Why Rescue Dogs Need Positive Training

Sometimes I feel like a fraud joining the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop. You see, aside from the String Cheese Counter-Conditioning Protocol (which, don’t get me wrong, definitely counts as Positive Pet Training), I don’t train my dogs.

I just burnt out after Isis. I’ve tried Rally O with Leo, and we have really nice agility equipment in our backyard. Neither he nor Mia have the drive for these things, and we’re more or less happy with their behavior, so nope, no training happening at this house.

But I believe so strongly in Positive Pet Training that I wrote a book about it, so I want to remain part of this club. For me, Positive Pet Training is a philosophy, our way of life, rather than something we actually do.

That will change the next time we get a dog. Obviously, puppies must be trained. We’re even more likely to bring home a mature dog, but what are the chances it will arrive as perfect as Mia did?

Especially since I’m drawn to the shelter dogs with some troubles. Take Henry the shepherd mix, for example. I shot this footage of him a few weeks ago at the Humane Society where I volunteer.

Henry’s a dog who needs a very patient family. He’s been at the shelter for months, and that was the first time I walked him. I talk really fast, but in the video, I’m saying he always looked so scared to me (not scary). He never came up to the door of his kennel when I walked by.

A couple of visits ago, I noticed a sign for staff and volunteers that said “Please remove martingale collars when returning dogs to their kennels.” Then I saw this black dog in a kennel wearing a martingale. I didn’t know it was Henry, because his name card and info sheet weren’t posted. I let myself in, intending to remove his collar. When I reached for his head, he recoiled, and I thought, Whoa. Is this the day I get bit for being an idiot? 

I sat on the kennel floor, thinking the dog would warm up to me and come closer. He did not. I went back out to the front desk, got some treats, and went back in. My plan was to let him eat the treats out of one hand while the other slipped off the martingale. But he wouldn’t eat out of my hand. Not at first. It took a lot of tossing treats to him before I was able to get my hands anywhere near his collar to take it off.

My next visit, I asked if he could be walked. One staff member told me, “Oh yes, he’s better on walks than he is in the kennel.” Another gave me side-eye and said, “Is he okay with you? Because he’s not okay with everyone. I can’t walk him.”

A third staffer went with me to put the harness on him. She handed me the leash and we were off. He’s a great dog, as you can see in the video. If I were dogless and looking, I would bring him home in a second.

But I didn’t post the video right away. I’ve had my heart broken before with great dogs who became unadoptable for reasons not always clear to a volunteer. Is there any hope for a shepherd mix who is so people-selective not all shelter staff can walk him? No coincidence, I’m sure, but the other dogs who became unadoptable were all believed to be at least part bully breed. Based on my experience with my own dogs, though, I can’t imagine any dog could be more challenging (and I’ll be honest: dangerous) than a fearful shepherd.

Then some other volunteers made this video (and created a YouTube page for the shelter).

They’re pretty up front: If you have the time to work with him, Henry could be the dog for you.

It’s not a sexy slogan, but “if you have the time” should be a pre-requisite for adopting any dog.

UPDATE: Henry was adopted Sept. 19!!

Dogs like Henry are the reason I’m so firm in my opposition to prong collars or any aversive techniques. I recently had a conversation on Instagram with an adorable German shepherd about his prong collar. He assured me he only wears it on hikes when he has to be on leash, and he heels perfectly when he wears it. My response to that should be, “Oh, good then, glad you found a tool that works for you.”

Except… For every German shepherd on Instagram that heels fine on a prong collar, there’s a Henry in a shelter somewhere. If the Instagram dog heels great on a prong collar, he probably also would do well with a harness. But an aversive collar can exacerbate behavior problems and escalate aggression in an already fearful dog like Henry. Using physical punishment on a dog who is already afraid is simply inhumane.

In all other cases, it’s like veterinarian Patty Kuhly writes: Why use a jackhammer when a shovel will do?

Don’t you think it’s better to err on the positive side?

Positive TrainingThis post is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, hosted by Cascadian Nomads, Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. The hop happens on the first Monday of every month, and is open for a full week – please join us in spreading the word about the rewards of positive training!

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Published by Kari Neumeyer

Writer, editor, dog mom, ovarian cancer survivor

6 thoughts on “Why Rescue Dogs Need Positive Training

  1. “Positive Pet Training is a philosophy, our way of life, rather than something we actually do.” You nailed it, Kari. We don’t train formally that much either, in fact this hop is my main motivation. Once a month I figure out something to work on for a post! I hardly ever walk & train with Ruby anymore. It’s just too hard to DS/CC to *everything that moves*. We are ninjas of avoidance! The thing is, and I learned this from working with horses – every interaction is training, and if we adopt the reward-based mindset, our interactions naturally become more positive, even when we’re not perfect.

  2. Agreed! Mr. N is a very soft dog and aversives would totally break him. I posted a video on my Facebook page a few days ago of a zookeeper training an iguana with a clicker. If you can train an iguana in positive fashion, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to train a dog using positive methods!

  3. Yes, it’s definitely better to err on the positive side!
    Before Luke came along, we didn’t do much training at all. Even now, I do very little with the girls, and most of my focus is on Luke. Since he is fearful, yes, he takes a lot of time. If you’d asked me a while ago, I might have said that I wouldn’t want a dog like him again….I got a Lab mix because I wanted someone who could go anywhere with me. But now that we’ve trained and bonded, even if he never gets used to strangers, he is one of my best dogs ever. Henry reminds me of him….and I bet he would bond with the right people in no time. Luke could not be any more loving and sweet with those he chooses to love. And positive training works perfectly with him…I have high hopes that we’ll overcome his issues…but if we don’t, we’ll manage them.

  4. Creating this hop was my declaration to the world about my positive pet training way of life commitment. When I worked at a dog training facility that was not 100% positive, I saw dogs start on the road to being Henry and I couldn’t bare it! I stopped taking my own dog there with me before I quit but I saw his fear rise and confidence lower. Fortunately, I am always willing to put in whatever time it takes to make my dogs happy, so here I am. A reformed trainer wishing, like you, to spread the reform worldwide. (Even if I also don’t currently do a whole lot of training with my own dogs either!)

    Thanks, as always, for joining the hop, Kari!

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