For much of modern history, dog training techniques relied heavily on coercion and fear to produce reliability. Choke chains, shock collars, prong collars, throwing dogs on the ground until they “submit,” biting dogs, kicking dogs, “spanking” or hitting dogs, growling at dogs, “dominating” dogs, pinching ears and stepping on toes were common tools of the trade.
In the last two decades, great strides have been made in the field of dog behavior. Building upon studies from both the laboratory and the real-life training applications of exotic animal and marine mammal training, a slow but steady paradigm shift is occurring – one that replaces the focus on “stopping” bad behaviors with a commitment to looking for and reinforcing desirable behaviors offered by the dog, or building upon behaviors through reinforcing “successive approximations,” or steps in the direction of the goal behavior.
Thousands of trainers have abandoned their former coercive techniques in favor of treats, toys, and clickers. Yes! It is possible to produce reliable, consistent behaviors using positive reinforcement. Contrary to popular belief, positive reinforcement training works for all breeds of dogs. It works for old dogs and puppies alike. It works for big dogs, small dogs, deaf dogs, and blind dogs. It works for tricks, competition, and yes, even modifying the behavior of dogs that are now colloquially known as “red zone” dogs with intense aggression and reactivity.
Most trainers who have been training for any length of time are “crossover trainers,” trainers that have abandoned coercion in favor of compassion and science. Frequently, the crossover experience is related to one particular dog – the dog for whom traditional techniques did not work or worse, exacerbated existing behavioral problems.
For me, that dog was a Saint Bernard named Monte. Rescued at 18 months old, Monte was physically and behaviorally unwell when he arrived at the Lomonaco household. I tried using traditional training techniques to modify his reactivity to other dogs and found that his aggression and reactivity did not go away, they intensified. This forced me to look into other training methods.
I was delighted to throw my prong collar away permanently once I learned how fun and effective positive reinforcement could be. In his life, Monte was able to play off leash with nearly a dozen well-socialized dog. He surpassed all of my greatest expectations of him.
Monte is gone from our home now, but lives strong in our hearts forever. He is my crossover dog. His spirit lives on, each time I help a client understand her dog better, watch a young girl beam with pride at her puppy’s newest trick, each time I help give a client the courage to abandon a shock collar and pick up a clicker and bag of treats. He is proof that one dog can change the world; that the spirit of a single dog can travel the planet and give hope to dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of dog/handler teams.
Crossing over was not easy for me. It’s hard to admit I made so many mistakes. Even when I used coercion, I never liked it. I always hoped for a better way, a kinder way, a way to train that was based on trust and not fear.
Monte taught me that better way. As one of my training friends says, “When we know better, we do better.”
Project Monte is a celebration of crossover dogs and the people who love and learn from them.
Thank you, Monte, for being my crossover dog. You have given me a gift that will live on forever, in every single interaction I have with a dog in my life or my classroom. I miss you, boy. What a thrill it’s been to love you and learn from you.