I had a dog growing up. I’ve loved dogs all my life. I worked at the humane society in high school, and then even studied Animal Sciences in college. But I didn’t really have an interest in training dogs until about ten months ago when it felt like a switch flipped. Since then, I can’t seem to learn enough about working with dogs.
With my childhood dog, a Wheaten Terrier named Barley, we used a shake can when he would do the wrong thing like get into the garbage. We walked him on a retractable leash and didn’t pay much attention to how he was invading our surroundings. We wondered why he acted the way he did around other dogs (he could be reactive) and why he wasn’t ‘normal’ like the ones who love every other dog they meet. We would scream at him when he would bark out the front window. But I figured that was Barley and that was the way you interacted and dealt with dogs. Looking back, I can now see why we didn’t have the closest relationship.
I remember bits and pieces of being exposed to training as I got older. Some of the first, I think, was watching Victoria Stilwell’s It’s Me or the Dog show on Animal Planet. I would catch it whenever it was on and was fascinated with how she could change a dog’s behavior by adjusting schedules, house rules and basic guidelines. Fast forward to college when I took animal behavior courses and companion animal courses (when we weren’t taking companion animal courses we were learning mostly about cows and poultry) and I got another glimpse of how animal’s learn. In our behavior courses we covered learning theory and discussed famous studies like those by Pavlov and others and how they related to why animals learn and act the way they do. We also learned about clicker training, though many of the examples we were shown that demonstrated clicker training used horses, donkeys or pigs!
Despite all this background, I still wasn’t that interested in dog training. I started working at the humane society, and even fostering, and didn’t realize the importance in training past just basic obedience (sit, down, stay). Our shelter trainer, a CPDT and graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy (man were we lucky to have her), would chat with me about my fosters and basic ways to help any problematic behaviors popping up and, while I appreciated it and tried to follow through with her advice, I still just didn’t get the big picture of why dogs do the things they do and how I could change the way they behave.
My outlook changed when I attended the Animal Farm Foundation internship last September. Even though the course focused mainly on learning about how to help pit bull dogs get adopted from shelters, the most valuable lessons I took away from that week were the training ones.
When we arrived Monday afternoon, I met our house dog Lady Bird (LB). She was an energetic little thing – way more spunky than I had ever really dealt with. Throughout orientation the first night Lady Bird kept trying to jump up on my fellow intern while we were all talking – something that was quite annoying. The intern simply stood up every time LB got on her lap, ignoring her the whole time, causing LB to naturally fall back to the floor. By the end of the time we were all together, Lady Bird had quit jumping up. No shoving, no pushing, no yelling… just a simple change of consequences and reinforcers.
The week continued with “aha!” moments like that, like when I realized I could pretty quickly teach a dog to sit while I open a door or not bark in the kennel – all using the same basic principles. I couldn’t believe it: the basics that I had learned in school and had watched others do for so long could be applied to behaviors across the board – with great results! I was hooked. By the end of the week, Lady Bird was a delight and I was a training-knowledge fiend.
Upon my return, I quickly realized that I had so many resources at my finger tips: Your Dog’s Friend, Beth the shelter trainer, other blogging friends, books, websites and so much more. I dove right in. While I am learning so much valuable information, I am also realizing that this is how it’s done, this is how people get into training. You’re not born knowing everything about dogs or wanting to train them (okay, maybe some have dreams to be a dog trainer as a kid, but not all of us), and you might not even wake up one day and just decide you want to be a trainer. Sometimes it takes lots of exposure to it or lots of trial and error or lots of exciting successes to get you hooked. Everyone’s story is unique.
Come back on Thursday to see how my dog training journey is unfolding. I am excited to share with you all where things are headed!