Sunday, February 20, 2011

Positive Reinforement Training takes Best in Show

by Larry Kay ....

It's not just the Westminster Best in Show 2011 winner, who thrives under praise. Paw Nation interviewed more than two dozen Westminster Dog Show handlers, owners and officials and found that every one we spoke with uses positive reinforcement dog training, in which praise is emphasized and bad behavior is mostly ignored.

The biggest name in the dog world right now, Scottish deerhound Hickory, is busy taking in the adoration and good wishes of not just the fans at the Westminster Dog Show but animal lovers all over the world. Fortunately, she's had good training for all the attention from the likes of Martha Stewart and more. She became the champion she is today mostly because of the guidance and positive encouragement of handler Angela Lloyd.

"Praise is the key to get inside a dog's head and heart," says Lloyd, who believes that dogs respond magnificently "if you are going to show them unconditional love."

Lloyd's mother, Gwen Plush says that her daughter has become a champion because she "bonds with the animals she shows. She understands them and they love her." Lloyd, now 31, has been going to dog shows since she was a child and in 1998 earned the Westminster Show's Junior Showmanship title.

What the Westminster Experts Say
Thomas Bradley, the Westminster Dog Show's chairman for the past 10 years, says that "positive reinforcement has been on the rise for quite some time." Bradley says that, as far as he knows, new methods among elite show dog handlers are all based in positive reinforcement.

Make a Game of It - Westminster Junior Showmanship competitor 17-year-old Sarah Broom has shown her champion basset hound, Castle Hill's Never Too Rich CD, nicknamed Nicole, at Westminster for the past two years. Broom learned to train and handle dogs in the 4H Club and says, "It's better to tell your dog what she does right." Broom makes the long hours of training more fun with games and toys. She believes that positive reinforcement is the best way to properly train any dog, show dog or not. She has also trained Nicole to be a companion dog, and together they help at-risk kids read in school programs.

Ignore Bad Behavior - Virginia Baxter, a rookie Westminster trainer and handler uses only positive reinforcement with 3-year-old bull terrier Ch. Dogmore's Delight, nicknamed Cricket. "I don't believe in forceful methods," says Baxter, scratching Cricket behind the ears. Instead, Baxter advises, "Ignore what a dog doesn't do right." Cricket, in addition to being a champion show dog is also a certified therapy dog that goes to hospitals.

Some Praise Everything - Veteran Westminster handler Michael Kemp has shown champion dogs for decades and has won Westminster's Best in Show, Best in Group, Best in Breed, Best of Opposite Sex and dozens of other ribbons. How does he do it? "I use as much positive reinforcement as possible." That means Kemp praises the dog for everything she does, even the wrong things.

"I tell them they're good so much that they respond to everything," Kemp says. "I don't force them. I encourage them to show their best." In fact, one champion dog Kemp handled "made a career out of being bad. Instead of trying to make her good, I praised her for being bad, even when she misbehaved." That dog, a bichon frise named Ch. Devon's Puffenstuff, won Best in Group at Westminster two years in a row, Kemp says, "because she was so vivacious." He recommends that family dog owners should simply "trust the dogs to do their thing." He says that it's best to "let dogs use their brains" and that owners should "make something good out of whatever they do."

Different Kinds of Training
There are variety of positive reinforcement methods. All trainers emphasize voice praise. Some trainers also use a clicker, which Bradley notes has increased in recent years. Some trainers use treats, while others do not. Pat Crowley has handled show dogs at Westminster for 31 of the past 35 years, and though she prefers not to use treats, she does use voice praise and believes in the power of positive touch. "Positive reinforcement is all I use," she says.

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