the fastest she’s ever seen a dog master the intro-teeter.  We then moved her to the bigger teeter and propped up one end so that Mira could jump on the other – about 12″ off the ground – and make it bang.  She did it no problem.  We worked one side, then the other.  Mira did it beautifully and I was thrilled.  

The only thing Mira was doing wrong was that she was jumping on the teeter,  making it go BANG! then jumping off to turn around and get her treat.  My instructor said I now need to get her to stay in place so feed her at the end of the teeter before she jumped off.  Well, Mira was too fast for me and lept off the teeter, so I grabbed her to try and stop her.  Big mistake.

Mira took that as a correction, but not for jumping off the teeter.  She took it as a correction for having jumped on it.  So she refused to jump on again.  But only from the one side, the side I had sent her from when I grabbed her.  She was still totally fine on the other side.  It took an entire bag of treats and a good 15 minutes to get her to start jumping on the teeter from the side I grabbed her from, and she never did regain her enthusiasm for it.  It is going to take a few more training sessions to work this through.  

All that from one “correction” that wasn’t even a correction, or meant to be anyway.  

Now many people would say Mira is too sensitive (she is) and not want to work with such a dog.  But I have no choice so I see it a different way.  Mira shows me instantly how good or bad my timing is, and just how far off I am in understanding what it is that she is understanding.  She is one of those dogs who makes it perfectly clear just how much damage even a very mild or inadvertent correction can cause, and is teaching me to be very careful in my methods.  In other words, she’s going to keep me very honest!

Another problem with allowing incorrect behaviour and then trying to correct it is that sometimes that behaviour is rewarding enough to overcome the correction.  Think of a dog who figures out how to open the garbage.  Sure he’s not going to like getting heck for making a mess, but is that going to deter him from trying again if he found a roast chicken the first time?  (i.e. high rate of reward) Especially if he didn’t get corrected until after he’d had a good chomp on the chicken?  (i.e. bad timing).  Not likely!  The same is true of self-rewarding behaviours like car chasing, alarm barking and so on.  These behaviours are extremely hard to correct, so the very best thing to do is to prevent them in the first place.  Then teach the dog something new.  Eventually the correct behaviour will become the default and the incorrect one will fade.  Sure this takes time, but it works.

In agility last night, my instructor gave us a little pep talk about training.  She said that if your dog is not doing what you want her to do, it always boils down to three things:

1) Timing (we are almost always off)
2) Criteria (We are rarely clear on what exactly it is that we want, and so we tend to reward the “grey”)
3) Rate of reinforcement (the reinforcement has to be sufficient to create motivation) 

Getting back to my neighbour’s puppy, I explained to him that the best way to teach a puppy is to prevent it from making mistakes in the first place, and to reward her for doing things right.  The gentle leader, properly used, can help with this.  Its role is not to teach the dog anything, but rather to allow us to prevent her from doing something incorrect.  The GL will then be faded out of the picture as the puppy learns what the right thing is and stops trying to do what we don’t want. 

I’m hoping he’ll take me up on my offer to work with him.  The trainer he has apparently has some kind of certification, but in my opinion, those mean nothing.  Anyone can go get a certificate from some dog training program but that doesn’t mean they know how to train a dog.  It is very important to actually watch a trainer with her dogs, and see what she has accomplished with them.  Ask what methods she uses, and what philosophies she follows.  Do some reading to know what the terms mean, and what the different approaches are.  In my opinion, positive training methods can be applied to all dogs, but compulsion training can’t.  Here are a few links that may be of interest around positive training:

Say Yes!  Training Center – Susan Garrett’s training center, great articles and book links

Karen Pryor Clicker Training –  lots of great links and articles

Positive Dogs – Pam Dennison’s training center


And some good books:

Don’t Shoot the Dog – by Karen Pryor

The Power of Positive Training by Pat Miller

Idiot’s Guide to Positive Dog Training by Pam Dennison

The Other End of the Leash – Patricia McConnel  (this is one of my favourites!)

A little while after the incident on the sidewalk, there was a knock on my door.  It was the woman who had yelled at the puppy owner.  She was still very upset and needed someone to talk with.  She asked if I thought she was wrong.  I said no, I agreed with her, and that I thought it took courage for her to do what she did.  And I mean that – it takes guts to confront your neighbour like that.  But I also explained that the puppy owner was just doing what he had been told to do, and that he was not a bad person, nor did he mean to hurt his puppy I’m sure.  Sure he should have figured it out, but we live in a society where we defer to experts, and he went to such an ‘expert’ (i.e. has a certificate) and paid money for help, and was doing what he had been told to do.  I also said I had offered to teach him gentler ways of managing the puppy and he had agreed.  She left to apologize to him, and hopefully the neighbourhood will return to being peaceful and friendly for all.