Jane Killion is a reinforcement trainer.
Notice the words I chose there, because she doesn't call herself a positive trainer. Why? Well, in behavior science, all “positive” means is “add.” You add something in order to manipulate future behavior. Sometimes you add something in order to increase a behavior, and sometimes you add something in order to decrease a behavior. Technically speaking, this label can easily refer to some wildly divergent training methods. But Jane also feels the term “positive” can be divisive. Since so many people misunderstand it to mean upbeat, kind, or virtuous, it implies that people use use other methods aren't. What's more, it also implies that anyone who is nice must automatically be positive, which is misleading.
As a result, Jane favors the term “reinforcement training.” Her methods are based on providing reinforcement to the dog, whether that's by adding something desirable to increase a behavior (positive reinforcement), or by removing something unpleasant in order to increase a behavior (negative reinforcement). What she avoids whenever possible is the use of punishment, as all that does is suppress behavior, not teach the dog what you want him to do.
Training under the umbrella of reinforcement gives a trainer a variety of things to use to create behavior. Without a doubt, the most popular- and Jane's favorite- is to use food. Not only is it a primary reinforcer, but it's also easy to dispense, easy to control, and it tends to tap into the “thinking” part of the dog's brain.
That doesn't mean that you can't use positive reinforcement with a dog who isn't interested in food. You can, it just takes a bit of creativity. Enter Premack, a principle which states that a high probability behavior can be used to reinforce a low probability behavior. If your eyes just glazed over, don't worry; Jane has come up with a very clever way of describing the Premack principle. She calls it ICE: Identify “hot” reinforcers (anything your dog wants, which might include sniffing the ground, rolling in something stinky, or peeing on a bush), Control them, and then Exchange a behavior for the hot reinforcer.
Jane showed us an excellent video of her working with a very distracted young dog that really wanted to do was explore and sniff, which was incompatible with his owner's desire that he walk nicely on the leash. In the video, Jane identified the hot reinforcer (sniffing), controlled that reinforcer by shortening the leash so he couldn't sniff, and then waited for an opportunity to exchange a behavior for sniffing. As soon as the dog looked at her, she let out the slack in the leash and told him to go sniff. After a few moments, she shortened the leash again, and the process repeated. Soon, he was willingly paying attention to her while they walked through the field together. Pretty cool.
As the video demonstrated, Premack is a powerful thing, and I wish she would have demonstrated it live during the seminar. I can understand why she didn't- we had limited time, and Premack takes longer than handing out a cookie- but I was still a bit disappointed. There was even a great opportunity to demonstrate Premack/her ICE system since one of the working dogs had a medical problem that made it difficult to use food for training, but instead Jane had that handler switch out for a different dog.
Another way to train with reinforcement is through negative reinforcement. This often ignored method has us remove something aversive in order to provide relief to the dog. This is a powerful thing, and dogs and people alike will perform behaviors that bring them relief. Jane was clear that she will not add the aversive herself, but that she will use unpleasant things that are already present; a shiny floor, perhaps, or the presence of the judge leaning over the dog to do the stand for the exam. And, Jane said, often the equipment in agility is a stressful thing for dogs.
To that end, she showed us another excellent video demonstrating how reward placement can provide negative reinforcement. On screen, we saw a dog who was hesitant to jump on the table, an agility obstacle that requires the dog to stay on a platform for several seconds before moving on to the next obstacle. The dog in question was slow and reluctant to get on it and lie down. Jane shaped the dog in several steps to move towards, get on, and then lie down on the table, each time throwing the treat away from the table, which allowed the dog relief from the piece of equipment he found unpleasant. Soon, she had a dog eagerly offering the desired behavior.
Again, I was disappointed that she didn't demonstrate the use of negative reinforcement during the seminar, even though there was actually a training problem that could have been set up to take advantage of it. One of the working dogs was having trouble performing recalls in the presence of other people. Jane chose to have people stand in two rows, then instructed the handler to call the dog to run between them. I would have loved to see Jane use some negative reinforcement in this situation through the relief of social pressure by having the people move back when the dog responded. This could have been a powerful reward for this dog, but instead, the dog got a treat when she came.
Now, there's nothing wrong with this. The approach worked; the dog was able to improve her ability to come despite the presence of people, but it was stressful for the dog. Jane was okay with this; learning is stressful, she said. She's right, of course, but after my experiences with Maisy- a dog with clinical anxiety- I have far less tolerance for stress during training. As a result, I just wasn't comfortable watching the amount of stress the working dog endured- especially when Jane could have used negative reinforcement to relieve the dog's stress while still accomplishing her goal.
As these two examples demonstrate, most of what Jane showed us over the course of the weekend was straight positive-reinforcement-with-food. More to the point, Jane has a tendency to shape everything. At times, it felt like this the only tool she has, but then, she's so good at it, she doesn't really need anything else.
I doubt that I will ever attain her level of skill in observation, setting criteria, and timing, but I am hopeful that having the chance to watch her will improve my own abilities. I look forward to telling you about some of what I learned... But it will have to be in the next post, as this one has gotten far too long already.