Dog Trainer for Beanie (well, for us)
With our last dog, Ruby, we really had no idea what we were doing. Combined with the breed mix (Malamute and German Shepherd, so mouthy+stubborn+pulling) and our general ignorance, that dog pretty much turned out way better than we had any right to expect of her. Due to poor timing on my part, she was highly treat-motivated, but the treats were not training aids so much as payment for behaviours, so if she wasn’t sure you had treats she was very non-compliant.
Further, with things like the recall, I frequently made the most progress when I was already frustrated, so her response was conditioned when I was yelling… the result being a relaxed call meant in her head “he doesn’t really mean it, I can go when I want, if he really means it he’ll scream at me”. We used a lot of negative reinforcement, despite realizing after some years that it does very little good (particularly with things like potty training), I just didn’t know enough to do it any other way.
This time around, Sabriena took the lead and we decided to do things differently, going with entirely positive reinforcement (which at first I was skeptical of, it sounded like hippy shit to me). Beanie was partially crate-trained to begin with (the worst part, which is awesome, but I will also never own another dog if I can’t afford a crate from day one because holy shit what a difference), and as a result of this the potty training went exceptionally well - I think we’ve had maybe four accidents (all pee, and mostly due to our mistakes not hers) in the house her entire life. I’m sold!
Most of the behaviour we wanted we were able to get from this positive-only approach but there were a few other things we weren’t sure how to deal with, and Sabriena was starting to get frustrated. The main culprit was reactivity to things like other dogs, strangers, etc… there’s no aggression (yet) but it meant on walks our heads were on a swivel and we avoided other dogs blocks away just to avoid the behaviour we didn’t want to see.
While looking up dog reactivity she found a highly-regarded trainer not far from us who made house calls. A local person posted photos of a dog that was formerly as reactive as Beanie, but after two months she’s sitting calmly in the main street of Horsham with all the people and cars around… that’s what we want! At $150 a session it seemed like it’d be pretty steep, I guessed one session per week, but Sabriena wanted it as a Christmas present, so fuck it let’s at least start it and hear what she has to say. I reasoned that even in the worst case scenario, if you amortize the cost over the life of the dog it’s not super expensive.
On Wednesday was our first session, and Ingrid (the trainer) came in hot. Beanie was excited, naturally, as there was a stranger! In our house! A stranger is just a friend you haven’t made yet! Hello new friend! Ingrid began stepping into Beanie’s space when she jumped up, and several other things that at first glance amounted to bullying, and Sabriena actually got a bit irritated at it as we wanted positive-only, hippy stuff!
In retrospect, I think this is mostly theatrics for our benefit - no one’s going to take a dog trainer seriously if the whole time they’re asking what the problem is the dog is misbehaving around them, right? After some discussion about the problem issues, we went for a walk around the neighbourhood looking for some dogs. That’s easy enough, we know where most of them live, having mentally mapped them out previously to avoid them. We found some (though none on a walk) and she began working with Beanie and the results really spoke for themselves. There’s a hound of some sort that lives down the street a few houses, and always barks at us behind a wrought-iron fence, and we got to the point where Beanie just straight ignored the barking.
She showed us some anti-pulling techniques a lot more effective than the front-clip harness we were using (which we’d read really good things about but seemed entirely ineffective to us), and towards the end she worked on the behaviour with strangers by posing as a stranger and walking towards us going “hey puppy” in a high-pitched voice, with Sabriena correcting the behaviour each time by walking into her space and giving a firm “no”. After a few repeats, Beanie walked past Ingrid with not much but a glance and a tail wag.
Other sessions? Not needed, from the look of things, unless there’s other behaviours down the track we want to work on. I’m thoroughly impressed. I think the takeaway is that in our efforts to avoid giving too much of the metaphorical stick, we eschewed it completely, when what we needed was a light touch from time to time. Capturing only the good behaviour may have worked on a long enough timeline, but I’m not sure either of us is experienced enough to get what we want using only positive reinforcement.
We’ve still got a bit of work to do, but the last couple of walks afterwards have been a lot more enjoyable. If you’re looking for 100% positive reinforcement, good-vibes-only training Ingrid’s probably not what you want, but she’s by no means heavy-handed and the results we got were pretty excellent.