Effects of those Emerging Trends
It would be impossible to have any discussion about dog training without acknowledging it to be a subject on which people tend to be deeply divided. In the previous section I referenced two camps that have been labeled (by some) as “reward based” and “punishment based.” Those in one camp would have us believe all that is necessary is to reward the “good” and ignore the “bad.” The view held by those in the opposite camp is that punishment solves everything. It is important to recognize that both positions represent extremes. Somewhere between these two camps are the rest of us looking for balance in our approach.
When Koehler emerged, he provided dog training with a method that was both well organized and reliable. The method, when followed as intended and written, is humane, predictable and effective. With a well-established history stretching back over 50 years it is not simply a theory, the results are there for all to see. Bill Koehler developed the Koehler method over a period of about 15 years beginning in the mid 1940’s. His first book on training was copyrighted in 1962 and throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s it was the dominant method of the day. Even today it remains quite healthy and thriving as more and more dog owners once again look to its solid track record and the reliability this method produces.
As I mentioned earlier, other trainers emerged around the same time – many (but not all) influenced by Koehler to some extent. Whether or not food was used, the timing and order of exercises, manner of cueing/directing the dog, timing and type of correction – all were some of the factors that served to differentiate trainers and their methods. Some of you may be surprised to learn that using treats is not a new concept – in fact, it is a very old one – some trainers of the day used tid-bits others didn’t. Despite the method, the focus of that time was primarily on the results. What are the goals and what is the most efficient and effective approach to reliably achieve those goals? This question was a prime consideration.
By the way, for those who might wonder if Koehler ever used food, I have it from two different sources that he would for certain specific reasons. Occasionally a student in his classes would ask Bill if he ever trained obedience with food? His stock answer was, “No, that is for tricks. If I ask a dog to walk on a high wire on his front feet, balancing a ball on his butt, when he gets to the other end, I will give him a treat because he completed the trick. When I ask him to; heel, sit, down, stand, stay where he's put, or come when I call him - as soon as he complies, I will give him good honest praise.”
The overall effect caused by the result-based trainers of this period, was a rapid growth in training for dogs with a corresponding increase in dogs completing obedience titles. Trained dogs were noticed and became ambassadors for the sport and for the concept of creating good canine citizens. In communities where dog training had caught on, people on the streets could expect to see more and more mannerly dogs. There was not a strong anti-dog movement – and certainly no movement to ban breeds. The chief concern of the average citizen, related to dogs, was not about getting bit rather it was about stepping in poop – and this was seen as an owner problem which was addressed by introducing the concept of poop and scoop.
Don’t get me wrong, not all was ideal. At that time, just as today, there were some bad trainers. Unfortunately, whole philosophies are sometimes judged by the few bad examples – people claiming they represent what they truly do not. My concern however, has never been with Koehler (or any of the others I mentioned earlier that use a balance of praise and correction). My quarrel is with those at the extreme ends of the continuum. For lack of better terminology, I’ll refer to one end as reward based and the other as punishment based and I’ll say more about both later.
The Volhards, as previously mentioned, represented a crossover point. As they gained popularity, the ideology of their “motivational method” grew. This resulted in the dog training community gradually shifting the focus toward finding external rewards that the dog would want to work for. Training outcomes generally remained good and the method was well organized and consistent. However one significant outcome was the loss of some efficiency with the result that training times were more than doubled. Up till this point Novice training was about 10 weeks in length. The Volhard approach saw that increased to 24 weeks by breaking it into 3 levels of 8 weeks each. Since then there has been a worrisome trend of adding more and more levels to the beginner or basic programs which results in a needless increase of time and money.
When Ian Dunbar began to emerge on the scene, the pendulum was already swinging toward more external rewards (mostly food). This combined with his personable approach and good sense of humour made him a huge hit at dog training workshops and seminars. Even though Pearsall had already introduced the concept of puppy training, Dunbar was the one who really made it popular. He introduced a much more liberal use of food into his puppy training and called his method “Lure Reward” training.
Along with making puppy training popular, Dunbar was very instrumental in two other areas:
1. Shifting the focus more and more toward reward-based training and away from results. The method taking on more importance rather than the outcome.
2. Serving as a motivating force in the creation of various Pet Dog Training Associations.
Initially, dog-training associations were proposed to help trainers get organized so they could be better able to control their own destiny. At the time (early 1990’s) there was mounting pressure from some veterinary associations to seize control of much of the lucrative pet industry, including the whole field of dog behaviour. Their argument was that the industry, consisting largely of unregulated individuals, lacked professional oversight. Dunbar’s idea was to counter this by having an organization already in place and filling this “need” first. The associations were intended to be inclusive with a focus on education, networking, business skills and general organizing. Having been there right from the very beginning and being a founding member of CAPPDT, I can say with a certainty that the associations were for those mentioned purposes only and they were never intended for regulation or policing.
What many of us could not see at the time (I know I certainly didn’t) was how the education component could be manipulated to promote a “positivist-trainer” ideology – a kind of social engineering. The process was insidious. Gradually conferences and seminars featured more and more personalities of the type that hold to the philosophy that “rewards are good – punishments are bad.” Many of us simply didn’t foresee that such “spin” would come to replace the facts.
I think it was a good idea for dog trainers to come together and form professional associations. However, I think the creation of the Pet Dog Trainer concept was a mistake. I believe it has proven to be both unnecessary and ultimately detrimental. Combining the two concepts i.e. an association for trainers with the concept of PDT was also a mistake.
Having a professional organization that has measurable performance standards is important. It is the ability to consistently meet these very standards that the public seek and pay for. At the time the Pet Dog Trainer evolved, we already had standards for a Companion Dog. The PDT movement rejected those standards and replaced them with nothing. Not only that, many continue to resist performance standards with the excuse that the dogs they are working with are just pets - not for competition. However, whether one wishes to compete or not is really not the question and there is nothing wrong with training to the same standard. If anything, family pets should be better behaved, and more reliably so, than just a competition dog.
A lack of standards has gradually seen dog training devolve to the point where many now believe it is not possible to teach a dog to even walk nicely at your side or stay put when told to do so. Management devices are becoming a common substitute for good training, dog aggression incidents are causing officials to pursue very restrictive anti-dog legislation and more dogs are being surrendered or killed. This may be just part of the legacy of our liberal standards. Personally, I’d rather have very high standards and sometimes fall short of the mark than have very poor standards and always succeed.
Now to get back to the extremes I mentioned earlier. I believe those at each extreme mainly push the agenda and the pendulum tends to swing between the two as a result. With regard to dog training, one end is the punishment extreme. Generally their training is unproductive, ineffective and inhumane. At some point, many of the methods employed by these extremists, can only be described as downright abusive. The trainers on the other end of the spectrum are reward based to the extreme. Sometimes they are referenced as “pure positive” trainers and they believe all that is necessary is to reward the “good” and ignore the “bad.” Many of them zealously seek to convert everyone else to their belief system and would ban all training and training tools that fall outside those parameters. However, in terms of effectiveness and long-term outcome, pure positive trainers have an abysmal record on both counts.
The problem with any extreme position is the idea that “one size fits all.” Anyone attempting such an approach (and not achieving the results they are looking for) is somehow left feeling that it was they, and not the approach, that failed. A sensible approach would be to recognize that the individual dog’s personality and temperament play a much more important role in deciding what strategy to take. Many good dogs are lost to doctrine from both sides.
A sensible approach to discipline might be to balance the offerings from both camps, while taking into account the needs and challenges of each individual dog. It would focus on and reward “the good,” but would not ignore “the bad.” Such an approach would be positive but not permissive or over indulgent. It would employ the use of “corrections,” but would not be heavy handed or abusive. Finding this balance is sometimes like trying to hit a moving target and it is possible to end up facing criticism from both sides. On the one hand, there will be those that say you have become too correction oriented, while on the other hand some will accuse you of being too reward focused. All I can say is, “Oh well…!”
Personally, I do not support the pure positive viewpoint because I believe it is important to address the unacceptable behaviour with immediate corrective action; the dog must learn that there are some things you simply will not allow or tolerate. This is, in fact, a very important pack dynamic. Leaders, indeed other pack members do not ignore or tolerate that which is unacceptable. I believe that a balanced approach which includes both rewards and corrections is the most effective manner to address and change behaviour.
Gary Wilkes (who is one of the earliest pioneers of the current fad of “clicker training”) has drawn some fire for suggesting that both rewards and punishments must be employed if behaviour is to be successfully and reliably modified. In an article he wrote and presented at a CAPPDT seminar, Gary describes how to go about shaping behaviour then putting it on cue. As part of this process he talks about “Integrating the behavior into the dog’s repertoire and then adding consequences for failure.”
He writes: “By definition, operant conditioning is ‘behavior that is determined by its consequences.’ To create a performance repertoire that is precise, crisp and unfailing, there must be consequences that maintain that level of performance. That means pleasant consequences for success, and unpleasant consequences for failure. WHILE IT IS OFTEN SUGGESTED THAT “ALL POSITIVE” TRAINING CAN CREATE SUCH PERFORMANCE, I AM NOT AWARE THAT ANYONE HAS EVER ACTUALLY DONE IT WITH DOGS IN OBEDIENCE COMPETITION. (emphasis mine). For performance animals, I include another step in my order of training – aversive control for failure.”
Such aversive control was discussed at length and he conceded it could include anything from yelling “NO!” to spritzing with water, to time out, to good old-fashioned collar corrections. Those trainers of the extreme “reward based” camp liked everything he had to offer except his position that there needed to be “consequences for failure.” Several years ago he got in trouble with the pure positive zealots when he introduced a rolled up towel he called a “bonker” and used it as a mild aversive which he threw at a dog to chase it out of an area where it wasn’t permitted. Some insisted throwing a rolled up towel was abuse!
One of the worst effects that the emerging trends has is something I’ve already alluded to and that is the divisiveness and the needless conflict resulting from some of those emerging ideologies. I think you all know what I’m talking about but if not, a quick surf on the web through various dog training sites and discussion groups should give you a pretty good picture.
The fact is that the average dog owner doesn’t care about these things but dog trainers seem to – passionately! However even though the public basically doesn’t care to get caught up in the endless arguments, they are, nevertheless, hostage to the conflict. Often the help they seek is filtered through the trainer’s own personal ideology. As a result, legitimate options are not discussed depriving the client of making informed choices because the trainer has already made it for them. Many a good dog has been given up because the owner was never told of all their options.
Many trainers are also hostage to this conflict. While many trainers are disciples of various philosophies, there are also many that are trapped by the same belief system. When they look for information or seek to expand their learning experience to something outside what their peer group supports, they often face hostility, ridicule and rejection. Quite often I am sought in confidence by young trainers that are looking for help or information and terrified their friends will find out. It really is a shame and ultimately it is the dogs that end up paying the price.