Moving Toward the Light:
My inspiration for positive training

Kenzo in snow

“He tracks like you train.”

It wasn’t mean as a compliment and it stung. Really stung. My instructor said that to me about 13 years ago and I still remember the crushing feeling.

My beautiful male, German Shepherd, Kenzo had just picked his head up on the track for the zillionth time and looked around; he seemed to be wishing he was anywhere else. I desperately wanted Kenzo to learn to track well and to love obedience. But he only seemed to enjoy the bite work in Schutzhund, the part I was least interested in.

Schutzhund/IPO, is a demanding sport. Tracking, bite work and obedience are all areas that the dog/handler team trains in and ideally the dog is successful in all three. The dogs have to be very strong mentally and physically. They are often large and powerful dogs, with a love of biting. German Shepherds are well suited for the sport. At its best, Schutzhund is like a triathalon for dogs with an emphasis on the handler’s ability to channel her dog’s intense drives. Shock collars and physical corrections are common.

Kenzo could do the work in Schutzhund, but he lacked the interest and I lacked the motivation to use physical corrections and force him. I would give Kenzo a half-hearted correction after a yelled instruction from my instructor and then I would get yelled at for my poor timing and lack of sufficient correction. I felt like there had to be a better way to teach Kenzo what I wanted rather than yanking on his neck with a prong collar when he looked away during heeling or forcing him into a down on an article while tracking. Kenzo and I were both frustrated.

Clearly, my instructor was frustrated with both of us too. How long could we continue at this sport that Kenzo clearly had the ability for but was so unenthusiastic about?

About the same time my instructor was telling me my training was terrible, I was reading Suzanne Clothier’s brilliant book, Bones Would Rain From the Sky and one section particularly made me pause,

“In everything she did, she had a choice: she could either support and enhance the relationship with her dog, or undermine it. She would need to learn to see the world from her dog’s perspective, so that she could understand how and why her actions either dimmed or encouraged the light in his eyes.”
(http://suzanneclothier.com/pdfs/Bones.pdf)

I knew I wanted to add to the light and not continue to diminish it weekly on the Schutzhund field. In Clothier’s book I found the final piece I needed to walk away from Schutzhund and reconnect with Kenzo.

Kenzo running

We mostly trained at home and I learned a lot from Kenzo about motivation and training. We played a lot of Frisbee and ball; I tried to pay better attention to what Kenzo enjoyed. Most importantly, I walked away from positive punishment. I became a positive reinforcement based trainer and a clicker trainer and never looked back. Over time I have improved my skill and timing. I always have so much to learn and so much room to improve but I have come a long way from that Schutzhund field. And my current dogs have benefitted. (I do still have a love for the sport and there are some positive Schutzhund trainers.)

Kenzo was my great love and very special boy. We lost him to hemangiosarcoma 3 years ago this month. But Kenzo is with me every time I train my dogs; he helps me focus on the light.

Kenzo playing and training outside:

Kenzo a few months before he died, working on some tricks:

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