Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, United States

Author of the book "Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others," 2nd edition published by Dogwise Publishing. Canine Behavior Series at

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Aha Moments I've Had in Dog Training

The first dog I trained to obedience rules had a body sensitivity
of about 10. So a correction would hurt his feelings before he would feel it
physically. So much for that idea! The first ear pinch attempt on him taught
me an important principle. If someone says that a training method will make
a dog worse before it gets better, I'm outta there.

Another experience taught me another principle that has served me oh so very
well. This was the same dog, Saint, adopted from a high-kill shelter at 9
months of age. He knew I was his lifeline, and he and I were soulmates. He had
trouble with the out of sight stay at first. There was an assistant
instructor in the class who thought she knew how to handle my dog. When I got out of
sight, he lay down on the Sit, because he was trying so very hard to stay. She
went over to him and jerked up on his leash. Though he was a big, black dog,
he was a darling. I won't tell you what kind of big, black dog she had had,
because some on this list would recognize her by that, and she's probably
learned better by now. Anyway, my dog didn't think like her dog at all. When she
yanked on him...well, as I came back from the out-of-sight spot, I saw a
horrifying view. She was holding her arm and the instructor and another
assistant were next to her. My dog was down.

About that time the other two people started laughing, but not her. When she
yanked on my dollbaby, he got so scarred he urinated. You know what can
happen when a boy baby urinates at a diaper change. Well, evidently it can also
happen with a scared, submissive dog on his back, and that's a pretty good
distance for the urine to shoot!

The next week I had him on a soft nylon collar and she started arguing with
me to put a prong on him so she could jerk him harder. The Instructor--a
Border Collie owner and a fine, seasoned trainer--came over and intervened on my
dog's behalf. She stayed and also intervened when we started to leave and my
dog started to cry. I told the assistant I was going to stay IN SIGHT for him
this time. She tried to make me leave. The Instructor backed me up.

I took him out of class and he distinguished himself in tracking. I had
learned another principle: if someone tries to do something to my dog or get me
to do it and I don't think it's right, I need to say "NO." If someone messes
up my dog, I'll be the one left with the mess. It's MY dog. And I'm what
stands between the dog and any bad training method. I'm the gatekeeper. Like that
sign I really should get for my house that says something like "Never mind
the dog--Beware of Owner!" I didn't let anybody direct his tracking program,
just had tracklaying partners and studied the subject carefully. I remember one
so-called expert who came out one day to see my dog work. He laid a track
for us and, as is common in tracking practice, followed behind to spot whether
the dog stayed on track or not. That fool yelled at me the whole way around
the track--cussed, too--trying to get me to handle the dog differently.
Meanwhile the dog and I successfully worked the blind track, ignoring the cussing
fool. So much for experts. And so much for my being a "good student," which I
usually am, but have learned not to be when it comes to training my dogs.
They are counting on me to protect them, and to the best of my ability, I will.

He was a dog of a lifetime, and perfect for me at that stage of my own
journey. A few years later I was teaching my little Eskie Angel the out-of-sight
stay with him at her side to simulate the group situation. Saint kept
breaking, and I thought it was unfair to let him think that was the right way to do
it. So I tethered him and he quickly learned that way. The little dog learned,
too. People say dogs can't learn by watching, but she was one who could. She
saw him leave position and that not work out for him, and got a satisfied
expression on her face that said "Yep, I KNEW that was the rule!" A couple of
times he finished up before she did. I think she broke to go chase a squirrel
in the back yard. So I had her do another stay with a teddy bear in his spot.

After training him, with a 10 body sensitivity, I went straight to her, with
a 1! People don't know this about Eskies, because they react so quickly that
you can miss the reason being pain, or fear of pain in a situation where
they have experienced it before. I had to teach her things with the leash off
and then add it, because she worried about the leash. I walked her on a
non-restricting chest harness.

She was too sick to go to class for the first 4 or 5 months I had her, as I
discovered when I took her one night and she promptly came down with
bronchitis. So I trained her at home and in the neighborhood and then took her to
class to test our learning. At the wonderful club I belong to, they set up a
little test for her, and then let her take the graduation test with the next
class and graduate. She did brilliantly on the graduation test in a ring. On our
first "check up" test, we didn't have a ring, just a judge and a corner of
the building. The dog got a little confused on off-leash heeling and wound up
sitting next to the judge. It was kinda cute, actually. The next week we had
a little more practice and a ring to test in, and she got it all within
passing limits.

One thing that happened for me as a result of the assistant mistreating
Saint was that I started reading about dog training instead of accepting the
"oral tradition" that was so common in training at that time. People did what
they had been taught and taught their students some version of it, never really
understanding it in the first place. One of the first books I read was
Patricia Gail Burnham's "Playtraining Your Dog," a groundbreaking book at the time.
I also read Karen Pryor's first edition of "Don't Shoot the Dog!" which is
not about dog training.

If I were a campaigning-type person (I simply don't have the energy), I
would try to get AKC to establish a pass/fail category for CD, CDX and UD. In my
imaginary world, you could talk to your dog while working and use body
language, there would be no scores or placements in this category but the dogs
could be judged in the regular lineup with the others if there were not enough
for a separate class. Jumping would not be required to pass, provided the
handler informed the steward or judge in advance and had the bar set on the ground
so the dog could go between the posts without jumping. The broad jump could
be one board. The handler would also have the option to specify the height at
any height from the trial height downward.

The titles would be different from competitively earned titles. This class
would be ideal for therapy dogs, assistance dogs, search and rescue dogs,
practice to fix problems for trial dogs, senior dogs whose owners want to bring
them out, cruciate ligament and hip dysplasia dogs who shouldn't be jumping,
puppies too young to jump, etc. It would likely have an atmosphere like
tracking, with everybody cheering for everybody else.

Sadly, I don't think top obedience competitors want this kind of class. It
would remove a whole lot of points from OTCH possibilities, since the
pass/fail people would not be dogs defeated in that event. But I believe it is a
needed change, for the same reason that the AKC obedience regulations state: to
demonstrate the usefulness of dogs to humans.

They say purebred dogs in the purpose statement, but I'd love to see this
open to mixes. After all, I can't imagine there is a dog in the USA who isn't
descended from some purebred or other. And in this category, no purebred would
be "defeated" by a mixed-breed.

Obedience in my community has always reached out to all owners who sincerely
want to train their dogs. It would be such a shot in the arm to obedience
trials if these wonderful clubs could throw their arms open to ALL their
students to participate in obedience trials. And it would be a true service of AKC
to many working handlers and dogs. I think it should be the next step in the

Neither Saint nor Angel were allowed in AKC events due to registration
criteria at the time (Eskies were not AKC then, so no ILP for her, and Saint was a
cross between Lab and GSD), though one club member who wasn't really
thinking about what he was saying told me I could participate by volunteering. He
said they always needed someone to pick up dog poop. Me picking up the poop of
other dogs at an event where my own dogs aren't allowed to participate? I
don't THINK so! I can pick up the poop of the World's Greatest Dogs every day
without leaving my house, thank you very much!

I took my dogs into fun matches a bunch of times to verify our learning.
Then I got a purebred dog and did a CD with her. At 3 1/2 she nearly died of
what we think was Lyme Disease. Her name was Star. As I nursed her for about 5
months, I thought about all my dog work and what was worth spending part of the
time--too short--that I have with each dog. For me, it was the therapy dog
work I was by then doing with all three dogs. I took Angel out of further
matches in Utility without finishing, and put all the training into therapy dogs.
I started having experiences of joy just bubbling up in me while working
with my dogs. I was no longer one kind of handler for one thing and another for
something else. I was me all the time when interacting with my dogs. They
must have thought "Mommy isn't schizophrenic anymore!" That decision has brought
me so much joy. And another "Aha!" I'm not saying everyone should stop
working their dogs for titles, but I don't enjoy competitions, so it was no fun
for me. Dog handling in the real world thrills my heart.

But it hasn't changed my mind about dog training, and soon I'll be training
my second assistance dog. The CGC test is very useful, but for many of our
dogs who need to be extraordinarily mannerly and steady, a pass/fail obedience
system would be a real help. And it would help the cause of dogs in our
country, too. ---Kathy Diamond Davis