(How a journalist changed careers to become a certified dog trainer after her experience with traditional dog training.)
Some of you are probably wondering who the heck is Angie Tan? Which rock did she crawl out from? Where has she been all these years if she claims to be a pioneer of positive reinforcement dog training in Singapore? Well, this post will attempt to answer some of these questions and also give you a little bit of the history of Puppylove.
As they say, the best place to begin would be at the beginning! 😄
Where It All Started
Dylan, a 6-month-old beagle, was going for a song at the pet shop. His litter mates had all been sold and he was outgrowing his cute puppy stage. It didn’t help that he was getting a reputation for getting into fights. Yikes! The pet shop had to “move the goods” so to speak and was more than happy to let me have him at a special price. A grand total of SGD$350! I felt sorry for him and thought I'd do him a favour and give him a forever home. Boy! Little did I know how he would change my life.
It quickly became obvious that what I knew about dogs at that time was woefully inadequate to handle him. My family had several dogs prior to Dylan including a German Shepherd. Up until then, “training” consisted of raised voices, threats of hitting with a rolled up newspaper or cane and sometimes even actual smacking. It didn’t even occur to me that there was an alternative.
Life with a teenage beagle was interesting to say the least. 😅 I couldn’t leave him alone for 5 mins. He chewed and destroyed everything in sight. Brooms, slippers, books, wallets, money. You name it, he’s probably eaten or chewed on it. And despite those big ears, he had a habit of not listening to anything I said.
It got to the point where I called him Psycho Dog. In desperation, I engaged the help of a dog trainer to help save this failing relationship. I am ashamed to say that throughout the training sessions, it was considered a win when you gave a leash "pop" hard enough so that the dog yelped. It was "Yeah! That'd show you who is in charge here."
It gradually dawned on me that the whole dog-owner relationship was based on fear. The dog did as asked because it was afraid of repercussions and not because it wanted to. It didn't help that despite all the punishment inflicted on him, Dylan was still as easy-going as before. People would say he's not afraid of you. Like it was a bad thing. Knowing what I know now, I realise that Dylan was trying his best to appease me to avoid further punishment. The turning point came when it was time to teach Dylan to retrieve. The method of choice was to use "ear pinches". Let's just say "pinch" is a gross understatement. After a couple of attempts, I decided I would rather have a dog that cannot retrieve than to go through that again.
I started wondering if there was another way to train animals. Dog training at that time was all about escalating punishments. It was standard procedure to move from regular flat collars, to choke chains, to prong collars and some even used electric shock collars. At what point do we stop? How much is too much? It didn't seem fair to me that we have to "break the dog's spirit". I want a relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation not fear.
My research led me to the term “positive reinforcement” and learning theories. If dolphins could be trained to do work for the US Navy and wild animals learn to willingly accept injections and checkups in zoos (and I'm sure zookeepers never tried to overpower a lion!), why can’t we work with Man’s Best Friend the same way?
A Whole New World
So for about 2 years I travelled the world learning all I can about this new-fangled way of animal training. I worked with chickens as I tried to shape their behaviour using clickers, sat among wolves to get a clearer understanding of how dogs evolved and dominance theory, studied the works of B.F. Skinner and Pavlov to try and get a handle on scientific learning theories like classical and operant conditioning, pored over books on animal husbandry and learned about the critical periods in a dog's development. I lapped up all this new knowledge like a kid in a candy store. I was a convert! There is another way! Hooray!
I returned to Singapore after getting multiple certifications as a dog trainer, quit my journalist job at an international news agency and founded Puppylove in 2001. I couldn't wait to introduce this new way of training to as many dog owners in Singapore as possible! There were nay sayers of course (see the media clippings) but by and large, the message was positively received. I am proud to say that Puppylove is the pioneer dog training school in Singapore to only use dog friendly techniques based on science. No choke chains, prong collars or hitting ever.
In 2008, I left Puppylove in the very capable hands of my trainers Angela Seow, Ruding Tan and Kenny Mah as I took a step back from dog training to concentrate on my growing family. Man! Raising kids is harder than training puppies!
And now, a decade later, both kids are busy with school and I finally have time to return to dog training and advocate for our furry friends.
One thing that struck me when I decided to return to dog training was how much it has evolved in Singapore. I am heartened to see the little spark of dog friendly dog training advocated by Puppylove has firmly taken hold and owners are now looking for training based on science and heart.
I am very excited to begin this new adventure and would love to be part of your dog training journey whether you are a dog trainer, planning to be one or a pet dog owner wishing to know more about how our furry friends think. Feel free to reach out to me. I would love to connect with you and discuss all things dog-related!