I may be biased but I have to say that positive trainers are some of the most creative, think-outside-the-box, and dedicated problem solvers out there. I am constantly hearing from “balanced,” “alpha,” or “aversive” trainers and their allies that positive trainers “have small tool boxes,” “are narrow minded,” “are limited by their toolbox,” “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” “try to teach all dogs the same way,” and all sorts of things with similar sentiments. Like I said, I may be biased, but I think that these folks are absolutely full of bologna!
It seems that when good positive trainers encounter a problem they come up with the most amazing creative solutions to their issues. I was searching youtube for videos showing how to train various behaviors using positive reinforcement or clicker training and for every behavior I searched, there were dozens of videos showing dozens of different methods. I was thinking that I’ve probably used 15-20 different ways to teach a dog how to lay down and a mix of them all (including different variations of luring and shaping) over the years. I mean in one of my teen classes last week, I busted out 6 different methods to teach down because of the needs of the dogs. I saw a crazy wide variety of methods used to teach behaviors with positive reinforcement training but definitely didn’t see near the variety when I looked at e-collar videos for some of the same behaviors (you can compare for yourself–I looked at down and heel/loose leash).
Skilled positive trainers are like inventors–they will use what’s in their toolbox, and if none of those work, they’ll create a tool for the specific situation. It seems like the opposite of “limited,” “narrow minded,” and “one size fits all” if you ask me.
Which brings me to my own problem solving endeavor recently that had me trying something different. Over the last week or so, I have been thinking about and reading up on level 2 APDT Rally because I’d like Shayne to get back in the ring. One of the new behaviors is about walking backwards while in heel position. I have never done much work with heeling backwards–not something I really needed to do in the real world. When I started work on it with Shayne it was a MESS–a hot mess. She was scooting backwards on her butt practically sit–hop back–sit–hop back–sit, all while curling into or away from my body. I first tried setting up a barrier so she couldn’t curve into or away from me and it kept her in heel. I tried using a hand target to get her to move correctly, I tried a target stick, I started 1/2 steps at a time, I tried luring while I backed up, etc.
Nothing I was trying was getting the type of results I wanted–she was walking back but it wasn’t… efficient or pretty. I thought about it and I watched some film of our sessions and realized a HUGE piece of the puzzle: Shayne doesn’t have a good understanding of how she should move her body to back up. She can “scoot” from a pretty long distance and back up quickly in that context but anything else and she struggles with her movement.
So, my solution was to break things down even more–get Shayne more comfortable with her body moving backwards. That’s what I started working on yesterday. I taught her to back up away from me using a rear foot target a few years ago but didn’t ever focus on the concept of going straight and I hadn’t done much in at least 2 years. So, I set up a channel using jumps and a wall so Shayne’s back up would be straight. I started facing her (so she was backing up away from me) with a rear foot target just 6″ behind her (since she had this concept already) and worked up to her backing up about 5 or 6 ft to get to the target on the ground. When she was moving relatively quickly and smoothly (this is mostly what I needed to fix) backwards to hit the target, I started changing my orientation so she would be backing away from my side or she’d be backing up from heel position. I had some poor impulse control so the last repetition I walked backwards with her as she walked back to hit the target. I didn’t film this but I had a mirror set up and it was like a totally different dog. We are in no way done, I still want to build a smoother and longer back up from all positions rather than focus only on back up in heel but we are well on our way.
This wasn’t my most creative solution ever but it’s definitely out of the box of what I normally would do or suggest. I created a new tool to put in my toolbox that I can use should I work with another dog who has struggles going in reverse. I feel like this is what good positive trainers do–they invent, they create, they innovate, they modify, and they problem solve.