Confessions of a Cross-Over Trainer – Part One

The term “cross-over trainer” commonly refers to a trainer who decides to train using primarily positive reinforcement with a dash of negative punishment but who previously trained primarily with negative reinforcement/positive punishment (for definitions, do a search for “quadrants of operant conditioning”).  Of course, the world is not black and white and certainly defining training methods is no exception. There are all sorts of people falling anywhere across this spectrum. So, in this, I also include “balanced” training, which could be anything from a clicker in one hand and a shock remote in the other, to a cheap tidbit for a sit and a haphazard jerk on the leash for anything the owner deems inappropriate.  I think this can apply to not only professional trainers, but the average dog owner as well.   Correction-based training is very accessible to the general public, what with TV personalities and the like, so many of us subscribe to some version of corrective training when we first dip our toes into training our dogs. It may seem very sensible to say “good job!” as well as “that sucked!” to our canine students, but the end-results are not always what you may expect.

But I digress.

These past few days as I was thinking, “what shall I write for my blog?” I quickly went from giddy excitement to ruminating apprehension.  “What the hell am I going to write for this stupid blog?!” I figure a good place to start would be “the beginning,” despite its clichéd quality.  This has turned into a series of very difficult posts! But why not just jump right in…?

I got my first dog when I was 8, an aussieX we inventively named “Max”.  At 4 or 5 years old, she moved with my grandmother out to the middle of the woods, and I was essentially dog-less until the age of 19.  I had completed my first year of university and was walking dogs at the Peterborough Humane Society when I somewhat impulsively brought one home – Arlo, a then 1.5yr FoxhoundX.  I don’t know much of his history. I do know that someone picked him up as a stray, kept for six months, then dumped him at the local shelter because he was afraid of men.  He, somehow, was pretty well housetrained – something that I didn’t even consider when I took him home (seriously).  After several months of Arlo crawling out under the back fence, running away when off-leash, and generally (through no fault of his own!) being an untrained dog, I went to a trainer recommended to me by a nice lady in a pet store. That trainer was a shock collar trainer who adamantly stated “THE CLICK STOPS HERE!”

I had no basis in dog training, but I did have a history with horses and was perhaps a bit cocky in that. While I was certainly not half as rough as many horse-people, I was no stranger to telling an animal “no, that’s wrong” using physical means – which I did with Arlo previous to finding this trainer. Arlo was fitted with a $500 shock collar and I took a couple lessons with this trainer (who I shall call R.H.). Because if it’s really really expensive it must be good, right??  Like most dog owners, I did not understand what stress looked like in a dog. Contributing to this, stress is frequently framed as subordinance, so not only did it not look bad… it actually looked good!  In my mind, this collar was completely magical.

The year before, my partner Jen bought a Labrador puppy from a high school acquaintance.  Odin was raised by her parents and moved in with us at the age of two.  By this point, he had several human-directed bites under his belt. This situation arose from a combination of possible brain damage from oxygen deprivation at birth, having his jaw broken by the family dog at 7 weeks, and likely the biggest factor, having entirely no socialization as a young dog.  He was essentially a ‘house dog’.  Odin, Jen and her mother ended up at R.H. to deal with this issue using the shock collar while he was still living with Jen’s parents.

In coming posts: fallout from the shock, the ultimate outcome for each dog, and what I learned the hard way.

Confessions of a Cross-Over Trainer – Part Two