I have two very good dogs in front of me, one tiny and one huge, and a tiny and huge bowl of kibble to match. The boys know the routine and they love to play the game. Both Boots and Ranger start offering me behaviors- sits and downs and hand targets- because they know that they’ll get their dinner piece by piece as we play together. No matter how my day has gone at work, getting to spend joyful time with my dogs puts me back into the present and gets me out of my own head.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way for me. If you’re reading this, you may already know that Boots came into my life in the summer of 2011, and that Ranger came much later, with my now fiancé Chris. Because of this, each of their training backgrounds are very different. Boots and I attended a very outdated training school in our small college town- I’m not here to judge anyone’s training methods, as each of us is truly trying to do what will be best for our dogs, but I never felt fully comfortable with this trainer and her outdated and aversive methods. The dogs didn’t have the chance to make a mistake or learn to think and make decisions, but rather how to respond to a Command. Despite my discomfort with the whole situation, I never questioned anything- I didn’t have the background knowledge at the time to. Anyway, the way that the dogs were handled made it very clear to me that the only option, in class, was to do as this person told me to.
Luckily for me, I was an Animal Science major in college and got the wonderful opportunity to learn about animal behavior, learning theory, and canine cognition in the classroom. I’m a huge nerd about things that I love and dogs are no exception. I’m proud to say that I scored above a hundred percent on every single one of my Animal Behavior Exams, and with that knowledge, I understood that there was a better way for Boots and I to train… but the disconnect between book learning and action was steep, so we just… stopped. We didn’t train. Boots earned his certification to be a Therapy Dog with Alliance of Therapy Dogs using what we already knew, but that was it. I couldn’t shake the guilt that I’d done something harmful to Boots in training him the way that I previously did, so I just didn’t train with him.
The heavens truly opened up for me when I found a mentor in the force free training world. Sue, you will forever be my mama bear and hero! As a newbie in animal sheltering and behavior, I needed guidance and was so grateful to find someone eager and willing to help me learn. I kept reading, I learned clicker mechanics, and Boots and I began to try to train. The only trouble was, Boots didn’t offer behaviors. I tried the 101 Things to Do With A Box game… he just sat. I realized that he didn’t know how to offer behaviors, so we enrolled in positive reinforcement classes. We started with Nosework, as I felt that would be fun for both of us and relatively low pressure. We both had a blast, and Boots began to gain back the confidence he’d lost through the previous aversive training. After that, we were rolling!
As I grew as a trainer, I learned more and more how to ask Boots to think. We learned together about targeting, shaping, and capturing behaviors. I learned the very important distinction between a cue and a command. Through all of this though, I couldn’t shake the guilt I felt about Boots’ first experience with training. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend Pat Miller’s Peaceable Paws Training Academy in Maryland in the fall of 2016 and to speak with her one on one about our shared experience as cross-over trainers. In response to a question about the immense guilt that I felt, she told me that she chose to move on by knowing that every dog in her present and future would have a better experience because of the knowledge she’d gained as a force free trainer. I still think about that advice constantly.
Here we are now, almost 8 years into me and Boots’ journey together. Boots is coming up on 11 years old, but he’s even more eager to learn and play the training game with me now than he was as a 2 year old. Last fall, we enrolled with the absolutely incredible ladies of East Mountain Dog Training for our first Rally Obedience class. I was literally almost shaking with nerves our first couple classes, and Wendy and Jeannie listened to my concerns about our background and my fears that Boots would hate training with me for a more structured sport, and gave both of us confidence. Boots is thriving in Rally, and I am loving it. It’s crazy to me that this sport we enjoy so much was out there all of this time without us discovering it! I am forever grateful for all that Wendy and Jeannie have shared with me and taught us both, and we continue to have a blast training with them. f
And then there’s Ranger, my big beautiful boy, who was found as a very fearful and under-socialized stray in a rural part of town. His background is so different from Boots’, and his training journey started with Chris, not me. Still, we’re learning to become a team as well, and seeing his eyes light up when the clicker comes out makes me certain about the way I’ve chosen to build our bond and trust. The foundation Chris created for him before we met continues to be the most wonderful, solid rock to build on and I love both human and dog so much for it!!
So every night I’ll be here, two happy, engaged dogs before me and a clicker and treats (or kibble) in hand, communicating and sharing the joy that force free, positive reinforcement training has brought us. They love the training game, and I will play it with them with a full heart for the rest of our lives together.
If you want to learn more about how to start clicker training with you dog, click here.
Peace, Love, and Dogs!