Monday, April 26, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: Wrap Up

Wow, who knew that a two day seminar could inspire over a month’s worth of blogging? I want to thank everyone who commented on these blog posts. The discussions we’ve had over the past month have really helped me think about the things Suzanne said in a far more sophisticated manner than I could have alone.

I just want to touch on a few of the highlights from those conversations today. If you haven’t, I encourage you to go back and read the comment threads. There are a lot of smart, dedicated, and talented people in there sharing differing perspectives. Although we dog trainers will probably never agree 100%, it’s nice to consider other ideas, either to refine our own thoughts, or to strengthen our positions.

For me, I have found that the seminar and resulting discussions have strengthened my commitment to positive training, even if the term is a bit of a misnomer. As everyone noted, it is impossible to use solely positive reinforcement. I strive to teach enough foundation skills that I rarely need to stray from that principle of operant conditioning.

Still, there are times when a consequence is needed for a less-than-desirable behavior. The challenge is to find such a consequence which is neither physically painful nor which causes excessive emotional stress. Of course, there is the challenge of defining how much stress is too much, but I’m afraid I have yet to figure that one out. So far, it seems to be a matter of knowing the dog well enough to be able to stop while we’re ahead, but that’s a rather ambiguous answer, and one which is undoubtedly frustrating for the less experienced trainers out there.

I have decided that for my dog, the best way to deal with unwanted behaviors is to use Premack’s Principle. I’ll admit, while I understand the principle intellectually, I don’t quite get why it works so well. At any rate, I’ve had some amazing results with Premack, and so have others.

When it comes to our “silly tricks”- my name for competition behaviors which really only matter because I have a goofy hobby, and not because they’re vital life skills- the consequences for an incorrect response is generally removing the reinforcement or doing a time out. Time outs work well; Maisy loves to train, and she loves to spend time with me. Removing my attention for a short period of time is a far more effective punisher than withholding a food treat.

I do occasionally use mild verbal corrections, but Maisy is so sensitive that I have to be careful with using these. I try to avoid them, as well as no reward markers because they tend to frustrate both of us. Similarly, I use some pressure/release techniques with her, such as body blocks or light physical pressure, but I have to be careful with these, too- she’s incredibly sensitive to physical touch. In fact, I once tried using a body wrap on her, which are widely promoted for reducing anxiety. It did not go over well, and in fact, actually caused more anxiety. Although both verbal corrections and physical prompts can be useful tools which fall on the more positive end of the “consequence spectrum,” they are things which I must use sparingly with my dog.

Which brings me to my favorite part of the seminar: Suzanne’s repeated insistence that we view all dogs as individuals. I love that she says training is humane only when we check in with the dog regularly in order to get his perspective. Can you do this? Is this okay with you? How can I help you? These questions focus on building up the relationship in the name of training, and I’ve always said that training is only about the relationship between me and my dog anyway.

Finally, I think the biggest benefit I got from the seminar was learning to give Maisy the information she needs to be successful. Her statement that dogs look to their people for clues on how they should react really encouraged me to look at what role I play in Maisy’s reactivity. I’ve always known that Maisy is sensitive to my moods and reactions, but being forced to confront that reality at the seminar has really improved my awareness of my own body. Making a conscious effort to remain calm and confident in the face of triggers has gone a long way in soothing Maisy’s fears.

All in all, that weekend was one well spent. I really think I grew a lot as a trainer as a result of the things Suzanne said, and again, I really appreciate each and every one of your comments.

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