Posted by Jason
on Aug 18, 2010 in Learning
| 1 comment
Leah Roberts has been a dog trainer and dog columnist in Florida for the past 8 years. I loved her articles, so I asked if she would want to write a guest post for me, she kindly obliged. Her very informative article:
Those who are involved in the world of dog training, rehabilitation, and other related fields are well aware that there are not only differences between the methodologies used, but that these differences are important enough to have caused an internal war within the industry. Those who champion dog-friendly, reward-based training are challenged by those who consider the use of correction tools “balanced” and necessary for reliability. The reward-based trainers accuse the correction-based trainers of cruelty, while those using tools such as choke, prong and shock collars denigrate their opponents as overly permissive, weak and incompetent.
The average pet owner, however, has no idea that this battle is raging. All he wants to know is how much the class costs and how far he has to travel. Most dog lovers will simply assume that if they bring their beloved pet to a professional, that trainer will be an expert who will provide his dog with high quality services.
Unfortunately, that is not so. This blog entry is written specifically as a “buyer beware” warning. There is a war out there, both sides are diametrically opposed to each other, and you and your dog could become casualties of the battle if you do not arm yourself with knowledge. The least important questions in choosing a good dog training class concern price and distance.
Motivation is key
Simply put, all training methods center around motivation. If a child is told that he will get a piece of chocolate cake if he eats his broccoli, he will be much more likely to eat the vegetable. If he is instead told that he will be spanked if he does not eat his broccoli, again he is more likely to eat it. In both cases he is being motivated – in one example by a reward and in the other by a punishment.
Reward-based training is all about earning rewards by choosing desired behavior. If the dog sits, he gets a cookie. But the philosophy behind it is more complex. In true positive-reinforcement training methodologies, the dog is first set up for success by ensuring that the appropriate behavior is easy for him to achieve. In other words, to teach a dog to sit, a treat may be held over and slightly behind his head. If a dog’s head goes back, most of the time his butt hits the ground. The act of sitting is then “marked” (by a verbal word like YES or a clicker), and the dog gets to eat the treat as a reward. He learns very quickly that if he sits, he gets a reward. The reward is the motivating factor, and no corrections are needed because the dog can’t possibly do something “wrong.”
Correction-based training turns the motivation around. The dog is taught that if he DOESN’T sit, something unpleasant will happen to him. It may be a flick of a choke collar to make a startling noise next to his ear. Or a quick yank on a prong collar so that the spikes dig into his neck. Or even an electrical shock sent into his throat by a remote control. The dog is motivated by trying to avoid getting the correction. The dog is not set up for success; in fact, it is far more likely that he will earn multiple aversive corrections before he stumbles upon the right answer.
To be fair, most trainers who use corrections do also use positive reinforcement to some extent, and often refer to themselves as “balanced” trainers. There are exceptions, notably Brad Pattison of In The Dog House, a TV show on the Canadian Slice network. His entire methodology is based on forcing dogs to comply to his wishes by correcting them for every behavior that is not what he desires, while setting them up for failure by not giving them the least hint of what that desired behavior may be! This is cruelty and abuse, pure and simple. Why he even has a fan following is a puzzle to anybody who cares about dogs, from either side of the battle. But that’s the subject of a future blog…
The problem with corrections
Those who use “balanced” training techniques argue that they are giving the dog more information than those who only reward desired behavior. Frankly I don’t understand that argument, since “I didn’t get a treat for doing that” gives the same message to the dog as “I got a leash pop for doing that.” In other words, the dog understands that’s not the behavior we desire.
Research done over the past couple of decades is consistently coming up with proof that undesired “fall-out” happens when aversions are used in training. An excellent article by Dr. Ian Dunbar, the originator of the lure/reward method and pioneer of training classes for young puppies, is The Trouble with Punishment.
I am particularly concerned about the way that corrections, even those that are only mildly aversive, dampen the enthusiasm to play the “training game.” I used to give the verbal correction of “eh,” said in a neutral tone of voice. It’s certainly not painful, and for some dogs so mild that they completely ignore it. But I noticed that many of the more sensitive dogs would show signs of tension after they were told “eh.” Perhaps their mouths would close, they would tense their ears, they may look away. That open-mouthed, tongue-lolling WHEE response would be inhibited. When I stopped using the correction, I stopped seeing the joy of participation wane in this way in training sessions.
Think about it. Somebody is asking you questions, and you know that you will hear applause if you answer correctly. Every time you answer incorrectly you will hear a buzzer. At first you may be offering answers freely, but at what point would you start to feel inhibited about opening your mouth in dread of that annoying buzzer? And is the buzzer really necessary to let you know it was the wrong answer, if you know that applause means that the answer is correct?
When you can’t ignore behavior
Another argument from “balanced” trainers is that if the dog is performing an undesired behavior, just ignoring it isn’t enough. And they’re right! Positive reinforcement training does not mean permissive training. Undesired behaviors are addressed, but with a twist in the mind-set. Instead of focusing on teaching the dog what NOT to do, we want to focus on what behavior we would like them to do instead.
Since motivation is key, what is it that motivates a dog to jump on a human in greeting? Attention! So what do most people do? Push the dog away, tell them to “get down,” and… give them attention in these and other ways, as they’re simultaneously trying to teach them what NOT to do. No wonder that this doesn’t work very well!
We use the flip side of positive reinforcement, which is called negative punishment. If you’re not familiar with the scientific terminology, don’t let the words “negative” and “punishment” throw you. In short, all it means is taking something away (negative) in order to decrease a behavior (punishment). So when the dog jumps on you seeking your attention, you ignore the dog. You are taking away what he wants, which is your attention to him. This shows him that the jumping behavior does not work to earn him his reward.
But remember that the important part is to teach him what you want him to do instead. Here’s where the positive reinforcement comes back into play. So as soon as his feet hit the floor, bam – “There’s my good doggie, here’s some scritches and love.” The dog’s feet are on you again, you immediately turn away and withdraw your attention. The dog wants your attention, and (if you are consistent) will quickly learn that the only way to get your attention is by keeping his feet on the floor. If your dog knows how to sit on cue, you can ask him to sit to teach him that as an appropriate way to ask for your attention instead of jumping. Again, it’s all about focusing on what you want him to DO, not what you DON’T want him to do.
Finding a good training class
So when you are looking for a training class for your dog, you should definitely look for one that uses only positive reinforcement/negative punishment techniques. But be careful. A lot of trainers will advertise themselves as such, but when you enroll you find out that they require you to buy a choke, prong, or shock collar. The only “equipment” you should need, in any training class, is a bag of treats (or toys, if that’s what motivates your dog more) and perhaps a clicker. If corrections are used, the “positive reinforcement” label is in essence a bait and switch.
For more information…
Dog-friendly training part 1: The lure/reward method
Dog-friendly training part 2: Clicker training
Dog training tools and how to use them
Dog training in a fast-food society
What to expect from a basic dog training class
Naked dog training
Why I love my clicker
Family Pet Trainer
Dog Willing Positive Training Solutions