Thursday, June 1, 2017

I am a 'cross over' trainer - twice over!

In dog training circles - perhaps more now than ever in history - there is a debate raging.  The easiest way to boil down this debate is to say it's between the 'pure positive' (PP) trainers, and the 'balanced' trainers (BT).

Image result for tyrant
The PP's would have you believe that it's actually a life and death fight between humane treatment and training methods Vs. cruelty, compulsion and general depravity exercised by the BT's, who spend all of their time yelling, screaming, hitting, kicking, and shocking dogs.

Image result for hippieThe BT's would have you believe that all PP's are a bunch of new-age, mamby-pamby hippies, who wouldn't know sound dog training if it came up and bit them in the tushy.

This argument about method, techniques, and equipment has led to legislation, and regulation, and everything in-between - across the globe.

But this post isn't going to address the arguments above.

What???  Why not?  

Well, because I'll save that for another day.  (And trust me, it's coming...)

Instead, as the owner and training director of Front Range K9 Academy, I thought it might be interesting for some of our clients to hear how it was we came to train the way we do - right now, in 2017 - at our facility.

You see, among dog trainers there is a label for trainers like me.  I am a 'cross over' trainer.  That term is generally applied to someone who used to be on one side of the BT vs. PP argument, and switched sides.

Image result for republican vs. democratIt's sort of like a Republican changing over to being a Democrat...or vice versa.  And believe me, crossing over in dog training can be just as politically charged as changing one's voting affiliation...

And I know this because I am a cross-over trainer....twice over!

The following is excerpted from a message I posted on a discussion board of the APDT (Association of Professional Dog Trainers), an organization I am currently a member of:

I am a 'cross-over' trainer.

For 17 years, I trained in a 'traditional style,' using all 4 quadrants, with most of my emphasis on positive and negative reinforcement, along with yes - positive punishment.  I had little use for negative punishment most of the time.  

Please Note:  I do not say that I trained with a 'compulsion-based' method.  I have yet to meet a trainer who uses compulsion as a primary motivator - and I have had many old-school mentors in the working dog world, including some strictly Koehler Method mentors.  So I find it puzzling when a trainer who has 'crossed over' to pure positive reinforcement training claims that they used to train primarily with compulsion.  I'm not doubting that that's out there, but I haven't seen it.  And I've been around awhile.

But I digress...

...I followed a "you do it right, things are great and you earn praise, play, freedom, etc.; you do it wrong, I will correct you and show you the right way again so you can have the entire road map to success" philosophy. 

Image result for parrot training imageAt the beginning of my 17th year, I brought on an apprentice [Lisa Lucero, now of Dog Dynamix, in Arvada CO] with an exotic bird training background and learned more from her than I ever taught her.  Her marker training skills were amazing due to the work she'd done in birds for so long, and also due to her just being a very animal-intuitive person.

I was mesmerized by the power of training first with food rewards, then toys, play, and eventually even offering bite work as a reward for drivey, working dogs.  I read everything I could get my hands on; watched videos, honed my skills - and most importantly, incorporated this new-found (to me) miracle into my classes.  I learned about using Grisha Stewart's BAT training.  I learned about LAT and mat work and everything in between. 

And lo and behold, I even learned how to 'get ears' in the show ring from my own
Polli finishing her Rally Novice title.
'pouty-faced' breed: whippets.  I went so far as to marker train an uber-pouty whippet to do a very specific head-tilt & 'look at me' exercise after each position-change in Rally.  And while she steadily plodded her way through the stations in true sighthound fashion, her soulful eye contact up to me after each exercise, as if to say "Did I do it right, mama?" absolutely charmed the judges into blue ribbons, high scores, and propelling her to the 2nd highest scoring whippet in Rally Novice in the U.S. in 2010.  I was in heaven.

I could easily have been labeled a zealot; a 'born-again' marker trainer.  Hallelujah!

For those of you still reading, and nodding your heads smugly in approval...slow down.  Hold your horses.  Slow your roll.

Something else was happening along the way on this journey.  The more I used food and/or toy rewards for dogs - and the more drive-building I did, the less correcting of inappropriate behavior I did, as well.

I was embracing - albeit subconsciously, perhaps - the 'pure positive' or 'force free' habit of just trying to ignore undesirable just felt like so much FUN to be mostly rewarding during training, as opposed to correcting!  

But my clients' dogs and my own dogs were paying a subtle price for that.  Read on, to find out more.

The whippets - enjoying a family meal on the deck.
You see, I am not only a trainer, but also a breeder.  At times, I have lived with as many as 8 to 12 intact dogs and bitches (no kennel situation here - my dogs are all house dogs).  

As I got deeper and deeper into my journey towards 'all positive' training, the trained behaviors of my own dogs were absolutely fantastic on the field, in the rings, and even in class.  But life at home was something different.

Eight years into doing primarily positive-reinforcement training only, I realized one day that I could draw a very clear line through my personal whippets - a line I had convinced myself was 'older, mature dogs' vs. 'younger, immature dogs;'  a line that actually delineated between dogs who'd been trained traditionally, with both rewards and corrections, vs. dogs who'd been trained with primarily positive reinforcement and drive-building techniques.   

How do I know it wasn't an age line?  Because some of the dogs in the second group (the positive-reinforcement only group) were over 6!  And had been raised and trained by me since birth.  Yet - their impulse control was non-existent; and their their ability to handle stressful situations or pressure of any sort was sorely lacking.    

(Talk to any breeder about 'pressure' when there are females in season around and multiple intact males.  Impulse control, problem-solving, and the ability to work through stress are vital during these times - just as those skills are vital at many times during a dog's lifetime.)

What was going on here?  Was I breeding mentally unsound dogs?  I don't think so.  I owned and had trained most of the parents of the dogs in the 'pain in my tush' second group...

So, I decided to try a little experiment.  I re-visited a more balanced training approach - with each and every one of those dogs.  I introduced corrections for training skills, as well as every-day behavior requirements that I knew they knew, but chose not to execute well or quickly.  I continued to use positive reinforcement to teach new behaviors, and also to reward and continue reinforcement of known behaviors.  But I went back to telling my dogs that sometimes, they didn't have a choice in things.  

At the time (nearly 2 years ago), I had a 16 week old female pup with a very assertive personality.  She'd begun her training on strictly-positive marker work in preparation for the conformation ring.  However, I introduced her to the same balanced approach her sire had been trained on years before (her mom was in my 'pain in the tush' group, and was being re-trained right along with her daughter!)  

And something new happened.  That young pup, who I had been well on the way to labeling "stubborn, reserved, overly-assertive and independent, etc." suddenly was affectionate, engaged, intelligent, and steady.   

And what's more, life with a gaggle of whippets became pleasant and manageable again.  My dogs responded - and responded well - to the information they were getting:   "You do it right, things are great;  you do it wrong, there is a consequence."  They didn't melt.  They didn't suddenly turn into quivery masses.  In fact, in several cases of relatively bashful, sensitive dogs, they grew more confident and relaxed.

I re-introduced my clients to all 4 quadrants of learning, as well - and after 8 years of working primarily one quadrant only, I was suddenly reminded of just how important clarity of communication is in dog training.  Clients who had failed previously trying an all-positive approach (sometimes with me, sometimes with other trainers) thanked me for giving them permission to tell their dogs "Nope! Not Ok!" when they needed it.   

Does that mean that I go to pressure-based, punishment- or compulsion-driven techniques as my first choice with my own or client dogs?  Of course not.  Does it mean I have to take dogs out behind the woodshed to get them to behave?  Of course not!  Nor do any other of the balanced trainers I proudly call colleagues. 

And the facts remain:  Dogs can and do respond to all 4 quadrants of learning.  Dogs can and do use pressure and positive punishment with each other.  

And perhaps most importantly:  The terms 'pressure' and 'positive punishment' do not have to equal abuse.  Even more - some experience of pressure and consequences prepares a dog to handle the pressure and consequences that are part of real life.

What all of this boils down to is that I am a 'cross-over' trainer.  Twice over.  I crossed over from traditional training into 'pure positive' training, and two years ago, I crossed back.  I have learned so much in my journey; and it saddens and frustrates me to see the tone taken by so many pure positive trainers - that any way other than theirs is the wrong way to train dogs.   

I didn't write this to get into an argument about pure positive training vs. balanced training.  Nor do I want to convert anyone to my way of training.  Nor do I want to regulate the way others train.  I just wanted to share my own journey; to shed a slightly different light on the concept of 'crossing over.'  

Anytime we learn something new, I think it's a good thing - when you stop learning, it's time to stop training.  But just because we learned something new, does not automatically mean that older knowledge and experience no longer has value.

I know that the divide between the pure positive and balanced training camps is growing, and I also know it is human nature to seek out support for one's own viewpoint.  So's fine...we can all go running about, citing articles and studies that support our own argument or agenda 'til the cows come home.  

But I'd rather be out training dogs.

So there you have it, a not-too-brief nutshell:  how we came to train the way we train at Front Range K9.  For anyone still reading and awake, thanks for taking the time to let me babble on about this topic, as it's been on my mind lately!

Jennifer Hime is the owner and training director of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO.  She can be reached through her website, at