Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Danger of a Reputation

If there is a dog breed that has one of the lousiest reputations out there, it has gotta be the pit bull. Any bully breed, really, seems to draw harsh criticisms and judgments. It goes without saying that the bully breeds' bad rep is largely undeserved, but this bad rep haunts the breed. Some examples include breed specific legislation, not being permitted into some doggy day-cares, shorter hold periods in shelters, not being permitted in certain rentals (apartments, houses etc) and even not being allowed in some obedience classes! There are two sides to this reputation, the side that bully bigots take: "All bully breeds are vicious" and the side that many well-meaning advocates take: "Bully breeds are the best dog EVER!" A more healthy perspective is found between those two extremes. Being a trainer and not a rescuer, I would rather focus on another aspect of their reputation that pertains to their training.

Of all the breeds I have worked with, it seems like bully breeds are the ones that somehow earn a reputation as being stubborn, head strong and willful, even "not breed typical." Truth be told, I find all those labels to be deceptive as they mask the true issue: motivation. If any animal, not just a dog, does not leap to please us humans, oftentimes we write the animal off as "difficult" or "aloof." This is not the case, I promise you. I've trained both of my cats (a species that defines aloof) and it truly is just a matter of motivation. Where a lot of handlers and trainers run into trouble in training is that what they think should be motivating to the dog ultimately fails to motivate it. I've had to cycle through fourteen different types of motivators to find the right fit for one dog, and I admit, it can be a bit frustrating. It does not really surprise me that so many people use the breed of a dog as a reason to use forceful methods (prong, shock, choke, dominance etc) to train them. Sometimes, it really does seem like the easiest way... seems.

The danger of falling into the "the dog is stubborn/willful/difficult" thought pattern is that you (the handler) lose your power. All of a sudden, it is the dog who is making you resort to forceful methods. You had to, you reason, it won't listen otherwise. It is important to understand that as far as the dog is concerned, everything is does and doesn't do depends on reinforcement. If it has been rewarded for something once, the likelihood that it will repeat that behavior increases, and if it is rewarded again, it becomes even more likely until BAM! you have a habit. This is how leash pulling works, this is how begging at the table works, this is how whining in a crate works: it only takes reinforcing that behavior once for the dog to think "Ah! So this is what works!" In a dog's brain, pleasing you is not on the agenda: getting good things and avoiding bad things is. Sad reality, but the Disney dog doesn't exist.

I am interning under a more experienced trainer and one of the "homework" assignments she sends home with her students before they ever bring a puppy into class is a sheet that has about a dozen blank spots. Before bringing a puppy in, handlers are asked to figure out what their puppy's favorite food rewards and toys are and then list them. We glance over the list, but return it to the handlers and tell them to hang it somewhere prominent so that if their dog is not responding, they have that handy list of motivators to try. This helps pet parents to understand their dogs' minds a little bit more and to train using their brains as opposed to succumb to the "my dog made me use force" mindset. Happily, most pet parents have no problem maintaining a positive outlook and most seem to genuinely enjoy experimenting with different types of motivators. Some, however, think it is a waste of time and don't bother. It is no coincidence that these are the handlers who get lackluster results from training. After all, we work for rewards, so it really isn't surprising that our dogs work best that way too.

To a dog, a pat on the head and a kind word are seldom sufficient reinforcers. For dogs, the most powerful training tool in existence is food. This is because food directly affects a dog's (indeed, any species with a brain) brain chemistry. As the dog eats, endorphins (the pleasure hormones) are released. Dogs trained with food not only learn faster, but retain more than dogs trained with other methods. Plus? Dogs trained using food or toys as a motivator are happier and enjoy training more than dogs trained using force. That is all the reason I need to use food when I train! I will link another article below that I have found to be an excellent resource, as well as a link to some videos by wonderful trainer friend of mine who does amazing work with bully breeds... without any force or intimidation. We call him the Pit Bull Guru: Drayton Michaels.


Useful Video

Drayton's Channel!

NOTE: Remember, just because you think something should be rewarding to your dog does not mean that your dog will think it is rewarding. If your dog is not offering the response you want, reexamine the reward you have been using. The higher value the reward, the more motivated your dog will be to learn and execute new behaviors. Not all motivators are created equal and you will find that what works in your living room may not work while out on a walk. Any time you are using a reward, be sure that it is one that can get and hold your dog's attention. I have found that I can get away with using kibble and maybe just a little bit of cheese inside, but outside I may have to switch to smoked salmon or garlicky chicken breast. It depends on the dog! Some dogs are perfectly happy to work for kibble anytime anywhere, and others are happy to work for a game of tug outside but prefer working for cheese inside. Experiment and find what works for you! Remember to stay positive! When you are having fun, your dog can sense it! Keeping training fun is a great way to keep training safe!

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