Thursday, February 16, 2012

Do Methods Matter?

As a dog trainer, I think often about how and why I train the way I do. Lately, I’ve been especially interested in what makes for good training. What skills do I need to have to help a dog learn efficiently? What factors contribute to the end result/behavior I’m looking for? In an effort to figure it out, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and I have been asking others for their insight, too. In the process, I’ve discovered that good trainers:
  • Have excellent timing, which allows them to communicate their expectations to their dogs clearly.
  • Are consistent and predictable in their actions.
  • Have good observation skills, which allow them to see both the dog’s behavior as well as his emotional state.
  • Keep their rate of feedback high, which helps the dog understand what is wanted of him.
  • Can adjust the lesson plan, asking for more when the dog is ready, and balancing the current level of learning with appropriate distractions.
  • Are patient and calm during training.
  • Are capable of being creative in their approach, and are always learning new ways of doing things.
  • Definitely have a good sense of humor and a healthy dose of humility; things never seem to go the way we expect in training!
What’s missing in this list, though, is how the training is done. In fact, in my research, I found that people very rarely specify that a good trainer avoids corrections and focuses on positive reinforcement. Which leads me to wonder… do methods matter?
 
This is what I want. How do I get it?
Long-time readers know that I feel quite strongly about using positive methods; I do not use pain or fear when I work with a dog. I’ve even gone so far as to say that it’s perfectly possible to train without physical corrections. But for all that, I don’t think that people who train differently than I do are bad trainers. In fact, it would seem that “traditional trainers” are just as capable of demonstrating the skills needed to be good trainers as “positive trainers” are. Good timing, consistency, and observational skills are important whether you’re using a choke chain or a clicker. High feedback rates? Creativity? Adjusting criteria effectively? Ability to remain calm? Yup, all are possible, no matter how you train.

In short, good training is good training, no matter how you do it. So, again, I must ask: do methods matter?

Well, they do for me. I'm a process-oriented person who is interested in more than just the end result. I enjoy teaching my dog how to think and offer behaviors. I think it is fun to watch her figure out the problems I present her. I want a relationship built on feelings of trust and safety, and I think this is easier to do when the dog doesn't need to worry about being hurt or scared.

In addition, I much prefer the end result that comes from a dog who is a willing, cooperative partner that isn’t afraid to try new things. In my experience, dogs who have been trained with positive methods tend to have happier, more enthusiastic performances than those who have been trained with corrections. Of course, I must point out that I have seen very flashy performances come from dogs owned by traditional trainers, and it would be unfair to say that all dogs trained with corrections are miserable. What's more, I've seen some pretty stressed positively trained dogs.

Again, good training is good training. But here's the thing: it’s hard to be good.

If we're honest, most of us probably fall in the mediocre range of training skills. If we keep working at it, we will improve, but in the meantime, we make mistakes. And this is where I see the biggest difference between methods. For example, poor timing plagues many of us, and it leads to confusion because the dog isn’t sure what’s expected of him. The result will be hesitant responses and sloppy behaviors, no matter how you train. But where an uncertain, clicker trained dog will probably continue to keep working, the uncertain, traditionally trained dog is more likely to display signs of avoidance and stop trying entirely.

Certainly, the dog himself influences this a great deal. The “harder” dog- the one who isn’t terribly sensitive either physically or emotionally- will probably be able to sort through inconsistent and confusing messages. The “softer” dog probably doesn’t have that same stamina and persistence, and as a result, tends to shut down much sooner and more often. Unfortunately, it seems that many people vastly underestimate how sensitive their dogs are. The dog is labeled as “stupid” or “untrainable,” and everyone’s quality of life goes down.

I also think it’s easier to become a good trainer when you use positive methods. Take, for example, the skill of adjusting criteria. Ideally, regardless of our training style, we will work to set our dogs up for success. Whether we're clicking or correcting, we want to balance the dog's current level of learning with distractions. With traditional training, the temptation to wait for the dog to make a mistake so we can correct him is strong. Some folks will even purposely set their dogs up to be wrong. Compare this to positive training, where the entire goal is to break the behavior down into small, attainable pieces, which makes it easier to take distractions into account.

I also think positive methods make it easier for the trainer to control her emotions. I know that when I'm focused on seeing mistakes, agitation and frustration tend to creep in. I struggle to remain calm and patient when all I see is wrong behavior. This could just be a quirk of my personality, but I don't think so. I know enough other people who share it to believe this is just the way we are. We humans tend to see what we focus on, and we react to what we see. Reframing the training experience so that we’re focusing on the positive instead of the negative radically changes our emotional reactions.

Again, good trainers have learned to master these skills regardless of their methods, and they can get spectacular performances from their dogs as a result. But for the rest of us? Well, I think the methods do matter. The average person will find it easier to get the results they want using a positive reinforcement-based approach.

But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself. And no matter how you choose to train, strive to be good at it. Your dog will thank you.

9 comments:

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Crystal this is a fabulous post. All your posts are really well written and thoughtful but this one I especially enjoy. It gets the message across in a super respectful way and I wish all trainers would read and apply it.

Jen said...

I agree, truly; fantastic posting.

Methods do matter. If nothing else, it's a gut feeling that makes me not want to be coercive or aversive. And it's a gut feeling that makes me guilty if I get impatient. I agree that force free training is possible; it's can just be harder (though not much, necessarily) and require more patience.

Sophie said...

Great post.

I think that, for me, the methods do matter. Several years ago I used to use dominance theory methods on Jess (a la Milan). Thankfully I didn't do so for long, but thinking on it now--it is so much harder for me to remain calm when correcting than to clicking. I would find myself getting agitated and stressed, and rather than stepping back to see why that was happening I would just continue.

With clicker training, I'm much more able to be critical about what I'm doing. I'm definitely not perfect, but R+ is better for both my emotional state and, most importantly, my dogs'.

Kerry M. said...

Completely agree. For me, my main reason is that I think it does make me a better trainer; I read my dog better and I have to think more.

The other day I asked Huck to sit in the grass. He walked away and ignored me. If I was a correction based trainer, I would have corrected and that would probably have been that. Sit is his default behavior so even if he was confused, he would have sat, I'm sure. But instead I began to wonder why this happened and realized it has been many months since I last asked for a sit in grass. So I walked forward five feet, asked for a sit on the sidewalk, got it, went halfway into the grass, asked for a sit, got it, and so on and so on. I am so glad I didn't assume the dog was willfully stubborn and disobedient, because I think he was just confused about the grass.

I know correction based methods work. I just feel like a better person - more innovative, more kind, and less frustrated - when I don't use them.

Anonymous said...

Love!

Anonymous said...

hey crystal

nice post.
you wrote:

"I’ve even gone so far as to say that it’s perfectly possible to train without physical corrections."

to me this is what a 'good' trainer does by definition (i would go so far as to say no corrections of any kind are needed to teach behaviors).
a good trainer can actually teach without using any special equipment (including a simple collar and leash).
additionally, this is the difference i think between clicker training and training with a clicker (hint: no clicker is needed to be a clicker trainer).

-diana

Crystal Thompson said...

Thanks for the comments everyone!

Diana, I absolutely agree that we can train without pain and fear, or without any special equipment (including clickers- I rarely use one when I'm working with Maisy, to be honest). I even think a good trainer could train many dogs without food or toys- Premack is a POWERFUL thing- although that seems like an inefficient way to do things. :)

I do hesitate to use methods to define "good training," though, if only because there are clicker/positive trainers who have some pretty poor timing, consistency, etc. Now, whether methods should be PART of the definition is another discussion entirely.

Canine Behavior Training said...

Positive training, IMO, makes it easier to keep your emotions in check. Just the act of a correction needs an emotion that really isn't conducive to learning. Emotion of course being that energy that moves us. Can you really, deep down at the emotional level, bring pain to your dog, without feeling at least guilt not to speak of the emotions I've seen on faces of people who are wrestling with, poking or otherwise bringing pain and discomfort to their dogs. I even see these emotions on the faces of TV personalities and the need to take deep breathes to suppress these emotions. BTW, what I see on TV is not always directed at the dog. If the trainer is berrating, belittling and waving an accusing finger at the owners, how is that trainer really going to be able to help? Deep down is disgust and anger, it's going to come through and hinder the teaching / learning process at some point.

So, yeah, IMO methods matter, only because what the dog gets first and formost are your emotions and intentions. Discomfort and even pain are everyday occurences in just living life. Survival in certain circles is defined as seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

I don't think anyone can truly be, inside, calm and assertive when delivering an alpha roll or a shock.

Crystal Thompson said...

I definitely agree that positive training makes it easier for people to keep their emotions in check- like I said in the post, we see what we focus on. I have no idea if it's impossible to remain calm while giving corrections, but it does seem difficult.