One of the benefits of presenting at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit is that I have the opportunity to learn from other professionals. Today’s lectures by Karen Overall and Chirag Patel both emphasized that being a force-free trainer goes beyond simply using positive reinforcement to teach a dog obedience and tricks: It means giving the animal choice, control over the situation, trust, and the ability to say “yes, let’s continue” or “no, I’m not OK.”
“Think of training first and foremost as a way to benefit that individual animal.” – Chirag Patel
The goal of training shouldn’t increase an animal’s stress, nor should it occur simply to satisfy society’s expectations that “good dogs sit” and “good dogs listen to us.” Training is a means to improving an animal’s emotional and, in the case of husbandry, physical health. It’s easy to get stuck on whether dog is listening to us, meeting criteria set by us, or learning at a fast enough rate, also set by us. Today’s sessions at PPG challenged the training community to shift paradigms and ask if we’re listening to the dog, if we’re making criteria that sets the dog up for success, and if we’re adjusting antecedents to ensure the environment is conducive to the dog’s learning.
Using positive reinforcement is just one piece of a complex puzzle. After all, it’s only one of four quadrants. Simply using that quadrant doesn’t ensure a dog’s emotional health. We need to establish trust, help the dog understand the environment and how his behavior interacts with it, adjust antecedents to set the dog up for success, and respect when dogs give us information about their comfort levels. Only then do we incorporate what Patel terms the “head” (science and evidence-based practice) and the “heart” (ethics) of force-free training.
“How we treat dogs can affect patterns of reactivity, resiliency and recovery.” – Overall
Overall’s keynote address also emphasized reducing fear and stress in dogs through choice, control, trust, and environmental interventions. As the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project, I found her discussion of how to reduce fear at the veterinary office and in shelter environments particularly interesting.
Like Patel, she emphasized the need to allow dogs to “collect data” about whether an environment is safe or dangerous, and to let dogs collect that data at their own pace. The neurochemical processes involved in fear and anxiety inhibit learning, and affect a dog’s overall cognitive performance. When dealing with these dogs, anxious dogs, she discussed how trainers can give dogs coping skills to help them process information, communicate their decisions (and make decisions), and slow down a dog’s rate of reacting. In short, teaching dogs how to relax.
Today’s presentations emphasized the great responsibility that comes with living and working with animals. In the words of Overall: “Doing better and treating dogs humanely, and the relationship between dogs and humans with respect, is simply a choice. Exercise it.”
– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at email@example.com.