Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Touch or touch not?


I am amazed. Or dismayed.

Am I living in my own little fantasy bubble? Is there THAT MUCH rough handling/training going on out there? And I'm just oblivious? Maybe I don't see it because I don't WANT to see it. Denial is a fine thing.

Some of the folks who commented on yesterday's post expressed a preference for clicker training over physical (hands on-guiding-molding) training methods because they've seen so much horrible force-based training it had the effect of sending them in the opposite direction.

Well . . . okay . . . but if you're old enough to train a dog, aren't you old enough to control your temper? Or mature enough to understand that might doesn't equal right? If you're training a dog, you have a responsibility to do it without causing pain and fear.

Yeah, I KNOW some people don't get it. We've all seen examples in our own clubs and at trials. Sigh.

I suppose it would be hard to hurt a dog with a clicker unless you threw the clicker at him.

There are a lot of aspects of training/showing that people fail to consider that aren't even connected to your training method but play a huge part in its success: conditioning the dog (like Tammy mentioned) so he can safely, physically perform the job you're asking him to do; the handler's mental approach - are we having fun together or do I just want the title at any expense?; who gets the blame when things go badly in the ring - the handler or the dog?; can I accept that my universal worth as a person is not defined by a 30-second agility run or a Q in the obedience ring? There are lots more. Whether you train with a clicker or a choker is not going to resolve any of those. It's up to the handler, ultimately, to put the responsibility for the dog's success or failure on THEIR OWN shoulders and to chose to do so in a way that is, at minimum, pleasant and enjoyable for the dog.

Have we reached a point in the evolution of training that it is no longer in vogue to touch our dogs to help them learn? I'm glad there are so many training methods available and people can pick what suits them and their dog best. In the case of allergies or a physical disability that prevents the handler being able to bend, touch, position, etc., then a clicker is a great answer.

Clearly, not all dogs respond well to being physically positioned so it would be pointless to pursue that method of training unless you're just trying to do things the hard way. And not all dogs respond well to clickers (I know a few who are actively terrified of the sound) or not all handlers feel comfortable using one because they aren't confident in their ability to actually click when they should.

And great point about making sure your dog allows and welcomes your touch from the very start of your lives together - if there's ever an emergency, your dog will be used to being touched even if he is scared or hurt. A few years ago Phoenix chased a cat though a rotary hoe that was parked in a machine shed. The cat fit through the hoe just fine. Phoenix didn't. When he came out of the shed, I could see a long gash along his ribcage. He let me inspect the wounded area (touching), then we were off to the emergency vet (of course it happened on a Sunday afternoon) to get examined (more touching) and stitched up (under anesthesia) without a major freak-out, even though that HAD to hurt.

Last winter when Jamie was spending so much time at the vet, having test after test prior to his IBD diagnosis, the vets and techs all commented that even though he was scared, he was a very easy dog to work with because he was clearly used to being handled, unlike a lot of the dogs they treat.

I'm glad the jerk and yank days are behind us. I'm glad we have different training methods available today. No matter which method you choose, the best thing to remember is to lead by example.


  1. Totally agree with your touching posts. I hope my dogs understand that my hands touching them are for helping and not hurting. They seem to. That said, note your dog's reaction to touch when you want that to be a reward. My two younger dogs do not seem to like head pets, although ear rubs are GOOD. They do seem to appreciate good, firm pets on their necks/torso as a reward.

    And my 12-yr old with all the health issues gets the same comments from my vet. And I think that results in better care for our dogs, when they allow touching by strangers, even when they are uneasy such as for medical issues (of course, my vet knows that having treats at the ready will mean Bella will allow her to do just about anything!)

  2. After this post, I had to go back and read the comments from the last one. I kept shaking my head that people are so hesitant to put their hands on their dogs - for any reason. I live with 4 dogs. Three are small rescues and are a bit nervous/stressed/hand-shy. In training, almost everything is clicker based. When I reward, I use either treats or "high five" - hardly ever any touch because they get very uncomfortable. I handle them a lot other times and we have a very affectionate relationship outside of training. The 4th dog I live with is a Mal who is bouncy/energetic/fun and nothing like the chihuahuas in training. I can rough him up and wrestle with him in training and he thinks it's the best thing in the world! My preference to train? the Mal.

    While I NEVER "correct" my little ones in training - even a "oops" causing tail tucking, I can "correct" the Mal both verbally and physically if necessary and our relationship isn't hurt in the slightest. I can grab his collar and re-set his feet, I can hold his head steady while he is retrieving and he doesn't mind in the slightest. I train with him in only "positive based" classes and I have never been scolded or taken aside for any of these "corrections" because the dog isn't hurt physically or mentally. People laugh when I tell him he is going to get a spanking for doing something wrong because to him a "spanking" is climbing up in mama's lap and getting his butt patted.

    I think that being able to use your hands in training - for both correction and reward is beneficial in teaching the dog what he needs to be doing - there is less gray area. If you have a dogs like my other ones, training can be very fun, but there is also a lot of stress because in order to refine something they are going to have to be wrong and are not going to get rewarded for it. This can lead to a lot of confusion for the dog. With my other one, there is less "drilling" because I can show him the final picture and he gets rewarded more because he understands what he is supposed to be doing.

    I really appreciate what you have been sharing with us and I know that I am learning a ton. There is an old saying that the only thing two dog trainers can agree on is that the third is doing it wrong. You are doing what works for both you and your dog, and from what I can see, Nix isn't afraid of you or afraid of training - he looks like a happy well adjusted Mal. I wish we could all be that lucky.

  3. I am uber touchy feeley with my dogs as well. I adore that part of having a dog SO much. And I also use touch for praise as well as correction (not talking about hitting, talking about repositioning, guiding, etc).

    I also start body handling from the minute a new dog/puppy joins our family. I want my dogs to happily accept that contact and not think a thing of it. Now I have a 150lb dog that I can lay in my lap (well kinda) and touch, examine, prod every square inch of his body and he doesn't bat an eyelash.

    Long live the touchies!!!! ;)

  4. HERE HERE on today's post (and other comments) in regard to yesterday's comments. I just don't see any point in owning a dog if you don't want to touch them. Might as well have goldfish - they die when touched! My dogs get touched from the day they come to me. They get touched on every part of their body and enjoy it. They also get corrections. Yes, corrections of every form. I'm not abusive, I'm not mean, I live with rules in my life and so do my dogs. They don't sulk or get upset. They go "oops, I messed up" and then try harder or stop doing the bad behavior I was not allowing. Life is good when touch is a communication tool you have with your dogs.
    HOORAH Melinda for this post!
    Renee S

  5. I think there is a big difference between 'touching' whether it be in helping, comforting, positioning, loving, or caring, and hurting your dog by pinching, yanking, smacking, and lifting them up off the ground by their hair. I'm sure almost everyone will agree with this.

    BTW - I know Melinda, she does NOT abuse her dogs!! Or cats, or husband.

    Do I think luring or physically positioning is mean, or wrong? No.

    What I do have a struggle with, is the inconsistency of many trainers. Allowing things at trials, that wouldn't be acceptable in training. Then getting mad at the dog when it continues to happen. By acceptable I mean, not meeting 'my' criteria. (This will vary on the person) When we become 'wishy washy' with our ring criteria, how can the dog possibly understand what's truly expected?

    If bottom line, all we care about is the Q, or title, where does that leave our dogs? They don't know what that stuff means.

    If however, we kept things as 'black and white' as possible, I think it would be so much easier for them to perform at not only their best, but at a level they understand. Wouldn't everyone be happier?

    So, what's the worst thing that would happen if your dog 'breaks a start line' at agility and you take them off? You don't get to run. Okay, that hurts! But, hopefully it will help build an understanding of what's expected. Of course, if your dog doesn't like agility, that's a whole other issue.

    Now, admitted, I haven't shown in obedience in years, but...what's the worst thing that could happen if you helped your dog out with a double command? Why continue to let the dog 'perform' at a level lower than you'd like. Now admitted, it's easier to leave an agility ring, than an obedience ring, but couldn't you do that? Could you ask to be excused, or could you train in the ring 'on purpose', being respectful of the ring of course.

    In agility, you have the advantage of being able to use as many verbals as you'd like. Couldn't you do so in obedience as well? I know you wouldn't qualify, but what's the absolute worse thing that could happen?
    You would both get comfortable with multiple sights, judges, etc and soon (hopefully), you'd no longer need them.

    I think fun matches for obedience are great, but you rarely get the same 'atmosphere' as you do at the real thing. Well, at least that's my opinion......of course, like I said it's been YEARS since I've been in an obedience ring.....4/19/2003 to be exact. I had to go look. G

  6. I have really worked hard on my attitude, so that I can approach all of our trials as training. I always laugh when someone says you CAN'T do something in the ring. I CAN and I HAVE. The judge can ask me to leave for doing it, but sometimes being excused from the ring for "training" is the right thing to do to help the dog understand what is expected and keep the criterion clear. My favorite example was when I got tired of arguing about a table sit. The dog was barking at me and refusing to sit. He only did that in the ring. I gently took hold of his ruff and quietly said - you sit. I didn't hurt him or yell at him or even pull on him. I just got his attention and said sit. He did. The judge asked us to leave. The dog always sits or lies down on the table when I ask. I know that I have a long way to go as a trainer and I have been known to want a Q badly enough to slip up and let something go that I shouldn't. I am also in training. I think the dogs and I are getting there together. I believe touching is useful and I do love touching my dogs. I believe anything - verbal or physical that is done in anger, frustration or thoughtlessly is probably a huge mistake. I'm not perfect and neither are the dogs, but I keep working toward the lovely, calm, understanding handling that I have seen Melinda (and Tammy) exhibit. Thanks guys for setting a good example.

  7. One thing to remember about some folks who say they've gone to no-touch clicker training because they've seen so much "horrible force-based training" is that many of these people think ANY physical correction, no matter how mild, is "horrible force-based training". I've run into more and more of these over the years, as I have tough, highly physical dogs for the most part and I *am* going to put my hands on them and I *am* going to give them a shake or a swat or whatever seems to be the right thing at the time. Almost without fail, someone will tell me I'm being "too hard" on the dog, even tho the dog in question is smiling and wagging his tail.

    I train regularly with a couple of people like this, and even tho they've watched my dogs enjoy obedience for years, they just can't seem to help telling me that what I'm doing is "too mean". Meanwhile, both have dogs who are confused messes that are unreliable inside the ring and out. And one is hand shy - I don't know the dog well enough to know if he started out that way, but I could easily see that becoming an issue if the owner never restrains the dog in any way.

    I always take comments about "awful cruel force training" with a load of salt - I train and trial all over the west coast and I can't even remember the last time I saw an obedience trainer using too much force on a dog. Being mean yes, but those times it was clicker people standing there confusing a dog they wouldn't physically help! ;-)

  8. Ahhh the touching! I love touching my dogs. Really. It's funny because I'm not a touchy person toward people at all. My brother and I are pretty close, and we hug less than 5 times per year. It's just the way it is. At an agility trial this weekend, my friend got another MXJ leg and 8 MACH points. I said to my brother, "I'm SO happy for her! I'd hug her, but...you know."

    I don't feel awkward touching my dogs though. I often hug, grab, kiss, play, wrestle whatever with them. I want them to seek out my touch too. The best mornings are when Layla jumps on the bed, puts her paws on my chest or shoulders while laying on me, and kisses my face. Of course it's even better when I actually want to get up at that time :) I don't want a dog who doesn't crave that physical interaction. It doesn't have to be constant - Layla is often napping in the bedroom while we're in the living room - but it does have to be present.

    One of the things that we've started doing is working on our Drop on Recall. I start with Layla standing and have her ruff (or fat roll at back of her neck) in my hand. NOT hard or painfully, just enough or a grip where it won't slip immediately out of my fingers. I get her ready (verbally excite her), then run with her (still holding her ruff) and down her in motion. My hand on her ruff is supposed to imitate a playful grab, not a physical attack. I forgot the explanation of why it's playful, but Layla does take it as a playful touch. It's fun for both of us!

  9. And dogs are one of the most physical creatures out there, their physical language is much more artful than any other. Ever watch a bitch handle her pups? All our pups understand a physical relationship from the get go. It's part of play, it's part of impulse control training, it's part of life. It's just another facet to our relationship as is the verbal part. And like any other "tool" or relationship skill it gets mishandled by some folks. We've all seen those handlers/owners that can't park their ego at the door when it comes to dog training/competing. Feel sorry for them, feel sorrier for their dog, but to let them impact your own goals or training program is a waste of time.

  10. I've been thinking about these issues for a long time, and my conclusion is that "good enough" training is training in which both the dog and the person are having a good time. My Aussie loves to roughhouse, leap at me, mouth my hands, etc. and I'm OK with using that kind of behavior as a reward. For some people it would be utterly unacceptable. My Berner would just be confused if I gave her the kind of playful shove my Aussie finds so fun. My Terv is mildly amused, but would really rather have his butt scratched. The kind of physical correction my Terv finds enlightening my Berner would find mean and my Aussie would resist. My Berner finds free-shaping confusing, and the Terv and the Aussie think it's a hoot. I taught the Aussie pup to heel using a clicker, but periodically refine things with tiny corrections on a pinch collar. I've had great results clicker training the younger dogs to retrieve, but know other people who got totally frustrated that way and got great results using a mild force retrieve. Basically, I figure that if either the person or the dog is unhappy with what you're doing, you should try something else. And if the person and the dog are having fun, then what they're doing is OK. Some people have a lot more fun if they Q than if they don't, and they should train to a level of proficiency that allows them to do that. And it's the person's responsibility, not the dog's, to figure out how to get to that level of proficiency in a way that allows the dog to have a good time, too. "More funner" doesn't necessarily mean more cookies and fewer corrections (although Taz says he would be OK with that). It means that everyone's needs and style are taken into account so that a good time is had by all.