BARKS from the Guild March 2019

Page 50

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The Journey of a Crossover Trainer

Nichola Marshall describes how she overcame her “old school” mentality towards training

and shares some of the highlights she and her dogs experienced once she discovered the

T

world of positive reinforcement

his is going to sound like an Oscar acceptance speech and, in a way, it is because I feel like I have won something very special – a change of perspective. So before I start crying I want to say, “thank you” to all of you for sharing your experiences and being supportive, thank you for being tolerant of my “noobie” questions and comments, thank you to late PPG steering committee member Anne Springer and, most of all, thank you to whoever it was who said, “Don’t be stingy with your treats.” What I am going to say is going to sound obvious to anyone who already understands positive reinforcement, but please remember this next time you meet or read a post from someone who says positive reinforcement alone won’t work. As someone who has been brought up on old school “yank and crank” methods, being told positive reinforcement alone can work is rather like seeing a picture of an old woman and being told that it is a picture of a young lady. Once you have one perspective, it is really hard to see the other. My dogs are livestock guardian dogs and some people will tell you that they cannot be trained to be “obedient.” My old girl was trained “old school.” She is a very good girl and now I understand why – she has been conditioned to avoid an aversive (leash check) by responding to a verbal cue. Of course, she was also encouraged with rewards of games, praise, or treats, but I didn’t see how you could remove the aversive and still get obedience. If you just use rewards, then the dog is simply choosing whether she wants the reward you are offering or the reward she has found for herself. This is why “old school” trainers say (what they perceive to be) “bribery” alone cannot work.

Paradigm Shift

I decided to give positive reinforcement a try anyway. I never liked the puzzled, upset look I got from my dog when she got it “wrong,” even though I tried to make up for it with games and praise and treats. I also suspect the unnatural, sudden turns may have attributed to the wear and tear on her cruciate ligaments. So I decided that my next dog was going to be an experiment in positive reinforcement only and, to be perfectly honest, it was slow going. I thought this was mainly because I’m human and didn’t train often enough because I was tired from work or busy or whatever. There has been more than one occasion when I have thought, “I can see why people stick to old school methods – it’s much quicker/more effective.” I now realize this was because I was being

My dogs are livestock guardian dogs and some people will tell you that they cannot be trained to be “obedient.” My old girl was trained “old school.” She is a very good girl and now I understand why – she has been conditioned to avoid an aversive (leash check) by responding to a verbal cue. 50

BARKS from the Guild/March 2019

Photo © Nichola Marshall

Crossing over to force-free training requires a change of perspective for those who have started out using “old school” methods

stingy with my treats! I was using positive reinforcement only, but I still had an old school mentality towards treats: that they were there for shaping, luring, and rewarding for obedience. Luckily, I saw the “Don’t be stingy with your treats” comment in a Facebook group. Along with the other comments I had read about “look at me” and clicker training, and also picking up on when others would treat their dogs, I decided to change tack and feed for everything good, no matter how small or inadvertent, with a cue word attached. It seems so obvious now, but mentally it was a total paradigm shift for me to reward behavior rather than “obedience.” Feed my dog just to make her happy? Yes. Without her having actually “obeyed” anything necessarily? Yes. Result? Exponential explosion in desired behaviors, better recalls than I ever had from “yank and crank” training methods, and beautiful leash walking – all in a matter of weeks. At the time of writing, the following, however, are my “jackpot” instances so far. These are what made me really want to say “thank you” to everyone who has helped me to understand how to train my dog and to see the young lady instead of the old woman. The first instance was when my pup spotted a horse in the next field when we were out on a trail. Previously, this would have sent her into a frenzy. Instead, she stood calmly looking at the horse, looked at me, looked back at the horse, and before I could open my mouth, she turned around and started trotting back to me to collect her “prize” for seeing a “big four legs.” A previous trigger is now acting as a cue to recall. The second instance, she was off leash and I was just thinking she was getting a bit “wired” and that it was time to put her back on the