September 14, 2009
by Cricket Mara

I consider myself to be a positive trainer, but these days it seems like a lot of people who aren't still say they are.  The term came about as an alternative to the "traditional" or military style training, which relied upon force and "corrections" as a major component.  At the time, positive trainers were shifting away from the use of force and focusing on rewarding "good" behavior instead of punishing "bad" behavior.  But I guess no one wanted to refer to themselves as a "negative trainer" :-)  Reminds me of my husband's comments about political candidates.  They all say they are "tough on crime" because no one would vote for someone who said they were soft on crime, now would they?  Traditional trainers that use food and toy rewards may call themselves "positive".  Some call themselves "motivational" trainers.  These days there are folks that refer to themselves as "balanced" trainers.  But what does all this mean to you, a pet owner, when trying to choose the best trainer for your dog? I think you have to look deeper than the labels and the sales pitch and examine your own beliefs and philosphies and look for a good match.  You, like me, may feel very strongly about using only techniques that do no physical, mental, or emotional harm to the dog.  But even that can become a moral quagmire for some.  Does swatting your dog on the nose or rump constitute harm or abuse?  What about the sting of a shock collar?  Do you spank your kids?  See how complicated this can be?

My biggest problem with the labels that some trainers use to describe themselves is that they are misleading to the public and rely upon euphemisms rather than telling it like it is.  I recently viewed a trainer's website that was attractive, well organized, and she claimed to be a positive trainer.  However the site also included the words discipline and "X-factor".  While something about the site gave me a leery feeling, I thought it best to ask, so I talked to the trainer and was told she used "remote collar training".  That's the modern, nice term for a shock collar.  Granted the collar technology has improved over the years, but the basic premise is the same - the dog does something you don't want and it receives a shock, aka correction, "tap", pulse, etc.  If these collar trainers are so convinced that they are using a safe, humane, dog friendly device, why are they tap dancing around the truth?   Why hide behind pretty prose and gentle sounding words?

Maybe you're okay with using electricity to teach dogs.  I'm not.  I believe the risks are far too great and that we owe it to our dogs do better than to shock them if they make a mistake.  How would you feel if your teacher shocked you, even just a little, every time you made a mistake in class?  Would you like the teacher?  The class?  The subject?  Didn't think so.  Why should it be any different for your dog?  There are so many better methods available, they just may require that you give more of yourself than a slight depression of your thumb :-)

Now there are also some positive trainers out there that are giving good positive trainers a bad name.  That's because they have focused so much on the food and rewards that they have forgotten to set limits for the dog.  They remind me of the parents and teachers that want all the kids to win and have fun without creating boundaries and teaching self-control.  The end result can be a bunch of bratty kids and dogs.  Positive training is NOT passive or permissive.  It really takes some knowledge AND skill to balance rewarding desirable behaviors with creating boundaries so that undesirable behaviors aren't also rewarded.

A good positive trainer knows how to use food rewards effectively without creating a dog that only listens when he sees the treat.  A good positive trainer always looks for the least invasive solution to any problem.  Positive trainers do NOT use "correction style" collars like slip chains (choke collars), prong/pinch collars, or electronic collars (excpet for vibration only collars for deaf dogs).  They will not hit, grab, shock, pin down, cuff, collar jerk or yell at your dog.  True positive training is "force free" - it does not rely upon your ability to out muscle your dog.  You don't have to be bigger, better or faster.  However, it may rely upon your ability to out-think your dog :-)

I'm not perfect, yet <g>.  I get frustrated with my dog sometime.  I still lose my cool now and then and raise my voice.  I'm working on it.  But my goal is to communicate clearly with my dog in a way that leaves us both feeling good.  I gain respect by giving respect.  I don't expect him to be more perfect than I am, but I do expect cooperation if he is to have the things he wants in life.  My philosophy is pretty simple: Reward behaviors you like and ignore or prevent behaviors you don't.  That's because behavior that is rewarded tends to increase and behavior that isn't rewarded tends to disappear.  No punishment needed.  I quit calling myself a positive trainer.  I found it meaningless in todays world.  Instead I call myself a Canine-Human Relationship Consultant and describe my methods as "force-free".  Is that a perfect, consise description that will tell you if I'm a good match for you and your dog?  Hard to say.  But I'm always willing to explain why I do what I do and give clear details about it.  I have nothing to hide when it comes to my work with dogs.  I hope your trainer is the same.