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The Cross-Over Trainer

I saw a great post on Instagram tonight from a force free trainer, talking about how she used to use a choke chain with her dog, until she knew better. And when she knew better she did better.

And it got me thinking so much that I started to write my own Instagram post, and that turned into this blog post.

I used to walk my dogs at my side in martingale collars, using "leash corrections" whenever I felt tension on the short leash in my hand. If they were lagging I could "encourage" them along, if they were pulling ahead I could "correct" them back into place. There was no reward for the right behavior, not really. The idea was that pleasing me would make them happy. Really egotistical thinking, but at the time I didn't understand that.

If anything using praise and corrections was confusing. I see that now. What might I do next? Would be it aversive or benign?

Although it's been years since I've used corrections with my dogs, I still see some of the side effects in our current work, especially with my very sensitive pup, Amore.

I regularly see this in my clients, too, when they come from balanced or positive punishment training backgrounds or simply from histories fraught with corrections.

The uncertainty, the ever-present threat of a punishment creates dogs that are afraid to try, in case they get it wrong. It's really, really bad for learning.

Understand that I thought I was doing the right thing. I did as I was taught by the trainer I had hired, who was well-respected and well-established. This actually led to the beginning of my career as a trainer, and I even went on to teach these skills to others.

Most people who use punishment-based or "balanced" training (the use of positive reinforcement and positive punishment) think they are doing what is best for their dogs. Very few people training their dogs want to be assholes.

But remember, friends: impact > intent.

So, okay. I thought that I was helping. I thought I was taking responsibility off of my dog's shoulders by showing them I was "in charge" of the walk. I thought I was helping my anxious dog feel safer. I mean, if she sat frozen and wide-eyed instead of to barking and lunging, those less skilled in reading canine body language might consider her calm. So that seemed good.

No one is arguing that punishment doesn't "work". It does, certainly. And it's very reinforcing for the human:

Quick results! People who say prong collars and shock collars and spray bottles are bad are just soft! They don't understand dogs! Dogs need a leader! Dogs need to be corrected in order to learn! (no, all false, stop)

And then it gets even more complicated. I've never liked prong and shock collars! I wasn't trying to dominate my dog (I didn't think) I was just trying to be a leader for them. I cared about their needs.

But I didn't understand those needs.

I didn't see how punishment-based training was related to what I was doing at all.

I had a treat pouch on me.

I didn't understand that what I was doing was also harmful.

Amore, my sensitive, sweet, fearful little biter.

For years I thought that Amore's behavior was "worse" around me because she was protecting me. Because I wasn't showing her I "had it". I felt awful, inadequate, and like I was failing her.

I now know that her behavior was "worse" because she felt safest with me, despite the ways I was actually failing her.

She was always afraid, whether I was there or not. But her brain chose fight when I was around and freeze when I wasn't. And when she froze (or became very slow and quiet), people mistakenly thought she was fine.

The brain just "picks" whatever seems most likely to help the dog survive the situation, it isn't a conscious decision. It's all a defense mechanism, a response to fear.

Think about that for a moment - how those two different perceptions can radically shape the way we approach the problem our dog is having. Or how we often see it at first - the problem we are having with our dog.

How misinformation and misunderstanding can so drastically affect our dogs' quality of life, their ability to be heard and seen, by the very people that love them most.

I didn't know that I wasn't removing her fear. I didn't know I was teaching her she was helpless. I thought I was helping.