Wednesday, January 23, 2013

About Giffy, pt. 2: Learning to value soft training methods

I really didn’t have formal training at the outset. I simply watched the dogs when they came into my house. In the early days, someone told me about the “alpha dog” mentality that was popular at the time along with rolling those that had acted up, showing the dogs who was boss. For a time, that was a factor in my work, but I have since discovered a much softer and more effective approach. (For a brilliant refutation of “rolling dogs,” a practice that was widely used when I began working in rescue around 2000, see Suzanne Clothier’s article, “He Just Wants to Say ‘Hi!” It’s one of the most important influences on my training.)
I never believed in physical punishment, but in the early days, I did a lot of yelling/”barking,” as I was trying to establish myself as the dominant member of my pack. That stopped that the day my 140-pound mastiff began to cower when I raised my voice. From that day forward I decided to train from a place of calm and started exploring different approaches.
That softer approach was reinforced as I welcomed increasingly shy-fearful dogs into my home. To be frank, most of them couldn’t handle yelling. They’d become catatonic, shut down. I had to try other approaches, so I tried to see the world from their vantage point. If they cowered when they went outside, I explored ways to make the space seem smaller, safer. And during this period of my evolution, I became a little too indulgent, allowing dogs to hide behind their fear. Case in point, Becca was in my home 2-3 years before I really pushed her to be on a leash.  (See the Fall 2006 Second Chance Newsletter piece entitled “The Shed Dogs” for more of Becca’s back story.)
I only learned of the shortcomings in the indulgent approach when Sarah entered my home. Like Becca, she was seriously undersocialized when she arrived at my house, the result of years in a breeding facility. But, unlike Becca, I pushed Sarah, not hard, but I brought her out into the world more quickly. I’ll never forget the first class I took with Janey Shaddrick, from Rogues & Rascals. Sarah was terrified. In fact, for the entire 8-week class, she stood there.
Doing. Nothing.
I was mortified, as if her failure to engage somehow reflected poorly on me (an attitude I have encountered many, many times since I’ve begun working with people and dogs). I forced myself to check my ego at the door in order to encourage Sarah to blossom a bit. It worked. Although Sarah didn’t really learn many commands in that class, she did learn how to be in a group of other people and dogs. She learned that going out into the world didn’t have to be overwhelming.
I learned at least as much. From Janey, I was reinforced that training softly and patiently was a great way to inspire a dog to work for me. I didn’t have to be heavy-handed. I didn’t even need to use treats, but I did need to observe Sarah, see what she liked. I needed to think creatively in order to help Sarah along, and I needed to appreciate our small, innumerable successes rather than focus on the many challenges that still lay ahead. In that class, Sarah grew to like my touch; she walked by my side calmly, and a couple of times, she even sat on command!
It was progress, and I needed to recognize that.


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