Lately I have been reading up a lot more on dog training. I’ve been reading blogs, books, and the like. Not just about training in a formal way but interacting with dogs, etc. As someone with a three dog household and a major passion for dogs I am always interested in learning more about them. This new exploration that I’ve been doing has really helped me to grow and triggered a thirst for even more knowledge.
Here is the deal. I am a HUGE fan of Cesar Milan, aka “The Dog Whisperer.” I know, I know, that can be a controversial statement. There are people out there who feel he is abusive, etc. There are people who say the whole “pack mentality,” is hog wash. I’ve recently read Victoria Stilwell’s “Train Your Dog Positively,” which led me down the path to other dog training resources. Now these two celebrity trainers are basically complete opposites. Me being me, of course I see value and truth in both.
A while ago, I would preach Cesar’s philosophies as gospel. Never let a dog walk ahead of you. Don’t nurture an insecure mind. If your dog is scared don’t use soothing tones, etc or you’re nurturing their insecurity, validating their fears. I tried many times to use the “alpha roll,” on my chihuahua Dane and it never succeeded. I got him to walk dutifully at my side during walks but he was still a nightmare with company at the house.
After Dane bit my grandmother’s friend I knew I had to do something. I had taken him to a local store for obedience training as a pup. He is a show off so he always listened. I tried to implement Cesar’s methods but I wasn’t succeeding with him in the home. Granted, the fact he had the chance to bite my grandma’s friend is my fault. I went against my better judgement, listened to my grandmother and didn’t confine Dane when I was leaving for work and I was aware that a new person was coming into the home.
I mentioned this incident to my new vet who recommended a local dog training company. I made some phone calls and did some research. I had the company come out for my free demo. The trainer was very engaging and we hit it off. This particular company uses “e-collars,” for training, which is a nice way of saying shock collar. Traditionally I have been against shock collars and seen them as cruel. By this point I was getting desperate and was starting to suspect it was what I needed to be able to communicate with my dog at a distance, ie: when he was barking excessively and fence running when the neighbor’s kids would ride their bikes past our yard.
During the consultation the trainer had me hold the collar while he would use the remote. It didn’t feel like a shock at all. A shock from static electricity was far more painful. The theory behind the training was not to use the collar to reprimand the dog but to use it in conjunction with commands to have the dog’s attention. Therefore, you always used the lowest setting your dog would respond to. Dane responded to a level 1. After one session, Dane would actually come when called, didn’t bark obnoxiously at the door, and for the first time in his 11 years, I trusted him off leash with me.
However, during this training process Dane would sometimes walk around looking like a beaten puppy, with sad, sad eyes. He’d shiver and shake. I expressed my concerns to the trainer and he said that it was a normal part of the process. Dane was learning that there was a new sheriff in town and it wasn’t him. That was the ugly side. The bright side? Dane would now greet strangers with a wagging tail and seek out affection. For 11 years he would bark at strangers and often lunge at them and shy away from them. Suddenly, he was approaching (albeit still slowly/shyly) and giving them a happy tail wag. For that moment alone I was bursting with pride and decided the training was worth it. When we’d train outside, walking off leash he was clearly a happy boy and listened very well.
Life got hectic, gram got sick, and she passed away. After her death I attempted to go to some of the group classes I had paid for with our training package but Dane was not enjoying it. He seemed scared and uncertain about this whole business. He was doing what I asked of him at home, which was my primary concern so after two of our eight sessions, we dropped out. I also got lazy about using his training collar. He does bark a bit more than he used to when we were actively training but he still listens much better than he did before training. He still gives me a reliable recall without the collar which makes me happy. A phrase many people have heard me say is that I’ve never wanted a “remote controlled dog.”
There have been occasions when I’ve put the collar on him even though half the time it is dead. I see a total change in his body posture when I do. He also gets those sad eyes. I wonder if he is manipulating me or if he is being submissive or if he is scared. I still have not made up my mind. I look at the progress we have made though and know I need to do something with Frankie and Milo too. I have contemplated going through the same classes with them but the collars are upwards of two hundred dollars plus there is the cost of the training and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it.
This quandary is what sparked my reading into other avenues of dog training. I follow Victoria Stilwell on Twitter so when she announced her new book, I bought it. I read it in one night looking eagerly for answers. I got done reading it and while I was very passionate about these new ideas I didn’t feel like the book gave me the practical applications that I was looking for and needed. I had caught a few episodes of her show before so I started a desperate search to find it online to watch. Sadly, I came up empty. I went to her website and started reading there. I clicked link after link, article after article, and found some of the trainers that she respects. I also found a local trainer accredited by her. I scoured their website and found a wealth of knowledge.
After all the reading I have done (and I’m still reading) I’m starting to figure out that what I believe is best for my dogs is a cross between different philosophies. First and foremost is the reality that my dogs are my responsibility and any shortcomings they have are my own fault. They depend on me for their well being, physical, mental, and emotional. While Cesar and Victoria may have different thought processes there a few things they both advocate: exercise, structure, mental stimulation, a strong connection with your dog.
I’ve been reworking how I interact with my dogs. Using tips from positive reinforcement based training, I will not give Milo attention when he is jumping on me but rather acknowledge him when he has four paws on the floor. He hasn’t fully caught on yet but we are making some progress. I’ve started allowing Dane and Milo the full length of their leashes when we walk. I let them sniff around and even mark. I’ve found that by doing this, Milo is far more relaxed when we get home than when I make him walk right at my side. This saves me from having to correct him every few steps and tugging him back to position. It is making the walk more enjoyable for all of us. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact I am giving them a little bit of independence, they get to use their brains and noses, exploring the world around them. While, if I am reading things correctly, positive based training methods do not advocate tugging on the leash at all for a correction, I will give a gentle tug on Milo’s leash if he is lagging behind on our walk because he is still sniffing some scent or peeing on the millionth fire hydrant. It’s only been a couple of weeks at most that I’ve been implementing this new approach and already Milo is responding faster to a “let’s go,” and needing less tugs on the leash. We are learning some balance between us.
I’ve also found that walking Dane and Milo ahead of me, allowing them to be side by side, seems to help in their relationship in the home too. Dane is a bit more tolerant of Milo after we’ve done some walking than if we skip it.
I also bought kong toys to put in their crates when I am at work. This way it gives them something to do rather than just sleep or whatever else they may do while I am gone. I try not to scold them but rather redirect them if they are doing things I don’t want them to do. I am working to always be happy and pleasant and engaged when we interact. I’ve purchased a clicker and I’m attempting to learn clicker training with my boys.
Now, I’m not saying that anything I am doing or any approaches I’ve taken or may take are the “right,” or “only” way to train a dog. All I know is that I am learning and growing and doing the best I can by my three pups because they are kind of amazing.