Juggling knives and squishy balls!

Have you ever tried to juggle with knives?

I have.

Thats right, amongst my many hidden talents… I can juggle knives!

I started when I was about 9. And let me tell you it was a steep learning curve!

Boy, did I end up with some scary moments!!! I expect you can imagine… a 9 year old, learning to juggle with knives!!

I expect you are asking A LOT of questions!!

Where were my parents? Who gave me the knives? Why didn’t I use something easier to start with? Why not use soft squishy balls to learn my craft, so I don’t get hurt?

Well… back then, about 30yrs ago, not many people taught you how to juggle knives, with squishy balls… We just jumped straight in! I can recall vividly my first experience of knife Juggling… there I was at the tender age of 9, and I was handed a knife, shown which was the pointy end, and off I went…. Let me tell you, I definitely had a few cuts. 

And I am absolutely sure that I caused several others a lot of damage and fear by my actions… I made some serious mistakes, but I had to learn fast. I had to learn about the height and ferocity with which I move my hands, the people around me, spacial awareness and being adequately prepared before I started to practice. I had to be ultra aware of these details, as the fall out was so impactful!! Someone could get seriously hurt. I also leant that people would sometimes be anxious about my knife wielding, but once they saw I was capable and I gave them confidence in my ability, they actually really enjoyed what I did!

I am sure you are wondering how I manage to survive into adulthood with my rather precarious hobby, but I also suspect you have worked out, that knife juggling isn’t one of secret skills!

I am actually talking about my journey into training dogs, and using the analogy of ‘knives’ to explain the path that I took. 

I was brought up in an era, where the use of aversive methods and punishment were widely accepted, so effectively I was ‘juggling’ knives, trying to work out what worked and hoping the I didn’t get stab myself, or anyone else for that matter! And although there is lots that I could have done differently, there is a lot that I am thankfully for. And before you reach for your knives to practice, throwing at me….let me explain.

My journey into reinforcement based dog training and specifically utilising positive reinforcement has gone beyond the remit of ‘just’ training dogs. It has shaped every aspect of my life, from my dogs, to my perspective, to the way in which I raise my daughter! It was only recently I was talking to a family member about their child, and I found myself echoing the advice I would give someone with a behavioural problem with their troublesome cockerpoo, or jackinese or bichonchu… Focus on the behaviours you want, build value for desirable behaviours, reinforcement isn’t just a cookie… the list goes on. It that moment, I had a aha moment and thought my ‘knife juggling’ beginnings.

I think ‘knife juggling’ is a fair comparison, because there was super hairy moments in there! And things I look back that ‘we’ did, which makes me cringe… I have moved beyond guilt, and beating myself up over the place I started, because in actual fact, I now realise, it was exactly how it was meant to be.

It pains me to say, I was ‘good’ at the use and application of pressure and the use of aversive. Now let me be crystal clear. I am not saying this as a sense of pride, but more acceptance and understanding. We have all made mistakes and errors in our training, be it intentional or unintentionally, the question is have you learnt from that experience. I feel I have. 

I learnt that using aversive, and punishing ‘effectively’ (and I use that term loosely) required a certain level of skill. To be able to administer corrections with as ‘little’ fall out as possible, you had to have timing. Was I being fair? Probably not to the dog, but I now realise I was developing assets that I could use and harness for good. In order to implement physical correction effectively, and not create the picture of a dog that is trained with punishment, you have to be able to mask that affect. You have to be able to administer the correction and reinforce the dog in a flick of an eye, and you have to be aware of the dogs body language, and how far you are taking them, in order not to cause irreversible damage. Whether it be teaching a dog to simply walk on a lead, the timing of correction and praise, observation of body language and pre-emptive verbal and physical corrections, needs to be so accurate that you have to watch what the dog is doing, thinking and feeling. Now, in the administration of a ‘correction’ you may choose to ignore those subtleties, but rest assured…. You saw them. At that point, I just didn’t know how you could create the same outcome, without the use of aversive.

But I learned fast, and learned the hard way, because of the fall out of any errors I made. I now know, that in actual fact, dogs were shaping my behaviour. The times when I didn’t catch the knife, and it landed somewhere it shouldn’t, moulded me, and shaped me to change. 

I have absolutely no doubt, that there was a lot of fallout for my steep learning curve and countless times, when I make HUGE errors off judgement, but what I can now see, was I was acquiring information, and learning fast. 

I learned that about timing. I learnt about the importance of reinforcement. I learnt about maintaining criteria to be ‘fair’ to the dog. I was developing my ‘feel’ for dogs, and being able to read them, and understand what they were thinking and seeing.

It also dawned on me, when looking back at my training journey, that whilst we did a lot differently… it wasn’t ALL bad. In fact, a lot of how we used to train was actually way ahead of its time. When I gravitated more to dog sports, I had my eyes open to using play as a medium to teach. We broke behaviour down, and we worked on tiny behaviours that formed a larger chain, and ultimately the complete exercise. 

We didn’t necessarily have the sophisticated terms and science to back up what we were doing, but we instinctively did things that would now be considered innovative.

I can recall using ‘play’ and games as a medium to train, well before it was common place. Breaking behaviour down into pieces, rather than chunks…. Being aware of the dogs emotional state, that whilst a dog pay appear ‘calm’ externally, internally they were getting over aroused and over stimulated, and the affect the reinforcement has on this. We even used reinforcement specific markers, in a more basic manner. Using a word just before you dropped your ball, to get your dog to look up, was a very primitive RSM. 

It often makes me smile when I read the latest in-depth study or profound new finding…. Adolescent dogs struggle to listen to you, just like teenagers… The emotional state of your dog matters, errorless learning to teach… to varying degrees, we we doing it, understood it, or consider it 30yrs ago! We just didn’t have the extensive studies and data to support it. It was all based on ‘trial and error’ and ‘throwing knives’. One particular instructor always insisted that everyone tied their dog up away from them, around the hall before anyone got up to train them. Whilst now we would probably use a crate and be more aware of the safety around this, he very much insisted upon this, to allow dogs to acclimate to the environment. No dog was allowed to be trained until it could settle and relax in this setting. Again, it was a basic approach, but I he intention was correct. He also insisted that ‘If your dog won’t play, it won’t work’. He used a knotted hanky as a toy, and talked about ‘never allowing’ your dog to go wrong. Again, a form of ‘errorless’ learning. He used guides, aids and props to reduce to failure rate for the dog. Again, all thinking that we see prevalent in modern animal training.  

If we see dog training as a science and an art, it is reassuring to know that there are so many overlaps to the conclusions that we draw. I am able to draw on my past experiences and combine them with the science and data. It’s just a shame that the two ‘camps’ don’t communicate more, and as a result make greater strides forward, rather than duplication. It is ironic, to see many of the studies and conclusions being drawn today, were ones that were made decades ago…all be it, without data or studies, but learning was happening… by trial and error, we were drawing the same conclusions that we see being drawn today. 

The commonality between how I used to train and present day, is that at the root of it all, I am constantly striving to understand my dogs better, to be better in my training and refine my approach. The advantage I have now, is that I have a cheat sheet to save myself so much time energy and wasted effort. I can either refer to the science to give me a blue print to what may help or work, or I can call on past experience and skills to help me when I need to ‘feel’ my way through a problem, and go off the beaten track. 

Juggling knives served me well, and whilst I wouldn’t want to do this again, I have made peace with the ‘me’ off old. It is never too late to take a different path, and how you started doesn’t dictate where you end up. 

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