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Jill's Crossover Story

I'm a crossover trainer, which means that I used to use old-fashioned, dominance-based training methods. I've worked with dogs nearly all of my life and used choke chains, prong collars, and even shock collars. Like most crossover trainers, I have a story about how I came to change my ways. It involves Bart, my (now) 14 year-old redbone coonhound/Rottweiler mix.

When Bart was young he was reactive (what we used to call aggressive) toward anything that moved - buses, bicycles, cats, skateboarders, joggers - but he was particularly triggered by other dogs. Bart would lunge and bark the moment he spotted another dog and I'd yell "NO!" at him. Thinking that he was being dominant and challenging me, I used corrections to try to get him to fall into line. I put a choke chain collar on him and leash-corrected him when he would react. That didn't work - he kept exploding at other dogs. I needed to intensify the correction so I put a prong collar on him and when he freaked out at another dog, I'd correct him. Not only did that not work, but Bart is a pretty big dog (approx. 60 lbs.) and he threw himself into the collar with such force that he inflicted pairs of punctures around his neck where the prongs were. Gruesome as that was, he still wasn't responding appropriately and since I couldn't let him think he was the leader, I needed to intensify my corrections again. I started alpha-rolling him in the presence of other dogs. Not only did that prove ineffective, but Bart's aggressive responses grew worse and he began attacking me, which he hadn't previously done. But still I needed to increase the correction since I couldn't let Bart win. I seriously considered using a shock collar, but felt that it would break Bart. While he was acting horribly aggressively toward other dogs, he's also a wimp and will dramatically limp around if he steps on a pointy stone.

Purely out of desperation, I began bringing dog treats with me on walks and used them to distract Bart and keep him from reacting. Within a couple of weeks, he would spot a dog and sit, looking at me and drooling. I was amazed and started on the path to positive reinforcement training. I took Animal Behavior College's Dog Trainer course to learn this new-to-me type of training. I volunteered as an assistant to other trainers, read voraciously, watched videos, attended seminars and went to everything I had the time and money for. I was fascinated with body language and the more I learned about how dogs learn and the science behind training, the more I realized that corrections were not only unnecessary, but damaging. 

I had damaged my own dog. In retrospect, Bart had a number of negative experiences with other dogs when he was a puppy. He was charged and pinned by a dog at the dog park and bullied by my other dog. I worked at a dog daycare at the time and brought Bart to work with me. He would run around the play room with a pack of dogs chasing him and I thought it was sweet that they played tag all day. I couldn't understand why he was "fine" with other dogs at the daycare, but aggressive when out on walks. 

As my knowledge increased, I realized that Bart's aggression was fear-based. He couldn't defend himself at the daycare - that would've been a very dangerous proposition since he would've risked being attacked by the entire group. But when he was out on a walk and facing just one other dog, he immediately put on a big show in an attempt to scare the other dog away before it hurt him. I made things worse by adding other dogs' appearances with my getting angry and hurting Bart, thus justifying and intensifying his fear-aggression.

Once I learned why Bart reacted the way he did and started using positive reinforcement methods, I began pairing the appearance of dogs with treats. Bart quickly shifted his association with other dogs from potentially dangerous attackers to treat-predictors. I knew we'd turned a corner when he spotted a dog one day and began offering play-soliciting behaviors, and I cried when I recognized the massive shift in his emotional response. 

Since then, Bart has progressed to meeting other dogs and even having another dog sleep over at our house! I've also introduced him to cats, horses, cows, and even goats!  If I hadn't crossed-over in my methods and had continued to use correction-based techniques Bart may have eventually stopped his ugly reactions, but his underlying negative emotional association would still be there. He never would've been able to safely meet other dogs.

I feel immense guilt for doing the things I did to my dogs in the name of training before crossing over and I wish I'd done it sooner. However, as a very wise woman once told me, "Better late than never!"

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