Being the weird girl is pretty much my niche in life. I like weird music, weird clothes, weird movies, weird books, weird hair. I like weird people. I like weird dog behavior problems. I’ve done a lot of weird things. I’ve had a lot of weird experiences. Weird is, well, my thing.
As I embark on my first journey into the world of dog showing (conformation), I’m a little nervous. Journeying into unfamiliar territory with a beautiful puppy who is whip-smart and eager to learn, these uncharted waters make me apprehensive.
When we go to a show, my dog will not be on a choke chain or collar, despite the fact that his breed is normally shown on a choke. I don’t recommend or allow these tools (or prong or shock collars) in my classes, and feel it would be hypocritical of me to use one on my own dog. I don’t see why my choice of collar matters if: a) it does not interfere with a dog’s proper movement, b) the dog is well-trained and well-behaved, and c) the collar does not interfere with a judge’s ability to properly examine my dog. I’m not trying to have any tools banned, or to say that others cannot use the training tool of their choice. I am trying to say I feel like I should have a choice, and if my dog is groomed as well, shows as well, and meets the standard as well as another dog, he should have an equal chance of winning. A ribbon should never be contingent upon equipment.
It’s a matter of personal comfort, and I’m just not comfortable with a choke collar when a less aversive alternative is available. I have seen the fallout of corrections, even well-timed and gauged, in my profession; this applies to allowing a dog to self-correct as well. Punishment certainly has fallout which may include fear and reactivity. I believe that coercion hinders and sometimes stops creativity dead in its tracks, and I like creative dogs. I don’t believe that every dog who wears a choke collar will come to physical or behavioral harm, but I know that many do, despite the best of handler intents.
I also believe that dog shows, where there are hundreds, if not thousands, of strange dogs and people, are inherently stressful events for most dogs. I’d like to reduce Cuba’s stress in those environments so he can spend more time concentrating on his behavior than worrying about the performance environment. Corrections, intentional or unintentional, create stress.
Whatever your performance venue, you have two choices – prove them right, or prove them wrong. Stop talking, start doing. Lip service is no good. If even dedicated clicker trainers don’t try to hone their craft to high levels of performance without the use of aversives, what business have we marketing ourselves to our clients as “force free” trainers? This “do as I say and not as I do” message is certainly not the message I want to send to my clients. High levels of reliability can be taught with a clicker – it has not yet taken hold in many competitive fields but is increasingly popular in training dogs where reliability and performance are literally lifesavers for people – mine detection dogs, service dogs.
While researching, I found and purchased a copy of a fantastic book Positive Training for Show Dogs: Building a Relationship for Success by Vicki Ronchette. I love, love, love this book. I then found Vicki on Facebook via some mutual friends and she was gracious enough to answer some of my questions, and her responses gave me the confidence I needed to make a choice I could be happy with at the end of a show weekend.
If you don’t believe accomplishment without coercion can happen, you won’t try to make it happen. My favorite trainers are the groundbreakers, the ones that do exactly what everyone says they cannot do.
Trainers like Steve White who has brought modern, positive training techniques to the law enforcement/canine handling profession. Trainers like Michele Pouliot, who are reforming service dog organizations (where reliable performance is often, literally, a life and death issue) and helping them adapt dog friendly training techniques. Trainers like Ali Brown, Emma Parsons, Jean Donaldson, and Nicole Wilde who rehabilitate severely aggressive or reactive dogs without coercion. Clicker training world class obedience competitors like Morten Egtvedt and Cecilie Køste.
We all must ask ourselves a number of questions – what are my goals for this dog? What knowledge of various techniques do I have? What is the option available which will cause the least stress to the dog? Which option will create the most immediate success? The solution to a training problem lies somewhere between the answers to these questions and will vary for each dog/handler team.
I understand some people may not make the same decisions as I, and suppose “you have to do what you have to do.” When I walk into the ring with Cuba, it will be to have fun with him. To show off my beautiful dog. To challenge myself to find non-aversive ways of conquering an obstacle. I don’t care about building my resume, I care about raising a confident dog.
Surely it will be a learning experience. Surely I will be sailing through relatively uncharted waters. Sure, I’m nervous about that!
At the end of the day, I have to do what I feel is right for me and my dog, and hope that others can respect my decision.
I want my dog to look forward to competition. I want him to “shine” in the ring because it’s fun for him. One of my friends and training inspirations, Kim Pike, similarly refutes both physical and verbal aversives, saying “my dogs don’t have to sit, they get to sit.” Good performance is an opportunity. It’s not “do this or else,” it’s “doing this is the canine equivalent of a trip to Disneyland.” As a crossover trainer, I’ve seen all too many poisoned cues where a decrease in performance actually results from ambiguity in operant consequence contingencies.
If I had my druthers, I would compete with Cuba “naked.” No collar, no leash. That’s the standard of training I want – hands off, immediate, enthusiastic, snappy, precise response. I want him to figure out he can do it by himself. I believe that training and genetics, not equipment, will get me proper performance, reliability, and movement.
I would rather leave the show ring in any sport a “loser” with my dog’s trust than leave a winner knowing the price of that title was damaging his trust in me.
Maybe someday Cuba and I will bring home a Championship. Maybe not. Maybe, I’ll walk away from the ring continuously with a happy dog, a big smile on my face, and the memory of having a blast together. Personally, I could never count that as a loss.
It’s a glass is half-full vs. glass is half empty scenario. I assume it can happen until it’s proven otherwise. Others choose to prove it can’t happen until proven otherwise. I want to be one of the ones that proves it can happen. If you think corrections are necessary to achieve performance, you will act in a manner accordant with those beliefs. Similarly, if you think it can be done without corrections, you are in a mental position of placing the responsibility of good performance squarely in the trainers’ hands and not relying on equipment or fear to do the job for you.
Maybe someday, abandoning antiquated training tools and ideologies will become the new standard. Maybe someday, attaining the highest level of achievement without force will no longer be “weird.” I long for a day when choking your dog, jerking him around, and ignoring his stress signals become the new qualifications for the title of “weird.” For the dogs’ sake, let’s hope so.