As professional dog trainers and behaviour specialists, it is always important to be open, upfront, and honest with our clients, and of course the general public at large. Over the past 15 years or so, there has been a number of training methods that have sprung up, believing that the particular ideology or method is the saviour of our dogs, and is the only true humane way to train a dog. Many novice trainers then fall for this emotive based rhetoric by being painted an unrealistic and misleading picture that they don't fully understand and therefore end up focusing their entire profession on this one and only method. A case in point is the purely positive and force free methodology. For many in these groups, these methods have taken on a religious status, which has become extremely worrying and even considered dangerous by many in the profession. Firstly we need to understand a few points about the purely positive and force free ideologies to help us paint a true picture.
This method became popular due more to an emotive ideology than anything else. Many good hearted people considered that causing a dog any form of physical discomfort was inhumane, and that there must be a better way to train dogs, without the use of physical punishment. So trainers looked at the way marine animals were trained in marine parks, such as Dolphins and Orcas (Killer Whales). These intelligent mammals are trained using positive reinforcement only, or so it appears to the untrained eye. They are trained in a similar fashion to clicker training, only the trainers tend to use whistles. The process is that whenever the mammal performs a wanted behaviour, that behaviour is instantly marked by a whistle, then reinforced with food. Eventually, over time the mammal learns to perform behaviours on cue. There are never any physical corrections administered to the mammal for not performing the desired behaviour. Now, this sounds like it's all totally positive training, doesn't it? Well, think again, and look more closely at the methods used and more importantly why they appear to work.
These mammals are kept confined in a sterile distraction free enclosure. The only mental stimulation they receive is when training with their trainer. Other than that, they swim around in a small empty enclosure. Now to ensure these mammals don't become so bored that they become overly stressed, they are trained numerous times a day, to give them the required amount of mental stimulation.
These mammals are fed only when they are being trained. If the desired behaviour is not performed, then the mammal is denied its piece of food until the desired behaviour is carried out. Now, remember, these mammals have no way to feed them self, and therefore must rely on their trainers for a handout. This type of reward based training takes advantage of an animal's natural survival instincts, and therefore easily conditioned to perform on cue, to survive. The mammals are always kept hungry enough to ensure the survival instinct for food remains high enough to encourage the mammal to try its hardest to get fed. This training method conditions a reliance or dependency on the trainer to survive, and it therefore falsely appears that the mammal has a strong bond with its trainer. There is a case where an Orca actually killed its trainer after a training session (performance). The Orca was commanded to carry out a routine, which it did incorrectly, so the trainer instructed the Orca to do it again. After an extended session to have the Orca perform the routine correctly, it was then returned to its holding pen without being rewarded for that particular routine, which was the last one for that particular performance. When back in the holding pen, the trainer went to spend some quiet time with the Orca, as they usually do. The trainer sat on the edge of the pool, the Orca dragged her into the pool and killed her. This shows the amount of stress this trainer had created in the Orca, by not following through with the reward, when it was expected by the Orca.
Also, it is very often that Orcas will refuse to behave or act on cue during their performances, and there is nothing the trainer can do to correct this. This happens during almost all performances. The speaker just turns the situation into a funny moment, for the audience to laugh at. To suggest that these mammals perform perfectly is not true, and far from the truth.
Any mammal kept confined, and having its environment and survival instincts totally control, will eventually start responding to its captor, even humans will. So as you can see, these mammals are not trained with purely positive techniques but are forced to perform to stay alive and to have mental stimulation.
These mammals in marine parks have no need to be physically corrected for unwanted behaviours, for one they are kept confined, so they can't display behaviours that would be unacceptable if for example they were allowed out in public. These mammals don't live in a home with the trainer, or taken out in public, and expected to behave in an open free environment around other people and animals. There is nothing positive about keeping an intelligent mammal confined in a sterile environment and having its survival instincts and environment totally controlled by its captors. And as can be seen, by the example presented above of the Orca that killed its trainer, these mammals are prone to extreme levels of stress, which weren't picked up on by the trainer the Orca killed. It is my firm belief that many of these mammals are kept at unacceptable levels of stress, and many of them are even medicated to help the Orca mask its stress to be able to perform and survive during its confinement.
There is no such thing as purely positive training in its true sense. These mammals, for example, are punished every time they refuse to carry out the desired behaviour, or it's not carried out to the trainer's expectations, by denying them food. They are also kept in a state of what I believe is perpetual punishment due to confining them in a sterile environment, and not being allowed to live as their natural instincts demand, and forced to rely on their captors to survive.
Purely positive techniques are not purely positive, no matter how you look at the training method, even for our dogs. Again these trainers use punisher's regularly to condition correct responses, by for example denying the dog a much-anticipated treat. Just because there is no physical punishment as such does not mean that the training method is purely positive. It has actually been demonstrated in scientific studies that denying a dog food that has a strong desire for food, actually creates more psychological stress than a 1-second punisher such as a positive punishment, ie a correction.
The term purely positive is used so loosely by many of those that practise the methodology, that they them self actually believe their own rhetoric, in that the dog is never punished for unwanted behaviours, or for not carrying out a command correctly...
Force free works on the principle that no force should ever be used to train a dog. Again this is an impossibility in training. The mere fact of keeping a dog on a leash is using force, as you are denying the dog its freedom. A dog lunging on a lead and being held back is utilising a lot of force on the dog to restrain it. Withholding a treat for not complying with a command, is forcing a dog to respond, whether it wants to or not. However, the dog will only respond to this, if the motivator is strong enough to override the motivation not to carry out the behaviour. I am sure you can find many examples in so-called force free training methodology, where force is actually used and is the main action used to condition the dog not to do what it is currently doing. Force free use the concept of time out with their training, well isn't this is 'forcing' a dog away from the pack it has bonded with?
Many trainers that have become fanatics about a particular method will twist meanings to push their own agenda. I find this especially true, with the extremist and fanatic element of the purely positive and force-free movement. By not highlighting the weaknesses and limitations in their methods, just to push their emotive based ideology, shows me that many in these groups lack integrity, and shows me that their extremist ideology is more important than the welfare of our dogs.
It doesn't matter what method we use to train a dog, all of them will present a weakness or limitation for a certain behaviour or situation at one time or another. A knowledgeable trainer that isn't blinded to a one method ideology, understands this and is able to adjust methods and techniques as required. Whereas a trainer that is so convinced that their method is the only one true humane method, leave them self no opening or alternatives when the method or technique they preach fails the dog. They either blame the dog and turn to behaviour management, or state it has a brain disease and needs medicating, or even PTS because they refuse to accept that the particular method failed the dog.
If we are really concerned about our dogs, and sincerely want to help them, then we wouldn't limit ourselves to a particular ideology, a methodology, or technique. Training a dog or modifying behaviours and being truly committed to your profession, is about keeping an open mind, and doing what's best for the dog, and adjusting methods and techniques as necessary, and not worrying about what's best to promote a method or to protect an ideology above and beyond what best for the particular dog.
I agree, that positive reinforcement is the most important aspect of training dogs and modifying behaviours, however, it should never be taken to the extreme, in that its all that is needed. All trainers and behaviour specialists, no matter what methods are being used, reinforcement of wanted behaviours is the most important aspect of any method. Without positive reinforcement, we can never have a dog willingly work for us or desire a certain behaviour over another. But it is also important to understand why punishment techniques such as positive punishment when carried out correctly, are also an important part of rehabilitating many dogs, to help condition avoidance to many of the unwanted and dangerous behaviours.
Those trainers that are focused solely on a method (no matter what that particular method is), should really take a good hard look at them self, and reflect on what they are inadvertently pushing on to their clients, and to the unsuspecting public at large. If life was so simple that a 'one size fits all mentality' worked, then certainly there wouldn't be an issue, but life, unfortunately, is just not that simple or forgiving, and neither is doing what is right and best for our dogs.
Part II of this article will be published soon