The Pinch

Raud Kennedy - the pinch
Willie today in 2013.

In 2002, Willie was a year old German shepherd running loose on the streets of Austin, Texas when animal control caught him and put him in the pound. He went unclaimed and unadopted and was scheduled to be euthanized, but on his last day the Austin German Shepherd Rescue picked him up, drove him north thirty miles to the Triple Crown Academy for Dog Trainers and left him there for the students to train.

That was where I met him. He was one of several dogs assigned to me as a student to train. He was an underfed, ragged looking, long haired shepherd that looked more coyote than German. He wasn’t loose on the streets without reason. He liked to have staring contests with other big males that would quickly escalate to outburst of barking and lunging on the leash, and he was also skittish around strangers.

We were allowed to have one of the dogs assigned to us stay with us in our rooms, and after I’d been working with Willie for a few weeks, I chose him. The first time I let him up on the bed, he tried to lick my face, but he did it with such determination that it was half lick and half bite and accompanied with loud, nervous whining. It wasn’t for the faint of heart and I’d put money on this behavior being what got him left unclaimed at the pound. An 80 pound dog licking your six-year-old’s face like this would send most households into fits.

The instructors at Triple Crown were big proponents of pinch collars. This was over ten years ago, so I don’t know if they still are, but they were also big on the training clicker paired with food. Their method was the carrot and the stick, the biscuit and the pinch. I was familiar with the pinch–my mom had trained our childhood dog with a choke chain–but the clicker was new to me. By graduation I’d become proficient in the use of both.

Many of the students were adopting one or more of the dogs assigned to them. Of the dogs assigned to me, a pitbull/Lab mix named Tuck had already been re-homed, and Willie’s rescue organization had found a young woman interested in adopting him. As graduation approached, I was planning my next dog, the one I would get that would help me in my new line of work as a dog trainer. I wanted a demonstration dog, a biddable golden retriever that loved people and other dogs, not a skittish, dog aggressive German Shepherd that nipped when he licked my face.

One of the finals at Triple Crown for the trainer certification was a full size agility course, including weave poles and teeter, and Willie ran it almost clean–I had to repeat a command–and got the highest score on the course in the class. Afterward, someone asked if I was going to adopt him, and it wasn’t until I answered yes that I decided to, issues and all. I’d grown attached to him, a sort of respectful détente. My unspoken fear was that after being adopted by the young woman, he’d exhibit his aggression at another dog or a person and end up in the pound again, this time without the second chance at Triple Crown. He helped me pass the class and I owed him, but the truth of it was that he wasn’t done yet with teaching me things.

It was when I brought Willie back to Boston, where I lived at the time, that his aggression and skittishness became more the norm and less that occasional outburst. Triple Crown used the training clicker to teach a dog agility, but their solution to aggression was the pinch. Boston has the third densest population in the nation, and Willie and I were living right in the city, so I had plenty of opportunity to practice my skill with the pinch. The more I used it, the worse his behavior got. Dogs no longer had to be nearby to set him off, but even just across the street could do it.

I was at a loss, so I started researching alternate methods to address aggression in dogs. I watched a seminar on aggression by Kathy Sdoa that made sense to me based on my experience with the clicker. The gist of it was that you desensitized your dog to what set him off through the use of food and training, so what used to be a trigger became a prompt for a trained behavior, such as sit and look at me. For Willie, this would mean that every time he saw a dog, instead of being told to heel and getting jerked on the pinch, he’d get a biscuit and a happy response from me at the sight of the other dog. This meant not him not wearing a pinch but a buckle collar instead.

When I realized I was reluctant, even afraid, to give up the pinch, though I knew it was the right thing to do, I had an epiphany that using the pinch had more to do with my need to feel in control, as if Willie was some kind of extension of myself and my ego that I could control, than to do with him learning anything or the two of us developing the mutual trust I wanted. In those days, when there was a trait about myself that I didn’t like or I did something foolish, I would criticize myself. This didn’t solve or change anything, if anything it was the equivalent of rubbing my nose in piddle and only made me feel worse. It was intended as incentive toward self-improvement–though when has beating ourselves up ever helped?–but was pointless punishment reinforcing my emotional status quo, much as the pinch was criticism and punishment for Willie that also solved nothing and only made him feel and behave worse.

The real beginning of my education as a dog trainer was when I took Willie’s pinch collar off for the last time. Instead of the instructors at Triple crown being my teachers, Willie was (and maybe he had been all along).

Now with a decade of positive training under my belt as hindsight, I can say I took a dog just beginning to show reactive behavior toward dogs and people, and through the use of the pinch collar, turned him into a fearful, aggressive dog that was difficult to take anywhere.

The process went like this. Willie would see a dog and get excited because he wanted to say hello, sniff some butt like most dogs. I’d get tense and shorten his leash. He’d get more excited as the dog got closer. I’d command Willie to heel and start enforcing the command with jerks on the pinch.

Willie learned that the sight of other dogs meant pain, so he started barking at them at first sight to make them go away, and I confirmed what he thought by jerking him around on the pinch when he started barking. The worse he got, the worse I got. The poor dog.

A puppy like Fleegle, that has been taught with positive methods, when asked to do something he doesn’t understand will offer up the latest thing he’s learned. Whenever I ask him if he’s ready to do some training, he offers a sit, then a down, and then scoots backward on the ground with his head cocked to the side–“Is this what you want? Gimme the biscuit.”

Raud Kennedy - Willie in field
                                                       Willie in Texas, 2002.

Whereas a dog like Willie that has been trained with pain won’t want to make a mistake and will offer nothing. It took Willie a long time to trust that I wasn’t going to punish him if he offered up something new when he didn’t understand what it was I was asking from him, but he did eventually. We have a game where I hold a small biscuit in my lips and he takes it with only a hint of tickle from his whiskers.

28 thoughts on “The Pinch

  1. Good post – one reason I subscribe to your blog (outside of my love of dogs) is that you seem to know that training a dog (or any beastie) requires both love and firmness. I simply can’t abide people who allow their dog to rule them, causing unpleasantness all around. It’s often these people who abandon their dog or cat out where I live – and unfortunately, there are only so many animals I can take in, forcing me to report an abandoned dog before it can start causing mischief with livestock, forcing farmers to shoot it.

    Keep up the posts, whether the subject is real or anthropomorphic.


  2. Interesting post. I don’t use a lot of the pinch/prong collars nowadays, but I think it all depends on how you teach with it. I much prefer a Halti head collar, but I have used the prong on a Newfoundland I have been training.

    Though we train differently, I’m glad your new technique is working for you, and Willie has responded well to it. 🙂 My boy, Napoleon would have done well if it wasn’t for his motivation for food – I lose all his attention and ‘guesses’ what I want him to do.

    It was then I learned that obedience is not important, as overall temperament.

    Great post, good information. 🙂 Good boy, Willie!


  3. I too had a german shepherd who was a stray, who had some challenging behaviors, but who taught me so much. I worked with him in conjunction with a lot of different trainers, and one used a prong collar. He told Gandolf to sit, Gandolf didn’t do it, the trainer responded by yanking the prong, and Gandolf bit him! I swear Gandolf’s aggressive behavior escalated after that. Positive training took us so much further!


  4. What a well written, enjoyable read.
    Thank you for liking my post about my dog Samwise — it brought me here. I wanted to share what worked for me to desensitize him to thunder, using similar techniques. He was developing a phobia of thunder, but it wasn’t in full force yet. I found a ball that he could roll around on the floor that was very noisy. You put treats inside and they came out of the ball at random intervals. I taught him that whenever it begin to thunder he could have his “thunder ball.” That is the only time he ever gets to play with that ball. Now when it thunders he could not be happier. He comes up to me very excited knowing he’s getting that special toy. One of the reasons this works so well is that he gets to make noise himself when there is uncontrollable noise outside. Another example of how these techniques work.


  5. You are awesome. So honest, so aware of your own tendencies and how they affect your dog… Thank you for sharing this…


  6. You wrote a blog about my story with my rescue Smokey, lol. My fiance and I adopted our first German shepherd, who was mildly dog aggressive when we got him. We used a choke chain (which was all we’d ever known and seen our parents use growing up). His aggression got worse. When it got nearly intolerable, we called a positive reinforcement trainer who threw out our choke chain. I retrieved it, Smokey got worse. Eventually, she convinced me to let go of the crutch and I started to see almost immediate improvement. We’ve never gone back and though Smokey is gone, he taught me more about training than any dog, and thanks to him, all of our dogs are trained with +R now 😉


  7. Wonderful post! I really enjoy your style of writing. My husband bought us a book called Dog Sense and your epiphany is exactly what the author subscribes to throughout the entire book. Willie is a fine looking German Shepard.:)


  8. My dog Cole, a black German shepherd who started off with a terrible life in a puppy mill, is the sweetest dog ever but the craziest around other dogs – he’s scary. I’m not walking him as much as I should because of this. To gain betterl control, I like to keep him on a gentle leash because it keeps him from darting at other dogs but what i’ve noticed is that if I use a gentle soft spoken expression such as “doggie cookie cole” when we come near another dog he’ll just walk by happily. My behavior obviously has something to do with it.


    1. Absolutely. My behavior had everything to do with it. And the same for the clients I see. Often their dog doesn’t react to the oncoming dog until given the “cue” by their owner, ie. tightening the leash, giving a verbal warning, etc. Thanks for sharing your experience.


  9. I don’t own a dog, but I read this post simply because the photo of Willie and his li’l friend was so lovely. I can sooooooo relate to your comment about Willie teaching you about yourself, and how pointless self-criticism is as a self-improvement tool. I just realised that I have been using the pinch on myself for years. I need to change methods. Thanks for showing me the light:)


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