Losing the positive reinforcement argument: What every trainer needs to know.

“He’s going to a punishment trainer”, is the positive Dog Trainer’s lament. “Why”, they want to know, “do people insist on giving up on positive reinforcement training in favor of coercive, punitive methods”? I have thought long and hard about this. Here’s what I have come up with:

1. People inherently want to punish. It is part of how we were all brought up and it is unbelievably part of our daily lives, whether we want to admit it or not. Everyone, no exceptions, uses coercion. It works, and when it does, we are reinforced and more likely to do it again.

2. Force is seen as strength and gaining compliance through strategy is seen as weak. Who’s the hero in high school? The Quarterback or the Chess Pro? Coercion is sexy. If you think I’m kidding, watch Cesar Milan – the epitome of Macho dog trainers. The opposing show that espouses positive methods features a slim, proper English woman who is more Nanny than Jock. Might meets right.

3. People want quick fixes. In our ‘give it to me now’ culture, most don’t care to do the necessary work to achieve a goal (fill in any goal here: i.e., weight loss, getting rich quick, getting a degree, etc.). They seek the ‘magic pill’ that will fix everything. Just watch infomercials to see creams that will make you younger and pills that will make you thin. Punishment is flashy, it makes you feel in control (a fallacy by the way but one that sells particularly to control freaks), and it produces quick results. It also produces long-term effects – but I’ll talk about that at a different time.

4. Positive reinforcement training appeals to animal lovers and devotees. These gentle souls are also especially prone to see themselves as trainers, wanting to teach and communicate with another species. They mistakenly think that offering a cookie for a given behavior is all that is necessary. In their zeal, they overlook the major points, like timing, fading lures, and the expertise (gleened from years of experience by the way) for knowing what to do when it isn’t working. These well-meaning, but misguided folks, sell themselves before they are ready. They want to work with aggression! They want to prove that they can tame the beast with kindness and gentleness. Unfortunately, they are in the deep end of the pool before they have really learned to swim. Their methods, which are often incomplete, don’t work and the client is left with the old “I tried positive reinforcement, but it didn’t work” mentality. Who pays for that? Positive trainers who actually possess the talent and skill to get the job done but won’t get the chance because the client has ‘moved on’. Unfortunately, the one who pays most dearly is ultimately, the dog.

5. Purely positive trainers can sometimes take the philosophy too far. This training story was recently related to me. It seems this completely positive reinforcement trainer (who of course will remain nameless) was at some sort of event where dogs and food where present. The trainer’s dog proceeded to raid the table and chow down on some burgers and hot dogs. The trainer waited for the dog to finish and then, when the dog came off the table, clicked and treated. The assumption here is that they marked and rewarded the ‘off’ behavior. The problem with this logic, (and there are several), is the failure to recognize that behaviors come in chains. Instead of isolating the ‘off’, the dog has learned to chow down, finish and then get off. This method also assumes, that the dog found whatever it was given as a reinforcement for getting off, more motivating than the initial behavior – which, for all intents and purposes, was hunting. Motivation is the essential ingredient in the success of positive reinforcement. Since hunting for food is pretty hard-wired in a dog, I seriously doubt that click/treat will trump it. I can’t imagine any owner being satisfied with (or willing to pay for) this type of advice.

Another missing, and very necessary element, is feedback. How will he ever know it is wrong if he isn’t told. Feedback for errors need not be cruel or inhumane, it just needs to be clear.

This is what makes punishment attractive to the dog training consumer. So what’s a positive trainer to do?

1. Understand punishment. Know it well. Study it. And, while you are at it know what ALL of its ramifications are. Memorize them. This will be the main weapon in your educational arsenal. You won’t win everyone over, but you will teach them slowly over time, the harm that can be done. Better yet, be an excellent trainer and SHOW them what can be accomplished with positive methods. Teach them to be patient. Remember “all good things come to those who wait”.

2. Be dynamic. You may not think that dazzling people is necessary, but until dogs make the financial decisions, the humans are your clients.

3. Be honest with yourself and others. Don’t take more on more than your experience level allows. You may enjoy a challenge, but a dog’s well being and perhaps his life lies in the balance.

4. Pursue education with a vengeance and gain your experience under the supervision and guidance of a trainer you respect and trust. Take the time to understand learning theory. Not just a quadrant or two. All of them. They are all equally important. Broaden your tool chest, have a variety of things to use and try.

Although it sometimes seems like the deck is stacked against us (i.e., the success of dominance-based TV shows), I believe that the argument to use positive motivation is one that can be won. It won’t be won however, with a righteous or indignant attitude. It will be won, one small victory at a time: a trained dog, a problem successfully solved and a satisfied client, one that has been gently encouraged and educated.