I am a modern dog trainer, and my NePoPo™ system of dog training was inspired by nearly 40 years of experience which encompasses history, education, life experience, politics, and practicality. I grew up in Burundi, East Central Africa between 1960 and 1974. It was a wonderful childhood, on the one hand, with loving and intelligent parents and siblings. On the other hand, it was a childhood in a region notorious for war and genocide and predatory leadership where the prerogatives of individuals and interest groups superseded national interests. My interest in dogs began there, in Burundi, where dogs were used to protect the land. Thieves and bandits used poison meat to kill dogs in order to gain access to property. The only dogs who survived were dogs who were taught to eat only a particular kind of food, from a certain bowl, from a specific person only, with a designated hand, and with a special release command. (This strategy of having a series of backup plans in dog training was retained and never forgotten.) We taught the dogs what we wanted them to do, we paid them (with the particular kind of food, from the certain bowl...) when they did it. But in spite of that, we knew exactly that when the opportunity to cheat (the conflict) arose they would jump on the booby- trap (go for that forbidden meat) and, therefore, when we proofed the dogs, we used old- fashioned aversive techniques: a bb gun in the flanks from a distance with no verbal command diminished infractions, and the new rules were quickly understood. This technique was also used in those days by hunters who wanted to keep their dogs on point. They shot dogs with a shotgun with cartridges used to shoot pigeons. This was my first real experience with dog training.
After the genocide and massacre of Hutus and Tutsis in the early 1970s, the region became even more unstable. My family returned to Belgium in 1974. I lived in Sit-Katelijne- Waver, a small town close to the city of Mechelen. As a boy in Africa, I was always researching the city of Mechelen because Mechelen was the city that was the origin of the special shepherd called the Malinois. Once in Belgium, I immediately bought a Malinois. It was a bitch from the breeding of my neighbor who was a ringsport trainer. He was an important person at the ringsport club near my home and that club was one of the most successful clubs in Belgium. Once I went to the ringsport club, I was addicted to the sport. In those days, however, a boy of 14 (even with an adult body) was expected to keep his mouth shut around his elders, as he was the lowest in ranking. The club members did not speak to me. They ignored me. I went every day and watched. After six months of watching silently, the opportunity came. One day the helper was sick, and I was asked to suit up to be the temporary helper. They never kicked me out the the suit again.
The members did not take my training capacities as a dog trainer seriously, and no one helped me with my dog. I started training and playing with my dog on my own: tying a potato jute bag around a tree and having my dog bite on the “dead rabbit”. I learned the value of training on my own. (This is another aspect of training I have never forgotten.) I always had inventive ideas of my own which were often ideas “thinking outside the box”. It was spontaneous playing that was not intended to be a system but when I was smart enough to analyze what I did on instinct (which was after I went to University), I realized that I had inadvertently invented a system that makes dogs accurate, quick, tough and flashy. NePoPo™ did not have a name at this point but it was already a system that I spontaneously utilized. The club members and other trainers scoffed at how I trained because they didn’t understand. For four years I trained at the club amidst the old timers.
Throughout high school, I was an avid soccer player and would possibly have had a career in soccer had I not had a debilitating knee injury. I enjoyed athletics and had a thoughtful and social nature so when I went to University, I studied to be a sport teacher. I learned about learning. I learned about psychology. I studied Skinner, Pavlov and Maslow. I was fascinated by the Maslow Pyramid which describes a hierarchy of needs. The base of the pyramid is the most primitive, physical needs (food, shelter, reproductive sex) and the top of the pyramid is more high level intellectual and emotional needs. As I considered this with respect to dogs, I realized that this pyramid can explain what is a reward and how long is a reward a reward, and what is a punishment and how long is the punishment a punishment. According to Maslow theory, if I am truly hungry I will eat whatever is offered. When I am cold, I will accept every jacket regardless of color or style. On the other hand, if I am already full, saturated, I will only be open to my favorite dessert with some aged cognac. Maslow theory when applied to dog training can be understood when you consider the mental attitude of the dog who is trained in an existential fashion: working to live. This is the way that wild animals survive. For example, when a hawk is hungry, he is motivated to find food and he is concentrated because a mistake could cost him his meal. There lies the ideal balance between motivation and concentration. When Maslow theory is used in training, the dog trainer can prepare the dog to be more motivated and more concentrated. The dog shows high drive and no lack of precision.
I graduated from college in 1982 and immediately served my two years in the Paratroopers as an officer. There I learned military training techniques: hierarchy, how to lead, and how to motivate. I learned military reward: the reward is that there is no punishment. What I learned is that I was a spoiled young guy living in Maslow V and the military took me to a more basic level. What I learned at University, along with the skills and knowledge I learned in the paratroopers, showed me that the old fashioned training techniques at the clubs were not good. Those old fashioned techniques conflicted both with the scientific teachings of learning theory and with laws of Animal Welfare which state that it is forbidden to give pain and suffering to an animal without valid reason. I understood that I had not been on the wrong track all along although my dog training methods were certainly singularly unique and universally ignored. I felt like Copernicus. I began thinking about how I could incorporate all this knowledge within dog training to formulate a total system for dog training that would apply to all disciplines.
Starting in 1986, I began looking beyond Belgian Ring Sport. I developed interest in and followed all the international sports that utilized bitework: French Ring Sport, Mondio Ring, KNPV, and IPO. If you are on the road telling people how to train dogs with positive and negative reinforcement and aversive and corrective stimulation, with the tools of choke collar, pinch collar, whip, e-collar, ball, clicker, food, etc: all that had to be incorporated in a system that could be politically acceptable. In half the countries in Europe where protection sports are popular, pinch collars and e-collars are official banned although used clandestinely. Helmet Raiser was one of the first guys in world who was able to tell people what he was doing in training; his honesty about his training methods were accepted. He could explain things to make them politically acceptable. However, in the midst of a training revolution in Europe in the mid-1990s, we were confronted with the book of Karen Pryor, Don’t Shoot The Dog. The politically active animal protection lobby used this book as the Bible of evidence that only strictly positive training was needed to be effective and humane, and all other methods were demonized. We all had to re-evaluate our training techniques to counter the Animal Protection Lobby again.
There is when the NePoPo™ training got its name. It is a negative-positive-positive system. The NePoPo™ system is a system where correction of a dog does not lead to submission. The negative reinforcer followed by positive reinforcement creates a behavior. Due to that, an unpleasant feeling announces a nice event (Pavlov). Later you can use that same negative stimulation in correction mode which will immediately bring the dog from unwanted behavior into wanted behavior. Using the NePoPo™ system, the dog is prepared for the day when he will receive a conflict, he will do the wrong thing, he will will receive a correction, but that correction will immediately push him from unwanted behavior into wanted behavior with understanding and confidence and speed. Trainers cannot deny that training must come with consequences. There must be a consequence for both doing and not doing the exercise. That is why strictly positive training does not work when there are distractions or conflicts present which are stronger than the reward. For all training, one must ask the following questions: what do I do when the dog does? What do I do when the dog does not, but he cannot? What to I do when the dog does not do in spite of the fact that he knows very well what to do? This applies to every aspect of dog training: for pet dogs, police dogs, military dogs, and sport dogs.
I won my first NVBK Championship in 1992 with a talented but out of control dog that I purchased in 1986 when he was three years old. It was ugly, but I won. I wasn’t entirely happy with my performance. IPO has nice style; ringsport, however, is not required to be pretty. In ringsport, the dog must do; there are no extra points for elegance. After my 1992 win, I began to utilize the system that would provide a flashy picture while keeping the dog strong and tough and perfectly obedient. In NePoPo™ the dog does not fight the system because he finds his advantage in the system. From 1992 to 2002 when I was Training Director at our club, we boasted seven Belgian Ringsport Champions (me with two different dogs and five club members with five different dogs.) While my techniques seemed to some to be too cerebral for dog sport, they are effective and when people understood and followed the system, they met with success after success. By 2002, I had refined my techniques with my dog Zodt. I scored the highest scores ever achieved (before or since) in a Championship in Belgium Ring Sport. Now people wanted to know: how did I do this? After that, the NePoPo system I created became popular in IPO.
Until 2002, I was organizing Dances with Malinois. The idea for Dances with Malinois was an annual competition with a different showy theme every year. This became so popular that hundreds of people would come and enjoy the show. We eventually began making DVDs of these events. This venue made ringsport accessible to the public and familiarized people with the sport we enjoyed. This was an excellent publicity move to help win friends of the public who in turn could feel less threatened by us. I worked together with a German State Veterinarian and Andreas Legnowski (around 2002) where my job was to train dog handlers to pass the electronic collar licensing exam given by the German State Veterinarian. Unfortunately, a few years later the law did change and the use of electronic collars (although not the possession or sale) became prohibited . Needing more staff with expert knowledge of training dogs the modern way with modern electronic collars, an advertisement was placed for training positions and 60 people responded to the ad. After a lot of selections, there were four left over. In the last 10 years, this group of five friends (including myself) founded the Prostaff Team which is a group of trainers with a similar philosophy. While we all have our own particular specialities, every member of the Prostaff Team abides by the following series of four steps in training: the first step is to make a dog learn his job; the second step is to motivate him to do the job; the third step is to motivate him to do the job when he is not motivated to do the job; and in the fourth step, the dog must look flashy and look like he loves it. The Prostaff Team gives a two-week seminar in Germany every summer. One of the most exciting jobs of my life was when I was working as a consultant for Charles Martin and with two of his brilliant engineers to create the new direction where electronic collars must go. Martin Systems has revolutionized electronic collars, designing miniature electronic collars with a transmission of three kilometers that: give you an immediate signal when there is contact with your dog or not; have the ability to insure consistent reliable electrical sensation for the dog no matter what the conditions; unique identification codes where radio interference is impossible; and are hands free with a blue tooth ring which controls the transmitter and that gives a person the freedom to enjoy all the work and all the private life a person does with the dog. With an accompanying and compatible USB stick, the collar settings (among other things) can be changed to adapt to the political legislation of any country. I work as a consultant for Radio Systems Corporation and have been working there for more than a year. Radio Systems Corporation is the biggest electronic collar company in the world. Their goal and expertise is providing affordable technologies to the consumer. This company has the resources to continue in the worldwide political debate around dog training and associated tools (positive and negative reinforcement and aversive and corrective stimulation.) The Americans should not forget that the political debate contesting the use of certain tools will make it to America soon. It is better to be prepared. Radio Systems accepts that I keep up with my seminar schedule and teaching as this is a good way to reach many people. I have my signature on many World Class Competitors and National Competitors from different countries. I have worked with police departments and governmental agencies throughout the world and military k9 units. Whether it is training a dog to sit, take out a suspect, scent a track or perform a call off: the techniques used in the NePoPo system are the same. They do not conflict.
Modern dog training is what I do. Dog training needs to be changed from the old systems to accommodate both the cultured dog and to counter the apostles of morality. For example, tying a dog to a tree and making it fight back is rarely successful in building toughness for a cultured house dog. That is old-fashioned and did work for how working dogs used to fit into our lives. Additionally, throughout the world there is an active component of people who are against anything except for positive training. They are against negative reinforcement tools, and they fight for what they think is in the best interest of the animal. What they forget is that the Karen Pryor theory only worked when the dolphins were hungry and the food did take away unpleasant hunger feelings which is the theory of negative reinforcement: discomfort (hunger) stops when the animal does. These activists have significant power because they can and do lobby governments to take away the rights of dog owners and trainers and breeders. In order to keep our rights to breed dogs how we want and train dogs how we want and utilize certain equipment, we need to be able to educate and compromise. We need to make an open door which welcomes newcomers, and we must present our beliefs and techniques in a politically correct fashion. Using these NePoPo™ techniques, it is always fair to the dog. It has the secondary benefit of being politically palatable. The NePoPo™ System is humane and effective, and there is no sacrifice between control and drive.
A farmer long ago told me some wise words about dog training. He said, the trainer can use a stick to guide a dog. He can use that same stick to pet a dog. He can use that same stick to activate a dog (e.g. “go!”). He can use that stick to punish the dog. When the training is clear and understood, that same stick with which the dog was just punished can be used as a stick for a quick reward game of fetch. Now we are training dogs!