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My Struggle with Positive Dog Training

Eric SteinComment


I’ve been torn lately.  Stuck on the fence. And it’s my dog that’s doing it.  He’s...fiery...I guess we’ll call it.  We’ve been trying to follow a positive reinforcement training model which calls for rewarding good behavior in an attempt to push out bad.

Speaking of bad, during a recent training session, to my lack of surprise really, Theodore (our 15lb Maltese Poodle) bit my finger, hard, when I tried to take something from his mouth.  So hard he looked like a football 50 yards out, down by two, one play left. He’s slightly bigger than a football, but still very kick-able.

I felt the anger rise, but let it go, and we continued. As I recall the event, he had something of mine I tried to take back, then he bit me, and I backed away.  There was no punishment or repercussion for this violation. To him, that probably seemed like a success. He snapped at me, defended his territory, and I stepped away.  He’ll probably do it again. I mean, why stop what’s working?

The problem is that it’s NOT his territory.  If he has something I want in his mouth, that’s my territory.  Time to give it up. Period. The part that really gets me is that our trainer can pull anything out of his mouth.  He’s putty in her hands. (She’s super badass btw check out Conscious K9). But when I go in I catch a puncture wound.  WTF.

So why am I torn?  

Little Theo LOVES to run ahead on walks, pulling the leash, almost choking himself out.  It’s like the area next to me is hot lava or something. The positive reinforcement model says to treat him while he walks next to me and to stop/slow when he pulls ahead.  We’ve done this for a while, with some progress, but far from where we want him.  Holly said she’s not made it down the street a few times because there’s so much stopping.

Ultra annoying.

Recently I took my son and dog for a quick walk to a tree by our house that’s firing out avocados, one of nature’s most super foods (a fruit with fat...yum!).  I pushed Rory in his little blue car with Theo in tow on leash. As we headed to the tree, Theo darted ahead per usual, and without thinking, I went rogue on positive reinforcement.  I had a wooden fruit picker in hand (Google if you’re curious), and as he jumped ahead, I popped him on the head with the wood side of the picker. There wasn’t an ounce of anger with it, just a nice little “hey, get next to me” smack, and kept walking.

After that something weird happened.  He looked at me differently. Not scared, more shocked if anything.  I know it rattled him because I know what a broomstick to the head feels like, not the funnest experience in the world.  But I kept walking like nothing happened. We get to the end of the cul de sac and he’s glued next to me. Good dog.

Another street down and he pulls ahead again so I give him a pump fake with the picker.  Enough said. He’s back to my side. Two weeks later, and he’s still much better.


On one hand, I always lean towards positive reinforcement to navigate life.  You know, build people up, praise, forgive, love, etc. Being angry at someone feels silly when you understand they are simply another manifestation of yourself, walking around in a different meat suit.  And this has been uber successful with my two-year-old thus far.

On the other hand, I’m staring in the face of results.  My concern is this method of training can create fear in the dog which may manifest in other ways, so says the positive reinforcement peeps. But he’s already cool with biting me...could it really get any worse?  

My Dad always joked about rolling up a magazine to show him who’s boss.   Maybe there’s merit in it. Maybe there’s a middle ground?

On a walk today Theo pulled ahead, I gave him a quick smack with the leash, and he was glued to my side after that.  The rest of the walk I praised and showered him with treats.

Ancestral Junkie is all about blending modern life with ancestral fundamentals, maybe this middle ground is what will work for Theo?