Saturday, March 24, 2012

" Old School" One More Once

I thought long and hard before I posted this.  But the message -- spontaneous and actually stunning to me -- is so potent that I decided it would be a mistake not to.  What follows can be viewed as a self-serving pat on the back (and there's no way to keep it from being viewed that way).  But if that's all you take away from reading this, you've blown it, missed the point entirely.

The back story:  In my most recent post, damning "old school" (jerk-'em-around training) while offering examples of the benefits of positive training, I presented two examples of students and their dogs who are thriving under a regimen of positive reinforcement and stress-reducing play.  FUN!  Using assumed names, I featured Laurie and her splendid border collie Crash.  They are snowbirds, wintering here from a major Midwest city.  Unbeknownst to me, at the very moment I was typing that post, Laurie was tripping over something in her garage with the result that she ripped an 8- by 3-inch piece of skin off her shin.  A very bad and debilitating injury.  Yesterday I received the following email from Laurie.  The parenthetical comments are mine, added for clarification purposes.

So I'm in bed with my leg elevated, and having a lot of pain when it turns certain ways.  Changing the bandages is sort of like childbirth to me, but then I never did have any pain tolerance. I have no idea how long it will be before I can even do articles, and it is driving me crazy.  This gave me some important insights which I thought I would share with you, and if you ever want to use it for a blog, I think it might be a nice followup to your last one. 

So here we go!  Every year at Christmas my trainers back home take a vacation between Christmas and New Years.  Every year I can't wait to have some time off.  It's great not to go through the same training that I do every week, and get a little break.  It's not fun, it's work and the dogs seem to love the break.  Now I'm lying here with this stupid injury that I can't blame on anyone else, cause I'm a klutz, and crying because I can't work this unbelievable dog for who knows how long.  It (training Crash) has become the highlight of my life.  I never knew that you could have so much fun with a dog and still teach him to be an unbelievable competition obedience dog -- wait, just an unbelievable dog, even if it's only a pet home.

And that is the key to what you have taught me.  I have been doing obedience competition for 30 years, but have never had fun until now.  My first border collie was born wanting to know who to watch.  But we always lost points in heeling because, what a surprise, she forged.  But she loved her work in spite of me.  Today, knowing what you've taught me, there is no telling where we could have gone, even though she did get her OTCH.  But she was a one in a million dog that came out of the womb wanting to know who to watch, and forge with.

These, Willard, are my thoughts today, in between tears from not being able (to work and have fun) with the dog of my life. Thank you so much, my dear friend, for changing my life, which is always obedience competition.  I can't wait to get back here next year.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

"Old School"

The names of the people and dogs featured in this post have been changed to shield those who get it from the damn fools who don't.

I've hit the jackpot in the last few months.  I've acquired two students who are super-motivated and have glorious dogs.

Melissa defines the words "quick study."  In large measure perhaps because before she got into dog sports she was an accomplished horse trainer and instructor.  She gets it, then knows how to apply it . . . with love.

Her dog Midas is a big, gorgeous, happy golden retriever.  He's still in his second year and the world is his tug toy.

We're doing exercises to loosen up his rear end, to make it more agile -- indeed, to help him discover that he has a rear end.  "Oh yeah," Melissa says, "just like horses."  Then she proceeds to build on what I've suggested.  Like I said, she gets it.

So does Midas.  He's Melissa's Novice A dog, but you'd never know it.  He bounds around in training, grasping every new thing quickly and with great joy.  I've never had a dog who was heeling beautifully as quickly as Midas.  And happy, happy, happy.

Except for one thing.  Midas is terrified of the dumbell.  Petrified!  Panicked!  Before they got to me, Melissa and Midas fell into the hands of an "old school" instructor.  She put a choke collar on Midas, strung him up until gagging, eyes bulging, about to die, he opened his mouth.  Whereupon the "old school" trainer stuffed the dumbbell in. 

What's missing in the anecdote I've just related?  What's missing is that nobody strung that  "old school" trainer up . . . and left her hanging there.

So now Melissa and I are on a slow, slow, ultra-gentle desensitization program to undo the damage the "old school" trainer did.  It's a noble experiment; I pray that it works.

Then there's Laurie, a snowbird, and her once-in-a-lifetime border collie Crash.  Laurie is no newbie; in earlier times she's put OTCHs on two border collies.

In here (Scottsdale) for the winter, Laurie and Crash were having heeling problems.  So I've spent the last few months teaching them Pinpoint Heeling.  Laurie is astounded and euphoric.  Nobody in the part of the country where Laurie has lived for a lifetime has even heard of the method.    But now Crash has.  And he's heeling happily, confidently, head up, eyes locked on Laurie's armband . . . because he wants to.  Crash gets it, too.

Back home, Laurie has had the same "old school" instructor for decades.  She describes that instructor's method this way:  "She yanks, yanks, yanks, until the dog gives in and complies." 

In 2004, right after my first book, Remembering to Breathe, was published, I received an email from a novice trainer in the upper midwest.  She and her young golden retriever had blundered into the hands of an "old school" yank-'em-around trainer.  By the time she had read  Remembering to Breathe the dog was beaten down, dispirited.  And the owner was ready to quit.

I advised her to pick herself, dust herself (and her golden) off and find an instructor who used positive methods.  I suggested maybe the damage could be undone.

Long story short:  Today, eight years later, they have completed their UDX2 and OM2 -- and both of them are having a ball.

None of what I'm describing here is unfamiliar to me.  My Novice A dog Honeybear and I began in a parks department class.  The teacher was "old school."  I can still hear it:  "Harder, Willard!  Honeybear doesn't even feel those little pops you're giving her."  But Honeybear did feel them and she didn't like them.  I quickly wised up and for the rest of Honeybear's OTCH career she was trained with increasingly positive methods.  But I've always felt that she never quite got over the imprint made by her first experience with obedience training -- being jerked around "old-school" style.

The point of all this is that every day thousands of dogs are being ruined by the cretins of obedience training who don't know or don't care that "old school" was recognized as an unsatisfactory training style three or four decades ago.

It's just this simple.  Those of us who have been paying attention know that dogs and people learn best when they enjoy what they're doing.  Show me a trainer whose modus operandi is jerk-their-heads-off, string-'em-up and I'll show you a weak trainer.  As well as one who is not too bright.

Not too long ago one of the people I most respect in dog sports was sounding off about her aggressive aversion to prong collars.  I may have indicated that I thought she was overreacting.  At which point she told me: "Willard, our dogs can't speak for themselves.  That's why we need to advocate for them."

Which is the reason for this post.

P.S.  Thanks to AnneMarie Silverton who developed Pinpoint Heeling.  And to her disciple Louise Meredith who coached me in the method.  It's made all the difference.