Sparing the Rod – Positive reinforcement is most effective for dogs

“We need another and perhaps a wiser and more mystical concept of animals.” (Author unknown) I have been a guide […]

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“We need another and perhaps a wiser and more mystical concept of animals.”
(Author unknown)

I have been a guide dog handler for 23 years, and I’m still amazed every day at the mystery of the canine-human bond that makes dogs want to work for people. While some people are amazed at how highly trained dogs like guide dogs have dramatically saved their handler’s lives by pulling them out of the way of an oncoming car, I continue to experience awe and wonder at how my dogs have performed mundane tasks every day like guiding me around obstacles, and safely across streets. I can often be heard praising my dog for a nice piece of guide work as she takes me safely around a construction barrier. And I can appreciate these skills all the more thoroughly now that I understand positive training what it took to train her to do this work.

I was taught the traditional method of handling a dog. The three main components of traditional training are: affection (praise your dog when she does something well), correction (correct your dog verbally or physically when she makes a mistake), and consistency (apply these techniques fairly and consistently to get the most out of your relationship with your dog). These techniques worked well, but I had always felt there had to be a better way.

I found one when I returned to The Seeing Eye in 2004 for my fifth Seeing Eye Dog. I was having severe back pain while in training, and I asked my instructor to help me develop a way to get my dog under a chair without physically muscling her into the correct position. To my surprise, he handed me a bag of crushed up biscuits. Food rewards were always forbidden at The Seeing Eye.

He instructed me to sit in a chair, holding my dog’s leash in my hand and the bag of food behind me out of sight. As instructed, I tossed a piece of food under the chair. Instinctively my dog dove for the food. When she did, I used the leash to gently guide her back into position with her head facing forward. When she completed the circle, she got another treat. We repeated this pattern several times (about ten minutes) until my dog seemed to understand the behavior we were teaching her. Then we proceeded to another room with another kind of chair to help her learn to generalize the behavior to different places.

I was truly amazed and exhilarated. I hadn’t used a correction once during this training session. I was having fun and so was my dog.

Since then I have learned much more about Positive Training methods. I still use corrections when needed, but through studying Positive Training, my understanding of how dogs learn (positive training is based on learning theory) has grown. It has transformed my relationship with my dog. I have used this knowledge to fine tune the training she received at The Seeing Eye, teaching her to find chairs, railings, door handles and door openers,

As described by, “the act of positive training involves rewarding your dog for a correct behavior with food, a toy or something he loves. Positive training by definition does not include any physical corrections and instead suggests that you ignore any bad behavior. Since dogs do what works, they’ll realize that a certain behavior gets them a reward and other behaviors do not. The behavior that produces the reward will become more frequent.”

Some guide-dog schools are moving toward positive training as a means of reducing stress on dogs in the field, and resolving work-related fears that dogs may develop of things like paratransit vehicles. As the population using guide dogs ages, and the general public becomes less tolerant of physical correction, guide dogs are being bred to be more sensitive to voice commands from their handlers. Traffic is also becoming more complex; quiet hybrid cars are affecting how blind handlers and their dogs judge when it’s safe to cross the street. In short, it’s much more stressful to be a guide dog today than it was when the first “Seeing Eye Dog” was trained 78 years ago.

To help more guide dog handlers learn about positive training, Minnesota Guide Dog Users, an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind, is sponsoring a Positive Training weekend workshop March 9 and 10, 2007, to be held at Vision Loss Resources. To participate in the workshop, handlers must be blind or visually impaired and currently working with a guide dog. To register, call Lolly Lijewski at 612-673-0439.

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