Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Are You Really a "Positive" Trainer?

First off, when I say “trainer”, I mean ANY person teaching and working with a dog, not just professional trainers.  The most influential “trainer” in a dog’s life is usually the owner(s).

So, what makes a trainer a “positive’ one?  Well, obviously, simply proclaiming you are one thing or the other does NOT make you either.  If that were the case, I would be smart, sassy, funny and, oh yeah, skinny.  Claims are not necessarily based in any kind of reality.  In dog training and in life, actions speak louder than words.  You can “talk the talk” all you want but you need to “walk the walk”.

A client of mine recently took his puppy to a PK group class at the local big box store.  I had mixed feelings about this but since I was not currently running a PK class, I had nothing else to offer him in the way of a group – my bad.  I advised him to make sure that it was a positive, rewards-based program that focused on proper socialization and basic manners.  My client told me that the big-box trainer assured him the program was rewards-based and all positive.  Ok, great!  The following week I was so very happy to hear that my client’s pup was the “star of the show” (his words), doing everything so wonderfully in class and garnering many accolades from the trainer and fellow students.  Yay!  I didn’t need to hear that to be validated, but it was really nice for my client to get validation from a third party.  He was happy, so that made me happy.  Not to mention that it didn’t hurt me in the area of client buy-in.  Oops, guess I mentioned it :)

Then my client told me how his puppy was terrified when the puppies were let off-leash to play and all the other puppies seemed to target her… uh oh.  Understandably concerned for his puppy’s mental state, my client scooped up his puppy to spare her the trauma and was informed by the trainer “that was the worst thing you could have done”… clunk, the first shoe falls.  The trainer carried a squirt bottle with water (at least I hope it was only water) and asked the puppy owners if he could squirt their pups for barking… BOOM, that was the second shoe falling and a cement one at that!
Is this trainer the positive, rewards-based trainer as he CLAIMED to be?  Not by my definition.  He may use rewards in teaching but his first response to a NORMAL and PREDICTABLE puppy behavior (barking) was to punish it!  His method for dog-to-dog socialization was to allow multiple exuberant, playful puppies to descend upon a frightened one. Telling my client that picking up his puppy was the wrong thing to do implies that the trainer believes that a frightened puppy must learn how to deal by toughing it out.  Really?  Since when does anyone learn under stress, fear and duress?  If a child felt bullied at school, would this trainer tell the parents to let the child tough it out?    But, I’m making a short story rather long so, more on what I would have done another time and moving on…

So, again, what is a positive trainer?  There are many phrases bandied about – dog friendly, force-free, rewards-based, science-based – the list is extensive.  They all sound good and, indeed, in theory they are.  But it’s the practice that counts.

IMO, a dog-friendly, force-free, rewards-based trainer follows the “Humane Hierarchy” with heavy emphasis on the first four steps in that order.  A trainer should look at every situation or problem and attempt to solve by going through the steps of the Humane Hierarchy. That’s it, pure and simple.  What is the “Humane Hierarchy”?  Oh, I am SOO glad you asked!  Let’s take a look at the first four steps and leave the rest to another day…

1 - Physical well-being of the dog.  Physical needs and well-being must be considered and addressed first and foremost.  You do not train a dog in physical discomfort or pain. 

Seems obvious, right?  Or is it?  Let’s look at that terrified puppy in group class.  Yes, that was an emotional state but what happens to a body under stress?  Elevated blood pressure and heart rate and increased adrenaline, to name a few things.  Was that puppy’s physical needs being considered when the trainer said my client should have left his puppy on the floor to fend for herself? That is a resounding NO.  I am glad my client followed his heart and his gut and sought to lessen his puppy’s anxiety by removing her from the situation in which she felt threatened.  How would I have handled that event in a group class?  lol – that’s a post for another day J

2 – Controlling Antecedents aka managing the dog’s environment to eliminate stimuli/triggers that can lead to undesirable behaviors.

If one can AVOID a problem behavior by removing the “cause”, why not?  That is the least stressful and least invasive way to shape desirable behaviors.  My favorite example is the shoe-chewing puppy.  Remove the shoes – problem solved!  Why bother trying to teach something else or, heaven forbid, punish a normal puppy behavior?  Take away the antecedent and the problem is gone.  AND, guess what?  That which your puppy does not get to do when s/he is a pup, is that which s/he is NOT likely to do as an adult.  My pups never saw a shoe other than the ones on my feet when they were young.  Now, shoes strewn about the floor have no meaning or interest for them.  Problem solved BEFORE it started.

3 - Positive Reinforcement

Use PR to teach your dog as many desirable behaviors as possible.  Teach your dog that the behaviors you prefer are fabulous because they are very rewarding.  If you fill your dog’s brain and life with the behaviors you like, there is little or no room in his/her brain and life for the behaviors you don’t like!

4 - Differential Reinforcement of Alternate Behaviors.  That’s a mouthful.  Basically what this means is to make a different behavior more rewarding than another behavior.

So, you have a “problem” behavior that is not solved by addressing a physical need and the antecedent (trigger) cannot be removed. Many people go straight to punishment with a problem behavior.  In general, we humans tend to be very punitive – something with which I struggle daily both in myself and those around me.  The truly positive trainer seeks to redirect the dog to a different behavior in the presence of the trigger.  It takes more time and effort but, in the end, produces better results.  IMO, punishment often fails and, when it succeeds, it is very stressful on the dog.  Why, you ask?  Hmmm… yet another post for another day.
There’s more to the hierarchy, steps 5 and 6, to be explored another day.  The first four are what, IMO, should fill a trainer’s toolbox leaving little or no room for 5 and 6. 

In short (although I suspect the dog has long since dashed that door),  a positive trainer is one that chooses to be PROactive, rather than REactive, choosing first and foremost to avoid problems, teach desired behaviors and redirect unwanted behaviors.  In other words…

Directions, not corrections!


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