Perhaps the most interesting- and challenging- part of the seminar was hearing about Suzanne’s training philosophy, and the way she implements it. There wasn’t an official session on what she considers “Humane Training,” but I think I have a decently accurate picture based on her general themes and random comments. I hope so, anyway! I’d hate to misrepresent her in any way.
Suzanne seems to define humane training as knowing the difference between asking your dog “will you do this?” and “can you do this?” This really resonated with me since Maisy is the kind of dog who will try her heart out for me. I’ve asked before if Maisy’s willingness to do something is an indication of her actual ability to do it, so I greatly appreciated Suzanne’s statement that the goal of humane training is finding fun things to do with your dog while keeping her physically sound, intellectually sane, and emotionally safe.
So, why did I find this so challenging? Largely because her implementation of this philosophy is different than mine. Throughout the weekend, regardless of the issue or the dog at hand, there were two recurring themes: responsibility and consequences, both of which I struggle with.
Responsibility is a bit easier for me to swallow, although Suzanne’s emphasis that it must go both ways was a new way of thinking to me. Both the handler and the dog have a responsibility to the other, but sometimes, I think I focus more on the handler’s responsibilities. I definitely put more responsibility on myself than I do on Maisy, as I firmly believe that training problems lie in my failure to adequately communicate. I think Suzanne would agree that our dogs are generally doing the best they can- as she said, dogs want to be right.
Where I often fail, however, is in giving Maisy responsibility for what she’s learned. Sometimes, I work so hard at setting her up for success that she can’t really make any choices. This isn’t so bad during the learning stage, but in my effort to be all positive, I sometimes lean a bit permissive.
Which leads to consequences, the more difficult of the two themes. The first time Suzanne said the word, I had a visceral reaction to it- I’m pretty uncomfortable when people begin to discuss consequences because it often implies physical corrections. And I don’t do physical corrections. Still, Suzanne was clear that consequences need to be tailored to the dog, and that you should always use the least amount of force possible, but she did say that for some dogs, a well-timed physical correction can be useful. She’s even okay with shock collars under very specific circumstances. At the same time, you can’t do this with very sensitive dogs. Often a firm word is enough (or too much!) for them. She went so far to say that such dogs need our support, not our criticism, and so the way we approach them will be very different.
I was very glad that she made this distinction, although I do not agree with her regarding physical corrections. Do they work? Certainly, but even so, I don't find them acceptable. I suspect that part of my adamant opposition to physical corrections is due to the fact that I have one of those sensitive dogs. Regardless, it was good for me to consider the idea of consequences. As Suzanne pointed out, sometimes a consequence is simply saying, “No, thank you,” to a particular behavior our dogs exhibit, and as I mentioned earlier, I do tend to trend a bit permissive with Maisy.
So, how do we humanely use consequences? First and foremost, we need to teach the dog how to be right. Suzanne said that in her experience, people don’t build strong enough foundation skills. I know I certainly fell into that trap, and I think training classes in general could do more to help teach people how to build stronger foundations. She also stressed that while building foundation skills, it’s important to give the dog choices, but to set the situation up in such a way that the dog can make the right choice. This gives the dog more responsibility for her behavior, while also helping her learn.
Gradually, we make the choices harder, rewarding heavily for correct decisions while imposing consequences for the wrong one. Again, the consequence depends on the dog. She gave the example of teaching a dog to walk on leash. It is the dog’s responsibility to stay nearby. If the dog fails, we may not use a leash pop, but we might use some collar pressure to make things a bit uncomfortable. It’s not given as a punishment, but it is a consequence of the dog’s behavior.
I’ve struggled with good loose leash walking skills with Maisy. She doesn’t pull, but she likes to stop and sniff interesting rings, and I’m afraid that this is transferring over to the obedience ring. Because I haven’t wanted to use anything aversive, even if it’s only mildly uncomfortable, I’ve stopped and called her name. In essence, I’ve nagged her, which has only taught her that if she ignored me, she could sniff longer.
Suzanne would say that she needed a consequence for ignoring me, so I took her advice and started a new program: Sniffing is only allowed when I explicitly cue it. Furthermore, she must disengage and come with me when I tell her sniffing time is over (I’m using the cue, “let’s go”). The first time I said “let’s go,” she didn’t make an effort to move. It was very hard for me to just start walking, and I did end up pulling her for a few steps. When she caught up with me, I praised her effusively. By the end of the walk, though, she began to choose to disengage and move with me when I said, “let’s go!” We’re still working on not sniffing unless I cue it, but it’s getting better.
So, was that positive punishment? Yes, and that makes me feel bad. I feel slightly dirty just writing about it. But… did it hurt her? Was she confused about what I was asking from her? Did it cause her to feel unsafe? No, I don’t think it did, which means it was an appropriate and humane consequence.
There’s more, of course. Suzanne said a whole host of interesting things about clicker trainers… but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for my next post to hear about those! In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on consequences. Do you use them, or do they make you feel a bit weird like they do to me? How do you use them in your training, and if so, how does Suzanne’s criteria for humane consequences sit with you? Let me know!