Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Oct 2009: another unfortunate consult with private trainer

In October 2009, I went to yet another private trainer to work on Vanya's leash reactivity. My goal was to get him to a place where he could socialize off leash with other dogs, so that his counterconditioning to leashed dogs could proceed a bit more smoothly. A kind trainer had suggested earlier (online) that I read Jean Donaldson's book FIGHT and look at the section on "Tarzans," because she thought my Vanya sounded a lot more like a Tarzan than an aggressive dog--ie, a dog with terrible social skills who was desperate to meet and frustrated by being restrained around other dogs. So I had embarked on a search for a trainer who would work with me to get Vanya to the point where he could be off leash with some selected dogs. (First I had bought him a basket muzzle and conditioned him to stick his nose into it for cheezwhiz). The e-trainer ran socialization sessions and after she watched Vanya on a long line around another dog, she thought it wouldn't be a problem to get him to that point, because she also thought he lacked social skills but wasn't showing aggression. 

This was a very well-respected e-collar trainer, and because the e-collar had worked so well to stop Vanya's livestock chasing, and because I was feeling a bit desperate to find socialization opportunities, I thought: well, okay. We first went to her for a consult in July 2009, and her work with Vanya around another dog was pretty overwhelming (read: flooding), but it did seem to have some benefits right afterwards--he was able to play briefly (muzzled) with another male dog (but too roughly), and then he was able to approach that dog several times, leashed, without completely flipping out. So I tried to do the homework she gave me, and then when I returned to southern Wisconsin in the fall, I went to see her again in October, hoping that we could try some socialization around other dogs. 

I wrote that evening: 

"Today my reactive young pittie Vanya and I had a stupendously terrible experience with a private trainer. But I think I learned a useful lesson. The goal was to work at a distance with calm dogs, so that Vanya could stay under his threshold and work on paying attention to me, instead of shrieking, lunging, and doing his tasmanian devil imitation in his attempt to get to them (this seems mostly in a frustrated desire to greet, but it's inappropriate all the same).

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."

This experience also taught me never to put the e-collar on Vanya when we might encounter another dog.

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