Confessions of a cross over trainer

I first started training dogs over 43 years ago with a very patient black Labrador named Lisa and a check chain. Poor Lisa she was drilled every walk and I used a leash pop with the check chain as the cue to make her sit. (Sorry Lisa I really wish I knew then what I know now, Please forgive me). Lisa was a garbage guts and the use of food would have revolutionized our training but I was not to know.


Then I got my chow chow called Chi. My first dog that was all mine not the families. I had no experience with a Spitz breed and no understanding that when they didn’t want to do something they just didn’t do it. Neither did the head trainers at the top obedience clubs (who shall remain nameless) that we frequented over her life. More drilling for an hour each day and more leash pops and no food still and very little training at home.  Sorry Chi but you and Lisa must be shaking your heads at me up there in doggy heaven. I did get drops and sits and sort of recalls but never to a competition standard. I just had the wrong dog for obedience I was told as none of the head trainers could work her out either. Barbara Woodhouse was all the rage on TV and “walkies” in a high sing song voice was the catch phrase. Great to get a dog to walk with you but useless for a dog that insisted on pulling me along.


Along came my first Belgian Shepherd called Mistral and by this time we were still leash popping with choke chains now renamed check chains but we had also added alpha rolls and be a pack leader to our techniques. This was back in the mid 80’s and it is a wonder I never got my head bitten off. I decided to try out conformation showing with Mistral as I really didn’t have the hours to devote to obedience training. This introduced me to the use of baiting with food or a toy in the ring to get the dogs attention. That worked well, we came to the line up and used food to get the dog to give good eye contact. Why didn’t I think about food for other uses outside the ring?


Meanwhile Chi was still barging badly on a lead, dragging me all over town on our walks and I had heard of a trainer that had another method that might be helpful for her. Off Chi and I went to a lady call Chris Johnson (or Johnstone) who introduced me to a more positive method of working with my dog not trying to force her into what I wanted. Well that was an amazing about turn and unbeknownst to me I had started on my route as a positive trainer. In a couple of lessons she achieved what hours and hours of obedience club drilling and lease pops had not. Chi was a different dog and we could enjoy lovely walks and I commenced to implement her techniques on hundreds of dogs from that point on.


Many Belgian Shepherds later I am still using food as a bait in the show ring but not so outside the ring. Fast forward to early 2000 and I have Mistral II. Crazy woman, says my ex-husband, why get another dog and call it the name of the first nut case that was Mistral I and expect to be anything other than a handful. Yep he was right Mistral II just refused to get the recall command. A high prey drive that meant she was totally oblivious to even $200 a kg steak waved under her nose when cows were around to chase. I went off and brought Melissa Alexander’s Click for Joy book and a clicker and armed myself with the yummiest of treats. It was OK as a training method if the cows were not around I got much better compliance from Mistral II but I really couldn’t get the hang of clicker training and well old habits die hard. Back to the check chain (which I was fairly well trained in using to check and release) and more hours and hours of obedience club drills. Forward and back, in and out, weaves, sit, drop and stand your dog. She did it but well she never really enjoyed it, neither did Jet or Alexia.

By this time I was also working as a groomer and had gained a reputation of handling very difficult dogs that others were not able to. I had rehabilitated numerous hard to groom dogs and learn many things about what goes on inside a dog’s head. I found out that force achieves nothing but force or aggression back.


I decided to enroll in the Certificate IV companion animal studies with Delta Australia and the second of the one in a million trainers came into my life. Kerrie Haynes-Lovell taught me how to use a clicker correctly and the pivotal moment is still strong in my memory. Over at the RSPCA at Yagoona with Kerrie behind my shoulder and me facing a young lab cross (Lisa reincarnated I believe) who was jumping six feet in the air. With Kerrie’s assistance that dog had stopped jumping in about 2 mins. I was hooked.


Late in this course I had to produce a video showing me training a complex task with a dog and a simple task with another species. Which dog and which species was the issue. After trials and tribulations with the long suffering Nicky the Belgian cross farm dog, Cherry the miniature poodle, Zena the horse and a unnamed ferret I settled on Zena for the simple other species task and Cherry for the complex task. Neither of these animals had ever been clicker trained and I had jumped into the deep end of the swimming pool.


Zena was pretty easy as all I had to go was convince her to touch my hand when she got clicked and rewarded. That took a few sessions as she was being trained with no restraint so when it all got to hard for her she walked off.


Cherry was much harder. She belonged to my business partner and had a number of behavioral issues as a reactive dog. She also had had limited training and I had decided to get her to discriminate between two different margarine container lids called one and two on command.  An inexperienced dog and inexperienced trainer and a deadline for assignment submission to a person who would see all the faults wasn’t fun. But cherry got it and a bonus was for the first time ever this training made her relax and sleep properly. 30 minutes of training and she would then curl up on the lounge and snore for 2 hours. Bliss!


Since then I have started many dogs using reward based training, always off lead where possible. I have trained many dogs who have been trained under force based punishment methods and rehabilitated all of them. I still have not stopped Mistral II from chasing cows as it is not possible to undo hardwired genetic behavior, she is managed so she does not get a chance to chase them.


Would I ever go back to force based punishment methods? No way as using positive reward based methods means I have fun, the dog has fun and my client has fun. It is a delight every time I find a new dog and owner that this wonderful method can be used to change their lives and in a very short few minutes “fix” serious behaviors that owners had not had success fixing before.


BUT I am so sorry I never worked this out 43 years ago.



Louise Kerr
The Pet Care Magician   |

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Louise Kerr (aka The Pet Care Magician) is the owner of Elite Pet Care & Education based in the Nambucca Valley NSW Australia. She consults and writes widely on a range of pet care issues including feeding, training and grooming dogs and cats. Her online pet care magic subscription program deals with common pet behavior  training, feeding and grooming issues such as barking, escaping, scratching, aggression and fleas. Pet care professionals are trained to handle customer issues by the provision of up to date programs to differentiate their pet care business from other competitors.





Posted on December 23, 2012, in Dog Training, Training and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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