But instead of a nice training session, it was the 20 minutes from hell. I arrived early, went to check in, and she was working with a class of trainers-in-training. The trainer did not ask permission to let her group observe or participate; she just said her class would be over soon. I said I'd be out in the outside field, walking with Vanya a little, while she got ready. Vanya and I were out there, working on a nice loose leash walk, when all 8 people suddenly walked out and starting clapping and calling him, as a distraction. Surprise! Vanya forgot his LLW and pulled toward them, wagging his tail and yodelling, in an attempt to lick them all. I got his attention (and he actually turned back to me for a sit and treat). Ah, but the very fact that my dog pulled toward them for a moment was proof of "the failure of our relationship". I should have left at that moment. But alas, I stayed.
All 8 came up to me and for the next 20 minutes proceeded to give endless amounts of punishment (to me, not Vanya, whose leash was in my hand). All 8 seemed to be talking at once, telling me different things about what was wrong with Vanya, what was wrong with my relationship with him. They were seriously all talking at once, but none of them gave me a clue about what behavior they wanted from me in response. I had no idea whatsoever how to turn their verbal punishment off, because I didn't have a clue what response they wanted from me. I kept trying to do what they seemed to be telling me to do, (ie, someone would say: "you shouldn't be talking so much to him," so I would get quieter, and then they would say "you need to tell him what you want from him." Everytime I did something, they would tell me that I did it wrong--but not specifically should have been different-- and then go on and on and on about the "flaws" in our relationship. I tried to focus on him, and they told me that was wrong, I should let him be a dog and not stay focused on him. So I released him to go say hi, and they told me I did that wrong. Then they all started telling each other what a smart dog he was, if only I wasn't training him all wrong. Finally, the trainer told me a specific behavior she wanted from me: she wanted me not to look at my dog, and only look and talk at the people. I did that for a little while (but how long did she want me to do that? who knows.) Finally, I looked down at Vanya. Then the trainer said: "See ! I can't help you. You're too focused on your dog."
So I left.
It was the most surreal experience. On the drive home, I thought maybe the trainer had planned this as one of those training games for her trainers-in-training: "look! I'm going to show you all that's wrong with negative punishment and negative reinforcement! We'll use this unsuspecting client as the animal. Watch carefully, class! You just keep punishing a critter without giving her any information about how to turn the punishment off, you never communicate clearly what you want, and look! she stresses out! she shuts down! Look carefully and you'll learn exactly what you should never do to a dog! Observe closely what the absence of positive reinforcement does in a training session. See--because we're never giving her any praise, she has no idea when she's doing right, which means she has no idea what we want from her. Remember this well when you go to train your clients and dogs!"
Oh well, I learned something useful: the importance of positive approaches. Ethically and intellectually, I've always believed in them, but until that moment, I didn't really have an emotional sense of how confusing and stressful bad training is for the creature being trained. The punishment they were giving me conveyed no information whatsoever. I had no idea what they wanted. I had no idea how to turn it off. I'm a pretty confident, stable, happy person, but I still shut down under all that. If I were a dog, I would have bit them.
One hopes I can remember this lesson when I teach my own grad students, and see them shut down under the pressure of criticism in oral exams."