Philosophy and Resources

she's nothing if not eager
Maybe if I wave my paw at you you’ll give me all the cookies?

Here’s my training philosophy in as much as a nutshell as I can manage:

I believe in using training that is humane, effective, and promotes a mutually trusting and rewarding relationship with my dog. It is important to me to do no harm, and to convince my dog (or any dog that I work with) that I am trustworthy and safe. Therefore, I use hands-off, non-aversive methods for getting behavior like targeting, structured shaping, a little bit of free-shaping, and some luring. I never deliberately include positive punishment or negative reinforcement in a training plan, not even relatively mild aversives like body blocks, and I do my best to use negative punishment minimally so as not to frustrate my dog. I believe that the behaviors that I train, while potentially fun, mentally enriching, or even life-saving, make little or no inherent sense to my dog; therefore, it’s my job to convince Nala that they are worth her while, and I am worth engaging with.

I’m also a believer in using desensitization, classical conditioning, and the choice to leave when doing training to change Nala’s mind about something that makes her uneasy. Hyenas can be trained to volunteer for injections, and Nala can–and has–been trained to voluntarily settle for and participate in nail trims and other handling procedures, or to shove her neck into my hand for a collar grab.

Besides, she’s really cute when she sticks her head in a shopping bag or a bouquet of flowers.

If training isn’t working, I seek professional help for suggestions on my techniques, training plan, or whether pharmaceutical intervention might be necessary. I have yet to find it necessary to solve a behavior problem with something less humane than mild negative punishment.

Above all, it’s important to me that, if it’s safe and possible, Nala gets what she wants. While being my dog has a lot of perks and benefits, it also inevitably means that there are restrictions on Nala’s freedom to enrich herself in whatever way she might choose. It is my responsibility as her friend and guardian to see to it that she has access to species-appropriate mental enrichment that she enjoys.

I’m not a professional, just an enthusiastic amateur who’s stupid in love with dogs in general and her own dog in particular.

Selected Resources and References:

This will hopefully be something of a rotating list, frequently added to or edited. I’ve also included a short, helpful description of each resource to help readers choose.

Some Books I Like:

For the Love of a Dog by Patricia McConnell: although seemingly less famous than The Other End of the Leash, this book’s discussion of the emotional lives of animals, and particularly of dogs, is just as valuable as the other book. The short section of photographs portraying dog expressions is particularly valuable to new students of dog behavior; the section on fear, genetics, and socialization will be especially interesting to would-be puppy owners and fearful or reactive dog owners alike.

Bones Would Rain from the Sky by Suzanne Clothier: This gorgeous, meditative book on the human dog relationship provides plenty of food for thought and multiple injunctions to consider the dog’s point of view, if very few training recipes (although the section on preventing resource guarding of found objects has a brilliant little protocol that will be appreciated by anyone whose dog likes to put things in her mouth when she is bored).

Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program by Leslie McDevitt: Equal part training games, recipes, and descriptions of behavior cases, the Puppy version of Control Unleashed has fixed some of the organizational issues (although I still fervently wish it had an index). The most famous things from CU are matwork and the Look at That! game, so let me point you toward an unsung hero–Gimme a Break! is fabulous for helping your dog acclimate to an environment or for working with a new rescue who isn’t accustomed to thinking and has steam pouring out from her ears after a few behaviors. This book also introduced me to the concept of dogs getting “sticky” in the eyeing/stalking portions of the predatory sequence, and describes a protocol for how McDevitt worked through this tendency with her border collie puppy.

The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller was the first dog training book I ever read, and I’m incredibly grateful–not just for her clear descriptions of how to lure and reward behaviors, but for her compelling argument against using force and aversives in training. Thanks to Miller (and the internet), I’m not a crossover trainer. I think this book would make a great gift for a friend who is or wants to be a first time dog owner.

Currently reading: Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz and Dog Sports Skills Book Three: Play! by Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones.

Online Resources (and a featured article from each):

Karen Pryor’s website contains lots of general information and articles on nearly any topic you can think of.
This favorite article of mine takes a closer look at what socialization means, and what good, positive socialization for dogs of multiple ages might look like.

Patricia McConnell’s Reading Room archives all of her blog posts and any articles she wrote for The Bark magazine, which adds up to so much free information! McConnell’s writing style is funny and smart, and I’ve rarely had a question or a problem that I couldn’t at least begin to answer by revisiting McConnell’s articles. McConnell posts a new article, usually about dog behavior and science, almost every week.
And, for fun, I love this article about how she finally taught Willie some nouns, since I often think about what language means to Nala.

Denise Fenzi’s website and blog also contain tons and tons of free information and, equally or more valuable, lots of videos of training sessions between her and her dog. Most recently, she’s also started posting unedited training sessions by some of the instructors at her online dog training school, Fenzi Dog Sports Academy–another truly incredible online resource, but not free, which is why I haven’t included it here.
It was hard to pick a favorite, but I think that this one provides a complement by my ham-fisted attempt to lay out my philosophy above.

Finally, does a brilliant job discussing the minutiae of training terminology, giving practical examples, and making all of this digestible for the reader with lots of great examples from her own dogs.
I particularly loved her article and video last year in response to Jean Donaldson’s World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge, which, incidentally, provides some good guidelines for what to ask when seeking help from a professional dog trainer.

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