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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Positive" Training?

Is it positive reinforcement training when you reward your dog for a nice sit when you got it by correcting with a prong collar? (no)  Is it positive training when you reward your dog for coming when called after you have shocked him with a shock collar? (no)  Is it positive training when you pet your dog while he is sitting when you stepped on your dog's feet when he jumped on you? (no)  There are many ways to train a dog.  And there are many ways that have been "named" as training methods.  But something that is very clear to me is that it is NOT positive training when you combine reward/reinforcement based training with aversive equipment or methods.  In this case the parts don't add up to a consistent whole for me.

We are crossover trainers.  There was a time in our dogs' lives when we used prong collars, choker collars, and shock collars to get our dogs to do what we wanted them to do.  We also used food, praise, petting, and play to reinforce desired behaviors.  But we were not positive trainers.  Our dogs did what we asked them to do because they were afraid not to.  They did not do what we asked because they wanted to or because they knew something good would happen.  We were introduced to positive reinforcement clicker training about 5 years ago.  At first we were skeptical.  We were willing to try, but unwilling to give up our aversive equipment.  But then we started seeing the phenomenal results in our dogs that come with positive reinforcement clicker training.  They were doing things with great enthusiasm that before they did like we were beating them the whole time (which is something we NEVER did with our dogs).  

I became a true and complete believer in positive reinforcement clicker training when I needed to reteach my Daisy a retrieve.  I thought I had done it right from the beginning, but Daisy started to cower, run, and hide whenever I got out the dumbbell.  I was devastated to see this reaction in my dog!  I did some research and found a great book called "The Clicked Retriever" by Lana Mitchell.  I followed the plan outlined in the book and, very quickly Daisy started showing a complete turnaround in her attitude and her enthusiasm when the dumbbell came out.  One of my proudest moments EVER in the competition ring was the first retrieve Daisy performed for me -- we didn't qualify in that run, but seeing her get the dumbbell with a bounce in her step and a twinkle in her eye still brings tears to my eyes.

There are many trainers out there who believe they are using positive training simply because they are rewarding desired behaviors.  There is more to positive reinforcement training than just reinforcement of desired behaviors -- having a relationship with our dogs, knowing our dogs and knowing what is reinforcing to them, understanding their body language and cues to us, having goals and a plan, having a basic knowledge of canine learning theory and ignoring undesired behaviors.  Positive reinforcement training does not include using physical punishment to inhibit undesired behaviors. 

If your desire is to positively train your dog, find a trainer who uses positive reinforcement in its tried and true, scientifically based form -- without the use of aversive training equipment.  There are many tools available to positive reinforcement trainers that do not inflict physical pain on the dog and will help you to better train your dog.  (Some of the tools we use are Gentle Leaders, EZ Walk harnesses, and Thundershirts.)  Ask your trainer a lot of questions and never, ever do anything to your dog that makes you feel uncomfortable.  Our dogs are emotional beings and inflicting pain is much more than physical, it also affects our dogs mentally.

Many people say they want their dogs to do what they say when they say it because that's what we tell them and if they don't do it, they are going to be punished.  Wouldn't you rather have a dog who does what you ask of her because the dog wants to do it?

Enjoying the journey with your dog is a reciprocal relationship.  It only works when you both are enjoying the journey.

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