Sunday, February 26, 2012

Trainers and Methods on my Mind

There’s been a lively discussion on Facebook lately that started with someone posting that we, the positive reinforcement proponents, ought to be as positive with people as we are with dogs, and not say anything if we have nothing nice to say. It was an interesting thread and packed with, as it is typically the case in dog circles, polarized opinions. Some feel that if we don’t point out what compulsive and punitive treatment does to dogs, we become collaborators, enablers and facilitators. Others argue that we can accomplish more with educating instead of criticizing, and that we should keep the communication lines open. One person even questioned how credible a positive reinforcement trainer one is if she doesn’t extend those values to humans?
That one rang a bell. It’s true. Not all dog pros, and regardless what philosophy they follow, are pleasant with people. But when positive reinforcement trainers aren’t, there is a bigger contrast between how they treat dogs and how they treat humans, and the lack of people social skills becomes more obvious.
I pride myself in being my very best whenever I am with clients. My mission is that no dog should experience force, pain or intimidation at the hands of humans. I know, a lofty goal, but I am über-passionate about it anyway. Education trumps, and I am as patient, positive and gentle with people and their offspring as I am with their pooch, and don’t lay blame for mistakes they made in the past, because in all likelihood they followed somebody’s advice.
When I encounter colleagues who feel that I might have something to offer, I never hesitate to share what I know. And I do it nicely. I answer emails, return phone calls, meet for coffee and am welcoming when they attend my public speaking events.
That changes when folks try to convince me that dogs can’t be trained without corrections, discomfort and pain. No thank you. I’d be wasting my time, and theirs.
I have no interest in discussing their punitive and coercive ways, and I will also not stay silent. Why? Because I believe that punitive trainers cause, or contribute, to behavioral problems, violate the dog’s sense of emotional safety in his home, and do little to strengthen the relationship between dog and his people.
I am not alone. Scientific studies, published in Applied Animal Behavior Science, showed that aggression is a possible consequence of confrontational methods, both traditional - Koehler style, and hierarchical pack dominance – the stuff Millan does. Let’s have a detailed look:
With choke or prong collar corrections, 6% of dogs became aggressive.
Removing something forcefully from a dog’s mouth 15%; pinning, the alpha roll, 11%; hitting or kicking 12%, and I wonder if the “attention touch” with a foot or hand, the “bonker” with a rolled up towel or newspaper, and the “tap” with the flyswatter is included in that.
Millan’s famous tsst-sound that announces a correction unless the dog gets it together right away, 2% reacted to, and I suppose it might be the same with the warning tone that precedes a shock.
The stare-down was 16%; spray bottle 10%, and I suggest you quiz your dog’s daycare provider about that; yelling “no” 18%. Maybe it’s 18% with the shock collar tone as well, not 2%, or maybe somewhere in the middle.
The forced dominance down, which is when a leashed dog, typically on a choke or prong collar, is forced to lie and remain in that position for a set period of time, made 7% aggressive. The same with grabbing the jowls or scruff, and growling in the dog’s face was 9%.
Here is an interesting tidbit: During a 3-year field study in which a group of feral dogs was observed, the researchers noted that only 2% of hostility was directed against social group members. That indicates that aggression against someone the dog lives with is not normal dog behavior. Believe me that I meet many dogs that lash out against the people they live with; the adult male if the dog is confident enough, but more often aggression is directed toward the female owner, children, or other animals in the family.
Above study gives you a possible, I say probable, explanation. Dogs can become aggressive when confronted with intimidation and pain, and if they can avoid it with aggression, then aggression is powerfully reinforced. And keep in mind that only aggression was studied, not other anxiety expressions like emotional coma, hyperactivity and obsessive behaviors, inhibited learning and avoidance. Also note that you can’t predict the outcome accurately when you begin training.

Jim Ha, Research Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, and one of only a few handful of Ph.D. Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists in the US, states that certain individual dogs of certain breeds develop no anxiety with aversive training, provided it is done by an experienced trainer who applies the right amount of punishment at the right time. Those people, according to Ha, are highly skilled professionals often found in the assistance dog and K9 fields. They select the appropriate dog for their needs, and reject all others, which are the majority; the assistance dog facility Dr. Ha visited rejects about 70% of their already intentionally, for the job, bred puppies.
Is your neighborhood traditional, hierarchical, balanced or shock collar trainer that qualified and skilled? Do you have the right individual dog who can handle aversive training? Are you savvy enough to select the appropriate dog for your needs?
My hunch is: No, No and No. Some trainers are very skilled handlers, but based on my experience, not one rejects a dog, but accepts everyone in his group class or for private training. They accept every dog because they have to make a living. It’s about money.
Ha argues, and most behaviorists agree, that in unskilled hands, which are almost all dog owners, aversive methods are disasters in the making.
One more thing: The highest level of anxiety was observed with dogs that were trained and handled with the punishment/reward combination, which is the way of “balanced” trainers: traditional ones that jumped on the bandwagon of increasingly more popular clicker training. Can’t say that I am surprised. If you needed to be on guard to gauge which of your partner or boss’s side you have to deal with at any given day or moment, you’d be stressed out too.
I am sure there’ll be more studies like these in the future that prove that correcting, intimidating, startling on purpose, and applying force and pain does harm to dogs, and people by extension – the ones the dog lives with and society at large.
Intentionally inflicting discomfort is unpopular with many people. Dog owners rather not punish their canine companion, and I opine that trainers know that, and therefore often don’t lay all the cards on the table for you. They are not always frank about what they do, and what potential fallout it has, and use deflecting euphemisms: vibration collar, balanced approach, following nature’s rules, discipline, leader of the pack, training collar, stimulus, rules and boundaries, attention touch – relaxed or calm even when the dog is visibly stress panting or exhausted.
Trainers go to great lengths to explain the low settings of a shock collar, even let you experience it on your arm, but rarely offer information what the high settings are for. Let me guess: A dog who doesn’t respond like a robot with the low settings.
They circulate YouTube videos of an “aggressive” German shepherd who is “cured” in 5 minutes, or a reactive mastiff miraculously pacified after a short time wearing the company’s own collar. Those clips show the before and after behavior, but not how they got from point A to point B.
Punitive trainers’ websites often don’t reveal the methods they use, or describe them as unique and secret but unbelievably effective, or they speak in tongue most layowners don’t understand, like: using operant conditioning, applying all four quadrants.
Membership with a professional organization might flag their homepage, but they won’t tell you that the association is all-inclusive to begin with, or doesn’t screen their members very thoroughly.
There are clever PR moves to attract clients. Some offer a free in-home consultation, which sounds great but in reality typically means that they diagnose the dog’s issues in 15 minutes or less, and spend the rest of the time promoting a costly training package.
Some trainers guarantee that the dog will be rehabilitated for good. Sounds great too, but being 100% rehabilitated is realistically impossible. Dogs are not programmable computers, but living beings with a nervous system and emotions. Nobody can guarantee their behavior 100%, and nobody can guarantee the behavior of people that interact with the dog. No psychologist or therapist would ever make that claim. That is not how experts behave.

I am sour about all that. It feels like someone’s pissing on my leg and tells me it’s raining. And so I speak up. Not because they get clients and make money – protectionism is something trainers who are openly critical of others are often accused of, but because they are hurting dogs and the average layowner doesn’t know they do.
My loyalty is with dogs and their people, not other trainers. I don’t willy-nilly bash local ones, but when directly asked, I will forward first-hand knowledge I have about that person. Only first-hand stuff I witnessed or heard from my clients, their failures and fallouts.
The famous TV dog wranglers are, voluntarily I should say, in public view several times a week and are, as far as I am concerned, fair game to be criticized like any other public figure. There has to be an equalizer to a show that demonstrates a person walking assertively into even the meanest dog’s home, forcing the even strongest dog into submission, subduing every undesired expression permanently with a few easy corrections, and having a well-mannered dog in the end, even if he has caused trouble for years.
Behaviorists know that what people watch is unrealistic and has side effects, and some high-profile ones say so. And they should. And now a number of positive reinforcement trainers suggest we should keep da gob shut? Under the guise of professional conduct we have doctors, lawyers, soldiers, priests, scout members, police, politicians and so on covering for each other, and we dog trainers should do the same? Not this one.
Of course education, informing people about the power and benefits of positive reinforcement, is the most important aspect in creating welfare; making life better for dogs. And I do a lot of that: Seeing clients, writing blog posts and columns, my book and an another one I am presently working on, radio shows and articles, and giving lectures and seminars. On that note, my spring lecture series is posted on my webpage.
But in itself, without weighing the potential fallout of compulsive methods against it, and pointing out people who made a conscious decision to use them, the public mind believes that one approach, one trainer, is a good as the next one.
Thanks to the above-mentioned study you have verification that that is not the case. You have an idea about the possible risks, percentage-wise, involved with aversive handling.
I admit, sorting out dog professionals is not an easy task. My advice is to ask your groomer, daycare provider and dog walker what they do if: Your dog doesn’t obey right away. Growls. Plays rough.
Check out dog trainers’ websites. You can glance over niceties such as memberships, certification from a private school – even if, no especially if it is from one the TV personality’s academy, and guarantees, but pay more attention to the training philosophy they believe in. It should be very visibly listed on their site. If not, ask. Don’t be intimidated. If you feel intimidated by a person, how you think your dog will feel? Ask. It is your dog; it is your right and responsibility. A trainer and behavior consultant should deliver answers honestly before you hand over hard-earned dollars. Ask, especially if you have a dog who already has issues.
My question would be: “What equipment do you use?” If it is anything that can deliver pain, I’d walk away. If the answer is: “Whatever you use is fine. I will show you how to use it correctly”, I’d walk away.
If your trainer doesn’t want your children present, ask why. A dog is part of the social group he lives with, and observing the dynamics and interactions of all members is important information for me. There might be a valid reason why the professional you selected doesn’t want children to be part of the consultation, but if it is because what he’ll do to the dog would upset the kids – walk away.
Ask: “Which of the four quadrants do you apply?” If they don’t know what you’re talking about, walk away. If the answer is: “All four” or “Whatever works”, walk away. All four likely includes pain, delivered before and/or after a behavior, and whatever works might work for the trainer, but rarely the dog.
A dog professional’s priority should be dogs’ welfare. What you want to hear is: Positive reinforcement/negative punishment combination. You also want to hear that it is up to you to put time and effort into modifying your dog’s behavior, that you might have to make a few changes, and that you probably will have to manage the pooch until new behaviors are established, but that you will get the skills and information, including ongoing support, you need to succeed. Those are the realistic expectations owners can have of a behavior consultant.
Fact is that not everything is fixable, and for sure not right away. In reality, we are not action heroes for dogs as implied on TV. We are normal people who know a lot more about dogs and behavior than you do, and help you with some M and M – manage and modify; help you understand your dog's behaviors and lay out how he can become the best pooch possible.

Here they are: my thoughts – my rant. Accuse me of not being collegial if you like, but I take offense being called unprofessional for speaking up. I am a dog expert and act on behalf of dogs. Yes, I could play it politically correct, and be critical of method and not the person who applies it, but you can’t really separate the two, can you. It is the person who makes a conscious decision to choose one method over the other.


  1. Thanks for the tips as they are certainly helpful. Besides those I’d also like to add one point if you allow me to do so whenever you’re doing training make sure that you focus on that also. Thus that will be more productive.
    Leadership development training

  2. Wow and thanks for speaking out and telling it like it is. This is an excellent Blog and should be awake up call for all. this is why you are a leader and not a follower. I am very proud to have you in my life. Thanks and keep at it!!!!!You are miles ahead.

  3. I really admire you Silvia for your position on this issue. Unfortunately, I find many people are addicted to the quick fix that will give them instant gratification with little to no mental/physical effort. We seem to be a gaget society obsessed with multi-tasking and have limited ability to slow down and apply any form of focused conscious energy or attention to problem solve. We are also a society of surface relationships and fear of intimacy. Your approach takes time, skill, intelligence, patience, compassion and insight. Your appoach takes work, something many today are just not prepared to invest in. Silvia, your approach requires a response, not just a reaction. I do believe many people really are mystified about how to teach a dog vs "train." I think this is because many people are also mystified about relationship in general. I have to say that your method is the best I have ever seen and it works!

  4. Thank you, Marjorie! I learned from others and it was meeting Suzanne Clothier that gave me the confidence I needed to stick with what I thought was right for a long time.
    Clients like you encourage me to keep going.

    Thank you, Jony and Mike for your comments.

  5. I am a recent convert to the positive side. I thought that maybe my contribution as to what swayed me to abandon that which I'd been doing for 2.5 decades. It actually started by finding Kevin Behan and Natural Dog training. There was no argument from him or his followers about whether or not traditional methods were good or bad or dangerous or anything, just information on how Natural Dog Training was done and why and what the outcome is with reactive, aggressive and shy dogs - which is what I specialize in. I've never believed that obedience training handled behavior, so I was really open to a way to handle behavior.

    That led me to play training and surprisingly enough back to the agility world and Premack principle with Susan Garret and those of her persuasion. (Do Land).

    There were arguments from both sides of the methodology battle from other trainers in my area, the most vitriolic from the +R because it was a 3 year process for me until I abandoned 99% of the traditional methods. And they (the +R's) would never let me forget that I was an "idiot" and hurt so many dogs for so long.

    The traditional trainers were interested in what I was doing but would back off when I started in with the "science". They just wanted results, they didn't care what the words were or the concepts or the science behind things. They were pragmatic people, which I am as well. Results counted a lot more then anything I could say to them and I've converted two trainers away from the dark side - mostly.

    The second most vocal and nasty of the methodologies were the shockers, which I never was. They could not see that anything other then the "swift kick" of the shock collar could be reliable, no matter how many dogs I helped until they were playing in dog parks with no issues and walking the city streets with no reactivity. They were blind and vitriolic - but still not as vitriolic as the +R's.

    So that's what I had to contend with, and to be completely honest - it was results that swayed me, not the method. And those results fly in the face of what is "myth" in this battle. Too many times I've corrected people on BOTH sides that +R takes longer - IT DOES NOT - not in my experience. It takes so much less time it's almost miraculous to get a dog from reactive to calm or to teach obedience and other manners for living in a human world.

    For comparison, I average 40 - 50 dogs a month through my classes and private sessions. 70% are either reactive, aggressive or shy. The rest just want obedience.

  6. Thank you for sharing. I would never remind crossover trainers of the many dogs they hurt. I do not agree with that, and am all for educating and communicating.

    I agree that positive reinforcement does not take longer, but that is not always obvious to laypeople who see dogs' expressions suppressed with punishments, in addition to the suggestive comments punitive trainers often use.
    The average person sees a dog not barking or lunging on a leash anymore and deems him well-behaved, or cured as advertised my one shock collar video clip I saw recently, being completely unaware that he is stress-panting or in emotional shut-down. Perhaps that is why the myth that positive reinforcement doesn't work comes from.

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