Why positive reinforcement?

by Jaimee Hinkley

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There are as many training techniques as there are trainers who teach them. Let's face it, every time you turn around, you hear a different tidbit of advice from someone - from the neighbor next door, the vet, social media, the television and the well-meaning friend.

My bit of advice for people new to dog training is this: Follow your heart. Do what feels right for you and your dog. Do what you are comfortable with. And always forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn't know until you learned it.

For me, correction-based training techniques left a sour taste in my mouth. They didn't feel comfortable for me. Jerking my dog's neck to get them to heel seemed mean. Physically reprimanding them was abhorrent. Rubbing their nose in their own poop, whacking them with a newspaper, pinching their ears - really?! Is that how dog training really happened?

My training experiences started with a rather challenging Jack Russell Terrier, who routinely drove me absolutely crazy. He was what you might imagine when you think "Jack Russell Terrier" - that over-driven, hyper, off the wall, pain-in-the-you-know-what. He marked in our house. He escaped all sorts of confinement, learning to open doors, and could bust out of a crate in no time. Once free, he ran joyously through town, living the high life, until being picked up by the police department or chased down by one of us. In the car with us when we first brought our first-born son home from the hospital, he promptly sat on my newborn's head, so he could get a better look out the side window. He was incorrigible. And I failed him, miserably. 

None of the heavy-handed techniques recommended helped him, or us, live a more harmonious life. In fact, they often exacerbated his issues. We thought we were doing something wrong. Perhaps we weren't doing the techniques right? I couldn't effectively communicate with him. We spoke two completely different languages and I had no idea, being very young, inexperienced, and busy raising my human babies, how to change my relationship with him. I tried and I failed, over and over again to change his behavior. In the end, we managed him as best we could, but I always felt a pang of guilt that life could have been better for all of us. 

Fast forward to our next 2 dogs. We adopted a German Shepherd who was a dream dog. She came to us as an adult and was already trained in her basic obedience cues from her previous owner. She was great with my young children, a faithful and loving companion who will always hold a special piece of my heart. I, of course, couldn't take credit for this well-mannered dog, as she was well trained before coming to us.

However, my partner felt that life was just not complete without a Jack Russell. "Seriously?! Are you kidding me?" were the words out of my mouth when he proposed we get another Jack. We ended up with an English Jack Russell Terrier, the complete package of clown, fun and energy that one would expect from a Jack Russell….but with a functioning brain. This Jack was another dream dog. She required very little training, was always an obedient angel and was a perfect match for our German Shepherd. Two peas in a pod, those two.

Sadly, we lost our German Shepherd to cancer far too early and, after some time, went on the search for another dog. Since Jack Russells had grown on us so much, we added 2 more to our family. It was at this point that I kind of panicked. I had to learn a better way to communicate with my dogs. It was reasonable to assume that after 2 dream dogs, these new pups were going to take some work. The breeder that we purchased them from introduced me to the wonderful world of positive reinforcement training, giving me recommended reading, and my path was set. 

Finally, I discovered a way to communicate with my dogs in a way that was comfortable for me and fun for them. Hallelujah! Long live the clicker!

Finding classes in my neck of the woods with a trainer who shared my beliefs was challenging in the beginning. Trainers came and went, some offering great advice and techniques, some not so much. But, I learned from every trainer that I worked with and continued to pursue my studies, absorbing every book I could get my hands on. 

By the time that Ella Mae joined our family, my children were older and I really wanted to explore new and different dog sports with this Jack. I became addicted to training with her. From the time she came home at 8 weeks old, she stayed in classes continuously until she was about 18 months old. We explored sports, learned tricks, participated in play groups and trained every single day. She was a workaholic and I was a full-blown, die-hard "cookie pusher" and I loved every minute of it.

When you know better, you do better.

I loaded my treat pouch with goodies, grabbed a clicker and never looked back. 

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