I saw this article in the NYTimes, and had to post it here. It’s great that positive dog training is becoming popular. Enjoy!
Pure joy is Scout at the beach, paddling in the water, her adorable head bobbing above the waves.
She is so cute it is hard to be tough.
In her mouthing during play, Scout has drawn blood on my forearm. On walks, she either pulls on the leash or refuses to budge. When a rabbit ran by us the other night, I almost landed in a ditch. Although we have had some luck teaching her to sit and come, our puppy training skills are rusty and the Monks, wise as they are, sometimes don’t have instant answers to our problems.
In a loopy canine version of “The Gift of the Magi,” Henry (my husband, not O.) and I, unbeknownst to each other, both put in a somewhat desperate call, on the same day, to the same trainer who runs a once-a-week puppy kindergarten class.
I liked Diane Abbott the minute I heard her voice. For every tale of woe I described, her reaction was an amused giggle. She offered free tips on the phone, like taking an old washrag, tying it in a knot and putting it in the freezer. The cold terrycloth bowtie that resulted was a new instrument for puppy-teething relief.
In his initial conversation with Diane, Henry had been so favorably impressed that he had booked a home consultation with her.
I’d watched enough Cesar Millan to know that owners, as much as their dogs, are the ones who need the training. So I wasn’t surprised that Diane spent most of our two-hour session talking to Henry and me in our living area, with Scout attentively watching and occasionally being called on for demonstrations.
We’d been telling Scout “No,” in stern voices every time she did something we did not like. Instead, Diane said, we should be focusing less on the negative behavior and rewarding her for the positive. “Concentrate on what we want,” Diane urged. “Don’t give attention to what we don’t like.” When Scout responded in the way we wanted, a treat was in order. Diane kept a little pack on her belt brimming with small treats.
When Scout nipped too hard during play, Diane suggested that we say “Ouch,” put our hands up, stop play, but then resume in a few seconds. This is how puppies play with their littermates. When one gets hurt and squeals, play stops for a bit and then begins again. When Scout jumped up on us, Diane urged us to turn to the side and look away, ignoring Scout for a few seconds rather than scolding her, and then getting her to sit, followed by a reward.
She thought Scout had become bored with the same toys and suggested a Kong, a cylindrical rubber chew toy that can be filled with food and puppy treats and even put in the freezer. “It can really keep them busy,” she said. “It’s fun and interesting for them to work at getting what’s inside.” Diane succeeded in getting Scout to respond to a number of different commands, including showing, repeatedly, that she recognized her name. She offered rewards for every bit of good behavior and suggested that we do the same, even if the treat was just a piece of kibble.
At mealtime, Scout had started barking loudly as we prepared her bowl, and fortunately, Diane had a cure. She suggested that we ask Scout to sit before we put her bowl down and then reward her with a piece of kibble. It worked. The barking stopped.
Diane thinks small bits of human food are good for dogs and gave us a list of approved and forbidden ones. Yogurt, already on her diet, was fine, along with carrot chunks, cheese and other items. On the verboten list, because they can poison a dog, were grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, onions, garlic and, oddly, nutmeg.
All of this, of course, ran contrary to Henry’s human food ban. But hearing more about Diane’s common-sense attitude toward food, he declared, “You have changed my mind.”
Among dog trainers, there is a raging argument between those who favor the Cesar Millan pack leader approach, which requires firm command and control, and those who prefer the positive reinforcement and reward technique used by Diane and other trainers. The Monks combine some of both.
Shawn Stewart has been training dogs for 15 years in New York and New Jersey and has worked with animal shelters, breed rescue groups and homeland defense canine units. When he’s asked what method he uses, he says his answer is based on individual considerations about the dog, the owner and the environment. “There are these two sides lined up against each other,” he says. “I’m in the middle. No one out there can say that any one method will fit any dog or owner.”
Henry and I agree that Scout needs to be rigorously trained, and she seems eager to learn and respond. But in parenting and dog ownership our style has been anything but dictatorial. So Diane’s guidance on how to reward Scout’s good behavior with offerings of affection, play and food is helping all of us make training progress. She’s also teaching us to use a clicker to mark approval when Scout does as we ask. Soon Scout will be attending Diane’s kindergarten. We like that our puppy whisperer signs her e-mail messages: Warmest wags, Diane.