It’s been almost a month since Bella and I started going to dog training classes. In that time, we’ve had 3 sessions where we’ve learned and made so much progress. Bella has been learning new commands while I’ve been learning life lessons on how to be a better handler.
You see, for as long as I’ve had Bella, I’ve been using positive reinforcement with corrections when they’re necessary. There’s people that disagree with the use of corrections, and that’s ok. However, I’ve found that that’s what works best for Bella and me.
Before we started going to classes, I would train Bella on my own. We would work on sits, downs, staying, and a little bit of heeling every time. Bella struggled a lot with not being interested, resulting in her not paying attention. Because I knew that she had already mastered the commands I was giving her and that she was choosing to not respond, I would correct her with a pop on the leash. Of course, that wouldn’t usually work. Instead, we would leave almost every session with me frustrated.
Before Bella and I started going to classes, I knew that my trainer was a positive reinforcer only. R+ only means no corrections are used. Out of respect for them, I knew that I wasn’t going to give corrections when I was in their facility. Let me just say, that changed everything!
To begin, my trainer said that all training would be done off-leash. This encourages Bella to think for herself instead of looking for cues from me. What my trainer doesn’t know (I say this because they’re unaware of my former training tactics) is that it also took the control away from me. Without a leash, I can’t correct her. So, the urge to correct is completely gone. Since that’s gone, it’s taught me to be creative and learn how to make her want to give me the behavior, rather than doing it because she has to.
Secondly, my trainer has me reward Bella constantly and for small things. This made me realize that when I used to do it on my own, I would ask too much of her and be stingy with my treats. Like my trainer has said before, it’s like giving a dog Hamlet when they don’t even know how to read. For example, we were working on pivots last class. Any time Bella had the slightest shuffle of her back feet in the right direction, she would get rewarded. If I were to have done this a couple of months ago, I would have tried to make her do 5 steps and only reward her when she had done 5. It’s like a baby learning to walk. Any tiny step they make, you’re hollering in excitement. However, what I would do is make and expect the baby to take lots of steps, even though they’ve never even taken one, before shouting for joy. You have to start with baby steps and make sure they’re rewarded for it. That way it’ll click with them. What dog is going to do something if they’re not given a reason to want to do it? Treats are their reason to want to listen and do, so it makes sense to be generous with them to keep them excited.
Learning these two things has made a world of a difference. Training sessions at home are way more fun and positive. It also feels like she’s progressing quicker. I can look at Bella and actually see that she’s excited to train, which I never saw a few months ago. Her tail is wagging, and she’s fully focused on me. It’s a good feeling knowing that she’s doing things because she wants to not because she’s being “forced” to (and I used forced very lightly here). A couple of days ago, she wasn’t paying attention. She smelled something that had caught her attention to the point where she wouldn’t listen to me when I was saying her name. I almost allowed myself to get frustrated and go back to the way I used to be — aka corrections. However, I thought… what can I do to make her want to pay attention to me? Food! I started dropping treats at my feet, and then she got close enough to where I could feed her from my hands. Boom, she was back to paying attention. No corrections were need, and no frustration took place!
Of course, I still believe in corrections. I think they’re necessary for Bella. However, I don’t think they belong in our training sessions anymore. It brings frustration and negativity to the session. Not using corrections is teaching me patience. I can’t allow my frustration to take over. Instead, I have to figure out how to make her want to do something rather than correcting her for not.
Going to these classes has been so much fun. Bella is doing great, and I couldn’t be more proud. I feel like we’re bonding in a whole new way. I’m still working on getting more confident having people watch me train. However, I felt a lot more comfortable and confident last class! I’m so excited for this adventure that we’re on. This has been my dream for years. To see it finally in action is indescribable.