Positive only Training vs Levels of Obedience

The state of obedience in this country is at an all-time dangerous low. This is not melodrama or exaggeration; it is tragic fact. There are more attacks, maulings and deaths due to dogs than ever before.

Positive only Training vs Levels of Obedience
Competitive obedience trials are 60+ years old. During most of that time, Novice dogs lined up to perform their Sits and Downs without muss, fuss or controversy. Open dogs waited patiently for their people to come back from out of sight. Obedience trials once the bastion of canine compliance are now too regularly concerned about dog fights and mayhem. How has this come to pass?

In the last 10-15 years, group Sits and Downs have become “Awful”, “Impractical”, “Dangerous” or “Foolish exercises”. How did the sport manage to get from Group exercises being a “no big deal” part of the sport to a constant whining tempest?

Dog ObedienceA culture, quite frankly a cult, has risen. This cult believes that a dog should never be corrected for bad behavior and that a dog should live in a world without framework, boundaries or consequences. Living in this type of environment makes a dog hyper, hysterical, aggressive and unable to function out in the world.

This is the Positive Only Training movement. The ONLY techniques that should be used or allowed are Positive and like zealots everywhere, the dedicated PO followers demonize anyone who does not follow their path. You are a “Neanderthal” or more bluntly an “Abuser” if you train any way other than their way. The rabid attacks on Ceasar Millan are a case in point. Whether you like or follow the man’s training theories or not, do they really deserve the ranting diatribes that are spewed? (Personally, like every other trainer/clinician/teacher I’ve listened to, he has things I like and things I don’t)

The PO movement delights in using loaded words. No correction can be anything but “Punishment”. Simply say the word No, and you are punishing the dog. Lift your finger and jingle a dog’s collar and you are punishing that dog. For some of them, if you step into their path of a dog to simply block an action you are negatively correcting and therefore, punishing the dog.

Right now, Positive Only Training holds sway in the training world. Most every book, magazine article and TV spot are firmly on the Positive Only Training side of Political Correctness. It’s quite doubtful that you could get an article published right now that came from a more balanced approach.

Any criticism of PO is met with the rationale that this method is used to train killer whales. This method is scientific.

Yes, this method is used to get huge, intelligent wild animals to do pretty amazing tricks. But what is the alternative for these animals? They can work for a fish…or stare at blank concrete walls for the rest of their lives. Not much of an option for an intelligent creature. I was watching a PBS show that went to a dolphin enclosure that was a fenced in lagoon. Yes, there was more room. Yes, the water probably “tasted” better, but it’s still an enclosure. It’s still essentially a sterile training room. Take those whales out into the Open Ocean and then prove how well PO works. When PO training hits the real world, the real ocean, it falls apart the same as it does when PO trained dogs venture out into the world.

The other issue that is overlooked about these wonderfully trained killer whales is that they are trained by PROFESSIONALS. These trainers are college graduates for the most part, given extensive training by experienced trainers and work with these animals every day for hours. This method is then marketed to accountants and hairdressers as, “You too can train just like the sea world trainers”…in all their spare time after work, home, family….
But the thing they EVER mention is how many deaths and injuries are caused to humans from these supposedly so well trained animals?

Science is our current god. There is no denying that it has given us wonders and an understanding of ourselves, our world and our universe unequaled by any other means. But at the heart of the scientific method is the principle that every experiment must be reproducible for it to be valid. This means that it must be able to work in the lab, the training room, and on the street. There was an article years ago in the science magazine, Discover, explaining that diseases that scientists could readily infect lab mice with, would not take root AT ALL in wild mice. The article was calling in to question how valid the lab results can be if you can’t get the same results with “real” mice. It’s not valid science if you can’t reproduce it.

The “go to” tool for the PO movement is the clicker. The clicker can be a valuable tool. Clicker training is a very precise technique where an operator makes a sound, generally using a small plastic device called a “clicker”. The sound is coupled in a creature’s mind with something positive, generally food. I’m using the word creature because the technique has been used on everything from fish to birds to people. The technique does require the operator to have an exquisite sense of timing, reflexes and a clear picture and plan on the steps to get where they need to go to shape the desired behavior.

There is also the bastardized version of clicker, “Follow the Cookie”. This version entails “luring” the dog’s attention and therefore his body into the desired position. Lift your hand holding a cookie up over the dog’s head. The head goes up, and the butt goes down. “You’ve got a Sit!” Drop the cookie hand to the floor. The dog’s head follows the cookie and generally lays down. “You’ve got a Down!”

The blatant problem with this is that dogs aren’t stupid. They very quickly learn to “follow the cookie”…and only the cookie. No cookie, no work. “Follow the Cookie” is just a sloppy, lazy attempt to stay positive without doing the real work of shaping required of clicker training.

I’ve use a clicker with a couple of dogs to teach them to retrieve a Dumbbell. I had tried a couple of different methods with the first dog, minus the Forced Retrieve, without good results. In a relatively short time she was picking it up correctly by the bar (which had been our problem) and delivering it to hand. The second dog went even quicker because I didn’t mess around with other methods and I did a better job of shaping.

I find the clicker itself to be a valuable tool for my teacher’s toolbox. I use it for targeted results. I use other techniques for other jobs. Like every other tool it’s not the tool that causes the problems it’s the person wielding it that makes the mess!

Despite Positive Only Training  popularity, it has serious problems. It is ineffective and dangerous to dogs. Both in the real world and the various competitive arenas PO falls apart. Baby puppies, wild and unknowing enter these classes. They follow the cookie and respond to the clicks appropriately. They are stars of the class. Then they walk out into the world…pulling, lunging, barking and unresponsive to commands because PO works best in a sterile training room (Think dolphin tank). Once these puppies leave the classroom, people, dogs, cars and cats come from nowhere, act stupid and don’t care to act the way things were done back in their little room. Their owners are sincerely bewildered why their “star angel” becomes a whirling dervish anywhere else in the world.

PO’s record of getting dogs to advanced competition work is pretty sparse. I was informed that at least two dogs have achieved their OTCH’s using PO…up ‘til that point I was convinced that the PO OTCH was an urban legend. Even if there are a few more that makes one PO OTCH to about 25,000 trained by other means.

“My odds of making OTCH using PO is 25,000 to 1….hmmm, which method should I pick?”

Positive Only Training methods truly fall apart when it comes to heritage function sports such as herding, tracking, earthdog or lure coursing. PO’s go to tool is a clicker. A clicker’s strength is to be able to target a specific position or action. Hit the ball coming at you (pigeon playing ping pong), hold your feet exactly “there’’ for a handstand (child doing gymnastics) pick up the dumb bell precisely there (dog in competitive obedience). There is nothing so simple or formulaic in heritage function sports.

PO is completely unequipped to dealing with the flip side of training a heritage function dog and that is when things go wrong. You can not click a dog to keep them from trying to take a leg off a sheep, you can not click a dog into not running amuck on a lure coursing field or jumping a bunny on the tracking field.

Ineffectiveness is not the only sin of PO. It is dangerous to dogs. People walk out of these classes believing they have a well-behaved trained dog…and they don’t. They are a danger to themselves and others. If the dog gets off leash or pulls his person down, he is at serious risk of being hit by a car. They don’t listen and they don’t come back. When they barge out the door, they are gone.

The mortal sin of PO is that it causes aggressive behavior. This comes from two base causes: an adrenalized mindset and an environment of no consequences.

Children play a game called “Hot and Cold”. The person who is “It” has to find a particular object. If the child steps closer to the object, the crowd yells, “Hot!” If the child steps away from the object the crowd yells, “Cold!” The difference between this game and the PO method is that the PO operator doesn’t yell “Cold” that’s a negative marker. That’s punishment. So the dog wanders around the room only being told “Hot” for every behavior, every command he’s taught.

Can you begin to imagine how frustrating, how anxiety producing this must be? Every time you needed information on how the world works you were force to play the “Hot’’ game. Constant frustration/anxiety creates a faulty adrenaline trigger. It is low level “on’’ ALL the time. When a body lives in adrenaline A) it’s very unhealthy and B) it can’t think. Adrenaline is all about, only about, Fight/Flight/Freeze. The dog is hyper-reactive. This kind of dog when startled, has a high likelihood of defensive or reactive biting.

In Karen Pryor’s book, “Reaching the Animal Mind” there is a section called, “The SEEKING circuit” page 184. In this section she ties together the response of a clicker dog and of a rat whose brain has been wired to receive a stimulus to his hypothalamus when he hits a bar. (This is the study where the rat will keep hitting the bar until he is exhausted) She quotes Dr. Jaak Panksepp, author of the study, “…they don’t look to him like rats enjoying some nice sensation, but like rats on a hunt. They are excited eager, EVEN FRANTIC….”

She goes on in the next paragraph, “Given stimulation in the same area of the hypothalamus, human medical subjects report a sense of excitement, quite enjoyable really, ALTHOUGH AGITATING.” Dr. Panksepp calls this phenomenon the SEEKING circuit. The SEEKING circuit is the part of the brain that initiates and maintains searching behavior.

These medical subjects did the experiment and then got to go home.

A dog trained in the PO model lives and works this way his whole life.

Pryor clearly maps out in Chapter 10 that the clicker works from stimulating the Amygdala and Hypothalamus not the Cortex, the thinking part of the brain. The Cortex is the part of the brain that adds 2+2 AND translates foreign language…which is what a dog does every time he responds to a command.

There is another problem with a dog being forced to live his life in a constant game of Hot/Cold. In the game, the one who is “It” can’t ask for help. No one is allowed to give any guidance past yelling, “Hot/Cold”. “It” is on his own. He is allowed no relationship, no teacher. Every decision he makes is his; he learns that the only opinion he needs to consider is his.

Next time you are around a PO trained dog, watch him. He’s always on edge. He may be pacing, whining, pushing, panting or dancing. If he is ordered into a Down, he’ll still be jittering and wired…because he can’t be still. He has been taught to constantly SEEK. He has been taught that whatever he wants is the only thing that matters.

The issue of “no consequences” comes to the heart of the problem with PO. Every living organism on this planet has to learn there are boundaries…and that there are consequences for crossing those boundaries. Even an amoeba learns to not cross hot/cold boundaries, because the consequence is death.

Elephants spend 10 years teaching their young about how to be elephants. Because of poaching there were a large number of baby elephants raised in captivity by people. Being raised by people, they never learned proper elephant behavior or culture. When they were old enough to survive on their own they were turned loose in a game preserve. They tore up trees, attacked rhinos and other animals. The solution was to bring in a couple of Matriarchs who proceeded to bang some sense into them. (My mind stutters at attempting PO methods on a rampaging adolescent bull elephant!)

The child raising theories of 30 years ago, “Never tell your child No.” were discredited and thrown out for developing a generation of spoiled self-centered brats.

We people live in a world of boundaries and consequences. Ignore the crossing light and possibly get hit by a car. Exceed the speed limit and you risk a ticket. Be mean too many times to a friend and you risk losing them.

But in the PO universe there are no consequences for canine bad behavior. You are supposed to either ignore or distract bad behavior. Don’t correct the dog for chewing your shoes; pick them up. Don’t correct the dog for chewing on the couch; give him a toy. Don’t correct the puppy for jumping on you; step back. Don’t correct the puppy for biting your hand; move it higher or ignore it…he’ll quit eventually. (Then give him a cookie for ceasing to bite!) Ignoring bad behavior will extinguish it, because they get no positive reinforcement from it. (Really? The dogs I see get a heck of a lot of positive reinforcement from jumping and chewing and biting what’s around them.)

So, with this reasoning we are to ignore barking, lunging, snarling and snapping. All of which are levels of aggressive behavior. There is a well-known quote, “Ignoring aggression feeds it.” The English Prime Minister, Chamberlin tried to ignore Hitler…didn’t work so well. Ignoring a school yard bully gets you a black eye…and ignoring dog aggression ramps it up.

Aggression is a normal, natural response. The key to being a successful member of society is learning how to channel it. If you have a baby puppy who growls over a toy and you ignore it, you have ok’d that response. The puppy tucks that information away in his learning center. When you take the puppy and try to cut his nails and he growls and snaps because he doesn’t like it…and you back off, the puppy files that away. The puppy keeps growing and a little later he growls because you are near his food and your response is, “You shouldn’t bother a dog while he’s eating.” That information is tucked away. You have him out on the street for a walk and he starts barking and lunging at people. You ignore it and simply walk away without ever saying anything about it. He tucks this away.

So what do you get in a year or so of this kind of learning? You have an owner calling an instructor saying, “My 16 month old Berner has been going to class since he was a baby. I’m very proud to say that he has never heard the word No. I don’t understand why he bit my hand when I reached down to move his bone.”

Or you get a phone call that starts with, “I did everything I was told to. I went to the breeder I was told to. I went to the vet I was told to. I went to the trainer I was told to. I did everything I was told to do. So someone needs to explain to me why my 10 month old dog bit my son’s friend when they walked in the door.”

Or yet another call, “My dog’s been thru a couple of (PO) classes. When I took him to the beach he scared me and everyone else because he was dragging me across the sand barking at them.”

(Yes, these are all true case stories of people that had gone to PO trainers)

The mantra of the PO crowd is, “Ignore it and it will go away.”

Here’s a story that I tell most all my students. There’s a little girl may three or four years old. Her mom walks into the living room and finds her painting big purple flowers on the wall with her crayon. “Go play with your dolly.” The little girl looks at her, drops the crayon, and goes and plays with her dolly. After a bit she gets tired of playing with her dolly…and goes back to her crayon and drawing. Why? Because she was never told NOT to write on the wall. She was simply given another task that she successfully accomplished. Once that was done, she went back to her previous task.

If causing aggression is the heart of the problem with PO, the crime of PO is that these dogs…who are only doing what they have been taught…get labeled as incorrigible. “It can’t possibly be the training, so it must be….just a bad dog…bad breeding…you (..or the neighbor, or the kid, fill in the blank) must have done something to make the dog this way. You either need to put him on doggy Prozac or put him down.

It seems where ever I look that human nature and society work on a pendulum. Something happens, an event, a new piece of knowledge or news, and the Pendulum swings waay to one side. Then everyone looks up and notices that, boy, have we gotten way off track. We need to go in another direction. …and all too soon, we humans have swung waay to the other side.

Back in the day, training methods were pretty harsh. After all, when you start with the premise that you have to wait until a puppy is 6 months old to be strong enough for the training…that gives you a clue. Now the Pendulum has swung all the way to the other side and Positive Only Training is the only sound that may be heard.

If none of us can stomach the idea of going back to the choke and puke methods, and PO is dangerous and ineffective, what is left for us to try?
How about a Balanced approach?

Balance—to bring into harmony or proportion (Webster’s Dictionary)

What a beautiful, rational goal. To accomplish this goal, a savvy teacher seeks out and dumps words with an extremist leanings such as Positive Only Training. When something is an “only” it is by nature unbalanced. Instead look for the balance of positive and negative reinforcements.

Reinforcements are information. I’ve used the example many times that teaching a dog is the process of escorting him down a hallway full of doors. These doors represent choices of action. The teacher’s job is to help him make good choices.

In the PO world, if my dog chooses to walk to a door I can say, “Yes! Behind that door are cookies and hot dogs and all manner of good things to eat.” If he walks to another door I can again say, “Yes! Behind that door are games and play equipment, friends and ball tossers.” However, if my dog walks to a certain third door, I can say nothing. My dog walks thru the door…and gets eaten by a tiger.

I think, “No, don’t go there” would have been useful information.

We have gotten so far off track as dog teachers. How did the word Correction come to equal Abuse or Punishment?

Correction—to make right (Webster’s Dictionary)

Punishment—retribution through pain, suffering or loss (Webster’s Dictionary)

I’d say this word has some pretty extremist leanings when we are talking about trying to teach a dog!

If I had a little child sitting in front of me working on her addition and she said to me, “2+2=5”, no one would think anything if I replied, “No dear, 2+2=4”. But oh my gosh, in the PO world I have punished this poor child!

So what are some rational, informative negative reinforcements?

No—No is a negative marker. It’s information like in the story about the little child. I don’t know about you, but if I was starting out on a long journey and I was headed in the wrong direction I’d sure want someone to tell me, “No, not that way!”

Blocking/Stopping—Blocking is a common tool in herding. If a dog takes a wrong direction… Away instead of Go-Bye, you put your stick across his path (or yourself) and block the wrong answer. If the dog is wanting to come into the sheep’s bubble, you block. It’s just as useful in obedience. If I tell my dog to take the Bar Jump and he goes for the High, I step out and block. If I tell the dog to Down in the Drop on Recall and he keeps on coming, I step forward and block. It’s pretty clear information. “This is the wrong way. You are picking the wrong answer.’’

Collar pop/Tap/Hair pull— Before we go any farther, let’s put a definition on these three. A collar pop is a quick jerk of the collar with immediate release WITHOUT the jerk making the dog’s neck or body physically move. If the dog’s body is being moved by the pop, you are risking the dog’s chiropractic alignment. Tapping a dog’s head or butt is done with the tips of your fingers. You use it as a quick poke. Hair pulling is grabbing a tuft of hair on the neck or butt and giving a quick pull.

All three of these corrections are about breaking the dog’s train of thought…not punishment. When you use any of these three the picture you should have in your mind is tapping someone on the shoulder to get their attention. Hellooooo????Where did you go?

If a correction has to go beyond regaining a dog’s attention, the dog’s teacher needs to back up and seek out why. Why is the dog not responding?

There are three situations that commonly get a dog and owner into this situation.

*The dog is put into a situation beyond his skill set. Say the dog can do a sit in a quiet room. His owner takes him to the vet’s office and tries to get him to sit in the waiting room with all the other pets. He can’t do it and gets flustered and overwhelmed…because working (doing a sit) in a new location is a separate skill. Working with multiple distractions is a separate skill that he’s not been taught.

*The dog’s sense of trust in the protection and leadership of the person is in question. The dog enters a situation that triggers a defensive response. The dog feels that he is on his own to deal with the “threat” and tunes out the owner. Adrenaline is triggered and the dog can’t respond and can’t feel any corrections.

*The dog has been desensitized to a collar correction by constant, chronic pressure on the collar. Collar pressure no longer means correction.

In each of these situations, a “harder” correction is not the right answer. A hard correction is just a physical way of yelling. Yelling doesn’t transmit information effectively…other than telling everybody that you are out of control. The answer to each of these situations is to back up and fix the problem.

*Teach the dog the skill sets he is lacking—distractions skills such as: the ability to focus, concentrate and multi-task when things are going on around him. And the skill of self-control…knowing what the right thing is and that he has to do it.

*Go back and fix the foundation partnership skills of attention, respect and trust. Step up and be the leader your dog needs in scary situations. Let him see that you WILL take care of him.

*Learn how to use a collar correctly so that you are giving correct information to your dog.

Is there ever a time when a hard correction is necessary? Yes, when safety is an issue. When I am responsible for a dog I need to keep everyone safe. Ideally I give my dog the skills needed for a situation, but if something happens I need to put however much pressure on the collar as needed to keep everyone safe.

If I have a dog that has been given plenty of opportunity to learn what the right answer is, and he deliberately, intentionally chooses the wrong answer, I’m going to up the pressure. Obedience is comfortable, disobedience is uncomfortable. The key is plenty of time and opportunities to learn a better choice, and a timely, to the point correction for a wrong choice. Action A gets consequence B.

Correction is about the dog, punishment is about you. Punishment is because YOU are pissed. YOU are frustrated.

Being your dog’s best friend and teacher means finding and presenting all the information that you can to help your dog make smart choices…the choice between responding promptly to a Come command…and running off and being killed by a car. The stakes are pretty high.

It is our job and responsibility as our dog’s owners and best friends to keep them safe. This means that we need to be aware of what is going on around us. It means being aware and taking steps when dangerous ideas are trying to manipulate, skew and hem us in. It means standing up and saying, “No, this is a silly, fuzzy, fantasy land idea that is going to get good dogs killed. This is a notion that is going to fuel more anti-dog legislation and I want no part of it.”

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