Updated: Oct 7, 2019
While I'm not entirely sure when it happened (I assume somewhere in the 90's to the 00's), that positive-only reinforcement became a real contender in the dog training world. This was to the extreme opposite of the forceful, fear-inducing tactics of what I call "the Old School."
I've heard a lot of horror stories about old-school training tactics; everything from "helicoptering" to stringing up aggressive dogs by a single foot, and dropping them just before they pass out. There was also the ever-popular (and still often used in some places) tactic of only feeding a dog when he or she was working for the food. Starvation training, so it's called. Supposedly, it was to "build drive" to work.
Each of those examples are abusive, heavy-handed and disgusting tactics to me. Each handler who does this should first experience it, then they can tell me how well they learned from it.
These kinds of sick methods have given trainers who don't use positive-only tactics a bad name. And, in my experience, it's not one most of them deserve.
Positive-only training gained some serious ground when Karen Pryor made it quite popular with her books and, eventually, her own training school. Pryor wasn't the only person pushing for training reform, but she is known as the founder of clicker-training. She's also the first professional I remember reading long ago -- and many of her theories and skills helped me as I began forming my own training ideology. It led me down the path of learning true balance operant conditioning in animals, something that B.F. Skinner had geared up in a response, or (if you choose) an epilogue to classic conditioning as told by John B. Watson in the '20s.
It's when I say that we use a form of operant conditioning here at CC that people become confused. Sometimes I get the scoff and a few words like, "Oh, treat-training. That's not real training." Or, I'll get the confused look and asked, "You mean negative reinforcement? Positive reinforcement? What reinforcement do you mean? Positive-only, right? RIGHT?"
To make our own recipe of conditioning for behaviors and training, CC takes a healthy dose of the core of clicker-training: Ignore the negative, reward the positive. This tactic is exceptionally effective for most species on this earth. When thinking of this, consider that you're taking "positive" and translating that into a behavior you're looking for. "Negative" then becomes a behavior you're not looking for. With this basic behavioral math, you can use this method to train even a hermit crab. I kid you not. Learning about of Pavlov's theory of classical conditioning may help you see how a simple creature like a hermit crab would be "trained" to do something.
However, clicker training doesn't cover some other - more serious - behaviors in many cases. There is a grey-area between harmless negative behaviors, and harmful negative behaviors that many in the training world either seem to get confused about, or that they willfully fight against.
When a behavior is not just something you don't want, it's something downright dangerous, can you ignore that and redirect to the good?
Our Short Answer: Nope.
Long Answer: You can't ignore when an 80lbs lab is losing his little mind with glee and is jumping all over you, your children, and Grandma Ann. You also cannot ignore a puppy chewing on wires, a dog who wants to sit in your lap while you're driving, or a dog who is not approaching another animal or person in the correct and polite fashion. Notice none of these behaviors are openly "aggressive" but they are dangerous in their own rights. These are behaviors that cannot simply be ignored and waited out. These are things you must interfere with.
Enter in: Correction.
Correction, by our definition, is the interruption (and then redirection) of a behavior while it is in motion. That means that if you came home from work and your puppy got in the trash can, when you scold him or her and drag them around to see every piece of trash they tore apart, you're not correcting your puppy. You're punishing her. And, here's a serious note to take: Punishment does not exist in the animal world.
"Oh, my dog knows when he's done something bad." Yes, I can hear you through the time and space between me writing this, and you thinking that out loud.
Truth is, when your dog presents those guilty behaviors (see hundreds of YouTube clips), he is not actually responding the the specific behavior you're pointing out to him. He's responding to the fact that you are upset - based on your voice and body language - and the item which you are directing at him. He is understanding that there is something about that item that is bad for him; he is not connecting the dots to know that the fact that he broke it/tore it to pieces is now what he's in trouble for. To understand that, they would need to have a conscious understanding and memory string in their mentality. Dogs don't have that. (I'll explain more about this and how dogs learn in another blog post soon.)
In order to respond and get what he wants - he's not punished - a dog will often display submissive or "cute" behaviors that distract us humans long enough to forget our frustration.
Many positive-only trainers will tell you that correction is abusive, cruel, and damaging to a dog's mental stability and learning curve. Force trainers will tell you that their form of correction is the only way a dog learns, because he's an animal and only understands physical power and language.
At CC, we find both of these messages almost entirely incorrect.
We agree that punishment (not correction) is unfair and can be cruel to a dog. We also agree that dogs primarily understand physical language, and they naturally respect balanced strength. However, that's about the extent of our head-nodding in these arguments.
Correction is not cruel, when it is CORRECT. See what I did there? Yes, it's tacky and corny, but it's very important that correction must be CORRECT. That means it needs to follow these rules:
It comes from a place of balance. You do NOT correct a dog when you are angry, frustrated, or have a heightened emotional level. You, the human, must be balanced and confident in your feelings and your actions. If you are anything but neutral and calm, you have no business trying to balance a dog's behavior while your own is off-tilt.
When correction comes from a place of anger, that's when it is cruel and ugly and completely unacceptable in any form. It matches the behavior. If a dog is chewing on your son's favorite stuffed bear, a simple, "No," and removal of the bear is sufficient. If your dog is biting your hand, growling and shaking his head, do you think a "No," is going to stop him? It's not. If he's getting physical with you, you get physical back. YOU DO NOT DO THIS IF YOU ARE ANGRY OR UPSET.
Balancing the dog's mental state must come from balance (I'll keep saying this til you believe it!). If a dog lunges at me or bites me, he or she is bound to get a sound, smart grab on the side of the neck, stomach, or right on top of the nose. This is not a Chuck Norris-style round-house kick. This is a fast, abrupt, and deliberately stern motion that is meant to shock or surprise a dog out of his mindset and stop the behavior he's displaying.
The power of the physical touch should be as intense as the power he or she is pressuring you with. You must match the energy level of the behavior if you expect to break it. It is quick. Correction takes only a moment or two to distribute. It is not set on repeat. You don't not pursue the dog after he submits to "whip his butt!" It is given, and then it is done. I've seen people "correct" their dogs or horses by hitting or kicking them repeatedly. This not only is from a place of imbalance, but it's abuse. It sends the animal into fight or flight mode, and you're going to be lucky if it's flight. Because if it's fight, you're in for a world of hurt...and you deserve it.
Notice that when among each other, dogs do not fight over small things. When an alpha or other dog higher on the tiers of power in the group corrects another, it is quickly done and then it is over. When a dog is fighting, it's not quick. It's long, and the energy is very high and chaotic. Correction is not in that column of behavioral traits. This, too, is how you can tell the difference in your own pack when someone is being corrected for being rude, pushy, or too energetic -- and when there's about to be a pack fight. (Note: You should always be the one to maintain the balance and harmony in your pack. But, if you don't know correction and its true uses, you're not going to be able to do it, and you're going to see a lot more of dog-on-dog correction or fighting than you ever should be!).
Reset. When you've had to correct a dog for something, make sure you are then re-directing him to something good. Ask him for something simple, like a sit. When he does it, praise heavily and entice him to come with you to another activity. If she's chewing on your shoes, correct this (with a simple, "No," and removal of item), and then offer her a toy that is her own. Play with her and this toy for at least 10 seconds! If you just give her the toy and walk away, what's more fun about that toy than your shoe? Nothing. But if you play with her, and make the toy ALIVE, obviously that's way more fun even than the interesting smelling shoe she had before.
As I said that the correction should match the level of the negative behavior, so too should the positive redirection. If your dog did something extra bad, let's say he was busted digging the insulation out of your walls, then once he's been corrected you must then redirect him into something EXTRA good so that you can give him EXTRA praise.
I know this is much easier said than done sometimes, because I was writing the example I could actually feel myself cringing at the thought of it. I'd be SO MAD. So, what does that tell me? That if that situation happened to me, I would have no business correcting my dog at that time. I'd stop him from the behavior, yes, and then I'd need to step away or separate for a short time to regain composure. Trust me, I've had to do this before in many, many instances. It's not easy for many people to consciously choose calm over conflict, but when you practice this, it does get easier. And it MUCH more beneficial in the long run.
Check back soon for Part 2 of this post. In the meantime, comment or write us with questions and opinions! We're always happy to chat.