Monday, April 19, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: Humane Training

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!


Lindsay said...

I have two strong willed and strong minded dogs with whom slight physical "corrections" would be like an annoying fly on their fur. So I think I'm coming from a different point of view. Neither one of my dogs is terribly soft. Bess is more prone to being cowed by a strong verbal correction, but it also REALLY depends on the circumstances with her. If she takes of chasing after a deer on a hike and I yell at her to stop or whatever, she really doesn't care. I could glare at her when she comes back, and she also wouldn't care. She very happily comes up to me to say a quick hi and then she's on her way. Of course, when she comes back to me, I also don't do any sort of correction. She came back and I don't want her to think that a recal is a bad thing. With both of mine, I think that light leash pops tend to really be nothing with them. I don't use them often, but if they're fixating on something, a quick leash pop gets their attention. When I'm working obedience exercises with them, they wear chain collars. A lot of times just the noise of the chain link moving in and out of the ring gets their attention back to me without the collar necessarily tightening on them. Because both of my dogs are prone to the "if you give an inch I'll take a mile" mind set, I do have to be firm with them. If I'm at all wishy washy them, they figure it out and use it to their advantage.

Take Heffner for instance. He's very fond of marking things on our walks. As long as we're not working obedience exercises or actively jogging, I'm fine with him marking things. Once we get to working, I don't want him randomly deciding to pee on something. It's taken a few times for him to understand this. Usually I can see it coming and I'll tighten the leash so that veering towards something isn't an option. If I'm not quick enough and he does start to lift his leg, I don't stop what I'm doing. I continue right on going. If that means that he gets a tug on the collar, then so be it. I've made it very clear that when we're working, he needs to be in work mode. Work time is not the appropriate time for marking. I make it inconvenient for him to mark. He understands this now, but will occasionally try it if I'm distracted or if someone else has him.

I guess basically what I'm saying is that I'm okay with the idea of the human corrections. Of course, most humane corrections are not of much physical significance to my dogs because they are so big, so I have a different perspective.

Crystal said...

Thanks for your comment, Lindsay.

I'm a clicker trainer, so as a matter of philosophy, I don't use physical corrections. I prefer to teach my dog what I want rather than what I don't want, and overall, it's worked well for me and my dog, and I think it can work for most, if not all, dogs.

I do use some mild verbal "corrections," but sparingly- Maisy stresses if I use them too often, and really, they don't tell her what I want, anyway. I put corrections in quotation marks because they're more of a no reward marker- I try to use a pretty neutral tone.

I've also used some pressure/release techniques, both social pressure, such as body blocks, and physical pressure, like I described with the collar/loose leash walking in this entry.

All that said, I would much rather someone use a choke or prong collar fairly and skillfully than to see someone using a so-called positive tool (like the head collars) poorly. I've just seen many happy, willing dogs wearing prongs, and too many shut-down, stressed out dogs wearing head collars... the fact is, an "aversive" is determined by the receiver.

All of which is to say, assuming your dogs are neither physically hurt nor emotionally stressed by the use of a training collar, I would never criticize you, even if I would never use one or recommend one personally.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

yes I use corrections. I don't think there are any 100% "positive" trainers out there, or in other words trainers who only use positive reinforcement.

Almost all of my corrections are negative punishment in that I withhold the reward by turning my back, walking away from them, not throwing the ball, end a training session and train the other dog instead, etc.

If my dog doesn't do something I first check the distractions around me, and if I haven't trained for that level then I stop whatever it is I am currently training and switch to training attention. I am a big attention trainer! If I have the dog's focus and I HAVE trained for that current level, I will usually give the dog the benefit of the doubt and assume he's having a bad day and go back a step in training.

But I also use positive punishment with behaviors I know are well trained and proofed for that situation. There are certain cues that I am less likely to be forgiving on with my dogs (minus some new environments)- sit, down, inside (the house), leave it, and loose leash walking. These are all cues that have been heavily trained, proofed like crazy, and I expect my dogs to listen regardless of anything else going on. Usually a sharp "ah ah" is all that is needed in 99% of situations. But I would not be opposed to physically putting the dog into position or doing a harsher leash tug if my dogs weren't responding to the verbal correction. I will admit that I have also given light swats on the butt for more serious offenses (usually "leave it" related, or "inside") but I always regret doing so later since a time out is more my style.

Oh, and my dogs are not allowed to mark or dwaddle on walks until given permission either. I like to actually walk so if they can sniff with out slowing me down they can, otherwise I WILL keep walking and they will hit the end of the leash (I don't jerk it though).

But I guess despite my use of corrections I still see myself as a clicker trainer. I train with pos. reinforcement and almost always give my dogs the benefit of the doubt when we run into training issues. The corrections are more daily life stuff are used only when things are heavily proofed.

Crystal said...

Laura, thank you so much for commenting!

First, I agree 100% that it's pretty much impossible to train using ONLY positive reinforcement. At the very least, our puppies require us to use negative punishment with things like biting and chewing. And, of course, you don't reward sub-par efforts- only the best. In essence we punish the crooked fronts or whatever by not giving the treat. That's just the way "positive reinforcement" training works.

I'm a new trainer. Maisy is my first dog. Which means that I've struggled a lot with figuring out my style. I started out as a "balanced trainer"- doing mostly positive reinforcement, but I used corrections like spraying water at her, stronger verbal corrections, and yes, I even hit her once (I still feel terrible about that). As I learned more about training, and clicker training specifically, I swung positive, and I've tried really hard to be all positive, all the time. It's worked well, but it's left some holes in Maisy's training.

Now I'm trying to figure out how to train positively, but to also use consequences that neither physically hurt nor emotionally stress Maisy. I want consequences or corrections- whatever you want to call it- that are useful pieces of information, but that won't damage our relationship.

The difficulty with figuring that out is that it's often a taboo subject on many mailing lists. I understand that the rule must be in place because otherwise arguments break out- good god, I hate the endless training arguments- but it's hard to figure out what's acceptable, and by whose standards. Ultimately, I think it so often turns into statements of "always" and "never," without taking the dog into account. A no-pull harness is widely accepted as a positive tool, and yet for Maisy, it was a horrible punishment. She hated that thing.

I'm starting to ramble, so I'll just stop here. What I'm trying to say, what I hope came across, is that I think rational, nonjudgmental, thoughtful discussion of how we deal with unwanted behaviors is important. Everyone needs to come to a place that is comfortable for them, that honors their dog as a unique individual, and is effective without causing unneeded pain or stress.

Dawn said...

Magic has gotten physical corrections. Rarely, very rarely, but on occasion. If he stops to sniff, I keep going and yes he gets a pop. Not harsh, but a correction. Yesterday when he was marching his way across the broad jump for the second time, he got physically picked up and taken in the house. No harm, but no reward either. An hour later, we tried again and he was much more willing. Jumped as he should. I dont know what the issue was-but at the time letting him march across the jump would have been counter productive.
On a less positive issue, a couple of my dogs do get binaca in the mouth for barking. I cannot just ignore it to extinction or the neighbors will complain, so the most humane thing that I can find that works for us is the binaca. Not a horrible punishment, but not pleasant either.

lessonsfromlayla said...

Ugh! This is the second time I've tried to post something in the last couple days when the computer's eaten my post. Luckily I saved this one before posting, and can copy-paste it back in.

Crystal, I'm on board with you. I consider myself a positive trainer. "Where knowledge ends, violence begins." (

I know that I have a willing dog who will try her heart out for me. If she disobeys, she does so because I haven't explained what I wanted clearly enough through clever use of timing and reinforcement.

A good example of this is Layla's prey drive. Her prey drive is through the roof. She snapped two collars before she was 20 weeks old going after prey. She has gotten stuck in a tree chasing a cat. She has a long history of catching, killing, and eating small furry things. Everyone says that a dog like her needs to be shocked for going after prey. It took awhile, but through the use of Premack and management she no longer gets stuck in the predatory FAP when she sees prey animals, and can even leave them on cue. She would have killed a cat as a younger dog. I can now introduce her to indoor cats on a loose leash and she politely sniffs them, then disengages. Any behavior is possible without P+ if you're a skilled enough trainer.

Which isn't to say that I'm perfect and can always get by without P+. I have used Spray Shield on her for the purpose of correcting a behavior on a couple different situations. Both times, it took one spray to eliminate the unwanted behavior, and both times her behavior was putting someone else at risk. I do have a remote spray collar for her, but have never used it. I have lso used an air horn to deal with coprophagia.

My criteria for using P+ are:
* The dog must know what TO DO, and have an extensive R+ history with the desired behavior
* The behavior being corrected must be something dangerous to the dog's or other's well-being which cannot be reasonably fixed through management alone (OR management is possible but would interfere with the dog's quality of life)
* The correction should not cause physical pain
* The behavior must be eliminated within three applications or less. If it takes more than three corrections, you're either using too mild of a correction or haven't taught the dog what TO DO well enough.
* You must remain unemotional when correcting the dog, and ideally the correction should not be associated with you.

Have you read Susan Garrett's books? If not, start with Shaping Success, then read Ruff Love. I do use her "It's Yer Choice" game quite frequently. I also use body blocking, a'la Patricia McConnell. Layla does tend to be pretty pushy and can be manipulative. She knows the rule structures, and if I don't enforce a rule (such as letting her go through a door without waiting for an automatic sit) she will push that rule for 1-2 weeks and really test her boundaries. So consistancy is important. I think a lot of people consider dogs like her "dominant" and believe that they must be corrected, but it's just not true. Two different agility instructors have advised me to use a prong collar on her! Body blocking (oftentimes for quite a distance, 5-10') and the It's Yer Choice game are really all that are needed to interrupt unwanted behavior. Coupled with the Premack principle, I think all the tools are there to deal with unwanted behavior fairly without physical corrections.

The use of punishment is one area where I disagree with Suzanne Clothier. Great post, thanks!

doberkim said...

This entire series has been really interested to read, and it makes me really inclined to want to see Suzanne in person for something like this - thanks for posting it.

Yes, I do use corrections. I think personally that it makes my training much more clearer. The two dogs I currently train are very high drive dogs, and are both fairly hard dogs - most of the corrections I use (and I won't go into the level of correction because I don't think this is the forum for it) don't even phase them - I will say that I believe that I don't want to nag them. I want the correction to be firm, something I have to use sparingly, and to be clear and concise. My dogs are VERY pushy dogs and eager to please themselves often - they don't really care about their surroundings, and I am blessed with them in many ways - but part of their package is that they look out for number one - and that is them :)

Most of the basis of their training is clicker trained - I have great and thrilling workers that love to work and cry when they are crated and the other is working... and if I will introduce a correction, it is when I KNOW that they understand what is being asked of them and there is no confusion- and I will also make sure that my cue is clear and nothing is confounding the situation. Rah's signals in utility last week broke down when he was wearing his holter monitor - we worked through it, but I broke him down to baby steps and I had a hunch that his holter (while it never affected him before) really was causing the breakdown in the down to sit - voila, take the holter off the next day and that step is fixed. Didn't correct it, just ignored that. Wasn't anything I could address right then and there except go back to 2 feet away, add in a verbal and give him a cookie for trying.

For my dogs, corrections fit into their training and make their lives clearer.

Crystal said...

Wow, there is a lot of great stuff in the comments. Thanks so much to everyone for taking the time to respond- and for doing so civilly!

I refuse to believe Magic is anything less than perfect, lol. I love that dog. Seriously, though, your response to pick him up when he was stomping on the broad jump is spot on. That's the kind of consequence I really like- it's effective without being painful or stressful.

I already knew you use corrections, and I've seen a bit of what that means to you through email lists and your blog. Although I choose not to use them, I have to agree with your assessment: your method of training does make things quite clear to your dogs. I also really love the way you look at what might be causing a breakdown in behavior (like the holter) before using corrections. I think that's smart training.

First, I'm glad your comment made it, because it's a good one. I love that you have a well-thought out protocol for using positive punishment. (I suspect others here do, too, but just didn't verbalize it the way you did.)

I like your comment about Premack... during Maisy's attack last week, the leash got yanked around a lot on her neck. Since then, the natural pressure that was happening on walks has occasionally freaked her out. Yesterday, while on our walk, I was thinking about your post about Premack. Given that I've had success with Premack in the past, I was wondering if I could Premack sniffing, and will have to try it.

Positive training is so easy to learn, and yet so hard to master. I'm always impressed by how well you've done with it. I'm not that skillful yet.

I'll be thinking about this all day, I can already tell.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I don't know if there are negative consequences that don't at least emotionally stress the dog. Of course there are vast differences between withholding a treat for a wrong behavior and using physical force.

Both my dogs are really very sensitive. Lance especially can stress extremely easily and hates being wrong when training. But training positive and with very small steps he learns quickly and we have no problems. And honestly I like that a sharp "ah ah" is all that is needed to stop almost any behavior. It stresses him, suppresses the behavior, and then I quickly move to teach him what I WANT him to do. I've used harsher punishments a few times for specific situations but I have to be much more careful to do something positive afterwards as Lance will remain shut down on that exercise for awhile if I don't.

Crystal said...

Laura, you make a great point re: emotional stress. I've avoided the point thus far because I'm not quite sure how to define the line between acceptable stress and that which is not acceptable, but darn it, you've forced me to address it, lol.

Basically, life is stressful. Good stress, bad stress- there's always stress in life. You can't avoid it, and you can't protect your dog from it. Going to the vet is stressful, the vacuum cleaner is stressful, trials are stressful.

So, while I've been saying that my belief is we should train in manner that doesn't cause physical pain or stress, I've avoided defining "stress." The problem is that, like many areas of positive training, the concept isn't well defined, and more difficult, means something different to everyone.

Overall, I think good training requires us to know our dogs well enough to know when to push and when to step back. And, I think that fine line is different for every dog. It's also likely different for every person, too. The amount of stress I find acceptable during training is probably different than the amount every single commenter here finds acceptable. That doesn't mean any one of us is better or more correct. I certainly don't think I'm a better or worse trainer because I choose not to use physical corrections and others here do. It's simply a personal choice I've made based on my experiences and knowledge, just as everyone else has made that choice.

Really, when it comes down to it, I want to train without physical pain or excessive emotional stress. I know what "excessive emotional stress" looks like for my dog when I see it, but I am not sure how to define it. Anyone want to try and take on what it means for them?

Kristen said...

There are SO many consequences. My dogs often are very aware of what the consequences of behaviors are. For trained competition behaviors consequences are ALWAYS reinforced with food/play/another cue. For incorrect responses with competition/fully trained behaviors, the consequence is ALWAYS no reinforcement and we set up for another rep. And I could probably go on. I try to be good and always have my training plans and knowing your consequences for correct and incorrect responses is a big part of that...

Excessive emotion stress is not easily measurable for us, but it's when the level of stress is impacting learning. Griffin has a few playmates that we avoid because they cause excessive emotional stress. In training class he sometimes gets like that. I haven't found our solution as we get to go to class so infreuqently... for him, it's hard mouthness and 'sad ears'.

In training sessions I work very hard for everything to be as close to 100% positive as possible. In real life it's a bit less, but if I notice we're having problems, it goes on a list of things we work on. If I'm having to resort to "management" or negative punishment, then we definitely have something to work on.

I spend a lot of time teaching my dogs how to respond to various things that help decrease the need for punishment/negative reinforcement. They know to move into pressure on the leash. They know that when they smell something, the option of -not- smelling it is likely to be reinforced. Griff especially isn't fond of restraint, but we've worked hard, and he offers it. If he struggles, I let go the moment I feel tension, he almost always immediately comes back and "offers" it again. And things go fine.

Crystal said...

Kristen, I, too, try to get as close to 100% positive as possible when teaching my "silly tricks" (ie, performance behaviors). The consequence for doing it wrong is no treat and possibly a NRM, although neither of us generally find those helpful. I figure that trials and titles are my thing and she shouldn't have to suffer pain or undue stress for my desires.

Real life stuff may get punished, depending on the issue. I still try to be as positive as possible, largely because of my personality and my dog's.

Crystal said...

Oh, and stuff getting "punished"? Mostly removing attention. I experimented with squirt bottles when Maisy was younger, but you know that whole "reinforcement (or punishment) is defined by the receiver" thing? Yeah, Maisy LOVES getting sprayed in the face, lol.