If you have ventured a little further into the world of dog training, beyond watching the occasional TV show or asking your vet for advice, you are probably aware that there are differing views on the methods used. This can give the unfortunate impression that dog training is akin to removing stains from your clothes or killing weeds in your garden rather than a profession like plumbing or dentistry.
Actually, thinking of it … this does sound a lot like the current state of the dog training industry.
On the other hand, dog training is a field of teaching & behaviour modification. It deals with the behaviour of sentient beings and therefore must be governed by the scientific principles of animal learning, animal welfare laws and ethical considerations. A practitioner in this field cannot simply focus on an outcome. They need to have the education, integrity and skills required to deliver the best solution available in regards to short and long term effects on dogs and humans.
Well, that’s the theory at least. The problem is: No one enforces this. Industries are not very good at regulating themselves and with the lives of dogs and potentially humans at stake maybe self-regulation shouldn’t even be considered a viable option.
Sadly, the ones thwarting the quality and progress of the industry are not just indifferent government authorities and trainers with outdated philosophies and techniques. Sometimes accidental sabotage comes from the ranks of trainers striving for a more humane approach in dog training. This is because good intentions alone are not good enough. We need good education, clear thinking, excellent skills and an ethical code of conduct. Without it we will continue to see blogs, articles and websites that are lacking in accuracy, appropriate language and valuable information and only add to the confusion of the dog loving public.
Imagine you have just started to get a grasp on how dogs learn via classical and operant conditioning. You understand that counter-conditioning is a form of classical conditioning and describes a process in which an animal’s emotion towards someone or something is changed from negative to positive (or vice versa). Then you are told by a professional trainer that counter-conditioning doesn’t always work. Um, isn’t that like saying that growing vegetables doesn’t work? No doubt, attempts at counter-conditioning can fail just like trying to grow vegetables can fail. But we wouldn’t dismiss the fact that vegetables grow just because we stuffed it up. If a dog’s emotion doesn’t change during a program, then it is not because counter-conditioning didn’t work, it’s because counter-conditioning didn’t happen. The logical course of action is to take a good look at the behaviour modification plan, adjust it where necessary and make sure one is aware of the common pitfalls.
The principle of animal learning that seems to come under most frequent attack though is positive reinforcement: Allegedly it doesn’t work with some dogs or certain types of dogs or certain types of behaviour. Just like counter-conditioning, positive reinforcement describes a process and an outcome. Positive reinforcement has occurred when an individual engages in the relevant behaviour more often than they did before because they have been repeatedly rewarded for the behaviour. It happens all the time in all sorts of animals and there is absolutely no doubt that it works.
Does positive reinforcement alone change every behaviour we don’t like in a dog? Of course not. Solutions are frequently a mixture of management, reinforcement and punishment. The form of punishment used by modern reward-based trainers however is never harmful to the dog. It works by withholding or removing something the dog wants and a skilled practitioner will use this technique prudently. Unless you think that learning should be scary or distressing for the subject and you are willing to risk unwelcome side effects, you want to stay clear of using physical and/or psychological force to change a dog’s behaviour.
To give the impression that a fundamental principle of animal learning is just another “method” that may or may not work in a specific case supports the idea that dog training is an open playing field for anyone who wants to have a go at it. It ignores the importance of a solid scientific basis for behaviour modification and it allows hacks and quacks to cheapen the dog training industry.
That animals learn via classical conditioning (by forming associations) and operant conditioning (through reinforcement and punishment) – in addition to a simpler form of learning called “habituation” – is solid science. Whatever a trainer does to successfully change the behaviour of a dog, whatever solution they come up with, whatever name they give it, they will always utilize one or more of those fundamental principles of animal learning, even if they are unaware of it.
When we have professional trainers who are committed to humane training but have muddled thinking or are careless with their language, we have little hope of elevating the dog training profession to a valuable and respectable field of expertise and many people will miss out on reliable access to quality training for their dogs. It has to be in everybody’s interest to assist with creating a better standard in dog training.
If you are looking for help with your dog: Would you prefer to take advice from someone who has gone through a proper educational process, can prove their competence and clearly explains to you their methods, intended outcomes and possible side effects? Or do you trust a person simply because they are convincing or charming?
If you are a professional dog trainer: Are you proud of being a highly skilled practitioner with expertise in the relevant scientific disciplines and a commitment to employ the most up-to-date training methods to deliver a service that is in the best interests of your human and canine clients? Or are you in the weed killing business?