Guest Post: “One Dog” – The Story of My Dog Training Journey

Sarah Fulcher4
By Sarah Fulcher, Cert. CBST
In the dog training community we have a saying: “I’ve crossed over”. This refers to the big philosophy switch from relying heavily on dominance theory and corrections in animal training to utilizing positive reinforcement and scientifically founded behaviour theory. There are extremists on both sides of the spectrum and everywhere in between. In the big scheme of things, I have not been training dogs for a very long time. I first started working with dogs about 12 years ago, and have been certified and training professionally for only four years. I started out as a dominance-theory dog training enthusiast. Through education and a set of interesting and random experiences, I now consider myself very much on the far end of the positive reinforcement training theory side.

I started out as a big time fan of TV dog training. I opposed the use of food in dog training, believing that a dog should work for only praise out of love and respect for you. I believe that all behaviour problems were the result of the dog believing it was dominant, which led to the use of many harsh force and intimidation based training methods. It was what I was taught by other trainers who I was mentoring under, and at the time seemed to fall in line with most of the common popular knowledge about dogs and training. So I just thought this was how I was done, and that is how I learned and practiced.

I am now less than enthusiastic about most television dog trainers. I openly use food as a training reward and believe it to be an important tool in motivating dogs to learn. I clicker train. I don’t use force, fear, or intimidation to get my dogs to listen or do as I demand. I no longer believe everything a dog does is ultimately to gain higher pack status. The harsh methods I once thought were necessary I would never dream of inflicting on an animal. The result of the change is what it impressive: my dogs are better behaved and we are all happier.

So what prompted such an extreme switch in theory and philosophy? Essentially, it boils down to me having the right dog and making the right choice at the right time. I bought my first house and by chance found my dream dog, a 3 year blue eyed purebred siberian husky, for sale in the newspaper a few weeks before I took possession. The moment she leaned against me and looked into my eyes she was mine. I tried the methods I was previously taught and while they were effective on keeping her subdued and controlled for the most part, I wasn’t able to really teach her anything of merit. One day I decided to enroll her in an obedience class, to see what we could do. As it would turn out, this class would be something that would change my life forever.

I still vividly remember the first class I attended with my dog. It turns out it was a clicker training class and it was just a wonderful experience. My “untrainable”, stubborn dog was animated, excited, enjoying herself, and learning. She was so smart! She picked things up so quickly, and we were so connected. It was the most amazing feeling. We were working as a team and she was showing me everything she had. The power of this training method was clear to me from the beginning. I had to learn more! I became more or less obsessed with clicker training and the philosophy behind it. I started training my dog for obedience and agility. I even trained chickens in an effort to become a better dog trainer! I soaked up knowledge, reading as much as I could. The more I learned about this new philosophy, the more the dominance theory faded away.

I purchased my husky, Maui, in 2004. By 2008, I was a certified dog trainer and started teaching dog obedience classes. Through the magic of clicker training, Maui had earned a beginner’s level obedience title, a huge feat for a dog of her breed. She was able to be trained to competition level in agility. We have earned trick dog titles, became a certified Therapy Dog team, and we are just one leg away from earning her first level title in CARO Rally Obedience as well. I am now a full time dog trainer, self employed teaching basic obedience and helping dogs with behaviour problems gain understanding and healing. I also run my own business with my husband: a dog daycare and pet supplies store.

All because of one dog my life has taken a dramatic turn – and gone to the dogs. Although I was always interested in animal training I never thought I could really make a living. But now, thanks to a “stubborn” husky, I am able to centre my life around my passion and make the world a better place for dogs and their owners every day. I always think that if I had gotten a different dog, a more “trainable” one how different my training career may have gone.

Without my free spirited Maui to show me the way, I would likely still be using old style punishment based methods to teach and train. I love everything about rewards based training: how easy it is, how effective it is, and how deep and meaningful of a relationship you grow with your animal through it. You see, this method and technology of rewards based teaching and clicker training is not just a training method, it is a lifestyle and a near-magic way of communicating with animals. It is a different way of looking at the world. Because of this one dog, I will be forever changed and forever thankful.