So Castle, my Belgian Shepherd, is now 7.5 months old and is on the verge of being an adolescent. He is my first positive-reinforcement-trained (+R) dog and I just wanted to share a few things that have really stood out compared to my past dogs.
First of all, he is both more active and more calm. By nature, I think he’s a higher-energy dog than my first Belgian, Stormy, who was a couch potato by Belgian Shepherd standards. However, Castle is calmer in that he isn’t frenetic in his activity (in general–he still gets the zoomies). I largely attribute this to having taught him what TO DO, instead of constantly scolding him for getting into things he oughtn’t. I was obsessive about supervising him up until about 4 weeks ago, and if I couldn’t keep my eyes on him, he was confined to a space where there was no wrong choice of activity. This is now paying off in spades as he now has the run of the house in the evenings before and after dinner, and I’m confident that he will behave himself while I work on the computer or do the dishes.
I think the key was not only was I supervising him constantly, I praised and treated him every time he picked up one of his toys for the first three months we had him. In the evenings, we made the toys more interesting by playing with them and him. Even now, I will praise (and occasionally treat him) him numerous times every evening for playing with his toys. There is a solid reinforcement history for playing with the items I’ve given him and it really really shows.
The second huge difference I’ve noticed between Castle and past dogs (Stormy especially) is how little conflict there is in the relationship. When I was training Stormy, the dominance myth was in full effect, and everything was a struggle. “You must make your dog obey, because if he doesn’t, he’s challenging you for DOMINANCE!!1!” was the theme.There was a lot of anger and “do it or else” thinking that went into training. Also, a lot of drilling. In the end, I had a trained dog (to the best of my abilities) but it wasn’t particularly fun. She participated because she had to.
Training sessions with Castle are a game. They’re fun and sometimes kind of silly. I start out with a goal, but refine it or change it depending on how he’s feeling and whether he’s “getting it”. Or sometimes, if things really aren’t going well, I’ll just toss a bunch of treats on the floor and call it a day. When I get out the clicker and treats, Castle’s eyes light up and his ears look like they’re glued together on the top of his head. He prances about and races me to the training room. He WANTS to participate. He shows up, ready to play. It’s my job to make the tasks achievable for him. And the look on his face when he understands what I’m clicking him for… it is amazing and addictive, for both of us. Often, I find the two of us are in a state of flow, with the training having taken on a rhythm.
I can’t wait until our next training session.