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The Power of Positivity Works Wonders in Training

This morning, I looked at my 10-year-old dog Lance (an adorable black curly fur munchkin). I said to him in that high-pitched voice that often only comes out when we speak to our dogs, “Who’s my little sparkle?!” as he wagged his tail at me. This made me think of the night before, when I had been laying on the couch with Momo, my other small 15-year-old dog, with my face nuzzled into his fur as he slept so I could smell and touch him with my face. His face used to be all black, but now he has what many affectionately call the white “powder face mask” of canine aging and can’t move in the same way to do many of the things he used to do.

I started thinking about when I first met him as a baby puppy 15 years ago at the Lange Foundation Rescue in Los Angeles where I was volunteering. He was my first dog. He was born at the rescue from a tiny black Chihuahua mom who had to have a C-section to give birth to him and his four siblings. I had the privilege of seeing him open his eyes for the first time and watched him see and eat solid food for the first time. I remember seeing his “nurse mom,” who was a big, white, fluffy female dog who would whine constantly when separated. She took care of him and his siblings because his own tiny Chihuahua mom was in recovery from the surgery and not able to care for them. I took him home at 8 weeks in my car in a small basket (not sure why I didn’t use a safe crate like a normal person), and set his puppy space up in my kitchen with a badly constructed makeshift barrier of laundry baskets, shelves, and cinder blocks (in hindsight a functional baby gate would have been the better choice here). This is how we started our journey together.

I think the memories we’ve created and continue to create make him so much a part of me that my brain won’t even let me comprehend what it will really be like when he goes. We all know it will happen though. There will be a moment when they will leave this world before us, and we will have to continue living in the world without them. That “hole” that friends have spoken of will become a part of my life as all my daily routines will be affected by his absence. I will have to re-acclimate and inevitably have to grieve the loss of his sweet tail wags, lean-ins for petting, and face-lick greetings that grew out of a 15-plus-year relationship built on trust (even though I, of course, think I could have been a better mom to him for many of those years).

I started out as one of those people who loved Cesar Milan. Back then, I bought his books and watched his show like they were the answer to everything dog. His effective use of media is what inspired me to hire Momo’s first “balanced trainer” to help me learn how to walk him on a leash. I watched as we put the leash on his tiny collar around his tiny neck. He thought it was a cool rope toy, like any puppy would, and then I saw Momo’s look of confusion as the trainer started walking him on the sidewalk and continuously snapping the leash to correct him from pulling. She was walking quickly and correcting him almost every step of the way. He was just walking and enjoying the new smells of being outside; he wasn’t doing anything “bad.” Yanking on the leash against his tiny puppy neck to “teach” him what we city-dwelling humans wanted him to do just didn’t make sense, because it negatively effected his physiological health and created uncomfortable and then fearful associations to everything else he saw and was around in those moments. It doesn’t make sense for any dogs, because dogs are innocent beings that naturally love, trust, and depend on us. They are our precious friends.

Luckily, I was able to see the dog in front of me who usually pranced around happily with his tiny body bouncing up and down with the joy of life had his ears pinned back and eyes scanned the environment in confusion over why he had suddenly lost control of feeling safe in his little world. I took that moment of empathy and started questioning all this “dominance” stuff. Needless to say, I never hired that trainer back again.

Would we inflict daily discomfort on a friend so we could control their behavior and take them where we want to go? I’m not just talking about a Facebook friend or an old friend we grew up with, but a friend who sees us at our worst and best times in life—and loves us no … matter … what. I’m talking about a friend who forgives you for all the times you accidentally stepped on him and every time that you have yelled at him because he didn’t understand some weird human rule that you expected him to know, even though it makes no sense to the canine species. For example, a puppy may think, “Why would I go down three flights of stairs to step on wet, cold grass to pee when there is this nice dry grassy-looking thing that the humans call a rug right next to me?” They greet us with pure joy every time we return like it was the first time we’ve ever met, and they are always up for playing silly games that bring us into the present moment. This is a friend who never purposefully wants to hurt you and has never said mean things to you. Now that’s an amazing friend. A rare friend. Why would we do this to a friend this amazing, this special, this loving? Why would you purposefully bring aversive and uncomfortable routines into your lives together in the name of wanting to control their behavior when there are other alternatives that can actually increase the trust and love in your relationship and ultimately improve your own experience of life?

The answer is not always “well, that method didn’t work for my situation, so I had to use this aversive method.” Most of the time, it is because we are unwilling to change our routines and environment to help the dog start to learn from a safe, comfortable place. Some may argue it is sometimes OK to just “throw them in the deep end” by flooding them with the very thing they are reacting to in a way that we don’t like. But can you imagine someone throwing you in the deep end of a pool every single day, multiple times, repetitively? We don’t just put prong, choke, and shock collars on dogs once a week like a kid going to a swimming lesson. We put them on them every day and correct them multiple times repetitively in situations when they may already be worried, scared, or overly excited.

If we absolutely cannot change our home situation for that dog, whether it’s due to financial, family, or health issues, this may also mean we have to make the painful choice of re-homing that dog to a person who can provide what that dog needs to have a high quality of life. Even though we may be sad to have to re-home a dog we have fallen in love with, it just doesn’t make sense to inflict daily discomfort and pain into his life just so we can fulfill our own agendas.

Our dogs really are like a little spark that we have been given, an opportunity to experience in our often chaotic lives. Bright, joyful, pure, and then gone. A friendship this precious is worth protecting and learning how to maintain and enhance.

If you are new to learning about positive dog training like I was 15 years ago, a great place to start is watching videos from one of my favorite YouTube channels, Kikopup, created by the inspirational dog trainer Emily Larlham. One of my favorite videos that I’ve shared a lot of clients is “What Is Clicker Training?”

If you are also a positive reinforcement dog professional or owner/guardian, I hope we can continue to support and inspire one another. None of us is perfect, no matter what training method we aspire to use, but I just hope we each try to create more loving moments with these forgiving, playful, pure, beings that automatically love us unconditionally and put up with all of our dumb human mistakes. I mean, it is really quite amazing that we share our houses, couches, beds, and lives with any animal, let alone ones as cute and social as dogs are. I personally am also going to try to notice and create more happy and playful moments with both of my little sparks every day while we still can, and I hope you do, too, with yours.

Alice Tong Dote of Choose Positive Design (ChoosePositiveDesign.com) is a web designer and photographer who specializes in website design and digital media content for dog trainers, dog walkers, therapists, and other service providers who support using positive reinforcement and humane science-based methods with dogs and people. She is also a dog trainer and therapist.

Each month, this column is written by a different trainer or dog professional. If you’d like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com.