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March 26, 2012

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Is It Good for the Dogs?

By Cassia Drake, Is it good for the dogs? Minnesota 4-H project says yes to Gentle Leaders and Easy Walk Harnesses.

Is it good for the dogs?  That one question was the decision-making method of Ruth Foster, lifelong dog fancier, co-inventor of the Gentle Leader, longtime 4-H volunteer, AKC judge emeritus and my mentor. When dog people were bickering or in conflict she asked “is it good for the dogs?  This allowed her to put away the emotions and personality differences and look concretely at the issue.   She was such a positive force for the welfare of dogs in all that she did that I am thrilled that the training tool she helped to invent has now been integrated into Minnesota 4-H rules and regulations.  

You see, the Minnesota 4-H Dog Project has done a wonderful thing.  The state leadership voted to allow beginner 4-Hers to use Gentle Leaders and Easy Walk harnesses at the state show competition.   This gives local trainers a green light to use them more in their training classes.  It also gives more students an opportunity for success, help facilitate a better bond between dog and child and make teaching classes easier and more productive.

This hasn’t been an easy transition.  As the old quip goes “get three dog trainers together and the only thing two will agree on is that the other one is doing it wrong.”  Many Minnesota counties preferred training method is using corrections/choke collars.  Others have adopted positive methods and tools. As you can imagine, discussions on training and tools isn’t always smooth.  

There is no standard practice in the state.   Furthermore, change comes hard in the dog project.  In all of the MN 4-H livestock projects, dogs included, parents tend to be the leaders and trainers.  In most of these cases the parents work in that “industry.”   When the best practices for raising chickens is introduced on the farm, that parent also introduces it to 4-H.

Dog project parent leaders are rarely professional dog trainers.  This means it is difficult for them to access the latest and newest training methods. 

According to Tammy Lorch, a 4-H participant, leader, and one time 4-H state employee, that means that good-hearted project leaders struggle to keep up with current information.  Mason and Jack serve as a poster pair for the value of Gentle Leaders in 4-H. 

Mason and his dog Jack were new to dog training.  Jack was a huge black lab.  He lived outside on farm and hunted.  Jack was a nice friendly dog but had no prior training and no socialization with other dogs. 

Mason’s instructor, Cathy Steinmetz, describes classes as a wrestling match between Jack and Mason.  Learning was nearly impossible because Jacks exuberance made it hard for Mason to keep Jacks attention.

Mason was one of the attendees at my Gentle Leader workshop at the State wide training seminar called Suppression.  He returned to his county training classes with a dog he could manage.  Wearing the Gentle Leader Mason could manage Jack.  Jack could focus and learn. 

The dog proceeded to make progress on the basic behaviors—sit, down, heeling.  The wresting match had ended.  Dog, kid, parents, and instructor were pleased.   It is awful to explain to a 13 year old that even though they have worked very hard and their dog has made lots of progress they may not win a ribbon at the county fair competition because their dog presented more training challenges than other dogs. 

There are no ribbons for making progress with a challenging dog.  I have sat with kids who have come to this realization.  The Gentle Leader allows these dogs and kids to be on equal footing in the beginner classes

Three years ago 4-H leader, Jo Marshall, made the decision to have all kids use Gentle Leaders for training.  At the first night class all of the dogs were dressed in their Gentle Leaders. 

Parents were amazed that the dogs were quiet, in control, and ready to learn.  The next year her training classes grew like weeds.  More kids wanted to train.  

Last year during my Gentle Leader/Easy Walk harness session at the Super session parent and leader reaction was amazing.  People saw an immediate impact.  Dogs were more quiet and attentive. 

One little dog who pulled so hard on her leash she passed out could now work on training.  Another dog who loved to sniff got fit with an Easy Walk harness.  The young owner, whose hands were red and sore from trying to control her dog that outweighed her, could now keep her dog with her. Leaders and youth who had never been introduced to these tools were thrilled.

Watching kids and dogs together is a heartwarming experience.  The true love and adoration that they can have for each other is simply wonderful.  

I am thrilled and proud of the Minnesota 4-H Dog Project leadership for creating change that makes training a dog more fun and effective.  We can only look forward to more wonderful experiences because of their decision.

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