Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: Bringing Light to Shadow, by Pamela S. Dennison

I forget where I heard about Bringing Light to Shadow (subtitled "A Dog Trainer's Diary), by Pamela S. Dennison.  Perhaps in a review of Control Unleashed or a similar dog training book of its ilk, that uses positive methods.  It was an interesting book to read, because it was quite literally Dennison's diary as she brought Shadow (registered name of Dennison's choosing "Ewe Are Beyond the Shadow of a Doubt") home from rescue, discovered he was human aggressive and had a bushel of problems, and then dealt with them.  Using a clicker and treats and other non-corrective positive methods.

One reason this book is unique is that, other than I'm sure some copyediting, Dennison hasn't cleaned the story up at all.  She got Shadow.  Shadow behaved aggressively towards her dogs and towards people, and would do so without warning.  She did her best to identify all of Shadow's stressors, set up a rewards schedule, and got to it.  It took her 18 months of hard work (and I mean hard work.  She's a professional dog trainer, so that helps the story immensely, but this lady had something on schedule for Shadow nearly every day), and Shadow got his Canine Good Citizen, and has since moved on to hold Rally Obedience titles, and is working in agility, etc.  

Things fascinating to read about were the steps taken to break potentially "triggering" experiences down into manageable pieces, which could be stopped at any point, to slowly expose Shadow to.  Distance and barriers (fences, baby gates, etc.) were used to manage the Random People Factor when Dennison worked with Shadow, in all manner of situations.  She took care to teach Shadow "those people over there aren't to be worried about" in a wide variety of contexts, so that he could generalize it to "those people over there aren't to be worried about" all of the time, versus "when we're in a parking lot, those people over there aren't to be worried about."  Dennison also discussed Shadow's body language a great deal, particularly his mouth, eyes, and ears.  It was really a delight to read the first few entries, when she realized she had a problem on her hands, and then read the closing entries, when she was rejoicing in how he was pretty much a normal dog.

As with every book, though, there were aspects of it that I disliked.  I can't fault Dennison on the technicality of her training; she is a professional dog trainer, I just play one at home and on the Internet.  I certainly applaud her for taking the time to work with Shadow, rather than returning him to the rescue or having him euthanized.  But when her solution to Shadow fighting with her other dogs, Beau and Cody, was to ignore them, and in five minutes or so, they stop, I was a little hesitant to be on board with this.  Early in the book, if fighting stared, she would yell "Stop", and feel instantly guilty for yelling, which I can understand.  I discussed in Would You Like Some Cheese with That Whine? that yelling was not the way to go in Elka's whining situation, because yelling just reinforced that there was something to whine about.  But this is a different situation entirely; dogs fighting can hurt and even kill one another, even Border Collies, who seem to be one of those benign breeds.  It is of note that yelling "Stop" in fact immediately stopped the fighting, and towards the end of the book, none of the fighting started in the first place, but that just seemed weird to me.  

The other aspect I disliked was in fact how much Shadow was scheduled up.  Private lessons, out in the field work, herding lessons, class with other aggressive dogs class...it was a lot.  Not every day, but three or more times a week, it seemed.  I in fact wondered when Dennison's other dogs got time with her, as that wasn't really mentioned all that much.  I can't contradict the good work that was obviously done with Shadow, as his success is certainly measurable in his titles and public workability, but I can't help but wonder if some of this scheduled-up pressure wasn't so great for him, or for Dennison; she was first to admit that it was frequently her own nervousness that might have made him nervous, in some situations.  

Overall, though, it was a good book.  Informational, not too terribly nuts and bolts for those uninterested, though not narrative enough for the casual reader (i.e., not interested in dog training) to thoroughly enjoy.  Dennison explains things well, and obviously accomplished a lot with Shadow, with praise and a flat collar and a clicker and treats, which I think is amazing.  

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