The cookie revolution hit my training world in the late 1990s, about 20 years after I started in obedience training in the local 4-H program. By then, I was out of college and showing my shelties, Jess and Connor.
Terri Arnold was the first seminar presenter I saw who used food. Terri’s methods tempered prong collars with cookies, a concept my brain struggled with. Why bother with the cookies if you were going to pop the dog on a prong collar anyway?
I understood (or thought I did) the concept of teach the behavior, then after a reasonable amount of time, during which I was to assume the dog had “learned,” I was to correct for failure to comply. As trainers, we were still strictly encouraged to never let the dog “get away” with anything. I guess the dogs were going to take over the world if they “got away” with something.
I went to seminars, trained and showed my dogs, had success and failure and finished my first OTCh. I watched multiple trainers use the same methods, all with varying results. I started teaching classes and had the eye-opening experience that I could tell students exactly how to do something and they’d come up with at least 5 different variations on theme, none of which were what I’d told them to do.
The purely positive movement arrived in this area some time during Jamie’s career, in the early 2000s. It was all about the cookie. I went to a Patti Ruzzo seminar. Patti was all cookie, all the time. I
liked the concept but how could this work? What were you supposed to do
if the dog did something wrong? What if he didn’t give a hoot about
getting the cookie? I felt like I was missing something but I learned to
cram hot dogs and string cheese in my mouth like a crazed chipmunk and
how to spit food for my dogs to catch.
Clickers came on the scene about then, too. At first, I wasn’t impressed. I saw a bunch of cookie-waving, clicker-clicking trainers who started in beginners classes and several years later, were still in beginner classes with dogs who showed no concept of having been trained to do anything but eat cookies.
Cookies were used as bribes to get and maintain the dog’s attention. In fact, we taught the dog to LOOK AT THE COOKIE. Talk about taking the handler out of the equation! With the cookies, the dogs were attentive and accurate workers. Without the cookies to maintain an illusion of engagement, the dogs wandered off with little interest in interacting with their owners, let alone the ability to perform formal exercises under any sort of ring pressure.
BUT . . I also saw some trainers building fast, happy retrieves under distractions without ear pinches and teaching pretty heeling without repeated collar pops. Did they correct? Yes - but the corrections had changed. This was a huge epiphany. You COULD train without force and it DID work, but only if the trainer had a clear understanding of what they were doing and was in it for the long run - “positive” training was not a quick-fix that could be applied by throwing cookies at a problem. There were no magic cookies.
Corrections themselves were no longer the emotional, negatively charged power trips that forced the trainer to physically and mentally dominate the dog in order to make him obey. The trainer no longer approached training with the attitude of “gotta show the dog who’s boss.” They weren’t called “corrections” any more, either, because of all the poisonous baggage attached to the word. I don’t know what they’re called now but the “C” word still raises all sorts of alarms and red flags.
Tomorrow: engagement, play and letting Phoenix drive the bus.