by Nikki Finn- Loudenslager
Fifteen (or more) years ago I adopted my first dog, a five year old beagle that came to me with a variety of issues. I was young, had a huge love for dogs, and as a child who was only allowed hamsters and fish for pets, Molly’s home coming will be a day that I will never forget, ranking up there with some of my fondest memories. In my 20’s at the time and living on a limited budget, my only option for getting some help with Molly’s behavior issues was to learn about dog behavior and training techniques through books and TV shows, with many of these techniques appearing to work. But did they work for the right reasons?
Beagle stealing food You see, the dog training world is split into two distinct schools of thought. One way, and the practices I was referring to above, are from an outdated way of thinking that we, the human, must be our dogs Alpha for him to respect and obey us. Many methods from this methodology are not only based on a wolf pack myth, but are not backed up by behavioral science, and for the most part use intimidation, pain and/or fear on various levels to gain results. In short, they decrease the behavior by pairing it with a negative consequence, often with the dog is under stress, and more importantly, fail to change the dogs emotion towards the stimuli they are reacting too, or teach the dog a more appropriate behavior to perform.
At the time however, someone who knew little about behavioral science, reinforcement-based training, and the cognitive abilities of dogs, I assumed my approach to improving some of Molly’s negative behaviors was not only the right way, but never considered this style of training harmful or harsh. A career change from Graphic Design Artist to Animal Care Technician in my early 30’s opened my eyes to many of my own training mistakes. Working with both dogs and horses, day in, day out, I started to observe animals in many different environments, owned by a multitude of people, some using the training methods I was introduced to in my 20’s and others who were using motivational techniques. One thing that I quickly noticed was how much happier that both the handler and animal appeared to be using the latter training method and I was eager to learn more.
Yes, some handlers, especially if they were in the beginning stages of training a new behavior, were using food to get results (something I had been brainwashed into thinking was bad or somehow cheating), while others were just simply using much kinder style of training, and I could almost see their animals smile. This changed my life forever, and is how I began my own journey to becoming a motivational based dog trainer.
Spending many more years in the animal industry as pet sitter, rescue worker and adoption counselor, my journey to becoming a professional dog trainer began when I decided to earn my certificate in science based dog training methods. I am very proud of my accomplishments to date and happily reflect on the many dogs and owners I have helped with behavior issues using kind, force free techniques. While some owners find behavior modification slow to progress (just like in humans, once a neural pathway has been created to form a behavior pattern, it takes a lot of repetition to reprogram the brain), many have committed to the process and have reaped the benefits of not only a better behaved pup, but often a dog who has gained confidence, is more playful and just a whole lot happier in general. There have been clients who have chosen to pursue (or go back to) more dominant style methods, and I do not stand in their way. It is not my place to preach about the benefits of positive reinforcement training methods, or heavily criticize those who choose to use other methods that fit their ideology. Instead I am here to teach what I had learned, by providing owners with the information that changed my perspective, so they have an opportunity to change their perspective too and therefore make more informed choices.
It is my dream that one day, motivational training methods are the only methods available to trainers, pet owners and promoted by the media and the outdated techniques are left in the past (where they are meant to be). But for today, I am happy to train one dog and one owner at a time, and make a difference to those who are open to change.