Many years ago I made a shift from force-based compulsion training with my dogs to a more “positive” approach. Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean “positive” as in “positive attitude” or optimistic or “good.” It is simply training based on reinforcement and teaching my dogs what I want instead of stopping what I didn’t want. A more proactive approach to communicating with my dog rather than the “Hey! Don’t do that!” approach we had used previously.
So “positive” training, for me, was about being empowered by the science of behaviour and animal learning to do a better job communicating with my dogs. It wasn’t a moral choice at all. The training we were doing with our dogs was becoming counter productive. It wasn’t working. So we read, we learned, we practised new methods. In the 13 years since we made that change, the conversation about positive training has evolved. And it doesn’t always put the science or the training methods in the best light.
A question of morals
I remember an online discussion I was part of about 10 years ago where we were discussing using mark and reward training (i.e., clicker training) for teaching dogs to do the weave pole behaviour for agility. One of the participants in the discussion challenged the method that I was using with my dog. His assertion was that my dog should never be put in a position to “get it wrong.” (If you’re not familiar with agility, a dog is to enter the weave poles with the first pole on their left. Entering with the first pole on the right is a fault – it is the “wrong” entry). I found this fellow’s challenge to me very puzzling.
There were only two ways a dog can enter the weave poles. If I reward the correct behaviour and ignore the incorrect one, learning should happen. At least that’s what the science said. But this fellow introduced a new wrinkle. He said that withholding the reward for the incorrect behaviour was “unpleasant” for my dog. The more we discussed this, the more strident his claims became. He proposed that training my dog should be “errorless”, my dog should never have to endure the unpleasantness of NOT getting a reward. It was my job as her trainer to make sure my dog never encountered anything that she would find unpleasant or “aversive.” To do anything else was morally wrong. It was abusive and “mean” to withhold the reward from my dog.
That was the first time I can remember being judged morally on my approach to training my dog. Since that conversation, it seems that issues of ethics and morals surrounding our treatment of dogs have become more and more a part of how we talk about dogs and training. How we choose to manage and train our dogs has become a reflection of the kind of people we are morally and ethically. Unfortunately morality can be pretty subjective. Conversations like these can devolve quickly into who is a “better,” more ethical dog owner/trainer and who is a mean and nasty bastard to their dog.
50 shades of aversive
That conversation all those years ago about weave poles didn’t end well. It left me with the impression that “Mr. All-Positive Errorless Learning” was a bit of a nut job; certainly an extremist in his perspective. I’m sure he had an opposite but no less flattering view of me. I must have seemed like a heartless prick concerned with nothing but getting my dog to do my bidding using clinical methods and strict rules of behaviour. The irony in this is that I’m sure we both loved our dogs very much. Each of us thought we were doing the best thing for our dog.
As the years have passed, I have watched literally hundreds of conversations concerning how we work with dogs and how our actions may or may not impact their well-being. These debates almost always turn on the personal viewpoints of the people involved and how they interpret the behaviour of dogs. Remarkably, the last 15 years has seen tremendous advances in what we understand about the behaviour of dogs. Science has at last decided that dogs are a worthy subject of study. Perhaps the most important finding that I have seen reported is just how much we have yet to learn about the meaning and motivation behind our dogs’ behaviour and responses to their world and the humans they live with.
So, with no objective scales to use as measurement, it seems that individual opinions form the basis for what dogs find aversive (i.e., unpleasant, unwanted, to be avoided) and what they find pleasurable. One person’s assessment that physically restraining a dog with your arms during recall training is beneficial for learning might be interpreted by another as causing unnecessary distress and discomfort to the dog. Who is to say which observation is correct? It would be great if the dog could just TELL us but unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.
When we talk about dogs, who exactly are we talking about? Roughly 85% of the world’s dogs do not live in pet homes. They have a very different life from the dogs that live with humans in their homes and families. These are the free-ranging, scavenging dogs that live in villages and garbage dumps around the world. Most of them live productive lives with enough to eat, plenty of socialization, and none of the expectations placed on dogs by humans. Even knowing that these dogs are living comfortably enough to reproduce and thrive, there are those who feel it is a moral imperative to bring these dogs “in from the cold” and into our human world to “save them” from their life on the streets. To these people, it seems immoral to leave them to their unstructured, scavenging existence.
Even within our “domesticated” dog population, there can be tremendous variety in what any given dog likes and doesn’t like. This can make things difficult when we talk about training. In a very real sense, all dogs are the same in that they share many common traits including their preferences for what to seek out and what to avoid. It can be a matter of degrees that distinguishes a Golden Retriever, for example, from a Dachshund in what they find tasty or frightening. Genetics plays a role and even individuals within a breed or even a litter can exhibit more or less tolerance or preference for things. So a dog is a dog but not exactly.
To complicate matters further, the experience of a given dog will have a large impact on the temperament of that dog. Science has shown that the vast majority of domestic dogs are not fearful of human contact and yet improper socialization experience with humans can make a dog extremely fearful and even aggressive toward humans. So when we talk about what dogs like and what they don’t like, their history will play a significant role in how those preferences were developed. Dogs in general will tend toward or away from certain things (e.g., algebra, beach volleyball, and watching television) but individual dogs may vary from that general norm.
Saying that a particular dog finds something aversive or unpleasant involves quite a bit of speculation. It could be something as general and obvious as inflicting pain or something as subtle as refusing to touch the dog to reassure them. Even then, the level of aversion or discomfort will vary from dog to dog. And then the dog’s experience, their ability to cope, also comes into play. So when we interact with our dogs, how can we know for certain if we are upsetting them and to what degree? All we can do is watch for their reactions and respond accordingly.
The meaning of “mean”
And so we come to the important question, what does it mean to be “mean” to our dogs? Wouldn’t that involve some intention on the part of the dog owner to cause their dog discomfort? And even then, how much discomfort is too much discomfort for that particular dog? They say that “into every life, a little rain must fall.” Many people can find being out in the rain mildly unpleasant but not traumatic. Unpleasant things such as rain will happen. As dog owners, do we have an obligation to teach our dogs that they can cope with a certain amount of unpleasantness?
Animal behaviour consultant Dr. Susan Friedman says that our dogs “live on Planet Earth”, that they will encounter a wide range of naturally occurring unpleasant circumstances. Nature prepares all of us for dealing with these mundane, day-to-day aversives. But now, as dog training seeks to do a better and better job of teaching and working with dogs, can we go too far in protecting our dogs? Can the “never allow your dog to encounter aversives” trainers, for all their good intentions, actually be setting their dogs up for even greater unpleasantness because they haven’t planned for low-level coping skills to deal with aversives?
More to the point, why are we pointing fingers at each other? Isn’t sitting in judgement of someone an unpleasant experience for them? Have we become so over protective of the dogs that the feelings of the owners matter less to us? The fellow who chastised me for letting my dog make mistakes was wrong. I know he was wrong because I have a 10 year old dog who is as eager to train and work with me today as she was back when I allowed her to make mistakes and I didn’t give her the rewards she wanted.
Are there people out there who are deliberately cruel to dogs? I’m sure there are. But there are many more who are doing what they think is best for their dogs. There are many who aren’t skilled enough to even see the signs of distress in their dogs. There are many who don’t understand that long term patterns of low level stress can take their toll on dogs. There are many who don’t see that the methods they have been taught, while seemingly effective at getting to dog to do some behaviour, also take an emotional toll on their dogs.
And shouldn’t we be talking to those people and teaching them instead of pointing fingers and judging them? I think that’s the way a “positive trainer” should approach things. It’s certainly what I try to do.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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