My Crossover Process

I’ve been asked to write about my training philosophy and how I came to adopt my force-free ways. This wasn’t an easy blog for me to write as, quite frankly, I’m horrified and appalled at some of the “training” I subjected Inara to. Honestly, I really deliberated about whether to even admit to the techniques I used. I spoke with some close friends and told them how nauseous and upset I was getting just thinking about them, and they gave me some great advice and encouragement.

A lot of force-free trainers I know have always been force-free, which is really wonderful and I envy them and thrill for their dogs. Unfortunately, I haven’t always been force-free. Though I’m not proud of that fact, and I marvel that Inara has come so far DESPITE what I did to her in the name of training, I think that my experience with aversives really allows me to see/understand why people use them and provide quality discussion, above and beyond, “it’s mean.”

I got Inara when she was 8 weeks old. Her mom, Sophie, had been confiscated from a fight ring when she was pregnant. So already there’s a good guess that Sophie wasn’t bred to a dog-friendly pit bull in the hopes of good-tempered, friendly puppies. These were puppies who were going to be used for fighting/breeding. Inara showed a propensity towards lack of concern for other dogs’ pain at an early age (9 weeks or so) when she grabbed her brother by the ear and made him scream. She didn’t let go until I wedged my thumb into her mouth and pried her little jaws open. Alright, bit concerning, but I was prepared. I’d read a ton and knew I could “socialize” it out of her. *insert eye rolling here*

I enrolled Inara in Petsmart’s Puppy Class when she was maybe 15 weeks old. It was all positive reinforcement techniques, mainly using luring. Inara did just fine and even found a playmate that we had over a few times – a young yellow Lab named Sadie. The two played together beautifully and appropriately. I was thrilled as I knew I was winning the battle against dog aggression.

After the Petsmart class, I enrolled her in a class at the Animal Protective League. Again, all positive reinforcement training. Inara excelled and we had a great time together. After that was over, I signed her up for a flyball class. She was super fast and I knew she could be an asset to a team. Her training was going so well – she was at the point where she could go over the jumps, hit the box and come back over the jumps to me. Just flying. Until the day she flew past me before I could snag her harness and ran over to the tiny Min Pin who’d been talking smack to her the entire class. Inara grabbed the Min Pin and put her entire head in her mouth. Fortunately she dropped her immediately and shockingly, the Min Pin didn’t even have a scratch. She had a slobbery head but she was uninjured. What a terrifying wakeup call. Inara was about 7 months old and could have just killed another dog with a little pressure of her jaws. We switched to private flyball lessons while I reconsidered my tactics.

The timing over the next few years is hazy, but here’s the general progression as best I remember it.

I thought I needed to up the ante and I obviously had a potential issue on my hands, so I thought I needed to find some training that was a bit firmer. The Dog Whisperer was one of my favorite shows at the time, so I knew I needed somebody to show me how to be a pack leader. Somehow I found a local trainer, M., who had a strong training history and trained with Cesar’s methods. Perfect. I took Inara for an “evaluation” and found out that she thought she was above me in the pack and that’s why she wasn’t perfect. So I signed on for lessons with M. He required a prong collar for Inara, so I dutifully bought one and carefully and properly fitted it. He then showed me the “technique” he wanted me to do. If Inara took one step in front of me at any point, or if she looked at another dog, I was to give her three level 10 corrections, while saying no with each one, as I did a u-turn. So it worked out that because I was turning while correcting and saying no, Inara would catch back up and be in heel position usually in time for the final yank/no. He said that when she yelped, it was because of surprise, not pain, even though I was putting my body weight into these corrections. I didn’t realize at the time just how asinine that was. Then, also during the first lesson, we worked on stays outside a local pet store. A rather busy one. He had me actually leaving Inara in a sit stay outside the door of the store while I went around the corner. With a parking lot right there. He was probably 20 feet away from her watching. Again, looking back, I shudder. But I did one more session with M. We did the same thing as last time, but this time, when Inara saw M., she hit the ground. He said, “good, she respects me!” Even back then in all my stupidity, I knew something was off, so I quit going to M. I didn’t tell him why because I was too chicken – I just didn’t schedule another appointment.

That turned me off to prong collars for quite a while. I briefly picked up a clicker but Inara ran the first time I clicked it, so I gave up on it. So no clickers, no prong collars. What next? How about an e-collar? Sure! I knew lots of people who used them and they had great dogs. So I needed one. While waiting on it to arrive, I started hunting for a good trainer to show me how to use it. First I contacted S.M.S., a national franchise who trains only with e-collars. The “trainer” knew he was coming out to help me with dog aggression, so what happens? He pulls up, opens his car door, and out bounds two off-leash dogs that come running right up to me and Inara. Oddly, I didn’t send him away. I invited him inside and he started doing his spiel. He strapped one of the special S.M.S. e-collars on Inara and promptly showed me how to make her cower do a recall. Once again, he was thrilled that my dog was hitting the floor – “look how quickly she’s getting it!” Instead of booting him out for being an idiot, I let him finish his spiel and then choked when he mentioned pricing. Negative, ghostrider.

I got a recommendation for a trainer in Michigan who did a lot with e-collars so I made a weekend trip. We had a really great trip and Inara was very responsive to the collar, which was on level 8 out of 120. I was thrilled. I’d found my “cure”! I left that weekend feeling confident, but got home and lost my confidence. I worked with it for a few weeks, but I realized that I was uncomfortable doing so without guidance. And then I thought, “if I’m not comfortable using this without ‘adult supervision,’ why am I using it on my dog?” So I dumped the e-collar.

I still was leery of the prong from my experience with M., so I thought I’d try a slip collar. I tried both nylon and choke, in case it made a difference. I not only used it to pop her when she forged, but if she started reacting to another dog, I lifted her up off her front feet until she stopped barking. That’s right, I hung my dog. It worked momentarily, but then she’d be worse next time. I couldn’t keep doing it, so I lost the slip collar.

So I went back to the prong. This time it seemed to be helping. And by “helping,” I mean that Inara would have a hellacious reaction (snarling and lunging at other dogs) for about 30 seconds and then I’d punish her into quiet. Her pulling on walks was minimal because she’d get a swift, heavy correction if she pulled. I had what looked like a fairly obedient dog.

While all of this was going on, I also tried alpha rolling Inara and pinning her down until she stopped reacting to dogs. I tried swinging my leash in a pinwheel in front of me so that if she forged while heeling she’d get smacked in the nose. I was very well-rounded in my techniques. *insert rolling eyes*

I honestly don’t know at one point I said, “I can no longer do this to my dog.” When she was good, she was very good, but when she was bad, she was VERY bad. Something had to give. I went to a seminar with Brenda Aloff (who is pretty darned fabulous) and she helped me see that positive reinforcement COULD actually work with Inara. She wasn’t a special snowflake, not an exception to the rule. Just like every other animal on the planet, she responded to all four quadrants of learning, not just positive punishment. After I got home from working Inara with Brenda, I searched for positive reinforcement trainers in my area. I came across Ginger Alpine of Fortunate Fido.

Ginger, without any exaggeration, is the absolute best thing to ever happen to Inara and I and our relationship. She is my goddess of a dog trainer. She showed me how quickly the clicker can be used to teach behaviors. Inara was a genius! And best of all – she was finally enjoying training, as was I. We’ve been taking classes and private lessons with Ginger for about three years now. Through those lessons, I’ve learned how powerful positive reinforcement can be. I learned it’s not all touchy-feely – there are still rules. There are still expectations. There are still “punishments.” But they are more creative and effective now that I don’t resort to pain and fear. Inara has truly blossomed in the three years that I’ve been working with Ginger. My dog who used to not be able to be within probably 500 feet of another dog without lashing out can now compete in close quarters with other dogs. She is now sometimes (sometimes! She’s not perfect yet!) able to be the calm dog for reactive dogs to be around, which completely warms my heart. We are truly a team now and I get told that we just look happy together and work well together. She happily works on a flat collar during competitions, and a harness for basic walks. Though she passed her therapy dog test once before, we’re going to take it again so she can start working with people in an official manner.

I am astounded that I have such a solid dog after everything I put Inara through. She should have bitten me so many times throughout our past for the things I was doing to her. But never once did she redirect, or even look at me in anything less than a sad way. I truly get nauseous and horrified when I think about what I subjected her to. My heart breaks when I realize, “she’s come so far in three years – imagine how far she could have come since I got her at 8 weeks old???” There truly aren’t words to convey my regret. I still apologize to her, even though I know she’s moved on and forgiven me. But I haven’t forgiven myself. Three years, and I still can’t forgive myself. I mean seriously – who can hang their dog and sleep peacefully at night? I was able to, and that sickens me.

Do I think this blog is going to change anybody’s mind about using force/pain/fear in training? No. People will come to force-free training when they are ready for it. But maybe it’ll put a doubt in somebody’s mind. Do I judge those who use aversives? 99% of the time, no. The only ones I judge are those who are incapable of even putting a basic foundation on a dog without pain and fear, or who slap training collars (prongs or e-collars) on puppies less than 6 months old who don’t even know better.

This was long, and painful for me to relive and write. I ask that you not judge me for my actions towards my dog in the past, but look at how we work now, how we’ve grown and become partners in training, not adversaries.

If you have a story you’d like to share, please do so in the comments. If you’re not comfortable sharing it in the comments, then just post a comment asking me to contact you – your email address is visible to me and I will email you. If you have questions, please ask.

Love and respect your dogs, my friends. They tolerate so much from us and ask for so little in return.

Inara, the poster dog for force-free training.
Inara, the poster dog for force-free training.

19 thoughts on “My Crossover Process

  1. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Your story is a great eye opener for those who may still be using older techniques and feel something is not quite right. I’ve been there, too, and the guilt can be devastating.

    I will confess–I use a prong collar at times on Zella, but am weaning myself off of it’s use. Most times, I just put it on her but use her flat collar instead. She associates its presence to mean not to pull. I cringe, though, sometimes when I think of some of the training I put her through. Like your dog, thank goodness she is forgiving.

    I think every dog owner at one point in their life used an aversive in some way and now regrets it. If we learn from our mistake, though, we can try to seek out new ways to do something without causing pain or fear.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Grimm. I also relied on the prong’s presence for quite a while. I justified it by saying, “she knows it’s on, and I don’t have to actually use it.” Then the day came when she started pulling again, and I couldn’t bring myself to pop it. I sent it away to a friend who is going to melt it down and make art or jewelry out of it. Most useful it’s ever been!

    Thank you again for your kind words!

  3. This piece was very well written. I appreciate it when people share the process of how they came to believe a certain way. I know it is cliche, but life really is a journey; it really is a process. You are not a psychopath, you are a human being. Even I can tell you are a good person, so don’t beat yourself up about it. You have done right by your dog now, and that’s most important.

  4. Thank you for writing this piece from your heart. I think crossing over entails a huge change of life orientation, and I congratulate you for doing it. For myself: I took classes at a local competition-oriented obedience club. I held off from using a prong for my dog Summer’s first three classes, then finally got tired of seeing everybody else’s dogs standing quietly waiting their turns (lots of them were just shut down but I didn’t know that) and mine was straining around at the end of the leash all the time. The folks there didn’t know how to teach attention without corrections, and also didn’t know how to recognize a hypervigilant dog. Poor, nervous Summer. I caved and “solved it all” with a prong collar. I used it a handful of times. Summer looked at me so sadly when I put it on her.

    One turning point for me was one of those “set the dog up to fail” class exercises. We were instructed to walk towards a man who would hold food out towards the dog, and then when the dog went for it, we were to give a leash pop. I had quit with the prong again by that time, but leash pops can hurt and scare on a flat collar, too. We did this exercise one time. I’d like to say I stopped there, but it was actually Summer who stopped it. The second time as we approached the man, she slipped around behind me and hid. I felt so bad because I was the one who had administered the leash pop, but she was still coming to me for help. I’m pretty sure that night was the last “correction” I gave her. After that I started hanging with the agility people, who were not as harsh with their dogs. And then I found an incredible local trainer, just like you did. Thanks again for describing your process as a trainer and partner of your dog.

  5. Thanks for sharing your journey. What breaks my heart is that guardians who really care about their dogs are the ones who seek out professional advice. They follow this advice hopefully and with great trust – often ignoring the inner voice that whispers something is not quite right because of this trust in the information they are receiving. Yet what cheers my heart is that it is also these guardians who continue to question when that uncomfortable feeling persists. Because their dog really matters to them. Your experience may plant the seed that grows in someone else’s heart.

  6. This is exactly my feeling about training. I stopped taking my dog to her puppy classes because yanking on a dog or holding the leash tight until they submit and then treat the dog with food isn’t positive training. Pulled out the old clicker and I’m clicking away. Congratulations for having done the right thing.

  7. How long did it take you before you could take your dog on walks feeling confident she wouldn’t attack other dogs?

  8. JF, I apologize for the delay in responding – this slipped through the cracks! That question is kind of a catch-22 – I’m always confident she won’t attack other dogs because I know how to read her and I’m like a ninja when it comes to managing her. On the other hand, I also don’t let her get close enough to most other dogs to do anything. It’s just not worth it. So she can handle big group walks, and even walk close to other dogs, but I very rarely allow sniffing between them. It’s just a matter of knowing your dog and trusting your ability to handle them, AS WELL AS trusting the person/dog on the other side of things. Hope that helped!

  9. LOL! that’s perfectly ok. I had forgotten I had asked the question! I reread your post and your process is so similar to mine. However, it took me two dogs to realize that chokers and e-collars were not the solution. With my first dog, Fred, a french spaniel, I quit two obedience classes because I didn’t like the methods they were using. After trying a bunch of things including the e-collar, I stopped obedience training altogether and did agility with him instead. He loved agility. In the 7 years I had him (brain tumor), he never had a good recall. Who can blame him… So, 7 years later, I adopted this lovely 1 and a half y.o. golden retriever mix who is very reactive when she sees/or hears other dogs. I began obedience at the same place I did agiltiy with Fred and eventhough agility was done with 100% painless training, their obedience instructors doesn’t use the same methods. Long story short, I stopped going after 2 classes. I pulled out my old clicker and started clicking away. She’s doing much better, but I still have to work on getting her socialized with other dogs. Thanks for your very inspiring blog. Keep up the good work!

  10. Have you looked into BAT at all? Behavior Adjustment Training, done by Grisha Stewart? If not, DO SO. I can say that doing BAT with Inara has probably made the biggest difference for her.

  11. I loved loved loved this, and it made me sick to my stomach because I’ve gone through exactly the same process. I am not a dog trainer but when I got my (now 7 year-old) pit bull puppy with 12 weeks, I enlisted him in the (I do think I need to add Air Force) puppy class offered on base. I gave it a first shot, a second chance and a third try, but I could never go again after. It was horrifying. Looking back now, I basically taught my little boy that whenever there is another dog, I almost break his neck by yanking on his choke collar. That is what they taught us. “Pit Bulls need to learn they can’t go to other dogs and play, so when he does, you need to yank him away as fast and hard as you can”. I couldn’t believe it, but at the same time when you’re not the expert and the person in front of you claims to be, you are too afraid to put up any opposition 😦
    Thank you so much for this article, it helps to know that other have gone through and overcome the same.

  12. Thanks for sharing your story, Sannu. I hear you about not wanting to disagree with your trainers. We pay them because they should know more than us, right? It takes a lot of guts to stand up to a “professional.”

  13. Just stumbled on your blog– bravo! Thanks for sharing your story so candidly. My GSD was poorly socialized with other dogs and afraid of elderly women when I adopted her. Despite my best intentions, I’m sure that by using a mix of positive training & aversives, I made matters worse. In some situations she’s a doll, but in those situations where I used to use a prong collar to keep her from pulling free when she lunged (at deer, rabbits, other dogs), we still have a ways to go! We’ve been working with a Freedom harness, love BAT, and see drastic improvements. In hindsight I see that for us there really was no logic in using the prong as a “backup” to pain-free methods.

  14. I also just stumbled on your blog & found the story of your crossover journey very interesting. When I got my first golden retriever, Molly, I enrolled her at local classes & was taught to use leash “pops” whenever she pulled. Molly’s response was to sit down on her bottom & refuse to move at all – smart little girl! Teaching sit & drop involved pushing down on her bottom & pulling down on the lead to get her into position. When she continued to pull on the lead I was advised to use a Gentle Leader but wasn’t given any advice on using positive reinforcement to accustom her to wearing it. My poor little girl absolutely hated her “nasty nose harness” & although she would walk nicely with it on her demeanor was flat whenever she wore it.

    We persisted with the classes & eventually became quite advanced – working off lead & so on. By this stage the classes were really geared towards competing in obedience & because I felt that Molly didn’t really enjoy the classes we stopped. She’d learnt basic manners – loose lead walking, sit, drop etc & that was enough for me.

    After Molly died at the far too early age of 8 1/2 (brain tumor) I got another golden retriever puppy – my now almost 4yo girl Willow. My vet didn’t offer puppy pre-school classes at the time so I looked around for somewhere that I could take Willow. Fortunately I found Paw Prints Pet Training – their classes are run by qualified trainers who only use force-free training. Over time we took part in all their classes & to my surprise I found that training could be FUN! Willow loved her classes & loved the people that ran them – to this day those trainers are amongst her favourite people. As well as basic life skills we’ve also taken Tricks classes & have done some agility, just for fun. Throughout all of the classes Willow has been keen to learn & willing to offer behaviours when she’s trying to work out what it is I want from her – she’s not afraid because she knows there’s no negative consequence to getting it wrong. I also have 1yo Astro & he’s enjoying being a Paw Prints boy as we take classes together.

    When I think back to Molly I feel so sad for her that I didn’t know any better. She was a sensitive girl who I know would have really responded to learning the “Paw Prints” way. Whilst I thought I had an obedient dog the reality is that I had a shut-down dog – I just didn’t know the difference between them.

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