Monday, April 18, 2011

Does being a positive reinforcement trainer equal closed mindedness?

On a recent discussion of this blog, someone commented that I am "closed minded" because of my posts and commitment to positive reinforcement training.  This took me by surprise as I have always considered myself to be a very open minded person.  And, because going from traditional training methods to positive reinforcement training took such a huge amount of open mindedness, not to mention hard work.  If you talked to my friend Colleen, who was the first person to really start encouraging me to research and explore positive reinforcement methods, after years of successfully training with punishment I am sure she would agree.  I was resistant because it was foreign and different and learning more about it would require a huge amount of change and hard work on my part.  On the other hand, I had not felt good about the methods I was using for a while.  More than anything else, I think that part of what was so difficult was that it forced me to recognize that what I had been doing was not the best thing or the kindest thing for my animals or my client's animals.  I was put in a position of having to take a long, hard look at what I had been doing to them in the name of training.  It was painful and difficult, but I forced myself and I believe that my dogs and I are better off because of it. 

So, the question is, does the fact that I use and recommend positive reinforcement methods mean that I am close minded?  Does the fact that I don't use or recommend compulsion methods mean that I am close minded?  Honestly, I don't think so.  How can I be considered close minded to something I have already done?  I have "been there and done that" as they say.  I cannot, in good conscience, say "just do whatever works" if I believe in my heart of hearts that it is not good for the animal.  I believe with complete conviction that many of the methods that people use on dogs in the name of training are painful, scary and intimidating to the dogs.  I believe that many dogs (and other animals) are treated with a huge amount of disrespect and that animals deserve to be treated and trained with compassion and respect.  I believe that some of the equipment people use on dogs in the name of training are much more aversive and uncomfortable than they realize.  I have seen it, I have caused it, I have watched others cause it and now I try to spread the word that there is another way.  Is this wrong?  Does this mean I am closed minded?  I don't think so, but at least one person believes I am.  I wonder why that is.

I believe that part of it is the definition of positive reinforcement in general.  Some people believe that they are positive reinforcement trainers because they use food some of the time.  It's true, that when they reinforce behaviors with food they are positively reinforcing the dog, but if they are also using aversive equipment and positive punishment, can they really be considered a positive reinforcement trainer?  Not in my mind.  People will sometimes argue that what they are doing isn't "hurting" their animal, but if the animal's body language indicates that they are frightened or in pain or uncomfortable, I am going to believe the animal.  Many of the pieces of equipment that are used were designed to cause discomfort or pain to stop behavior.  This is why they "work" to stop a behavior.  In my eyes, the only way a technique or piece of equipment "works" is if the behavior is changed without pain or intimidation.  I feel that part of being a good teacher is respecting the comfort level of the learner.  I believe if my learner (human and non human animals) cannot understand than it is my responsibility as the teacher to change MY behavior in order to the help the learner understand.  If I can't figure something out, I am not going to turn to punishment or aversives, I am going to go back to the drawing board and figure out how I can change or build this behavior while still respecting the animal.  Why in the heck should the animal pay for my lack of skill as a trainer?

Something that many people don't understand is that positive reinforcement training isn't permissive.  Positive reinforcement training doesn't mean that there are no consequences, it simply means that the consequences I choose to use are not painful, scary or intimidating.  My animals are taught rules, boundaries and are trained to respond to the cues I teach, but I don't turn to methods or equipment that I feel is aversive.  It's really that simple.  Punishment (corrections, aversive collars, force) only suppresses behavior, they never, ever build behavior.  Punishment, by definition causes a behavior to go down in frequency.  Punishment never builds behavior or teaches anyone to do something.  So, if what you want to do is build behavior, why wouldn't you use positive reinforcement?  It is so much easier to simply teach the behaviors you want, rather than punish out everything you don't want.  There will always be more behaviors you don't want, it would take forever to get rid of everything you don't like, so just focus on what you want and train that! It's simple really, but I digress...

Like so many other crossover trainers, I have learned for myself, from using both traditional based methods and positive reinforcement that positive reinforcement training is less risky, more enjoyable and more reliable than traditional methods.  I have been accused of (and have seen other positive reinforcement trainers) accused of being closed minded because they feel strongly that positive reinforcement training is the way to go.  I don't understand why being committed to training dogs using methods that protect them and their relationships with their owners can be considered negative.  When I see an animal being handled in a way that I feel is inhumane, being jerked with a choke collar on for example, it causes my blood to boil.  It is painful and upsetting for me to see.  It does not feel good to be upset, I wish I could change it, but I can't.  It is my emotional response to what I am seeing.  My passion comes from my journey which started there.  My commitment is to the animals, if that aggravates people, well, I guess, so be it.

So, for the record, I am not close minded to new ideas, in fact, I absolutely love learning a new method or technique.  I attend lectures, seminars, workshops and classes from other trainers regularly.  I meet with other trainers in my area monthly to discuss and exchange ideas.  I am completely and wholeheartedly open to other ideas, as long as they are in the best interest of the animals.  I am only closed minded to techniques or ideas that I feel cause distress, pain, fear or intimidation to the animals I am working with.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Uh oh, my dog looks guilty!

The other day my cattle dog Bill ate a cupcake off of the counter.  He licked the icing off another one.  My husband found the crumbs of the first cupcake and the frosting missing off of the other and said, "Oh man, someone ate a cupcake off the counter.  Hey, they licked the frosting off of this one!"  There are only two dogs big enough to do this but I was pretty sure which dog it was.  I didn't say anything but looked for Bill and found him lying down behind the couch looking very "guilty".  He looked the exact same way he looks when my husband raises his voice because his football team is losing, when something he is working on around the house isn't going his way and when he is losing at his video game.  Do you see where this is going?  Bill didn't feel "guilty" because he ate a cupcake, in fact, he didn't realize Rick was vocalizing about cupcakes, he responds that way anytime Rick is upset about anything.  Bill is very close and attached to Rick and freakishly in tune with Rick's emotions.  He is so sensitive to Rick's tone of voice in fact, that every time Rick raises his voice he slinks away regardless of what Rick is talking about or who Rick is talking to.  In fact, Rick has taken to saying, "It's okay Bill, it's not you" nearly every time he raises his voice to stop Bill from worrying. 

People are always saying that their dogs feel "guilty".  They say this because this is how they perceive their dog's body language, usually just after they have found something that the dog has done that they don't like.  What they don't understand is that the dog is not responding this way because he feels "guilt" or "remorse" over something he has done, in fact, the dog usually has not clue that he did something "wrong".  The dog is simply responding to the owner's tone of voice and body language.  If a person comes home from work, finds poop in the house, then has an anger meltdown because they have to clean it up, the dog will begin to look worried and afraid when the owner comes home.  It isn't because of what he did, it is because of his past experiences of his owner coming home and then getting angry.  By the way, a dog can find our reactions punishing regardless of how benign they may seem.  To some very sensitive dogs, something has subtle as a heavy sigh or look of disgust can be punishing to the dog.  It is so interesting to me how people are can be completely resistant to the fact that dogs have emotions (which they do) or they believe that they have emotions and because they do, they must be exactly like human emotions (which they aren't).

Dogs repeat behaviors that are reinforcing.  They also live in the moment.  I had a very hard time resisting those cupcakes, even though I had already eaten one!  Bill saw them on the counter and wanted one, so he took one.  I believe he saw it, wanted it, took it, ate it and then it was over.  He probably forgot about the cupcake the moment he was finished eating it (even though there was still frosting on his lip when I found him behind the couch!).  When Rick started to complain that a cupcake was eaten, Bill heard his tone and got worried like he always does.  There was no cupcake-guilt about it.  By the way, we didn't care too much that he ate a cupcake and Bill didn't get in "trouble" for it, we just felt stupid for leaving the cupcake container open on the edge of the counter.  STUPID!

There has been a video circulating on the internet of a "guilty dog".  The owner comes to the dog with a ripped bag of cat treats and says to the dog "Did you do this?  Did you rip open these cat treats?".  The dogs starts to do a series of appeasement behaviors including pinning his ears back, yawning, lip licking, squinting his eyes, and finally offering a full, submissive grin with all of his teeth showing.  People watch it and laugh and say that the dog is guilty, but the dog is not feeling "guilty" the dog is simply responding to the owner's tone of voice.  It's sad to watch actually if you know what is going on.  If you tested it (which I don't recommend you do since it's stressful to your dog) you would see that your dog will respond the same way if your tone and body language worries him.

The take away message here is "please don't assume your dog is feeling guilty", he is likely just responding to you.  Oh, and remember to put the lid back on the cupcake container before leaving it on the counter!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

If your dog isn't ready, then don't enter him!

I am going to try and write this post in a way that is helpful and educational and not at all frustrated and judgmental.  However, if I am being honest, I am a bit frustrated.  I cannot tell you how many calls and emails I receive from people who are desperate to get a private with me right away because they have entered a dog show knowing full well that their dog is not properly trained, not even close to prepared or ready for the show ring!  I do not understand why people insist on torturing themselves, not to mention their poor dogs by entering them in shows before they are ready.

I have said this many times before.  The behaviors that a show dog needs to learn are not very difficult to train.  The dog needs to be taught to stack, gait and accept gentle handling, BUT he needs to be trained to a level of reliability that makes it possible for him to perform those behaviors in a novel, highly distracting and stressful environment which a nervous, stressed out, emotional owner at the end of the lead.  It is not reasonable or fair to enter your dog in a show and give him (or yourself) a week or two or three to prepare for it.  People mistakenly believe that handling a show dog and presenting a dog well is easy and takes no work at all, but if that were true professional handlers would be out of a job.  It isn't easy, unless of course you know what you are doing and feel comfortable doing it and have trained your dog to a high level of reliability in highly distracting and stressful environments.

So please, don't enter your dog if he isn't ready to be shown.  If he isn't ready because he doesn't know what to do, if he is fearful or reactive, if he is worried about being touched by a stranger or if he simply needs more training, then don't enter him.  Best case scenario is that neither of you look ready and leave the ring disappointed and frustrated.  Worst case scenario is that you poison the whole dog show scene for your dog by asking for too much of a dog that is simply not ready.  Trust me, there will always be another dog show.