The Wrong Way To Do It

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      Lest the title has you thinking that this is going to be a juicy little article about sex, I might as well disappoint you now by telling you that it will actually be about training your dog. Hang in there anyway, though, the information might prove useful regardless. In my last column, I wrote at length about using an electronic collar (a.k.a. “e-collar”) to train my rescue dog Munster. I was very emphatic about the fact that you are NOT to use the collar as punishment, but rather, a light tap on the shoulder to get your dog’s attention. I will be repeating myself on this point, so bear with me.

     When Munster attacked and killed a stray kitten, shortly after we’d brought him home, I sent him back to the shelter. With four cats in the house, there was no way I was going to let him make a meal of them. But in the time after we returned him, my heart hurt like I’d never experienced before and so, two weeks later, we brought him home again. This time, though, I was determined that I would have some control over him. Only problem there was that I had no idea how to acquire that control. I signed Munster and myself up for a 6-week “Good Manners” class, and while it was a good start, I immediately saw the need for further training when Munster ran off after a rabbit, and I had to yell myself hoarse trying to stop him. P.S. I did manage to do so before the bunny met an untimely demise.

     I found a trainer who sold e-collars and trained both human and dog in the proper method of use, and compliance. It didn’t take Munster long to catch on to the idea that someone else was in charge, and that he needed to do as he was told, when he was told to do it. Again, his compliance did not come from a place of pain or fear; it came from his recognition that someone else was now the alpha dog and that his job was to do what the alpha wanted. This corresponds directly to how dogs behave in packs (albeit without benefit of an e-collar tapping them on the shoulder): the alpha makes and enforces the rules. Any disobedience is met with a firm nip, or, in my case, a firm push of the red button on the remote. Working with Munster for a few minutes every day reinforces the commands, and the rules. So far, Munster has proved eager to learn, and exceedingly pleased when he gets it right.

     There are times, however, when I really blow it. Big-time blow it, like the day when we were out in the garden working on the come-sit-stay-come sequence. It’s supposed to work like this: I give Munster the command to come to me. He starts walking in my direction. When he’s still some distance away, I give him the command to stop and sit, and then to wait until I give the command to come to me again. This sequence would prove extremely useful in the sort of situation in which your dog has ventured across a road, and you want him to stay on his side and wait for you to go get him, or you want him to wait for traffic to pass before you call him over to you. Unfortunately, I got my signals crossed (literally) one day and confused him so badly that once he sat down, he believed that he was to remain glued to that spot no matter what other commands I gave him. This broke my heart: at no point have I ever wanted him to be afraid of me, but during that training session, I believe he developed some fear that he had behaved badly. I’ve been working on making it up to him, and training with a different approach, ever since.

     Meanwhile, we’ve been attending a once-weekly group class with the e-collar trainer and as many other people with dogs who show up on a given Saturday. This is a great opportunity for all the dogs to get some social skills, and also get used to things that they might have issues with, e.g. some of the dogs are rescues with specific fears of men, or women, or certain environments. You get the idea. In any case, since Munster cops an attitude around other dogs from time to time, this group class has been invaluable in terms of teaching him what my expectations are for his behavior. I must say, he’s improved with every class we attend. Until Brett filled in for the regular trainer. I’d never met this fellow Brett before; I knew only that Gina would be away attending a class of her own, to learn cadaver-search training with her dog.

     Brett seemed alright at the start. The exercises he assigned us were very creative, and tasked the dogs in ways that Gina hadn’t done previously. Then I made the mistake of asking him to clarify a few points. He reached for my remote and tried to demonstrate his answer on Munster. When he handed the remote back to me, I noticed that it was set on 14. The thing can be set from 0 to 100, but I find that I rarely need to use any number higher than 10; indeed, the thing had been set on 7 for most of that class. If Munster is really distracted, I might bump it up to 12 or 13. The minute Munster complies, I turn the dial back down to 6. When I saw that 14 on the dial, I thought perhaps Brett had moved it accidentally. That had happened to me before, which is why I constantly check the dial – to make sure that it’s on the setting that I want it to be on.

     I should mention here that I have tried the collar on my hand, many times, in order to know what those settings feel like on Munster. 14 isn’t painful, but nine times out of ten, it’s not necessary, either. In any case, I didn’t say anything to Brett about the setting. I didn’t say anything, that is, until he demonstrated a second point on Munster, and popped the thing up to 21. That second time, I knew it wasn’t an accident, and I think the firmness in my voice as I reached for the remote rather startled Brett.

     “No. I don’t want the remote set that high!”

     “Wha-at?” he said uncertainly. I repeated myself as I took the remote out of his hand.

     “I don’t want it set that high.”

     “Did Gina teach you how to use it?” he asked with some confusion.

     “Yep!” I answered, in a tone that brooked no further discussion.

     I didn’t care what he was trying to teach, I just knew that 1) he used no verbal signals whatsoever, which confused the hell out of Munster, who had no idea what Brett wanted him to do, and 2) not on my dog, you don’t! I mean to say, I might feel the need to turn the dial to 21 – particularly when various retrievers in our neighborhood growl at Munster. At times like those, he clearly feels the need to lunge and rip their throats out. Since he’s knocked me on my bum more than once with this rude lunging business, setting the dial at 21 is reasonable. But in a calm classroom setting, when all the person with the remote wants is for the dog to turn around and face him, a setting of 21 is unacceptable. Particularly when no verbal cues are involved.

     Interestingly, when I complained about Brett the following week (he had also worked very roughly with a German Shepard puppy during that same class), Gina actually defended his methods – to a point. Brett was, she informed me, a former military dog trainer, and his methods were the very same ones used when training military dogs. I was aghast. Gina went on to say that she didn’t necessarily agree with the methods; she was simply aware that many trainers used them.

     “But he didn’t use any voice commands at all!” I exclaimed. Gina nodded.

     “That’s how they train them, by making them use their brains.”

     “But how on earth is the dog supposed to know what the trainer wants?” I wanted to know.

     Gina did answer that question, but I won’t bore you with it because I don’t happen to agree with that sort of training at all. In my view, if you’re meant to work together as a team, then everyone involved in the transaction should be clear about what they want. If that means using words – or even gestures, for that matter – then that’s what I do. I want Munster to be entirely clear about what his alpha wants from him. Our conversation took a very interesting turn, though, when Gina mentioned Orlando.

     Before I set up that e-collar training with Gina, I had investigated an outfit called Sit.Stay.Down. It was a dog training business run by this fellow Orlando. He comes to your home to assess your needs, then offers you a variety of training packages. The least expensive – at 600 quid – was a one-day affair in which he came back to do the training at your home for the day. The more expensive options involved boarding your dog from 3-7 days at his home, where the dog would be trained along with his own. I had to take a pass on any of the options due to price concerns. But after Gina told me what she did, I breathed a big sigh of relief that I hadn’t let Orlando work with Munster.

     What Gina told me was this: that she and Brett had both worked as trainers for Orlando at one time. Orlando’s methods were so harsh, Gina said, that even Brett had to quit working for him. You know it’s bad when a military dog trainer thinks the training is excessive! Which means that everything is a matter of perspective: Brett was too rough for me, while Orlando was too rough for Brett. Either way, Gina reassured me, anytime I was uncomfortable with anything that Brett did during a class – or that Gina did during a class, for that matter – I should definitely speak up.

     “Munster is your dog,” she finished, ‘he should be trained the way you want to train him.” And she’s absolutely right. Don’t ever let anyone – even a so-called expert – do anything to your pet that you aren’t comfortable with. Brett may know a few things about training dogs, but he knows nothing about how I train mine. Or how you train yours. By all means, find yourself a good trainer to get you and your dog started, but reserve the final decisions about that training for yourself. Your dog is meant to learn through teamwork, not fear. And once they have learned what you wanted them to learn, then start training your significant other. The hubs is proving rather recalcitrant in that regard. Perhaps I need to put the e-collar on him.

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