A CONSIDERATION OF TRAINING METHODS
By Deborah Jones, Ph.D. 2001
(Originally Published for Clean Run)

Over the past ten years or so, there has been a major shift in dog training techniques and methods. Older, traditional types of training often relied on the use of physical force or aversives (unpleasant events) in order to get the dog to perform or to comply with commands. For many, many years this was the commonly accepted way to train dogs. However, we now have another option that is become more and more popular. Newer methods are primarily based on the use of positive reinforcement as a training tool. As trainers and owners become more and more educated in the use of operant and classical conditioning, the use of aversives and force is losing favor. We are in a time of transition in dog training, which can lead to confusion and stress (for the trainers). On the one hand, established and successful trainers are saying that traditional methods are highly effective and have stood the test of time. On the other hand, behaviorists and other trainers are saying that the older methods are not as humane or as effective as positively based ones. This leaves many very confused. How can they decide what is right for them and for their dogs? Those on both sides of this issue make some powerful and persuasive arguments, so let’s examine some of the claims in more detail.

1. Traditional techniques work.

This statement is true, up to a point. For specific types of dogs, and for specific types of behaviors and activities, forceful techniques can be effective. However, just because something works in certain situations, that doesn’t mean it can or should be applied to the general population. For example, a highly driven and intense Border Collie may be able to ‘take’ a very strong correction from his handler in order to get him under control and keep him from charging the sheep in herding lessons. The correction may have the desired effect, yet not lessen the dog’s drive and desire to do the work.

However, this does not mean that you could apply the same type of correction to a different dog in a different setting (or a different dog in the same setting, or the same dog in a different setting), and get the desired effect. For example, a fairly sensitive Poodle who doesn’t drop on recall during Open obedience training would probably melt into the floor and avoid working if given the same correction. You could interpret this to mean that different dogs need different types and levels of corrections. In order to make this distinction and to use correction-based training effectively, you would have to be a trainer who was very good at reading dogs and applying just the right level of aversive at the right time. Unfortunately, most trainers are not that good at what they do. And if you make a mistake using this method, you can see some very severe and long-lasting consequences. You might ruin a dog for a particular activity, or for any type of activity.

Another issue to consider here is what philosophers call the ‘means-end analysis’. This kind of logic states that the ‘ends’ justify the ‘means’. So, if you get the desired result, it doesn’t matter how you got there. Most rational people can see that this is a very dangerous road to start traveling down. Justifying the means by pointing out the successful end result doesn’t take into account how ethical the mean might be.

2. Positive reinforcement is not effective for all dogs.

Again, this is a true statement. However, no method is 100% effective, it simply doesn’t work that way. We have to take into account individual differences in trainers and dogs. While many people have been very eager to find a ‘better’ way to train, they have not always been as educated and skilled in these techniques as they might be, which leads to errors. In their enthusiasm to use techniques that are reward-based, some people may take the ‘no corrections necessary’ idea to mean ‘no control necessary’. So, you might end up seeing dogs who are described as clicker trained who are behaving like spoiled brats, while their owners extol the virtues of positive reinforcement.

Done correctly, clicker training and positive methods can be highly effective. A lack of control is not an inherent facet of clicker training. In fact, psychological control can be obtained in a much faster and more efficient way using positive methods. Once you have psychological control, direct physical control is not necessary. A dog who wants to work for you because it is in his best interest, and who has learned that you control access to all the good things he wants, is a very attentive and compliant animal indeed.

3. A balanced approach, using a mixture of positives and negatives, is the best way to train.

This is an interesting argument, but, in reality, it is not effective. While it might sound appealing, the Chinese menu approach to training (one from Column A, two from Column B), often leaves the dog confused and unsure. Using a mixture of corrections and positive reinforcement sends mixed signals to the dog, and typically results in a dog that does not reach his training potential. The reason for this is that the basis of the two types of training is completely different. Using negatives and aversives is based on teaching the dog that he should not do anything unless given a command or permission to do so. This leads to dogs that learn that, in many situations, doing nothing is the safest way to go. On the other hand, dogs that have been clicker trained, especially those who have been taught using shaping, have learned that trying new behaviors (in training sessions) is the way to earn reinforcement. We really want our dogs to have an openness to trying new things as it gives us a variety of behaviors to choose from and to mold into the desired final action. These two underlying foundations (do nothing or do many things) are clearly incompatible.

What many trainers really mean when they talk about using a balanced approach is that they use traditional, force-based techniques, but they also add positive reinforcement when the dog is correct. This is really not a true mixture of traditional and positively based training. The real heart of positively based training is the trust the dog learns in the process. In training, the dog is safe to try and do many new things. Those that are desired will be reinforced, and will then be repeated. Undesired behaviors are not punished, they are ignored, and they disappear (in general).

4. Positive reinforcement will not work for all behaviors in all situations.

Again, this is very true. But the same could be said for traditional training. And it is not a failing of the method, but a failing of the application. Training that is based on operant and classical conditioning has to work, if done properly. Scientists talk about the LAWS of learning. They are laws, not suggestions. If a trainer understands learning theories, and applies them correctly, they will work. I have 100% confidence in the effectiveness of the positively based techniques that I use because, as a scientist, I know that they will be successful. Thousands of research studies provide evidence that this is true.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard an owner/trainer say “I need to use a correction to make sure he knows he can’t get away with that”. I always wonder to myself where they ever got the idea that corrections are more powerful than positives. There is no evidence to back up that idea. What makes behavior strong is a strong reinforcement history.

This is not to say that there are never, ever times when an aversive may be necessary. If an animal is harming himself or others, I will do whatever is required to make it stop. However, I am not under the illusion that I am training in those situations; that is simply crisis management.

5. In the real world, we learn from the bad things that can or do happen.

This is correct. We learn to avoid dangerous and unpleasant things. A negative experience will change our actions. That is the way the world works. But, just because there are bad things out there, I don’t think that gives me the right to use negatives and aversives against other living creatures. Why add to the unpleasantness that already exists in the world?

I want my training relationships to be based on mutual respect and on trust. Just because I am bigger, stronger, and smarter (sometimes!), that doesn’t give me the right to hurt another creature just because I can. Even if the aversive is mild and/or short-term, it goes against the way I want to interact with my animals and the way I want to live in the world. Cooperation is much more pleasant than confrontation, and the results are well worth the effort.

IN CONCLUSION…

I would like to end this consideration of training methods by encouraging trainers to think carefully before they decide what is appropriate for them and for their dogs. Many people seem willing to try any new technique that claims success, without thinking through the possible implications and consequences. One thing I have learned is that it is very important to carefully consider your training methods and techniques. In addition to being effective, will they strengthen the relationship between you and your dog? Are they consistent with your ethics and ideals? Are they clear and fair? It is our responsibility, as trainers and owners, to do what is best for our pets. I encourage you to think very carefully about how you train.

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