By John Bell Young
Now one of Europe’s most celebrated trainers, NORA VAMOSI-NAGY is a co-founder of the celebrated Mirror Method of dog training. She and her partners have established several raining schools in Budapest, with more to come. What distinguishes Ms. Vamosi-Nagy is the profound degree to which she has taken positive reinforcement training, a view that has made her a leading and much sought after authority in Hungary and throughout Europe.
“The main idea is that everything is up to the owner,” she explains. “So, if you have a dog who’s not behaving or if you have a problem, then you should look at what you are doing wrong, rather than blaming the dog. A dog is a mirror in this whole process; he reflects what you are doing well or poorly. In our school we teach in groups of twelve, and the dogs are off-leash.”
As the Mirror Method continues to grow in popularity –there are already eight franchises throughout Hungary — Nora Vamosi-Nagy has plans to expand the Mirror Method schools, and will bring the first formal training center to the United States in the summer of 2012. Born in Budapest, Nora has been working with dogs and their owners for more than ten years. She has two male Dogo Argentinos, Paco age 10, and Peru, age 3.
JBY:The Mirror Method has been getting a lot of attention here in the USA of late. Can you tell us something about it? . What is it basically all about and how did it get started?
NVN: The Mirror Method is based on the idea that the environment mirrors our behavior and that a dog – living close to us and being a simple, honest creature – is a very strong reflection of its owner. Every dog is a different mirror-surface that reveals different parts of our personalities. Basically, anyone who has a dog also has a great opportunity to learn more about himself. But in most cases it also means that we can’t blame problem behaviors on the dog; usually it is the owner who is at fault. A problem behavior is a dog’s cry for help.. We just need to understand it.
JBY:Can you briefly outline what the Mirror Method involves in terms of training?
NVN: The Mirror Method consists of 3 parts:
• Ensuring appropriate lifestyle
No matter how you train a dog, he won’t behave well absent a proper lifestyle. Many behavior and health problems are attributable to a poor lifestyle. This includes everything from feeding to exercise. We like to place emphasis on leading the energies away. Every dog embodies a surfeit of energy. It is our obligation, as owners and trainers, to interpret, through deductive reasoning, how a dog expresses that energy. What we deduce will inform the way we interact with them and provide them guidance. If we don’t do that, and fail to offer them guidance based on what we’ve learned, then the dog will expend his energy in other, less productive and possibly harmful ways that will not only compromise his behavior, but his health as well. It is not only physical exercise, but mental challenges that are important. Not least, it’s about putting dogs instincts to work. That is why we like dog sports and games, where owners work together with their dogs in order to tire them out physically, mentally and instinctively. Dogs also need to meet other dogs and be exposed to many different stimuli.
• Teaching with clicker
Clicker training is based only on positive reinforcement. It’s the most fun, as well as the most effective teaching technique we know today. It opens a dog’s mind, and develops the human-canine relationship substantially. It is important to teach a dog certain exercises. With clicker training, dogs love to work!. Owners must learn to be conscious, patient and pay more attention to their dogs. We use the clicker for other purposes as well, such as reinforcing good behavior, and when rehabilitating particularly difficult dogs. Although we can also solve problem behaviors with clicker training, positive reinforcement all by itself is not enough. even where we might use it to reinforce an incompatible behavior. This is why it is so important to cultivate respect as the measure of establishing clear rules of conduct. For example, when a dog sees a cat and wants to chase it, his desire to do so is in many cases far stronger than any reinforcer we would otherwise choose to modify it. Thus, in this case, the rule would be: No cat chasing, unless I permit it! Respect is indispensable for conveying to a dog just what the rules are and what they mean.
• Establishing respect by instinct-handling
Dogs are parts of our family. Even so, they need to follow a leader they respect, just like a child needs a parent to look up to. A dog cannot make decisions in the human world. It is our responsibility to keep them safe, show them how our world works and what the rules are, and not to burden them unnecessarily. In order to do that, we need to learn their language. And we need to understand what our behavior means to them. We use techniques and body language similar to that which dogs use to communicate with each other. We have to earn their respect in everyday life. But doing so does not mean we have to be aggressive! Instead, it means using clear, consequent communication, establishing boundaries, and encouraging them to obey the rules.
It is not always easy to be conscious of our environment; we are not always aware of what our dogs are doing, nor even what we sometimes signal to our dogs inadvertently. Dogs in our Mirror Method classes are off-leash all the time; they can be called in any situation and they don’t look for conflicts with other dogs. These behaviors reveal if an owner has respect for dogs, or not. Apropos of this, we have created a number of games and exercises that allow owners to collect “respect-points”.
JBY: How long has the Mirror Method been established?
NVN: It is hard to say, because it has been under development for many years. We are still learning, experimenting, and cultivating the method. I believe the name came about in 2006. The method was founded by Gabor Korom, Rudolf Hornig, and me. But there are many people who not only use our system, but continue to develop it. In fact, we hold regular meetings with our trainers and other school leaders who contribute their own ideas on how to improve our methods. Mirror Method is not about one person who knows all about it; rather, it is an entire system and approach to training that involves the ideas and contributions of many people.
JBY: Are your schools in Hungary only at this point, or in other places throughout Europe?
NVN: We have three schools here in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, and there are six others throughout the country that use our method. We have established a kind of franchise. There are also other schools that have shown interest in becoming part of our training program. Though there are people who want to open a school abroad, there are no Mirror Method Dog Schools outside Hungary at the moment. However, we intend to open one in the United States. My friend, Vicki Cooper Springer, the owner of the Circle Star Pet Resort in Texas, has been a tremendous help, offering us invaluable advice, assistance and support in our effort to bring the Mirror Method to America. Of course, it’s quite a challenge to turn our national franchise into an international one, and we are proceeding with care: We don’t want to rush and risk compromising the quality of our training programs.
JBY: The overwhelming majority of trainers today embrace positive reinforcement as the most effective and humane approach to dog training. Though the Mirror Method likewise embraces it, what would you say distinguishes its techniques in practice from conventional positive reinforcement methods?
NVN: I agree that positive reinforcement is the best approach to teaching. But dogs are creatures that are led mainly by their instincts, and we shouldn’t forget that. For example, I have two rather stubborn Dogo Argentinos, both males. They love to learn by clicker training, but when it comes to the question of recalls, for example – that is, when I ask them to come when called, especially around distractions such as other dogs, people with food, or even wild hogs in one of our forest outings — they need to understand clearly that I am the boss and that it is I who make decisions affecting their safety and well being.
We have developed a humane and effective way to reconcile these contradictory ideas by taking into account lifestyle in relation to the way we interact with our dogs. The Mirror Method is complex in that it involves an approach to living a balanced and peaceful life with your dog, but one that is also a lot of fun!
JBY: How then would you define a good relationship between an owner and his dog?
NVN: In our view, a good relationship with a dog starts when:
1) You, as the owner, are satisfied.
2) Your dog is not only healthy and balanced, but also satisfied.
3) You don’t disturb a relationship that, once cultivated, not only allows for respectful co-existence, but also prevents problems from arising within the environment you create, or with the people you and your dogs encounter. We like to say that a good owner is also liked by his neighbors. Using only positive reinforcement can work with cooperative dogs, but we believe that even they need guidance.
JBY: You’ve uploaded to YouTube a number of videos in which a number of dogs, trained by the Mirror Method, do some remarkable things, such as decorate a Christmas Tree and arrange furniture on the beach. Though every behaviorist and most trainers recognize the importance of teaching dogs complex tasks, and thus sharpen their mental and physical skills, how do you respond to those who dismiss your efforts as mere tricks, which have no real value for training?
NVN: One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years is not to try to impose my ideas on other people. There are many people on this planet with many great ideas; I don’t have a problem with people thinking differently than I. If they don’t want to teach tricks, then they will not. We enjoy doing this, and our dogs enjoy it, too. We perform at many events, and our dogs love the attention. But I have my limits as well. Having fun with dog tricks is one thing, but trying to turn dogs into human babies is something I don’t like either! But that is only my personal opinion. In any case, tricks demonstrate what dogs are capable of learning and achieving, while also raising awareness of what is possible. That in turn is an important dimension of our work, in that it allows us to bring our ideas about dog training to so many people and worthwhile causes, not only on YouTube or the Internet, but to children who participate in our school programs, as well as to charitable organizations for whom we perform.
JBY: Do you conduct puppy classes, and if so, how long do they go on for? What in your view is the most important and valuable thing a puppy needs to learn?
NVN: Yes, we have puppy classes. We accept puppies who are between three and seven months old. We divide them into three groups, by size and temperament. The most important thing for a puppy is to be socialized with other dogs, people, and stimuli that occur in their life (e.g., different surfaces, kid bikes, lawnmowers, vacuum cleaners, etc.) Socialization is not only showing these things to the dog, but gradually introducing them with controls while adapting them to the puppy’s personality. We also encourage owners to start teaching their puppies without delay, as soon as they get them. That is because, at that age, they learn so fast, and training helps build up their attention towards their owner. The sooner we learn how to become responsible dog owners, the better. Thus, the owner’s education in a puppy class is no less crucial to development than what the puppy himself learns.
JBY: In an article in Bark Magazine, you remarked that training owners is every bit as valuable as training the dogs themselves. Can you elaborate this point, and tell us what you mean by that?
NVN: Yes, it is true. Dogs know how to be dogs, but we humans are used to thinking in our own, idiosyncratically human terms. We have a tendency to construct a dog’s behavior through the filter of our own outlook, rather than taking our dogs’ needs into account. Thus, we must strive to imagine what life is like from their point of view. Although we have learned to live together with this species, and as easily as dogs adapt to us, we still need to learn how they communicate, and what constitutes their needs.
Let me repeat what I said earlier, which is important: We stand to learn much about ourselves through our dogs? For example, I have a bad habit of impatience. When I work with a dog and I’m impatient, it won’t work. I can blame the dog, or I can learn to recognize my impatience and try to work on that. Or when I give a lecture and everybody seems bored and tired, I can either blame the audience for being impolite or unable to pay attention, or I can surmise that the real reason for its inattention is my own failure to make the lecture exciting enough, or that the room is too hot, or that a break is needed, etc. It is in this way that Mirror Method trainers help people to think outside of the box. This is a huge part of our trainers’ training.
JBY: You and your colleagues use clicker training to get the spectacular results you do. In your view, are other types of markers, such as the spoken word, just as effective?
NVN: In my view, it is the idea that matters, not the tool. I like to use a clicker, as it is better for both shaping and teaching more complex behaviors. But in certain cases, where we want to speed up an exercise, I like to use a “click-word”, as we call it. A click word is a short word or sound uttered in a very different tone than ordinary speech. Beginners can choose between the two, but when we teach shaping, which we do in the second course, we ask owners to bring a clicker.
JBY: While some say, as you do, that clicker training is invaluable for teaching complex behaviors, others prefer verbal feedback, which they believe is more useful for building a relationship with a dog. They also believe that verbal feedback is more instructive, allowing for differential re-enforcement, where the marker will anticipate different types of rewards for every behavior. And yet, from what we can see on your videos, you and your team have spectacularly successful relationships with your dogs. Can you provide your thoughts on this complicated and perhaps now controversial issue?
NVN: I don’t think it matters too much. It can be either way. It is true that the spoken word conveys more feelings, so we advise owners to use both markers in combination, that is, clicking and then praising the dog while giving him a treat. This helps the dog to work better, especially when there are other dogs around.. We also use other techniques to help develop the relationship between a dog and his owner.
JBY: What practical pointers could you give readers with regard to training a hyperactive dog? How do we get him to calm down when he gets so very excited, whenever he sees a cat or a new person, on a walk, or in the park? What does the Mirror Method recommend with regard to getting a dog to calm down?
NVN: Well, we certainly don’t have any magic potions or wands! The answer is not simply to do this or that in order to solve a problem. We always look for the root of the problem, as solutions can be complex. If you have a hyperactive dog, you have to find different ways to keep him busy so that he can let out his energy. By this I don’t mean just making him physically tired by putting him on a treadmill, or letting him play with other dogs. In a good lifestyle program, a “cool” boss plays and works with his dog, so that the dog remains mentally, physically and instinctively challenged. A responsible dog owner must control and refine these behaviors. This way, you will earn more respect during play time, and your dog will pay closer attention to you.
Also, be sure to establish some rules. For example, you might need to collect more “respect points” in order to set a rule such as “No chasing cats!” The dog needs to understand just what your expectations are. How well he actually follows the rules will tell you a great deal about your relationship. In short, give your dog exercises that provide him an opportunity to expend his energy and to exert self-control, as well.
JBY: Does the Mirror Method have any advice for dog owners, particularly those who are new to dog ownership, about loose leash walking? What specifically do you advise with regard to getting a dog to walk calmly and politely on a leash without pulling?
NVN: The best thing is to walk without the leash! I am aware, of course, that the law weighs in against this in most (public) places. Even so, there are certainly many techniques that address loose lease walking. You can teach “heel” and use a cue, for example, or you can also reinforce walking calmly on leash. We prefer a technique wherein the owner has to turn around in the opposite direction at the very second the dog steps ahead of him. You will turn around a lot in the beginning, but if you do it right, the dog will soon learn that pulling will not get him to where he wants to go. He will learn, therefore, not to pull.
I taught my dogs the meaning of “loose leash” by using a cue as well as creating a rule, which is that, when on a leash, this is how it has to be! Again, this is an approach that combines teaching with respect. It is unreasonable to expect a dog to walk on a loose leash if he has had no opportunity to expend his energy elsewhere. It is much easier to teach this exercise to a tired dog. However, from the moment you start teaching it, you have to pay close attention to the leash and to your expectations, too, or it won’t work
JBY: Here in America there has been a great deal of controversy in recent years about the scientifically discredited Dominance Hierarchy theory and its attendant methodology, which most professionals now believe to be both ineffective and often inhumane. And yet in certain parts of the world – in Holland for example – this aversive, painful, and punishment rich methodology is used routinely to train dogs. What are your thoughts about it?
NVN: This is a sensitive question; it is difficult to answer completely. Using force or aggression with animals is not right and unnecessary. Allowing dogs to become a danger to people or other dogs is no less intolerable. Dominance Hierarchy is identified with a certain content, and if by that you mean “breaking” a dog , that is not at all what we do! On the other hand, dominance and hierarchies do exist among animals and people. Every group requires a leader and clear rules if its objectives are to be effectively achieved. That is true whether it is a class, a basketball team, a group of colleagues, a horse herd, an ant hill, a government or a family. We believe that you need to be your dog’s leader, whatever name you give it. It is not only a question of being a leader, but also a matter of the distance you establish between you and your dog in a hierarchy.
In any case, we distinguish teaching from earning respect. You shouldn’t mix up the two. Some people like to let the dog to do whatever he wants. Usually such dogs cannot meet other dogs without problems arising. Sadly, more often than not some owners don’t walk their dogs nearly enough. In my view, this sort of “freedom” is fake.
One more thing: We do not approve of or recommend prong collars or electric “shock” collars. We don’t like them and never use them. These collars are harmful, as they impose force.
JBY: What should people look for in a good trainer?
NVN: We believe in group classes at dog schools, rather than training in private. In our schools we have seven-week long Beginner Courses and Intermediate Courses. This means fourteen sessions, for one and a half hours each. In my opinion the principal objectives of a good dog school are:
• To teach the owners; this should be the primary task.
• To place emphasis on socialization, where dogs are allowed off-leash during classes.
• To use positive reinforcement and motivation, rather than force, in teaching a dog.
• To help the owner to teach his dog and solve problems. without the trainer doing it for him!
• To encourage owners to think, work together, and teach themselves.
• To organize dogs into smaller groups (max 12) according to their size, temperament, and sensitivity.
• To create courses with fixed groups that are well organized and structured.
• To assure clients that our trainers are helpful, friendly and emphatic.
JBY: The name “Mirror Method” implicitly suggests that a dog is capable of emulating the behavior of his human companion. Thus, the example set by the human is all the more important. There is a good deal of scientific evidence to support this, not least the cognitive research studies at the Canine Cognitive Centers at Duke University and Harvard. Hungary, too, is home to a number of esteemed, world renowned behaviorists who are exploring these issues. Among them is Vilmos Csanyi, whose book If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind is one of the more stimulating studies ever published. He also cites evidence supporting the ability of a dog to “mirror” human behavior, saying that they have been hard wired to do so for thousands of years. What are your thoughts about this?
NVN: The Hungarian Ethology Department at Eötvös Lóránd University, where Mr Csányi also worked, is very famous and recognized worldwide. We cooperate with them, and bring a lot of dogs to participate in their behavioral experiments. I participated in many of these with my dogs; in the longest one Paco had to work with a touch screen. Because the dogs coming from our schools tended to achieve higher scores in certain experiments, the University decided to create a formal experiment to determine the effectiveness of the Mirror Method. We are very proud of this project. While the results won’t be available for years, I have no doubt what they will be…