What People Don’t Know About What They Do

I had an interesting experience last Friday evening. My family and I attended a presentation by a scientist who works with big cats in South America. She is working to learn the travel patterns of several species, in order to create contiguous greenspace for the cats, so that they aren’t killed on highways, roads, and in settled areas. I think this is great work, and admirable. She works with a Conservation Dog, who is trained to find the scat of specific cats, which helps to map their travel, for the purposes stated above. She also trains Conservation Dogs and their handlers. This event was hosted by our obedience club, which is a clicker training club, working to use positive reinforcement based methods for dog (and people!) training, and as little punishment as possible. When the presenter first began her talk, she went out of her way to mention that, “We use positive reinforcement to train our dogs, just like you!”

Well, not exactly. She went on to explain how the dogs are trained to alert on specific scents/scat by reinforcing them with a tennis ball and play time. Someone asked how the dogs know the difference between the scat they’re looking for, and the scat to ignore. She explained that they have samples of various scats, and when the dog alerts to the wrong one, they yell “NO!” and no tennis ball. Okay, so positive reinforcement and positive punishment together. Not exactly how I train, or the club trains, but clearly not something that the presenter understood. My husband asked, “How much positive punishment do you normally use?” Several people in the crowd laughed, and I heard mutters of “I’ve never heard punishment called positive before..*snicker*” These were not members of our club, or trainers, just members of the general public, who had been invited by club members. The presenter looked puzzled, and said, “I’m not familiar with that term…? We use positive reinforcement training”. Then she was asked about safety in the field. She explained the electronic collar snake aversion training. Then she explained that the dogs all wear electronic collars in the field, “just in case you need to break them off of a scent, or a trail”. Definitely not the type of training that we use. She also explained that “These dogs aren’t like family pets, they can’t sleep in beds, or on the couch, they have to sleep in kennels, and they can’t have any toys or play unless they’re working”.

I found the whole event a good reminder that not everyone knows what he or she is doing, from a scientific/behavioral science perspective, when training dogs or other animals. I am not judging the trainer, or her training, it’s just an interesting reminder to me that people who work with dogs pretty much all have good intentions, most think they are using “Positive Training” and many do not understand the science behind what they are teaching or the methods they are using, even if they are scientists with a strong science background in other areas. This just brings home to me again how vital it really is to have a clear, well defined, vocabulary when discussing training and behavior modification with other trainers and the public. I will continue in my quest to be clear, explain well, and help my students know exactly what they are doing, and as much as possible, the hows and whys of the techniques they’re employing. I want an open dialogue, with clear definitions, to help build understanding of what we do as trainers and teachers, what our intentions are, and how our outcomes are achieved. I hope my fellow trainers will join me.

Canine Life And Social Skills BA Level Evaluations!

Last night, 5 of my student teams from the last 3 sessions of C.L.A.S.S. did their formal skills evaluation for the BA Level. They were a self-selected group, and of the 5, one team, Deb and Zorg Frank, passed the evaluation, with Honors. At that moment in time, I was feeling terrible, and thinking I was not a good instructor and had somehow failed my students. In retrospect, after some time to process, and some input from students, and a half a night’s sleep, I have a better outlook!
After my initial distress about several students not passing the Canine Life And Social Skills BA Level Assessment, I have had some time to reflect. I think that it’s a great curriculum and a great assessment tool. I think it actually does require mastery of true public access skills, unlike any of the other assessments available for pet/family dogs. I really appreciate that it requires independent assessment from a qualified Evaluator (thanks again, Susan!) And I think my students did a great job. After all, this is what assessment is about, finding the points where you need work. If everyone passed, every time, the assessment would hold no value. Like any formalized competition (even ones in which you must meet criteria, not compete against other teams), if the criteria are so low that all teams meet them, it’s not much of a challenge, and doesn’t show much about the work you’ve put in, or your skills mastery.

I also am proud to have been among the early adopters of the program, and I think I’ve learned some valuable information about things to tweak in class, and ways to adjust class practice to prepare human students better for testing situations, and have their dogs rock solid for the little details that make all the difference.

Teaching classes is alway a learning experience for me, possibly even more than for my students.  I thank them for the opportunity to learn from them and their dogs, and I hope I get the opportunity to work with all of them again.  I hope that my skills continue to improve, as theirs have done.

I am excited to continue offering the C.L.A.S.S. series, and look forward to great success for all of my student teams in the future!

Working with My Own Dogs

I began writing this post on January 30th, and as I re-read it today, I realized that I haven’t gotten to work with the dogs every day, even though I’d really like to do so.  They are making some progress, though slowly.  We have been working on Pooch to 5K, to get them some basic exercise, and to get them fit for agility and running with me this summer.  Well, here’s the post…

This is going to sound weird, but for me, and I think for a lot of professional trainers, it feels like a luxury to work with my own dogs. Because my days are filled with other people’s dogs, and childcare and education, and because no one is paying me to work with my dogs, they are often bumped to the bottom of the priority list. I wonder why they act antsy, weird, and hyper, and I realize it’s because they are not getting enough training, or enough mental stimulation at all. So I have vowed to get at least a few minutes of work in with both of the boys every day, and with Nilla, if time allows. She is 13 now, and was always my husband’s dog (before we met, and still), so she doesn’t enjoy working with me as much as she enjoys his company.

Don’t get me wrong here, every day is work with the dogs, they have to work on house manners and basic social skills, and relaxing (not easy for the herding dog crew!), but they don’t get a lot of interesting, physical or mental challenges on a daily basis. In fairness to myself, it’s not easy to challenge a Collie and an Aussie! It requires a lot of thought and preparation on my part. They are smart, busy, active, quick learning dogs, and it’s not easy to stay a jump ahead.

Today was a good day. Nitro the Aussie got to work on some Control Unleashed stuff (in a rather impromptu fashion) when a neighbor dog who is quite reactive and whom my boys do not like, walked by during our work on fronts. He did react a bit, but quickly moved into a LAT exercise, and recovered quite well. I was proud of him. His fronts were decent, too. And enthusiastic, always enthusiastic! Merlin worked on pivoting with front feet on a telephone book platform, and becoming a little more rear-end aware. He’s maturing, and has no idea of his size, or where all his limbs are located.

Both boys are hard workers, and smart, and I need to remember that, when I’m frustrated with their activity level and behavior!  I have the power to calm that behavior down, and they ask for work, the least I can do is assign them some.