by Deborah A. Jones, Ph.D.

My first performance dog (obedience, agility, pet therapy) was a crossover. She was an adult rescue and I was her third home. Being a physically tough Labrador Retriever Katie was basically able to tune out and withstand any unpleasant training techniques. She simply shut down and did nothing. Many called her stubborn because of this tendency. When I switched completely to clicker training, her whole attitude and demeanor changed. She earned a CDX in obedience (and one Utility leg), competed successfully in agility (but had to be retired due to an injury), and was a fantastic therapy dog. She still, at age 12, loves to play 101 things to do with a box.

I would estimate that 95% of my human and canine clients were crossovers. When people contacted us for information on our classes I sent them a handout explaining a bit about clicker training and how it differs from traditional methods. People were very eager to find a way to train that didn’t involve force and compulsion.

The differences between crossover dogs and dogs who have always been trained using positive methods are fairly easy to see. Usually, crossover dogs have learned from their traditional training that “when in doubt, it’s best to do nothing”. If they’ve been punished for making mistakes in the past, they have learned the concept that trying new things gets you in trouble. So they become passive and wait to be told/shown exactly what to do. Dogs who have been exposed only to positive methods, however, are willing and eager to try new things. They are active in the training process, rather than waiting for explicit instructions. They also tend to be creative, which is a great asset when trying to shape or capture new behaviors.

Even though I had been exposed to lots of traditional training techniques in the past, I had never been a traditional trainer. And once I went to college and learned about classical and operant conditioning, I knew that most of the stuff I saw happening that would be labeled traditional was not only ineffective, but unfair to the dog, and often completely counterproductive. I truly believe that educating the human half of the team in the basics of learning theories is the key to fun and successful training.

I didn’t find it difficult to use primarily positive reinforcement in my training, because that fits with my desire to interact with my dogs in a cooperative and gentle way. With my clients, I see them struggle because they have accepted the myth that effective dog training must involve force, compulsion, and intimidation. But, as soon as they see that there is another way, most are very willing to give it a try, and are happy with the results.

I would tell owners of crossover dogs to be patient. Your dog has to unlearn old information before he can completely participate in your new way of training. Progress should occur on the dog’s timetable, not yours. Let your dog have plenty of opportunity to discover that trying new things is reinforced, not punished. Let go of the idea that you control the training process, and let your dog be an active participant.

Deborah A. Jones, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychology, Kent State University Stark Campus
Stow, Ohio

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