Sunday, February 6, 2011

We Have Cookies

...at least, we will soon.

Although dog training is my passion, by trade, I am a social worker. For several years now, I have worked at a program that teaches vocational skills to people with disabilities. We do this primarily on-site through a variety of contract jobs that allow our clients to get paid while developing employment skills. We also support them in community work, when it’s available, by providing job coaches.

While this model has been around for 40 or 50 years, it’s no longer sustainable, either economically or socially. Our services are expensive, so the state is looking for cheaper options, and parents want a more normalized work experience for their children. The current trend is moving towards independent community jobs, which my co-workers and I find ridiculous; while our system may not be perfect, many of my clients really don’t have the ability to work alone. Independent job placement might work for some people, but it will never work for ours.

I've always believed this, and in fact, never even questioned this line of thinking until last week. I had this conversation at work, and then went home and posted an entry about people who say positive training can’t work for certain kinds of dogs. Talk about a moment of cognitive dissonance! Here I was, professionally stuck in the very same box I was arguing against.

I’ve never experienced anything other than positive methods. When I first got Maisy, I didn’t know anything about dog training, so while I was committed to having a well-mannered canine citizen, I had no idea where to start. I signed up for a class at the first place that I found, and it was simply by chance that it happened to be clicker-based. I could have just as easily ended up somewhere that used more traditional methods.

I’m glad I didn’t. I have found that positive-reinforcement training is not only effective for a wide variety of issues, but it is also easy, fun, and most importantly, emphasizes relationships and teamwork. I simply couldn’t understand why people would want to inflict pain on their best friends if they didn’t have to.

Then I realized that in my professional life, I am the traditional method. Like traditional training methods, the model I work under is effective for the vast majority. The idea that there is something else that might work equally well, if not better, is hard to swallow- we have a long history of success. More than that, people I respect and admire believe in the way we do things. Thanks, but we’ll just stay over here, doing what we know works, while other people try out new things that may or may not pan out.

So, not only do I have a new-found understanding for the position of people who are using traditional training methods, I am also in awe of the courage it must take to cross over to positive methods. That is a huge leap of faith which requires a radically new mindset and a departure from everything- and everyone- that is familiar.

For my readers that are traditional trainers (if I have any), I think I understand you a little better now. Sticking with the familiar is comfortable and easy, and there's no incentive to try something new if what you're currently doing works. I’m certainly not looking to leave my job just because there might be a better method out there. However, I think you should know that we have cookies.

For my readers that have crossed over, I'm proud of you- and impressed. I'm sure that was a hard decision, and I’d love to hear your story. Did you have a dramatic experience that changed you forever? Or was it a number of little things that convinced you when they were all added up? Or did you just hear that we have cookies?

For my readers that are like me, who have always trained with positive methods, I have a challenge: avoid judging the others. I know how defensive I feel in my professional life when my company is criticized for the services we provide. I’ve been told that I don’t care about the people I work with, that I’m being exploitive and segregating them from the community. But I do care- I just don’t know how to do this differently. The system is set up to maintain the status quo, even while railing against it.

So, while I’m not sure what I will do professionally, I know that personally, I need to strive for kindness in my criticism, for tolerance in my teachings, and above all, I need to remember that a positive trainer is as nice to the people around her as she is to her dog. We need to share the cookies.

16 comments:

Ninso said...

Great post, Crystal! I started training dogs when I was about 15, and at the time my knowledge came from reading every book in the library on dog training, which mostly advocated traditional methods. We didn't take classes, and if we had, I am guessing they would have been choke chain classes (this was 12 years ago). I will admit I've alpha rolled my (first) dog, I've yelled, I've used choke chains, "propeller" leashes, shake cans, ear pinches, and correction-based methods in general. I am not proud of it, but it's all I knew. I will say, I did not get great results with any of it (I'm sure this was partly a matter of lack of skill), and one day I read a book called "Behavior Conditioning with Respect and Trust" and it changed my life. I found it to be revolutionary stuff--I don't know if it actually was, but it was to me at the time. Granted, I still didn't really know what I was doing, but my whole view of dog training changed, and that is when I became a positive trainer.

I was only able to keep that dog for 3 years, and when I got Lok years later, I came at training from a positive/clicker philosophy. But I still had more book-knowledge than I had experience, so I will admit that there were times I listened to my friends who had more experience than I who said I should use corrections (like when Jun started growling at kids--yep, I corrected her, and nope it didn't do any good, I worry that I made it worse). Over the past few years my views have been more refined as I've worked with my own dogs and fosters, and I would now consider myself "mostly" positive. I do use corrections, but nothing like what I used to use. I have found that in the past the corrections I used were based in anger, and "losing it" with my dog, and I've really worked on patience. I don't yell anymore--it's never done any good anyway. And when my dogs misbehave I recognize that they are only acting exactly according to my expectations--if I want their behavior to change I have to set them up for success.

So I guess my "evolution" has been partly growing knowledge and experience and partly personal growth. I think that "respect and trust" are the yardsticks by which any training method should be measured. Ultimately I want to have a great relationship with my dogs based on respect and trust and IME, positive training has provided the best road to that relationship.

Ninso said...

Wow, I didn't realize that was so long! Sorry for the novel!

Crystal said...

Ha! Novels are accepted- after all, my blog breaks the "posts should be no more than 250-500 words" rule ALL THE TIME.

I did use corrections in my teens as a horse person, and found that it was difficult for me to use them without "losing it" at least once in awhile, like you describe. Still, I've met people who can contain their frustration while using corrections, and those teams often seem to have a good relationship and work well together. So, I don't think a training method in and of itself dictates the relationship, but I do think it's easier (at least for me) to develop a deeper relationship with positive methods.

Ninso said...

Oh, I definitely agree! I am now able to use well-thought-out corrections with a clear purpose and plan, and I think that they can be used in a way that doesn't hurt your relationship with your dog! I think a lot depends on the skill level of the trainer and how effectively they are communicating what they want to the dog, whether using traditional or positive methods. I think that confusion and frustration are often worse for a relationship than a quick pop that clearly communicates what is expected.

Crystal said...

I agree with you that clear communication is the key, regardless of methods. Interestingly, your comment reminded me that part of the problem with discussing training methods is that there are many different interpretations for a word, making it difficult to have clear communication. For example, I'm not sure what you mean by "corrections." It implies pain to me, which I do not think is necessary in training, but it can also mean something more general, like "an action to prevent a behavior from happening again" which may not be pain-based.

Anonymous said...

I seek to understand :-)

Why the aversion to using negative reinforcement in addition to positive reinforcement? I obviously don't mean anything painful or frightening to the dog, but (depending on the dog) something even as simple as a sharp "no" to indicate undesirable behavior? Like raising a child, it's necessary to teach both appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Using only positive reinforcement seems to be missing half of the equation.

Crystal said...

Hi, anonymous! I'm glad you're interested in understanding. I'm working very hard to be more understanding, too. :)

The biggest thing you need to know is that my definition of "positive training" may be different from other people's. I do not believe it is possible to use positive reinforcement exclusively. My only stipulation is that whatever I am doing must not cause pain or fear.

The tricky part is that pain and fear is relative and depends on the dog. Just as all people have different levels of pain tolerance, so do dogs. Likewise with fear. I have a very sensitive dog who has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, so I trend pretty soft. Despite that, I do tell my dog no when I need to.

In fact, I use all four "quadrants," but I admit that I am a "lopsided trainer." I use probably 85% positive reinforcement, 10% negative punishment, and 5% positive punishment. I can't remember a time that I've used negative reinforcement, but that's more a practical difficulty than a philosophical objection.

Incidentally, I feel that I should point out that your example of a sharp no is not negative reinforcement, but rather positive punishment. Reinforcement increases a behavior whereas punishment decreases a behavior. The terms negative and positive are purely mathematical, not value judgments, so negative means that something has been removed and positive means that something has been added. The psychologists who developed the terminology really made the concepts much more difficult than they needed to be.

I hope that helps explain where I'm coming from. If not, let me know and I'll try to clarify further. Although I don't really know anything about child-rearing (I neither have nor desire to have children), I agree that it's necessary to teach both appropriate and inappropriate behavior, but I don't think that means you need to scare or hurt the learner.

Eliz said...

For me positive training seems to be the only training that really fits with my personality. I just am not well suited to adversive training and as such the chance of me be consistent is little to none. And any training without consistency is probably training that isn't going to work.

However, aside from my personal demeaner I have found many advantages to positive training, including creating positive associations to things. I believe this to be particularly important because without words what you associate with an action and what the dog associates may be completely different.

For example, (true story) I'm walking down the street with my dog, a big tall man painting the house next door with sunglasses and hat approaches me and asks to pet him. I say yes but my dog shys away. The man tells me, "I know just what to do" pops open the trunk of his van, pulls out a grocery bag and removed a box of dog biscuits. Three biscuits later he has a new best friend. The next day the exact same set up happens again (it takes a bit to paint a house) the man sees us and says, "No worries my friend, I left some in the car for you" pops open his trunk removes a few biscuits from the box and the two best friends are reunited.

Now as a person I would say that my dog would associate the treat with one of several factors; a tall man, a man wearing a hat, the house, the smell of paint, or maybe that particular man.

On day four the man isn't there. Instead he is up the street we walk and my dog shys away - like they have never met. We keep walking and the dog comes to house that was being painted he is suddenly very excited, once in front of the house he immediately goes to the back of the man's car and looks expectantly at the trunk.

For the rest of my time in that apartment, even well after the house was painted, even though after those three days he never received any more treats from the back of the car, anytime there was a car parked in front of the house my dog would perk up and prance over to the trunk of the car hoping for a treat.

Sometimes it is hard to predict what a dog is associating with what, and if as a trainer you miscalculate it seems easier to handle transition a good association rather then a bad association. But that is just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying that!

Ninso said...

@Crystal, that's a good question. I think when I use the word "correction" I'm talking about positive punishment. But I also don't think positive punishment needs to cause pain or fear. Usually I'm talking about the word no or "pressure" (like body blocks or walking down) Or using training tools like a gentle leader (which to me is no different than a prong collar, just looks less barbaric). With Jun I will use a squirt bottle sometimes--doesn't cause "pain" per se, but certainly not pleasant for her. I also, as I've mentioned before used a bark collar. All of these things are effective in lessening the frequency of behavior or at least putting an immediate stop to it.

I'm hesitant to call any training technique "unnecessary"--maybe "usually unnecessary" or "unnecessary in most cases/for most dogs" This wasn't always the case, but I've found myself using things I've said I would "never" use out of necessity. Like for Jun, I've used every "positive" method in the book to stop her barking--could be lack of skill on my part, but I think I am more skilled than the average dog owner--and haven't had any lasting success. The bark collar is unpleasant, but not painful at the low levels I use it on (I've gotten myself with it a few times). I used to say with righteous indignation that I would NEVER use a bark/shock collar and I was certain that the people who did just didn't care that much about their dogs!! Life made me eat my words! Ultimately it really depends on the dog and the situation. I'd always try positive methods first, but I'm not against using an aversive if it would be more effective and not damaging to the dog. Sometimes in life, our behavior has consequences that are less than pleasant, and I don't see why a dog need be completely immune from this. As long as corrections are consistent and fair and actually WORK to reduce the behavior--because if they don't, they are no longer a "correction"--they're not correcting anything!! At that point, you're either nagging your dog (pointless) or abusing your dog (immoral).

Crystal said...

Ninso- I absolutely agree that corrections should be fair and consistent. That's just good training, regardless of the method employed. It is my personal preference not to use pain or fear, and while I think it's unnecessary to use them, I understand your hesitancy. Nuisance barking is very difficult to address, and I can understand why people might choose a bark/shock collar. I know I'll never use one on Maisy, and I hope I'll never need one for another dog.

My methods of "corrections" with Maisy involve saying "no" in a neutral tone, some mild body blocking, and withholding a reinforcer (ie, treat, ball, attention). In the past, I used an easy walk harness (Maisy HATED it, and while it didn't hurt her or scare her, it did cause her a lot of stress, so I quit using it), and tried squirting her with water (she actually loved that so it was counter-productive). So, while I'm not averse to using punishment of some kind, I'm always striving to use less. Which is kind of the point of punishment. :)

Anonymous said...

^Ninso summed it up much better than I ever could. It seems like because you have had successful results on your dog you extrapolate that to mean that those techniques should work on every dog, and there is only one proper way to train. Being in the social field, I'm sure you handle situations differently depending on the person. There is no one "right" way to handle every person in every situation. Just as it is with dogs.
This is my interpretation at least- unless I misunderstood what you are saying!

-Incognito ;-)

Ninso said...

Completely agreed! So many people would recommend an easy-walk as a "positive" alternative to a prong collar, but it really depends on the dog. Lok hated the GL and totally disconnected from me with it on so I stopped using it. And some dogs love being squirted with water, but Jun scrunches up her face and cowers at the mere sight of the water bottle--for her, I actually feel worse about using the spray bottle than I do about using her bark collar--water in the face is about the worst thing that could happen to her, in her mind! I definitely do try to minimize the use of aversives, use the least aversive technique possible and try positive methods first, and always listen to the dog as far as what is and isn't an aversive. And personally, I don't use corrections (positive punishment) when TEACHING my dog to do things--only when trying to stop unwanted behavior.

Crystal said...

Incognito- ha! love the name (and thanks- it helps me keep track of whether or not I'm talking to the same person, and just generally makes me feel better about anonymous comments, so I really appreciate it)-

You're absolutely right that there is no one right technique to handle every person, dog or situation. The dog gets to define what he finds reinforcing or punishing. As noted above, Ninso's dog finds being sprayed in the face with water aversive and mine finds it FUN.

The cool thing about positive training is that there are many different ways to teach the same behavior. If I want my dog to go lie on a mat, I can shape her to do that by clicking small movements in the right direction, I can lure her to do it by tossing a cookie on the mat, or I can capture it by waiting for her to go to the mat herself. More than that, though, I can also manipulate the environment to make it more likely that she'll go to the mat by placing it in the hallway and wait for her to walk down it, or putting it in her favorite napping spot, or putting it in her crate... the options are endless.

I do not think we ever need to use pain or fear to teach a NEW behavior. This is partially because I've had success with my own dog, like you point out, but also because science has shown that positive reinforcement works.

Stopping an already existing and unwanted behavior is much more difficult, as Ninso points out. In those cases, I think that Ninso has laid out a pretty sensible plan: try positive methods first, and if those fail, use punishment in a thoughtful, fair, and consistent manner. The punishment used should also be the least invasive and minimally aversive possible.

I think we can find pain and fear-free punishments that are aversive enough to stop the behavior, hence my statement that it is unnecessary to use pain or fear in training. However, I will concede that there are situations where we might not have the time to figure out how to do that.

Life-and-death situations like a dog trying to eat something poisonous or running towards a busy highway is no time to futz with a clicker. You do what you have to do in that moment, even if it hurts or scares your dog. But, I don't think that's training so much as damage control, and once your dog is safe again, you teach a stronger "leave it" or a better recall using positive methods.

And, while I don't like it, I'll admit that there are times where using pain or fear in training is the better of two evils- if the dog is going to lose his home because he's barking too much, a shock collar is probably the better option.

All of which is to say that while I think there are BETTER ways to train, I recognize that there are other methods that not only work but might also make sense in a given situation. I might not like those methods, I might think they're unnecessary, but I'm trying hard to avoid judging people who use them.

Ninso said...

That comment was as good as the original post!

Crystal said...

Thank you, Ninso. Part of the reason that comment got so long was because I realized that I use two different words where most people use one. I say "training" to mean "teaching new behaviors" and "behavior modification" to mean "getting rid of or changing an existing, unwanted behavior," but I think most people call both those things just "training." That's actually quite accurate, so I wanted to be clear about what I meant. Otherwise, I'm afraid I might sound like I was contradicting myself.