Sunday, December 4, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: Science-Based Training?

 Training with dad. Note the clicker in his hand.

A lot of people call clicker training (or positive-reinforcement training in general) “science-based.” But is it, really? What do we know, scientifically, about training dogs? In this, my last post on Patricia's seminar, I'll discuss some of the studies she shared with us.

I'm always astounded by the number of people who don't train their dogs. These are the people that, when they learn I do rally and obedience with Maisy, or that I teach training classes, always laugh and say, “My dog could use some obedience!” I'm usually then regaled with increasingly horrifying stories of near-death incidents resulting from a lack of training. But then Patricia shared two studies that made me wonder if most people even want a trained dog.

The first study looked at 118 dogs. Roughly half had no training, or only one basic-training class. The other half were highly trained agility, schutzhund, or search and rescue dogs. Each dog was tested on his ability to manipulate a box in order to get food out. Twice as many of the dogs in the trained group were able to get the food, suggesting that higher levels of training is associated with better problem solving skills.

The other study tested dogs' ability to discriminate quantities. The dogs were allowed to choose between small and large piles of food; in general, both groups chose the bigger amounts. However, the difference between highly trained dogs and untrained dogs became apparent in the second stage of the experiment, when the dogs watched their owners choose the smaller piles before being allowed to choose for themselves. The untrained dogs typically followed their person's lead, and also chose the smaller amount- this despite the fact that they earlier chose the bigger piles. The trained dogs, however, chose the larger piles, suggesting that training creates independent thinkers.

Independence? Better able to solve problems? Dare I say it: improved ability to think? I really don't think the average pet owner wants to live with a smart dog. Perhaps it's a good thing that pet dogs don't receive high levels of training!

Once we've made the decision to train our dogs, though, the next question becomes: how often should we train them? When Maisy and I were actively attending training classes, we were advised to train in short sessions, several times a day. At the very least, we should try to get in 5 or 6 sessions a week. As it turns out, though, this may not be the most efficient use of time.

Two separate studies found that training once a week results in “better learning performance.” They discovered that dogs acquired the skill in fewer sessions when trained less frequently than when trained daily. (One of the studies also looked at how well the dogs remembered what they'd been taught, and found that the dogs in both groups retained the task equally well.)

I think Patricia put it best: maybe the dogs learned in fewer sessions, but come on: it took eight weeks to teach a simple targetting exercise. Maybe it takes a couple of extra sessions, but by doing several sessions a day, the same task could be learned in just a few days. Still, she said these studies point out the importance of processing time; dogs need rest periods in order to learn most efficiently, especially for more complicated tasks.

Finally, every trainer has to make decisions about how they will train. Patricia shared that there are a number of studies showing that force-based training has negative effects. For example, one study showed that dogs trained with shock collars exhibited more signs of stress, even when compared to dogs trained with “fairly harsh” methods. Another found that punishment was associated with increased behavior problems, like aggression, distractability, and overall lower obedience levels. And the study I found most interesting discovered that punishment was associated with increased anxiety in fear in small dogs, but not in large ones.

There are also studies showing that reward-based training has good effects. These dogs are more likely to interact with strangers, be more playful, and are generally better at novel training tasks than dogs who are trained with punitive methods.

Patricia felt it was only fair to share a study whose results we may not like: it found that search and rescue dogs were more successful in advanced stages of training when there was “an increased use of compulsive methods.” Generally speaking, though, it seems that science favors reward-based training, which leads us to the clicker conundrum: should we use them?

One researcher trained 20 dogs to target a ball with their noses. Half the dogs were trained with a clicker, and half were trained with the verbal marker “good.” The results showed that the clicker trained dogs learned the task faster than those trained with the verbal marker (about 36 minutes as compared to 59 minutes). Patricia believes this is because the clicker makes a short, abrupt sound with a very clear start and stop. It's also a “broad noise band”- it covers more frequencies than the spoken word. All of these things make it more distinct and easier for the dogs to notice.

The last study that Patricia shared with us looked at the use of clickers and food versus food only in training. Thirty-five basenjis were taught to target a traffic cone, and once they learned the task, were variably reinforced for a maintenance period. The researchers found no difference in the amount of time that it took the dogs to learn the task; despite proponents' claims, the clicker was not found to speed up learning.

Then the researchers did extinction trials in which they quit giving food to both groups of dogs, but continued clicking the dogs in the clicker group. The results showed that the clicker-trained dogs were more resistant to extinction, to which I just have to say: DUH. The clicker is a reinforcer- it's a secondary reinforcer, not a primary one, it's true, but it's still a reinforcer. Of course the behavior didn't extinguish as quickly. They were still being reinforced. (To be fair, the study authors state that this suggests the clicker does, indeed, act as a secondary/conditioned reinforcer, and I guess it's nice to have that scientifically verified.)

So, with all of this in mind, will it train the way we train? Personally, the answer is no. I train because I enjoy it. Yes, I have a smarter dog as a result, and yes, that can make her more difficult to live with sometimes (I often wonder who is training who). But I train for the experience moreso than the end result... which is probably why I play endless shaping games but have pretty much nothing on cue. (Sigh.) And my methods? Well, those are unlikely to change, too. My choices have been made on my personal moral and philosophical beliefs, not science.

What about you? Will you change anything about your training based on these studies?

If You Want to Know More
This post has been edited for clarity (see comments). It originally said: "Independence? Better able to solve problems? Dare I say it: improved ability to think? I really don't think the average pet owner wants to live with a smart dog. Maybe instead of training the dogs, we should focus on teaching the people how to manage situations better." I think the new version is a better reflection of the study.


    spring4th said...

    "Independence? Better able to solve problems? Dare I say it: improved ability to think? I really don't think the average pet owner wants to live with a smart dog. Maybe instead of training the dogs, we should focus on teaching the people how to manage situations better."

    That's not what I got out of that research study at all. There is a big difference in the "creativity level", if you will, of an agility/SAR/sport dog than of a dog that has been through a couple of basic training classes.

    I have students that have been using clicker training for basic training (aspiring to pass the CGC) and problem-solving but these dogs don't offer as many behaviors as the agility dogs I also work with.

    Additionally, consider the differences in how the sport dogs were raised as puppies versus the "pet" dogs. I would suspect this also comes into play. I would also like to know breed differences... I don't know, it just seems that there are SO many variables with this study that I'm struggling to get much out of it.

    I do totally agree with you on the frequency of training study. If you want to wait 8 weeks to have a targeting behavior, be my guest! LOL.

    Kelly said...

    Hi Crystal,
    I just read through the search and rescue dog study you provided a link to, and as far as I can tell, there was no evaluation of the efficacy of positive vs. compulsion-based methods. The study simply showed that most people training SAR dogs tended to use more physical force in training as the dogs got older. Maybe I'm missing something though, or maybe Dr. McConnel was summarizing a different study?
    Thanks, I really enjoy your blog!

    Crystal Thompson said...


    I'm thinking that we're on the same track, and I just worded some stuff wrong. The study- and your comment- says that there is a big difference between dogs who've had little or no training, and dogs who've had more advanced training.

    I suggested that meant pet people don't want trained dogs. What I SHOULD have said is they don't want HIGHLY trained dogs... those are the ones with more creativity and thus the higher potential to get into trouble. ;) Of course, most pet people aren't interested in doing that much training, so really, there's no problem.

    I do still wish that people did more management all the way around- myself included. So many problems become nonissues when you just manage the situation better.

    Crystal Thompson said...


    It's highly possible I linked to the wrong post. The citations from the seminar didn't include the titles of the studies, so sometimes I struggled to find the right study (ESPECIALLY if the author had a common name). Finding the studies actually took more time/work than writing the entries!

    It's also possible I misunderstood what she meant, so here's what the slide/handout says:

    "HOWEVER, more success at advanced stages of training in S&R with 'an increased use of compulsive methods'(Alexander et al 2011)"

    I'll let you draw your own conclusions and/or find a study that better fits that slide! (And let me know if you do!)

    Ninso said...

    I also want to comment on the Alexander study. I believe the one you posted is the one referred to, but McConnell's quote seems to mischaracterize the information from the study.

    The only conclusion drawn about compulsion seemed to be that there is an association between maturation of the dog and use of compulsive training methods. There was no information about the effectiveness of those methods.

    The study methodology was based on a survey and "success" was measured by different certifications. First of all, that is potentially not a very good definition of success, unless the standards are rigid and they are controlling for all kinds of things like age, experience, etc.

    Second, even accepting certification as a measure of success, the study did not find that dogs who had been trained compulsively achieved more certifications than others. Even if it had, this wouldn't mean much. I expect the findings would be similar if one surveyed owners of OTCH dogs or top gun-dogs. Compulsion would be common at top levels because that's how people train, not because it is necessarily more effective.

    Maybe I am missing or misunderstanding something, but I don't think the study is significant and I think McConnell was wrong about it's conclusion.

    Crystal Thompson said...

    Ninso- Bad blogger confession time: I have not read all of the studies linked in these posts. I haven't even read all the abstracts. :(

    I have now skimmed the Alexander article, and I think you've got some good points. The only thing I can think of is that older dogs=more success and older dogs=more compulsion. Maybe she was using that to infer that more success=more compulsion, but that seems like it might be a logical fallacy. Like you said, that doesn't mean that compulsion is better, just that that is what's used.

    Kerry M. said...

    Thanks for writing this up! I loved reading about the talk and am very glad that I found your blog.

    Crystal Thompson said...

    You're welcome, Kerry! I hope you enjoy the rest of what I write- I'm no Patricia McConnell, but I try to be interesting.

    Joanna said...

    Thanks for taking the time to write up these summaries!