Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Big Dogs Don't Require a Heavier Hand

There is a common misconception that positive reinforcement training is appropriate only for some dogs, you know small dogs or soft dogs but that other dogs require the use of force. I hear people say that all dogs are different and that "no single method works for all dogs", but the fact is that the positive reinforcement quadrant of learning theory DOES work for all dogs, in fact it works for all animals. The fact is that the larger the animal is the more critical it is to create a cooperative working relationship where the animal actually wants to perform the requested behavior.

I coach people in conformation with all different breeds, of different sizes, with different temperaments and learning styles and I encourage them to use the same basic principle and core philosophy and that is to train primarily with positive reinforcement. It means to adhere to the commitment to "do no harm", not just harm to the animal but harm to the owner's relationship with that animal.  It is astonishing how many times a new client comes to me with a specific issue that they are having with their dog in the show ring whether it is pacing, sniffing the ground, pulling or moving on the stack that when I show them how to change the behavior they are shocked that we change that without corrections. People will actually ask, "you mean you don't use corrections?" That is correct, I don't use corrections, I identify what the dog is doing versus what I want and then I train what I want rather than trying to punish what I don't want.

I am showing an Irish Wolfhound for a friend and part of the reason I am doing that is that I want people to see that positive reinforcement works with all dogs. I know that people may say, "ah, but it's a sight hound, they are soft". People who are used to using traditional methods may find it hard to believe that positive reinforcement can work with large breeds because change is hard and when people are very set in their ways they don't want to accept that another way could be effective. At a recent dog show I stepped in and offered to help someone who I watched frighten and very roughly handle a young puppy, biting him, shoving him to the ground and poking him while he squirmed and cried. She rejected my offer to help and continued what she was doing to him. The attitude was that I have small dogs and don't know how to handle bigger dogs or stronger dogs, but that isn't the case. As I said before, the larger and more powerful the animal the more important cooperation is. It doesn't matter if I am working with a 5 pound dog or a 180 dog, my core philosophy remains the same and my commitment to train, manage and handle the dog with care and respect remains the intact.

Vicki with Rumplestiltskin, 11 month old Irish Wolfhound, trained and handled with positive reinforcement

As we learn more about dogs and how they learn it is important for trainers, handlers, breeders and anyone who works with dogs to stay on top of the current information. While it is true that punishment and force can "work" with some dogs, if there is a way to do it without punishment and force don't we owe it to the dogs to use the methods that work for them as well as us? I want to share a few stories of large dogs trained with positive reinforcement and who I think are doing a great job of showing people that positive reinforcement works in the show world. What better way to prove something works than to do it and have success as these owner/handlers have.

My good friend Anna Bettina is a highly skilled dog trainer and owner of Happy Healthy Pup out of Atlanta, Georgia. Anna is a big dog lover and has lived with many different types of mastiff. She currently has Briscoe, a Bullmastiff and Glaukos, a Neapolitan Mastiff, both of which are trained with positive reinforcement. Glaukos is a model citizen and is welcome in a lot of businesses around Atlanta.

Glaukos hangs out at a local restaurant

Glaukos is Anna's first show dog and I helped her with his conformation training since she had never had a show dog before. Being a professional trainer and a very competent positive reinforcement trainer she trained Glaukos using the same methods she uses to train other dogs. Glaukos would sometimes pace in the ring and Anna was told that he would never finish unless she put him on a choke chain and corrected him. Refusing to use a choke collar or corrections with Glaukos we came up with training plan for helping Glaukos learn to trot in the ring rather than pace. We taught him how to take off quickly so he would go into a trot instead and she would reinforce him when he trotted. He has always been shown on a leather loop lead rather than a choke. I am proud to say that Glaukos finished his championship this past weekend at the Neapolitan Mastiff National Specialty as well as picking up two Award of Merits along the way. A 180 pound dog trained completely with positive reinforcement and without corrections or aversives.

Anna and Glaukos in the ring at the national

The new champion

Olga Maderych is a vet student and a really talented dog trainer who has been training and competing with her family's Great Danes and Goldens for years. Now an adult Olga has her own Great Dane, Spark who she has trained with all positive reinforcement. Spark has his bench championship as well as rally, agility, obedience titles and more and Olga is now showing Spark's son Bright as well. Spark is reliably trained and beautifully presented showing that this team is a great representation of the power of positive reinforcement.

Olga and Spark in the ring

Their connection is clear

Spark does obedience as well

And agility!

In addition to their dog sport accomplishments Olga is also a professional photographer and her impressive training of Spark allows her to get photographs like this one:

An impressive stand stay

Olga and Spark are a great example of how much you can accomplish with positive reinforcement training. Despite what some believe it is not necessary to use harsh corrections or force to train large dogs.

Striking a pose

Sarah had Vizslas before but Remy is the first dog that she has shown in the conformation ring. Sarah was already in a positive puppy class and was referred to me for show ring training. The stars just aligned perfectly for this team as Sarah was a natural, Remy is a beautiful Vizsla and Sarah's husband Rob is completely supportive. As we were training Remy some people thought Sarah used too many treats, but no one could deny their success in the show ring. Before Remy was a year old they were winning not only points but Best of Breed wins and group placements out of the puppy classes. One thing that made my job very easy is that every time I would work with them and give them homework they would go home, practice and nail it. Sarah is now helping out with showing some of Remy's littermates and having success with them as well, all trained with positive reinforcement. Remy continues to have success as a young special having completed his Grand Championship and winning Best of Breeds on a regular basis.

Remy in the Group

A show stopping free stack

The proof is in the pudding

All three of these dogs have been trained without force and so many more of my client's dogs have as well. To those who say that you need to be heavy handed or tough on these large breeds, I'm here to tell you that isn't the case. Large dogs, small dogs and all other animals learn the same way. You can accomplish so much by taking the time to train the dog by setting him up to have success and then reinforcing those choices that you like. It not only makes for a reliably trained dog but also helps to strengthen the relationship between dog and owner.

Briscoe asks, "any questions?"