I often think the animals I have had before me have taught me far more about myself than all the behaviours I have taught them combined. My career has given me a life’s journey that I could never have envisaged 20 years ago when I attended my first dog training class. Today, after teaching thousands of behaviours on literally hundreds of animals I know that I want any animal that comes across my path to feel better because of it. ‘Getting a behaviour’ has become secondary in many ways to how the animal feels about the training, me (as their trainer) and the context they are to perform in.
Always, for us all – dog, cat, cow and human alike – our emotional foundation is at work, telling us we are safe or warning us we are not. The feeling of wellbeing for me is a moral obligation to my animals. Therefore, I do not ever want to be involved in a training style that says to my animal “do or else”. I don’t want to use force or intimidation, I don’t like to confront or dominate. I know that sometimes my aimals know better than me. I want my training style to reflect that knowledge.
See the little zebra finch in the photo? That is a wild bird. Over the course of months myself and some other top notch trainers worked patiently to gain their trust enough that they would come to us for easy seed. The choice was theirs, but once they had some history under their wings that we had easy seed and there was no danger they became as pesky as flies. What a joy.
At one stage in my career I would have gone on about the science of consequences and the side effects that you get from using punishment. I am sure in the coming months I will muse over this point in a blog here or there. For me thought, the reason I love approaching my work as a fun game, where I am the one at least initially, to guide the dance so to speak is because I love what it has done to me as a person. Continually looking for what to reinforce instead of what to punish, seeing the animal in front of me as a living creature with feelings and experiencing time and time again the joy in the animal when they start to trust has made me kinder, calmer, more patient and far more appreciative than I once was. Certainly by no means perfect of course, but I am much slower to anger, I judge far less and I’m just plain nicer. All this and, when done correctly, it works like a dream!
Yes, it takes time to get good at. We are used to controlling and being controlled through punishment. Our brains are wired to understand it after a life time of practice. Breaking out of that meme, with the help of hundreds of birds, several seals, a few goldfish and too many dogs to mention has been a life saver for me. I trust the effort will reap the same rewards for you.