Why Can’t We Trainers Just Get Along?

April 2, 2012

Recently I had a fantastic conversation with another person devoted to training dogs. Via an in depth conversation, we discovered our methods used to teach dogs are strikingly similar. However using the scientific terms of behavior psychology, the perceived difference is great. This is because I focus upon rewarding what’s done “right” by the dog, providing positive reinforcement, and he prefers to define his method as punishing what’s done “wrong,” using positive punishment.

What is the difference, really?

Here are the definitions of “positive,” “negative,” “punishment,” and “reinforcement” according to behavioral psychologists. They are not what our hearts tell us they are.

  • positive means something is given
  • negative means something is taken away
  • punishment means whatever is given or taken ends what the subject is doing
  • reinforcement makes it continue

As a positive reinforcement trainer I focus on giving the dog what he wants so the dog will do it again. I also use negative punishment when I ignore unwanted things a dog does to make them stop. For example I withdraw my attention to make a dog stop jumping on me, for my attention.

In cagefree daycare I observe mature dogs “ghost” a pushy puppy when they tire of the pup’s attention. The teaching dog will act as if the puppy has blinked out of existence. Suddenly the older dog offers the puppy no eye contact, no growling, no alpha-rolling, nothing. Ideally the puppy looses interest and goes away. If it’s effective I’ve seen many of these mature dogs, who have good social behaviors, reward by reengaging the puppy on their terms. This is good dog training. They’ve taught me well!

The more important thing I do than ghost that annoying jumper is to try harder to give the seeker my attention when he approaches without jumping on me. I do this is because I understand, in this scenario, the dog jumps because he wants my attention. I want to teach him to use a more socially acceptable way to get my attention. A better method for him to use on me would be sitting in front and looking up at me or simply touching my dangling hand with his nose.

Another method I use in training is the clicker. It helps me tell the dog what I’m seeking so she can offer it again and again. This makes it easier for the dog to figure out what I want before I name that thing; ie. lying down as saying “down” as I point my finger at the floor.

The clicker is remarkably effective communication between us before there is full understanding by the dog. It avoids confusion for the dog caused by being physically forced into place or moved into position while trying to catch a treat I’m using as a lure.

Clicking the position repeatedly at the right time helps the dog understand what I want. The dog demonstrates that understanding by eventually doing what I’ve clicked with little to no prompting. Once this happens I can “name” it and stop using the clicker. Confused? Call me.

Good timing on my part and a little clicker experience for the dog greatly speeds up my ability to teach him new things. I’ve met trainers who choose not to use the clicker because, to them, it’s cold. In my experience, that’s why it works.

Allow me to demonstrate. I had a conversation with a person that left me believing she was affected in a way I didn’t intend. Because we are good friends we discussed the confusion. She believed my behavior towards her was “different.” Her belief proved to be an accurate reading of my body language and tone of voice. However my tension was not related to our exchange but to something that happened to me earlier. Dogs are even more alert to our body language and voice. The nifty thing about the clicker is, it never has a “bad day.”

My desire to train has a personal, spiritual foundation so I work with respect for the person and the dog I’m teaching. I want people and dogs to feel safe when they work with me. They should trust that I bring good things — such as fun ideas and understanding.

I believe this is what encourages my dogs to work with me, usually without food reinforcement, regardless of any other distraction. Lady and Jo, my dogs, do not run off. They come when I call, even when they’re chasing a cat.

If I call my dogs and if they don’t quickly return, I go get them. My word is my bond.

Just as I do with my human child, I set clear boundaries for puppies right away because they are open to learning in that way. With adult dogs I am more careful and first work harder to figure out what motivates their behavior. Then I can redirect them in a way that I, as a fellow adult, would appreciate.

I do believe that all animals, including humans, are worthy of respect. I do not subscribe to an idea that I’m better than another animal. I also don’t believe that canines and other animals are better than I am. I do believe it is important for the health and future of dogs to learn to cooperate within the construct of our human society.

On the other hand I educate people about why dogs do what they do.

If you are a trainer interested in an exchange of ideas that is supportive and mutually respectful, an open-minded exchange of information with the goal of teaching dogs most effectively and fairly, and do not intentionally use pain or fear to do so; let me know. I’ll open a forum for discussion.

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