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Monday, April 7, 2014

The Power of Positive Training

I'm what some people call a "cross-over trainer". I trained my first dogs using traditional dominance and "correction" techniques. For example, years ago, I trained my first dog to immediately come when called by "popping" her prong collar with a leash just after I said "come". This taught her to leap toward me as soon as I said "come" to avoid the correction. She was a well-trained dog but she was always looking for ways to "beat the system". For example, if I called her from a long distance, she'd realize that I couldn't get to her fast enough to correct her if she ignored my recall.

When K came into my life, I searched for a good local dog trainer, and I met an amazing trainer who focused on "positive training". That meant that she rewarded good behavior and she ignored (but didn't actively punish) bad behavior. I was skeptical that positive training would work, to put it mildly, but I thought it was worth giving it a try. I think that I drove that trainer nuts with all my questions about why a dog would obey if there was no punishment involved.

I quickly saw how rapidly K learned things, without any punishment in her training. She could "sit", "come", "down", and "stay" by the time she was 10 weeks old - and she'd learned it all by reward-based training.

After K died, I met Shyla - by far the most sensitive and sometimes-fearful dog who I've ever had in my life. Punishment-based training would have hurt Shyla terribly. She needed to learn to trust humans - and having her own human physically correct her would have been disasterous to the trust-building process.
Despite Shyla's extreme fear of me and almost everything else when she arrived in our home, I immediately started playing training games with her. I could do that because my "training games" involved only rewards and fun. They built a bond between us and amplified Shyla's nascent trust.

Recalls were one of the first things Shyla learned. To this day (1.5 years later), she adores playing recall training games. This photo is from this morning. You can tell that she is running to me at top speed, using the power of every muscle fiber in her body. We have a "treat party" when she gets to me after a recall.
Part of positive training is figuring out what your dog loves to do and incorporating it. Shyla loves to leap. So, we often play recall games where she leaps small obstacles to get to me (she could go around them but she never chooses to).
For fun, I've taught Shyla some "tricks", like "rest your chin on the ground". I taught this by having her lie down with a clean yogurt lid taped to the ground in front of her. When she put her head down to touch the lid (I'd previously trained her to view a yogurt lid as a target to touch with her nose) - I clicked. We did that about 10 times before I removed the lid. Because Shyla is experienced at clicker training, she mimicked the same movement without the lid present, touching the ground in front of her with her chin to earn clicks/treats. Then, I gradually required her to rest her chin on the ground for longer and longer to earn her click/treat. She knew the trick well within a week.

Now, it's one of her favorite tricks!
She "offers" this trick (without my request) all the time!
It's a nice trick for photography because her head stays still, making it easier to compose a photo.
I've also trained her to "take a bow", which I did not intend to include resting her chin on the ground. However, Shyla has embellished "taking a bow" by adding a "chin rest" to it!
I think that the most fun and exciting part of positive training is that it becomes a collaboration between the dog and the trainer. I watch for Shyla's embellishments on our favorite tricks, and then I teach her to do them on cue. It lets her, the dog, play a role in shaping what we do together. This aspect has built Shyla's confidence and exuberance to an incredible extent.

I believe that positive training was the only way to train a dog like Shyla, and I thank my lucky stars that I met my amazing trainer before I'd even met Shyla!


  1. Positive training sure has it's rewards. Shyla is awesome, and unafraid. If she were getting punishment as part of training, she would be fearful.

  2. We simply can see photos of sweet Shyla without smiling!

  3. I am a behaviour analyst who works with individuals with autism. While punishment is effective in teaching (and in some cases necessary when used as part of a treatment package), reinforcement is where it is at! Thanks for using it and talking about it!

  4. I, too, trained my first dog with a prong collar and snaps. It seemed to work and he was pretty good at basic commands so transitioning to positive methods took me a long time. I just kept thinking back to the "success" of my former training.

    I'm now sold on positive training. I confess that sometimes with Mango and Dexter I still fell back on the prong collar and it never did any good. Dexter, especially did not respond well to it, but boy does he sparkle when we go into happy training mode.

    Unfortunately, there are still folks like Ceasar Milan out there and even one of the trainers at out local dog store who use rough handling. Not me, though, never again.

    Mango Momma

  5. you and she make a perfect team! she is SO smart and responds so well to you!

  6. OK, only one question - where do we sign up for your classes? :-)

  7. I think a lot of us "older" dog folk are former "jerks" (folks who believe the choke chain jerk is the only way to go). Thank goodness we are smart enough to learn better.

  8. I definitely think different training is required for different dogs. Ellie required very little training of any kind. She was so eager to please that once she learned what I wanted her to do she did it. She looked at me for every cue. When we were hiking on trails and she was off lead, she immediately ran to me for her leash if she heard any other people around. Now Lucy, on the other hand...:)

    Love the adorable photographs.

  9. I think PR is the only kind of training for ANY dog! People don't see the wonder of it until they train a dog with it themselves.

    My biggest PR success was using counter conditioning with Nola so she'd stop being so terrified of getting her nails trimmed. Before CC-ing with her, she'd scream, thrash, mouth and just flip out if you so much as touched her feet. Within a week of using counter conditioning, I could handle her feet with no issue. Within two week, I could touch her nails with the clippers. Within a month, I could trim a nail or two at a time with no problem. Within 2.5 months, I could trim all front feet in one session. Now we do weekly nail trims of all paws at once, and Nola enjoys it! It takes 5 minutes, and she's totally calm through it. She even gives me her paw!


  10. I can't believe it's been a year and a half already! Wow! Time flies!

    What I CAN (and do) believe is that Shyla really needed what you had to offer (and you needed her, too). The two of you make a fantastic team!

  11. How I love the #7 picture with her butt up in the air, her face in the snow with her paws under her chin. . .more calendar art!

    I know she is taking a bow, and its so cute. You are the perfect pair! Wonderful job with this beautiful pup!


  12. We use positive behaviour, but we're only trained to be good citizens. We don't do tricks.

    XXXOOO Bella & Roxy

  13. She is especially expressive with her chin on the ground looking at you. :)

  14. You and Shyla are so perfect for each other, KB! We love her tail in the 2nd photo ☺

    Love ya lots♥
    Mitch and Molly

  15. Ok.. So when can you come and help mom train us? :-))
    Wonderful post.. We believe also positive training not punishment works best. Thank you for another not only informative post but also beautiful pictures of Shyla.
    Ernie and crew

  16. Dang Shyla, you are just so beautiful! We are so thankful that you have come a long, long way and are doing so well. We believe in positive training and love all the rewards too.

    Beautiful pictures KB!!

    Lily Belle & Muffin

  17. It's hard to imagine *not* using positive training at this point, but sadly plenty of people still seem to think it is the way to train. Just yesterday on our walk, a couple was coming toward me w/ 2 chi/terrier mixes. One was getting upset at seeing my dogs. I gave them a wide berth to help ease the dog's anxiety. When I looked back, the owner had the dog held down on the ground on it's side so it couldn't get up or even move. Sigh. I guess this person doesn't realize that all he is teaching his dog is that any time a dog approaches him, his human is going to manhandle down to the ground. I'd be anxious too if I thought that was going to happen :-(

  18. Great work - love reading about this type of activity! Lots of tips.

  19. Looks like this has worked beautifully for Shyla. She has come so far since her arrival. Well done KB. Of course, loved your photos!! No worries, and love, Stella and Rory

  20. You have done so well in your reward training KB,,
    so many times I hear mommy say- if only KB was here,,, she would know how to help me "the impossible little holler monkey.

  21. The photos are lovely... I have a shy dog too and with a shy dog, it's not difficult to see that dominance methods do more harm than good ;)

  22. I bought the 101 Dog Tricks you mentioned once. It's been some help in figuring out how to teach some things that were easy to teach Java but hard to teach bouncing off the walls Latte, whose reaction to not knowing what you want is to grab the hand giving a signal. It took a week but she now does roll over. We're now working on spin. The book technique hasn't worked so I'm physically walking in a circle she follows. We'll see if she eventually gets it. I wish I could think of a way of using her weird behavior as a trick. Do you think there is a call for 'roll on the toy like its a dead animal' or 'do a shoulder stand with one paw waving in the air'? :)

  23. I love reading stories of cross-over trainers! Glad you found the right way to train and live with Shyla. .)

  24. Thanks for joining the hop! Mr. N is also a really soft and sensitive dog who would shut down with non-positive reinforcement. Even verbal corrections make him sad. Shyla's twist is very cute.

  25. Your description of watching for things Shyla likes to do and incorporating them into training reminded me suddenly of an article I wrote several years ago. I interviewed Magali Delgado and Frédéric Pignon of Cavalia, and we had some long, deep discussions about the way they work (and play) with their horses. It was one of the most enjoyable freelance articles I've ever written, and I've carried what I learned from those interviews as an ideal of training ever since. When you see the positive, joyous results with your own eyes, it's hard not to believe in a training approach.

  26. I really enjoyed this post and your fabulous photographs. Will share it on The Labrador Site FB page later today.


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