Control – Carrot or Stick?

GSD lying down

Murphy

After a run of German Shepherds who are very reactive to anyone coming into their home, it was great to go to a Shepherd who welcomed me immediately.  Murphy and Mastiff-type Bailey are well socialised, well-trained and gentle with their children.

But it’s a tricky case of finding a compromise between two approaches – what the gentleman himself calls ‘carrot and stick’. He is the stick and the lady the carrot – not really an accurate description in that although he uses a certain amount of force and mild punishment in getting the dogs to do what he wants, I’m sure he would never hit them. He is extremely conscientious and loves them dearly. The carrot implies something dangled in front of the dog to entice him to comply, where the lady feels most comfortable using encouragement and reward.

Rottweiler cross

Bailey

People’s way of interacting with their dogs usually reflects their own personalities. The gentleman, by nature organised and routine-driven, feels he needs control over things around him. The lady is more relaxed, but she is unable to exert the control over the dogs that he can using his ways. So she needs the tools – different tools!

The couple well illustrates the divide between the methods of the past where the owner must be Alpha and ‘in control’, and modern science-based methods that enable dogs to develop ‘self-control’ by giving them encouragement, reinforcement and choices. One teaches the dog to avoid doing something ‘wrong’, and the other focusses on showing the dog how to do ‘right’.

Teaching self-control with reward and encouragement means that physical strength simply isn’t required in order to walk your dogs and manage encounters with other dogs. The young lady no longer dares to walk them on lead now, despite using head halters, after a final incident when she was pulled over as Murphy and Bailey charged excitedly towards a frightened puppy whose owner was not pleased.

The gentleman as a person needs routine, the upside of which has contributed to creating such beautifully mannered and friendly dogs. Where things are coming unstuck is that the lady is unable to match this. We are working on replacing some old routines with some different ones – based a little more on the psychology of dogs than on dominance. We want the dogs to use their brains and not rely on commands. I tried asking Murphy, gently, to sit and then lie down. Nothing. I had to ‘command’ him.

In my own life I have done a complete U-turn from the methods of control and force I, and nearly everyone else involved in training dogs, used many years ago. I can therefore well understand how it can take someone ‘old-school’ quite a lot to be convinced that reward-based, force-free methods work a lot better in the long run (and no thanks here to Cesar Millan). It needs a lot more patience and takes a bit longer as force can seem to produce ‘quick-fixes’, but the results are more permanent in the long run and our relationship with our dogs a whole lot more balanced.

So, now the lady will use different equipment for her walks – no more head halters but a front-fastening Perfect Fit harnesses – and she will take the dogs out one at a time for now. The deal is that if the gentleman doesn’t feel he can go through the necessary steps of letting the dogs walk freely on a longer looser lead, then he can stick with the old equipment. To the dogs, the harnesses should be associated only with a different kind of walking – and not ‘contaminated’. The lady will no longer need to be strong. The dogs will learn that walking on lead beside or near to her, focussing on her when necessary, can be fun and not a matter of ‘being under control’.

I hope that her results will speak for themselves and inspire the gentleman.

A note from the lady about five weeks later: ‘The very fact that I am enjoying my dog walks again is massive. Feeling very positive.’

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Murphy and Bailey, which is why I don’t go into exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good – as this case demonstrates. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).

 

Enjoyable Walks Begin at Home

Enjoyable walks with Izzy can be better if she’s calmer before leaving

Enjoyable walks with Old English Izzy Izzy, a stunning 14-month Old English Sheepdog, is extremely friendly, very bouncy and perhaps a little overwhelmed by the all the attention she gets.

When I arrived she came to the door and gave one Woof. Thinking she may have been uneasy because I was taking no notice of her (something she wasn’t used to) I said hello. This stressed her sufficiently to make her do a small tiddle on the floor.

She very quickly relaxed however. There was a bit of jumping up but she was so friendly and biddable. A delight.

 

Izzy is treated like she’s the centre of their world (which she probably is!)

Izzy is adored by four ladies and other family members including young children. Whenever she wants attention she gets loads of it. To look at her you can see how hard she must be to resist. However, it does leave her with little incentive to give them her attention when they want it.

She has constant access to food, so food isn’t a sufficiently valuable currency for rewarding and paying her for doing as asked. She could instead be working for some of her food.

What prevents enjoyable walks is Izzy’s pulling like a train on lead and going ‘deaf’ when called if she’s engaged in something she would prefer to be doing, like running off to play with another dog.

She is wild with excitement before the walk even starts.

The lady, having been pulled over by her, will no longer walk her alone, so one of her three adult daughters will come after work and accompany her.

There is a massively exciting greeting at the door when the daughters arrive, possibly with grandchildren too, to the extent that Izzy will pee on the floor. In the normal way of things it would take quite a while for the effects of this degree of excitement to subside and they immediately go out for the walk.

Soon Izzy will learn that ‘good things come to a calm dog’ while they give her time before leaving, doing their best not to wind her up in the first place. Enjoyable walks should then be a lot easier.

Walking equipment needs to be changed away from that which depends upon physically restraining the dog to equipment that encourages her to walk comfortably and willingly beside them. I use a good harness with D-ring at the chest (Perfect Fit) and a loose training lead. Equally important is that they all practise the correct walking technique.

I demonstrated with the lead on Izzy’s collar. She was excited when I picked up my lead so I sat down and waited. Then I called her to me (reward) and asked her to sit quietly – once. After a moment she did so and I attached the lead to the collar so that it hung from the front under her chin. I then walked around the house with her following me on a loose lead.

To make my point I now turned the collar so the lead attachment on top of her neck. Izzy immediately pulled due to the ‘opposition reflex‘.

I rested my case.

‘Coming back when called’ also begins at home. If she won’t come in from the garden until she is ready she certainly won’t when there is something exciting to run off after on a walk.

So, with a mix of a calm start, better equipment, a technique where she walks nicely because she wants to, being conditioned until coming when called is a habit along with a slightly different overall relationship with her humans at home, enjoyable walks should be achieved before too long.

 

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Izzy. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page)

Gun Dog Training or Force-Free?

Whilst harsh training methods may well Rufuswork in the moment, there is usually future fallout of some sort.

I may well get some people’s backs up, but here goes!

Dogs that are specifically trained and used as gun dogs are to my mind, a commodity. These dogs are trained specifically to do a job, they are often kept alone out in kennels and some have never seen the inside of a house. Usually they are very ‘obedient’ – possibly they dare not be otherwise.

(Please note that there are becoming more and more exceptions to this sweeping statement as gradually some gun dog breeders and schools are beginning to catch up with modern training methods).

There is no argument that many working dogs are a lot more fulfilled than those family pets who may be either left alone all day or over-spoilt. Many working dogs are trained positively and are treated as valued members of a family or at least have a close relationship with their handler. Assistance dogs and sniffer dogs come to mind in particular.

I have a gun dog breeding and training business near to me with probably around twenty dogs and in fact I got my cocker spaniel from there (that’s another story).  I saw first hand the dogs’ environment. Most of the dogs seemed submissive in general and a bit fearful of me when I stood by their caged areas. There were no bouncy, friendly welcomes that one might have expected from Labradors and Spaniels.

I was given a demo of the skills of three 4-6 month old dogs and they were certainly very obedient and were 100% focussed on the man even at that age. To be fair, they seemed to enjoy what they were doing but I guess their life didn’t hold a lot else by way of interaction with humans.

In saying their dogs are used as a commodity, I absolutely don’t include people who have family dogs that happen to take them to gun dog training classes because of their breed, like the owners of Rufus and of Bramble who I went to a few months ago. These conscientious dog owners do so because they believe it is the best for their dog on account of what he’s bred for.

A couple of years ago at Crufts there was a gun dog display of dogs trained to do gun dog things using positive reinforcement and it was a joy to watch these enthusiastic dogs – dogs that weren’t afraid of making mistakes. It proved it’s possible.

Rufus began with normal puppy classes. He met lots of people and lots of dogs – and became a happy and confident adolescent.  He then went to gun dog training for a year.

I don’t believe it’s purely coincidence that now, over a year since they stopped the classes, Rufus has become an increasingly nervous dog. The family members who attended the classes with him try to maintain the ‘firm’ approach and the other person lacks the same sort consistency and discipline, resulting in confusing mixed messages for the dog.

It’s like Rufus is waiting to be told what to do – external control. He doesn’t have much self-control.

Dogs that are trained to think for themselves using clicker or other positive reinforcement methods aren’t afraid to make mistakes. They become inventive and try different ways of getting their rewards and making us happy because they know they won’t be scolded or punished if they happen to get it wrong. The key to teaching a dog is not about making them do what we want, but making them WANT to do what we want.

It’s a big step for Rufus, now nearly four years old, to start thinking for himself. With clicker a ‘formally’ trained dog can take a long time to ‘get it’ before experiencing the fun of experimenting with what will bring results and what will not. If Rufus’ family persist they will eventually get a breakthrough. Then the possiblities of what he can learn for himself are boundless.

Gone now is the punishing and uncomfortable slip lead – like a choke chain, what can possibly be the purpose of this as opposed to a normal collar and lead, or a harness, apart from causing discomfort if a dog pulls?

We took turns to walk Rufus around outside on a harness with long lead clipped to the chest and he walked beside us like a different dog, round in circles, back and forth – a dream. If he wanted to stop for a sniff, why not?

In this comfortable state of mind, he is much more likely to be chilled when encountering unknown dogs or if a moped buzzes past.

Rufus is at the dawn of a new life, and his family will now work in unison to give him back his old confidence.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Rufus, which is why I don’t go into all exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dogs (see my Get Help page).