I first started volunteering at the shelter back in 1998; it didn't take long to become disenchanted. Before I moved to California I was already very into positive reinforcement training; it was the new wave, the way things were heading in the training world. What a difference and long overdue; no more yanking, no more yelling, no more anger. Sadly not everyone has evolved; many are still in the dark ages and even more of the "average Joe" types are stuck there too. After much research about training and shelter dogs I discovered that most shelters had taken on the "positive reinforcement" training ONLY. These modern facilities were keeping up with the times and moving forwards.
Not where I was volunteering; nope, they were die-hard choke collar people and were not about to change for any newbie. It didn't take long to be known as the "cookie lady." Funny because I had actually been the cookie lady back in Canada where I baked cookies for humans. But as the longtime volunteers saw it; I wasn't a real trainer, I didn't use brute force, I didn't yank on anyone so I was one of those new cookie trainers they'd heard about.
So where did this cookie training come from and why has it changed everything for the ones who use the philosophy? Let's take a look at some wild animals for a second; take the Killer whale, an amazing creature but very wild. In their man made homes at aquariums they are taught many different behaviors; are the trainers using force? Are they using some sort of physical punishment if they do not do as asked? No. Can you imagine trying to choke a Killer whale? Not wise I would think. The trainers who work with whales, dolphins and seals use positive reinforcement. They mark the behavior they like and reward the animal with a fish for doing it. The animals soon learn that it is a good thing to do these tricks; and very rewarding.
I saw a guy walking his Great Dane mix yesterday at the park. When the dog stopped to smell something the guy gave him an almighty yank; a two handed yank to get him to get moving. I shuddered as I watched; and this was from the other side of the park. I thought to myself; "why not teach the dog the "let's go" command?" This is teaching a dog to come along with you by rewarding them for stopping doing what they want to do and doing what you want them to do; very simple.
Reward training takes more gray matter; you have to think about what you are doing. Timing is important if you want to make it as clear as possible for the dog but it is scarily simple in concept. Take my old gal Jessie who will be 14 in May this year; she has adapted to a change in rules for mealtime and she has caught on very quickly. I have her go to a certain area after she eats; I did this by treating her for going there. This goes against everything in her bones as she likes to hover and try to take the other dogs food. After guiding her to the spot and treating her I have now raised the bar by only rewarding her if she goes there on her own. If I have to ask her to go there she is only praised. And remarkably she is going there on her own now. It makes me smile to see her finish up her meal; have a look around then head to the spot. She sits there with her ears up awaiting her reward.
Treating a dog for a job well done is the fastest way to the brain; much like ours. Once a dog really "gets" a behavior you then wean off the treats and replace with praise. I always praise my dogs when they do good things; even now with them all being seniors. Just yesterday I told Luke to "leave it" as we passed a Labrador who was giving him the stink eye. Once we passed Luke received the mushy stuff; "oh you are so good, what a gooooooooooooooooooood boy." And he loves it; he beams when you get mushy with him. And hey; what human doesn't like a reward or praise for the job well done?