Another Crossover Story: Knowledge is Greater Than Force!

Jason Currie Guest Post

This is Jason Currie’s story about how he crossed over to positive reinforcement methods. Visit Jason’s website here:

I’d like to tell people about my journey from the stone age training methods to modern science based training, a term often used for this is “crossover trainer”. Some see us as bleeding heart liberals or tidbit pushers. I know the mindset because I had it myself!! It was perfectly reasonable to say “NO” = HOW ELSE DOES A DOG LEARN DOH!! All too often I found myself getting trapped telling a dog what I didn’t want. I had been raised on being fair teaching behaviors rather clumsily and then expending negative energy working myself up that my dogs were challenging me or being rude when something went wrong!

It was so stressful to be like this even if it didn’t seem immediately apparent to me at the time, and it certainly would have caused confusion and fear in my dogs. Thankfully this year I made a concerted effort to educate myself reading books, watching videos going to seminars and also taking an instructor course. Don’t worry for those of you immediately put off, rest assured just reading one or 2 books (listed at the end) can advance your learning by light-years. I just continue reading out of personal interest more than anything else.

Just a little background on my life with dogs before finding the easy way of training dogs. My first dog was a huge male Rottie I called TROY as the years passed more Rotties joined my family- both females and males. I then decided to live and work in a boarding kennel, which also took in rescue dogs from the local council. I spent about 3 years at the kennel at which point I grew a fascination for the rare giant breeds unknown to us in our little island of the UK. The breed was the Ovcharka. I was quite familiar with larger guardian breeds but something about the ovcharka struck me as being wild, untamed and mysterious .When I imported my first central asian shepherd it was like being confronted with a grizzly bear a female over 30 inch tall who would torpedo anything remotely resembling a threat. It wasn’t simply the wild defensive personality but the looks of these beasts that were awe inspiring, dogs like this simply didn’t exist in England! [They soon would!] I am not even sure now how I introduced Odessa my central Asian shepherd to the rottie pack but it was done somehow or another. Anyway, times moved on dogs passed away other things happened and now I have yet more large guardian breeds all living under the same roof, a Caucasian Ovcharka, a Rottie Mastiff Mix, and another central Asian shepherd. I’ve managed all those years quite successfully, I thought. My Rotties were social and obedient off-lead in the park; they often came with me on London transport without issues and could safely mix with 20 or more strange dogs in London parks.

I wouldn’t say those years were a blur of ignorance on end, I trained my dogs quite well. I could drop my rotties at distance, I always got recalls, and had developed quite an intuition about canine interaction. On one occasion while working at the kennel, I remember getting a fearful dog out of its shell. I didn’t use force or dominance in that situation. Every time I went to the kennel the dog would go crazy aggressive. I simply sat with my back to the dog and left when the dog stopped extending this each day within a short time the dog was happily playing with me. It felt great in my mind maybe I had grown a great understanding of dogs. Certainly I wouldn’t need help from books! WHY? Dogs were pack animals. I had experience and knowledge through owning dogs. How many of the tidbit pushers, and never say “NO” liberals had a pack of rotties and ovcharka living in harmony? They dealt with Labradors and such and I had learnt my trade living with dogs day in, day out for years!

The idea that dog owners can just live with dogs using a going back to the wild approach like people who live with apes and progress a greater wisdom is deluded and very naïve. Years ago in 1997, I attended an old fashioned training school and my friend, a security dog handler, told me that nearby in the leavsdon studios they were teaching cats using clickers! I remember thinking at the time how fantastic! To my detriment for one reason or another I never followed it up.

Anyway, enough rabbiting about the past. In the last year I have learned the following!

The science principles behind animal learning:

  • operant conditioning (the 4 quadrants of learning)
  • classical conditioning,
  • clicker training,
  • pre-mack,
  • calming signals
  • the list goes on!

I can testify to everyone that to apply something with no knowledge is like a medication prescribed by a vet.Knowing a certain prescription does something does not mean you can understand why. Knowing the principles of animal learning means you can be your own vet because you know WHY. Old style training ownership relies on accrued knowledge of prescription fixes with little or no knowledge of the mechanism. Or how does the saying go? Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

It’s also very stressful for both owner and dog to apply old methods based on being boss. It’s not about being a bleeding heart liberal! Or carrying about a suitcase of tidbits! When you know how animals learn, a dog can learn to bomb toward you before going to meet another dog – it’s called premack! You can put toileting on cue or ask for a heel before a male dog marks instead of being yanked about every 2 minutes. Instead of being pulled down the road and shouting NO umpteen times, you can use your common sense and stop when the dog pulls or walk in the other direction. It opens up relaxed ways of dealing with things. If your dogs beg at the table, then great! You can use this motivation to free shape behaviors! Instead of yanking my dog for pulling through the door, I teach him a down 5 yards away from the door using his motivation to go outside to keep a perfect down! If he breaks the down I shut the door. I don’t need to physically fight behaviors or get frustrated. Now I just show my dogs that certain behaviors lead to what they want [going back to pre-mack again]. There are umpteen ways of getting behaviors without stressing over a dog defying you and using punishment. Modern methods help you concentrate on what you do want! Life for me is much easier now and thankfully for my dogs! The positive mindset  means I don’t need to think I’m a poor leader if my dog doesn’t respond to recall. I can work on training and motivation. It’s so much easier! It’s not about how to stop something it’s about what we do want, and teaching the dog these things. The old style is shouting NO when a dog leaps up or spending 30 minutes ignoring the dog! The modern method sees this as an opportunity “I’m a big reward for the dog I’ll teach tricks in exchange for my attention and have fun!

Here is analogy of old school training methods to focus the mind :)

“Balanced Training” Example:

One day you’re walking into town and as you pass a new gym, a person rushes out and tells you “if you clap your hands once and use their gym you’ll get £10 and a free session!” “Wow, great!” you think. So you clap your hands. The next day you pass the gym the same person appears, you think “aha!” so you clap your hands and get the £10 and the free gym session again. A week later you approach the gym and notice there is no special offer so you decide to do your weekly shop instead. As you pass the gym, the nice man from before shouts at you and drags you into the gym! 

You chose the gym because it was good for you and not choosing the gym when the offer stopped didn’t mean you were asserting dominance over the guy who gave the special offer.

“Dominance or Correction Based Training” Example:
The old school method simply by passes the special offer altogether, as you pass the gym you are simply forced to have a gym session! Some people who use this method say they don’t like using titbits because they like the dog to work for them instead of food. Often, these trainers will pat the dog after or say good boy, but it has little meaning to the dog after what they’ve just been through.

Below I’ll list a few publications that can help people start their new journey of dog ownership.

Don’t Shoot the Dog (the bible for many dog trainers) written by Karen pryor

When Pigs Fly (One of the modern greats) by Jane Killion.

Training Your Dog 101 A free course!!!

Train Your Dog the Easy Way (an eBook for beginners) by Ines Gaschot.