Us vs. Them? Doesn’t have to be.

Many trainers who use aversives dislike force-free trainers and, quite frankly, sometimes I don’t blame them.  So I thought I’d write about why force-free trainers can be so annoying and what we could do differently.  I’m sure some of the Posi-Nazi’s will hate me for this post, but that’s okay.  I won’t lose any sleep over their hatred.  I will also cover what balanced/compulsive trainers could do to stop being so disrespectful to FFT’s.  So, let’s begin first with some definitions (as I’m using them, not official!) so we’re all on the same page:

Aversive – Something the dog finds painful/scary.  There are trainers who tout themselves as “purely positive” because they don’t use physical punishment, but they do use intimidating body language/staredowns to get dogs to obey.  I consider those aversives as well.

Balanced trainer – I consider a balanced trainer to be one who knows how to train basic obedience without aversives.  They later add in compulsion for proofing or for training higher-level skills.

Compulsion – Synonomous with aversive.

Compulsive trainer – These are the people who slap prongs and e-collars on puppies to teach even the most basic obedience skills.  You’ll often find their dogs wearing a training collar of some type 24/7 so they don’t become “collar smart.”

Force-Free Trainer (FFT) – People who choose to train without using the positive punishment quadrant; people who avoid frightening/intimidating/causing pain to the dog during training.

Posi-Nazi – Hardcore “all positive all the time” people.  Those who feel that dogs should never be denied anything in life.  Feel that you should never hurt your dog’s feelings by turning your back on them to reduce unwanted behaviors.  These are the ones who give regular FFT’s a bad name.

 

Now, let’s start with what FFT’s need to do/not do to stop being so annoying to non-FFT’s:

1.  FFT’s claim that aversives don’t work – Really?  If they didn’t work, nobody would use them.  Far-reaching claims like this do nothing but make FFT’s look ridiculous and uneducated.  Aversives absolutely do work, and they often work quickly which makes them attractive to a lot of people.  The problem with aversives is that they need to continue being used to maintain their efficacy.  When I was using a prong on Inara, she’d walk nicely for weeks and then start pulling again so I’d have to “pop” her again, thus buying myself a few more weeks of good behavior.  But flat-out claiming that aversives don’t work is false, and FFT’s need to stop saying that.

2.  FFT’s claim that anybody who uses aversives is abusing their dog and ruining their relationship – False again, sort of.  When it comes to compulsive trainers, those who slap prongs and e-collars on puppies to train even basic behaviors, yes, I consider that abusive.  You are punishing your dog for not being able to read your mind.  Often the dogs of compulsive trainers look truly miserable – sure they’re doing an attention heel and obeying commands, but you can tell they certainly aren’t comfortable doing it.  On the other hand,  many of the balanced trainers I know have dogs that are lovely to watch and obviously adore their owners.  When I used aversives, Inara and I still had a good relationship and she only looked miserable if I gave her an unfair correction (when she should have come up the leash at me – I’m so fortunate she’s good-tempered!).  If she had “earned” a correction, she took it and shrugged it off, didn’t blink an eye.  When FFT’s claim that dogs trained with aversives are miserable all the time and don’t trust their owners, all balanced/compulsive trainers need to do is show their dog being happy and we’ve been proven wrong.  Far-reaching claims, like #1 above, don’t work.

3.  FFT’s say our methods are “science-based” and compulsion is not – False.  Compulsion is Positive Punishment (P+), hence, one of the four quadrants.  What does this make it?  Science-based.  All of the four quadrants are based on science.  Just because it is a quadrant that FFT’s choose not to use does not make it any less scientifically proven as a way of teaching.  Now, perhaps when FFT’s say “science-based” they really mean to say, “peer-reviewed studies have shown that using compulsion often has fall-out associated with it and training without compulsion has been shown to be more efficient as the learning is more permanent.”  Granted, it’s a bit wordy, but it’s much more true than saying, “science-based.”

4.  FFT’s claim that all dogs trained with force are shutdown – Not true.  Are some?  Oh absolutely without a doubt.  But many are not.  So much of it depends on the dog’s temperament.  If you have an already soft dog to begin with and then you add physical corrections, you’ve got a good chance of shutting your dog down.  But if you have a “harder” dog (temperamentally speaking), those dogs are able to take the corrections and shrug them off without any lasting issues.

5.  FFT’s can just be flat-out insulting – I’m thinking about times where we are pointing out body language of a dog to somebody else: “Oh my god, how could they NOT see that the dog is miserable?  Even a blind person can tell that at a glance.”  You know what, not everybody is trained in body language.  Should they be?  In my perfect world, absolutely.  But being rude about it isn’t going to make the person want to listen to you.  They’re going to shut you out.  Maybe try loaning them a book, or a video.  Offer them a discount to a body language seminar.

Now, on the other hand, there are a few things that balanced/compulsive trainers could quit doing that would help mend this giant rift between the training camps.

1.  Stop calling us “cookie pushers” – Believe it or not, I very rarely have treats on me when I’m out and about with Inara.  Why?  Because the beauty of FFT is that dogs learn to do things for the joy of it, and because they get life rewards.  I absolutely have no issue using huge amounts of treats when training a new behavior or doing counterconditioning, or when in a situation I know can rapidly turn into a good training session, but I don’t want to always be carrying treats and a clicker!  Sometimes you want to travel light and NOT have an odor of lamb/turkey/beef/tripe hovering around you!  Treats can be minimized once a behavior is learned.  If an FFT is a “cookie pusher” 24/7, then they haven’t learned about variable reinforcement schedules and need to do some more reading/learning.

2.  Stop saying that our dogs are not reliable at behaviors – Is your dog perfect 100% of the time?  Hell, are YOU?  Of course not.  Neither are our dogs.  However, our dogs can be trained to be just as reliable in behaviors as your dogs trained with aversives.  What you will find though is that often our priorities are different and we train for what is important to US.  So just because Inara doesn’t have a flawless recall doesn’t mean it’s because I haven’t used aversives.  It means that I’ve been lazy in teaching her a flawless recall!

3.  “I don’t have time to train without force.”  – Do you know how often we hear that?  Do you know how ridiculous that is?  Using a clicker and treats to train new behaviors is so fast and easy if you know what you’re doing!  Do you need to proof them and continue training after it is initially learned?  Of course you do, just as you do when using force.

4.  “Dogs need to know who’s in charge.”  – Sure they do!  And you know what?  I’m the one in the household with opposable thumbs that can open up the fridge.  *wink*  What’s that saying?  “Dogs are selfish creatures and I control their things”?  It’s true.  Who decides when Inara eats?  I do.  Who decides when Inara goes outside?  I do.  Who decides where we go on walks?  I do.  Who decides who gets the best spot on the couch?  I do.  Who decides which toys are out and available?  I do.  But I certainly don’t have to use force to teach her those things.

5.  “Their dogs have no rules.”  – I cannot say this enough – POSITIVE DOES NOT EQUAL PERMISSIVE.  This kind of melds with number 4 about being in charge.  Just because I choose not to use force with my dog doesn’t mean she’s running rampant through the neighborhood, preparing to overthrow the city and start a mass revolt of dogs.  Just sayin’.

Why did I write this blog?  Because FFT’s need to remember that positive reinforcement works on PEOPLE as well as dogs.  I have many friends who are balanced trainers that I can have perfectly civil training discussions with – “Oh, you trained it that like that?  Interesting.  Here’s how I would try it.”  I actually love those discussions!  I try not to berate and belittle those who use aversives.  We are all at different points in our training and we all do what we are comfortable doing and what we see working.  The best way FFT’s can spread the word about force-free training is by using our own dogs as examples.  Get them out there competing.  Get them out there just being good dogs on walks.  Trust me, people notice.  Have civil discussions with balanced trainers, see where they’re coming from without judging them.  Perhaps even, god forbid, compliment their dog’s happiness/obedience!  Maybe if we all learned to talk to each other without derision and without overly sweeping generalizations (and yes, balanced trainers – this goes both ways) we’d get a lot further and you know what?  The dogs would benefit.  We all want the same thing – happy, healthy, well-trained dogs.  Let’s remember that.

 

Lovin's!

Lovin’s!

 

 

Advertisements

My Crossover Process

I’ve been asked to write about my training philosophy and how I came to adopt my force-free ways. This wasn’t an easy blog for me to write as, quite frankly, I’m horrified and appalled at some of the “training” I subjected Inara to. Honestly, I really deliberated about whether to even admit to the techniques I used. I spoke with some close friends and told them how nauseous and upset I was getting just thinking about them, and they gave me some great advice and encouragement.

A lot of force-free trainers I know have always been force-free, which is really wonderful and I envy them and thrill for their dogs. Unfortunately, I haven’t always been force-free. Though I’m not proud of that fact, and I marvel that Inara has come so far DESPITE what I did to her in the name of training, I think that my experience with aversives really allows me to see/understand why people use them and provide quality discussion, above and beyond, “it’s mean.”

I got Inara when she was 8 weeks old. Her mom, Sophie, had been confiscated from a fight ring when she was pregnant. So already there’s a good guess that Sophie wasn’t bred to a dog-friendly pit bull in the hopes of good-tempered, friendly puppies. These were puppies who were going to be used for fighting/breeding. Inara showed a propensity towards lack of concern for other dogs’ pain at an early age (9 weeks or so) when she grabbed her brother by the ear and made him scream. She didn’t let go until I wedged my thumb into her mouth and pried her little jaws open. Alright, bit concerning, but I was prepared. I’d read a ton and knew I could “socialize” it out of her. *insert eye rolling here*

I enrolled Inara in Petsmart’s Puppy Class when she was maybe 15 weeks old. It was all positive reinforcement techniques, mainly using luring. Inara did just fine and even found a playmate that we had over a few times – a young yellow Lab named Sadie. The two played together beautifully and appropriately. I was thrilled as I knew I was winning the battle against dog aggression.

After the Petsmart class, I enrolled her in a class at the Animal Protective League. Again, all positive reinforcement training. Inara excelled and we had a great time together. After that was over, I signed her up for a flyball class. She was super fast and I knew she could be an asset to a team. Her training was going so well – she was at the point where she could go over the jumps, hit the box and come back over the jumps to me. Just flying. Until the day she flew past me before I could snag her harness and ran over to the tiny Min Pin who’d been talking smack to her the entire class. Inara grabbed the Min Pin and put her entire head in her mouth. Fortunately she dropped her immediately and shockingly, the Min Pin didn’t even have a scratch. She had a slobbery head but she was uninjured. What a terrifying wakeup call. Inara was about 7 months old and could have just killed another dog with a little pressure of her jaws. We switched to private flyball lessons while I reconsidered my tactics.

The timing over the next few years is hazy, but here’s the general progression as best I remember it.

I thought I needed to up the ante and I obviously had a potential issue on my hands, so I thought I needed to find some training that was a bit firmer. The Dog Whisperer was one of my favorite shows at the time, so I knew I needed somebody to show me how to be a pack leader. Somehow I found a local trainer, M., who had a strong training history and trained with Cesar’s methods. Perfect. I took Inara for an “evaluation” and found out that she thought she was above me in the pack and that’s why she wasn’t perfect. So I signed on for lessons with M. He required a prong collar for Inara, so I dutifully bought one and carefully and properly fitted it. He then showed me the “technique” he wanted me to do. If Inara took one step in front of me at any point, or if she looked at another dog, I was to give her three level 10 corrections, while saying no with each one, as I did a u-turn. So it worked out that because I was turning while correcting and saying no, Inara would catch back up and be in heel position usually in time for the final yank/no. He said that when she yelped, it was because of surprise, not pain, even though I was putting my body weight into these corrections. I didn’t realize at the time just how asinine that was. Then, also during the first lesson, we worked on stays outside a local pet store. A rather busy one. He had me actually leaving Inara in a sit stay outside the door of the store while I went around the corner. With a parking lot right there. He was probably 20 feet away from her watching. Again, looking back, I shudder. But I did one more session with M. We did the same thing as last time, but this time, when Inara saw M., she hit the ground. He said, “good, she respects me!” Even back then in all my stupidity, I knew something was off, so I quit going to M. I didn’t tell him why because I was too chicken – I just didn’t schedule another appointment.

That turned me off to prong collars for quite a while. I briefly picked up a clicker but Inara ran the first time I clicked it, so I gave up on it. So no clickers, no prong collars. What next? How about an e-collar? Sure! I knew lots of people who used them and they had great dogs. So I needed one. While waiting on it to arrive, I started hunting for a good trainer to show me how to use it. First I contacted S.M.S., a national franchise who trains only with e-collars. The “trainer” knew he was coming out to help me with dog aggression, so what happens? He pulls up, opens his car door, and out bounds two off-leash dogs that come running right up to me and Inara. Oddly, I didn’t send him away. I invited him inside and he started doing his spiel. He strapped one of the special S.M.S. e-collars on Inara and promptly showed me how to make her cower do a recall. Once again, he was thrilled that my dog was hitting the floor – “look how quickly she’s getting it!” Instead of booting him out for being an idiot, I let him finish his spiel and then choked when he mentioned pricing. Negative, ghostrider.

I got a recommendation for a trainer in Michigan who did a lot with e-collars so I made a weekend trip. We had a really great trip and Inara was very responsive to the collar, which was on level 8 out of 120. I was thrilled. I’d found my “cure”! I left that weekend feeling confident, but got home and lost my confidence. I worked with it for a few weeks, but I realized that I was uncomfortable doing so without guidance. And then I thought, “if I’m not comfortable using this without ‘adult supervision,’ why am I using it on my dog?” So I dumped the e-collar.

I still was leery of the prong from my experience with M., so I thought I’d try a slip collar. I tried both nylon and choke, in case it made a difference. I not only used it to pop her when she forged, but if she started reacting to another dog, I lifted her up off her front feet until she stopped barking. That’s right, I hung my dog. It worked momentarily, but then she’d be worse next time. I couldn’t keep doing it, so I lost the slip collar.

So I went back to the prong. This time it seemed to be helping. And by “helping,” I mean that Inara would have a hellacious reaction (snarling and lunging at other dogs) for about 30 seconds and then I’d punish her into quiet. Her pulling on walks was minimal because she’d get a swift, heavy correction if she pulled. I had what looked like a fairly obedient dog.

While all of this was going on, I also tried alpha rolling Inara and pinning her down until she stopped reacting to dogs. I tried swinging my leash in a pinwheel in front of me so that if she forged while heeling she’d get smacked in the nose. I was very well-rounded in my techniques. *insert rolling eyes*

I honestly don’t know at one point I said, “I can no longer do this to my dog.” When she was good, she was very good, but when she was bad, she was VERY bad. Something had to give. I went to a seminar with Brenda Aloff (who is pretty darned fabulous) and she helped me see that positive reinforcement COULD actually work with Inara. She wasn’t a special snowflake, not an exception to the rule. Just like every other animal on the planet, she responded to all four quadrants of learning, not just positive punishment. After I got home from working Inara with Brenda, I searched for positive reinforcement trainers in my area. I came across Ginger Alpine of Fortunate Fido.

Ginger, without any exaggeration, is the absolute best thing to ever happen to Inara and I and our relationship. She is my goddess of a dog trainer. She showed me how quickly the clicker can be used to teach behaviors. Inara was a genius! And best of all – she was finally enjoying training, as was I. We’ve been taking classes and private lessons with Ginger for about three years now. Through those lessons, I’ve learned how powerful positive reinforcement can be. I learned it’s not all touchy-feely – there are still rules. There are still expectations. There are still “punishments.” But they are more creative and effective now that I don’t resort to pain and fear. Inara has truly blossomed in the three years that I’ve been working with Ginger. My dog who used to not be able to be within probably 500 feet of another dog without lashing out can now compete in close quarters with other dogs. She is now sometimes (sometimes! She’s not perfect yet!) able to be the calm dog for reactive dogs to be around, which completely warms my heart. We are truly a team now and I get told that we just look happy together and work well together. She happily works on a flat collar during competitions, and a harness for basic walks. Though she passed her therapy dog test once before, we’re going to take it again so she can start working with people in an official manner.

I am astounded that I have such a solid dog after everything I put Inara through. She should have bitten me so many times throughout our past for the things I was doing to her. But never once did she redirect, or even look at me in anything less than a sad way. I truly get nauseous and horrified when I think about what I subjected her to. My heart breaks when I realize, “she’s come so far in three years – imagine how far she could have come since I got her at 8 weeks old???” There truly aren’t words to convey my regret. I still apologize to her, even though I know she’s moved on and forgiven me. But I haven’t forgiven myself. Three years, and I still can’t forgive myself. I mean seriously – who can hang their dog and sleep peacefully at night? I was able to, and that sickens me.

Do I think this blog is going to change anybody’s mind about using force/pain/fear in training? No. People will come to force-free training when they are ready for it. But maybe it’ll put a doubt in somebody’s mind. Do I judge those who use aversives? 99% of the time, no. The only ones I judge are those who are incapable of even putting a basic foundation on a dog without pain and fear, or who slap training collars (prongs or e-collars) on puppies less than 6 months old who don’t even know better.

This was long, and painful for me to relive and write. I ask that you not judge me for my actions towards my dog in the past, but look at how we work now, how we’ve grown and become partners in training, not adversaries.

If you have a story you’d like to share, please do so in the comments. If you’re not comfortable sharing it in the comments, then just post a comment asking me to contact you – your email address is visible to me and I will email you. If you have questions, please ask.

Love and respect your dogs, my friends. They tolerate so much from us and ask for so little in return.

Inara, the poster dog for force-free training.
Inara, the poster dog for force-free training.

Dogs Don’t Generalize

I’d heard this many times, and I understood it – dogs can’t generalize their training from one location to another, hence the reason you must start back at square one when you change locations.  Fair enough, I understand.  Holy criminey though, Inara REALLY doesn’t generalize.

I’m using the clicker to teach her to go to her mat on command.  I shaped the behavior with the clicker until she was going there reliably, then I added the cue, “mat.”  So I would then say “mat” as she was getting ready to step onto the mat.  When she laid down, I clicked/treated.  Awesome, I’m feeling like a genius trainer at this point.

So now I think, “gee, I need to shake things up a bit so I know she really knows it.” Yeah, she didn’t.  I stood up and moved about 2 feet away, she followed me.  I gave the cue “mat,” and she did everything but.  She sat, downed, tried to shake, played dead.  Rinse, repeat.  I ignored her and finally she went over to the mat – major click and treat.  So we do that a few times until I think she has it again.

I moved, she got confused.  I stood still but moved the mat, she got confused.  Both me and the mat stayed in the living room, but every time I moved or I moved the mat, confusion.  I was feeling less and less like a dog training genius by this point.  So we ended on a really good note and called it a night.

This clicker training stuff is hard.

Inara chewing on Mr. Piggy, a gift from her Secret Santa for Christmas in July.  Sadly, Mr. Piggy is already a dismembered, empty carcass.  But she's happy!
Inara chewing on Mr. Piggy, a gift from her Secret Santa for Christmas in July. Sadly, Mr. Piggy is already a dismembered, empty carcass. But she's happy!