Saturday, 3 November 2012

But It Worked For Me...

When you watch or read or attempt a method of training or modifying behavior, the end result, ie 'it worked' is in fact NOT sufficient.

'It Works' is simplistic, it isn't enough to know that something 'works'.

Those of you who know me will have heard this before but I think it bears repeating.

If I offer you a cure for your dogs unwanted behaviour, that I guarantee will work, he will never ever repeat that behaviour again - in fact I'll go further and I will guarantee you that he will never perform any behavior that will annoy you again...

Is that sufficient for you? Is that all you want to know?

Ok then. I'll shoot your dog.

Your dog most definitely will not wee up the sofa again - ok he won't BREATHE again either, but hey...

It Worked!

So obviously I don't go around shooting dogs - the point is, that something works is insufficient, it isn't the whole story is it. The price of the cure is not one you (nor I) would want to pay.

Pick Out The Bits You Like, That Work For You...


I hear people say this about trainers who in with some bog standard and common sense methods, use some pretty harsh or even downright cruel methods, and do so on TV...

It's ok, they say, you can pick out the bits you like, the bits that work for you...

Well, yes, I can. But can you? Can Mrs Bat from down the road, what about Miss Thing from round the corner?

To pick out the good bits, you need to know why they work, how they work, and at what potential cost do they work. Cost/benefit analysis.

To do THAT you need to  know what is actually being done, and the science (or lack thereof) behind it.

Much of what you will see done on TV is edited - whether the show is good or bad, you cannot put a full behavior consult or training program that takes hours, or weeks, or months, into an hour or half hour slot.

Some people are less than honest about what is really going on, so theres a neat narrative explaining what is happening, or the trainer is telling you what is happening as it happens... but are they telling you the truth.

If you don't understand dog behavior, if  you don't know about body language. If you are not reasonably conversant with the quadrants of learning theory, the principles of classical conditioning and operant conditioning...

Do you ACTUALLY know what is going on?

Can you really evaluate what you are seeing correctly, and decide whether thats a useful thing to pick out, or not?

I watched a couple of videos from a US horse trainer today - someone who I think would probably fit under the generic umbrella of 'natural horsemanship'.

She did a bit of talking, her goal was to get a horse to step up (US trailers freqently don't have ramps, the horse has to step up into them) into a trailer, negotiating the narrow gap through the single open door (it had double doors like a standard van but only one was open)...

Now it might have LOOKED natural, and to be fair to her, she wasn't exactly lying about what she was doing.

She was allowing the horse to choose to put his head into the trailer, rewarding him for doing so, and she was choosing to stop this and take him away from it before he chose to do so himself. Effectively manipulating him so that she made the decisions, not him.

Thats ok - I would do similar with a dog frightened to walk on the street, I would let him go so far, find it rewarding and quit it BEFORE he had had enough, in the hope that he would be stopped in the emotional state 'aww, I was enjoying that I want more' rather than pushing him into 'I don't like this I wanna stop'...

But the other side of what she was doing was making his other options unpleasant. Now again, she did not lie about this, she made it clear that his options were 'choose the trailer, or you will find me very annoying and you will have to work hard'...

But she never made it clear that she was using compulsion, she was using negative reward - taking away something unpleasant as the reward for compliance.

This is the equine version of the doggy 'ear pinch' method - in this example, hitting the horse lightly but repeatedly with a lunge whip which he clearly did not like, until he chose to stick his head in the trailer. Then stop hitting and scritches as a reward.

I have seen other horse trainers do the same things, but with no honesty at all - not even admitting that they are doing something unpleasant until they get the result they want.

So, the horse did in the end choose to step into the trailer, negotiating the narrow gap, the weird step up, the echoey floor and the dark space - all things extremely alien to horses and very scary.

But, despite the obvious evidence that the method worked - is the price acceptable?

That handler had to spend a lot of time being unpleasant to the horse - and though he did choose to go into the trailer, he wasn't physically forced in with ropes around his bum or a broom up his arse (both methods I have seen people use), he wasn't frantically thrashed in there...

He still went in because it was unpleasant to make any other choice.

In other words, he had figured out, he HAD no choice, and having watched those videos, I would say that he had not enjoyed the process of learning this.

Is that really ok?

Horses respond very well to clicker training, it would not have taken long to teach him that approaching the trailer earned him a click, via target training - that avoiding the trailer did not earn him a click/reward.. that going IN the trailer earned him a click and a jackpot reward... and he would have enjoyed the process and he would have built confidence and associated that enjoyment with the handler.

But if you don't know that - if you are not aware that clicker training works on horses, if you are not made aware that the method is working by the use of negative reward and therefore involves a good deal of being unpleasant to the animal and the risk of the animal associating you with unpleasantness...

How are you in a position to pick out the good bits?

What Is Your Basis for Comparison?


I rather foolishly got sucked into an argument today, with someone claiming a particular trainer is the 'best ever' and 'does not need a piece of paper to prove he knows what he is talking about'...

When I asked this person to explain their basis for comparison, they told me they had watched many positive trainers, and listed them...

Turns out, only one person on that list is a positive trainer and the clips this person had seen may well have been early in that persons career before they crossed over to positive training.

So - in fact, they had no basis for comparison at all.

And I realised I was arguing with an idiot, so I stopped.

This exchange did remind me though - we never stop learning, and we should read and watch as many people as we can. On TV, via video blogs, via webinars and in person at seminars and lectures.

The broader your basis for comparison is, the better equipped you are to 'pick out the bits that work'.

The problem is, there are a huge amount of 'training theories' out there, particularly for horses but for dogs as well, that are marketed  specifically at the people who have NO basis for comparison at all, and are therefore completely un-equipped to evaluate what they see and pick out anything useful.

There Is No One Method That Works For All...


Yeah, and No.

In fact positive reinforcement, with judicious and very minor use of negative punishment IS the best method, the most efficient method, the method that is safest and least likely to cause harm.

It really will work for all - for all problems, for all species..

However the way one APPLIES that one method, is limited only by your imagination and the physical capabilities of the animal you are working with.

There really is no place for the use of fear or positive punishment - none at all. 

The Unseen Side Effects of Positive Training...

So, I think most of us know that positive training works, its good for our dogs, its effective and safe, its humane.

It makes teaching our dogs how to behave and exist in a human world, fun!

But what about the bits they don't tell you when you first pick up a clicker, when you first consider whether cheese is a higher value reward than livercake (I go with cheese, I can lick my fingers if I used cheese)...

Positive Training Will Permanently Affect Your Brain

Yeah.. it will. And you won't really notice it happening. The process is gradual, its insidious, its sneaky...

What they don't tell you is that positive reinforcement based training will alter your way of thinking, forever!

How Does It Do That, Surely, it is Just Dog Training...

Oh you simple minded creature - it is never 'just dog training', thats what they want you to think! Look a little deeper!

Positive Reinforcement means you are constantly looking for the things you want to reward - if you were a snarky, negative, grumpy kind of creature (and I was), it forces you to quit that behaviour. You can't be snarky and negative and grumpy if you are constantly looking for GOOD things!

R+ means you have to consider what someone ELSE will find rewarding. I adore cheese, fish makes me retch and heave but you know what, my dog adores fish so I'll overcome my hatred of the fishy things... whoa, now I have  become much more empathic. I can realise that because I don't like something is no reason to assume someone else wouldn't love it. I can overcome my disgust for someone elses benefit (and ultimately, my benefit too!)...

Then.. then there's the zen.

The What?? What ARE You Smoking?

Seriously, the 'zen' - the calm approach, the consideration of all the details, again the empathy required to consider how someone else feels, the stepping back out of a situation to consider it and question it...

R+ requires me to stop. Think. Consider.  It prevents the instinctive 'see it, react, consider it later' behaviour that most of us will naturally have and use.

The 'zen' means instead of thinking 'hey dog quit barking, you make me look out of control, I don't like it, people expect me to do something to stop you so wear this prong collar, take this whop on the nose, learn that you are a bad dog'...

I have to walk away from that, and consider that the dog barking and making me look out of control has his own issues - and we need space to consider those issues, so we will avoid that situation until we know as much as we  can why it happens, and how to avoid it happening again.

The 'zen' means I have space to realise it doesn't matter what the man on the street thinks about my dog or the way I handle him. What matters is my dog, and our relationship.

Relationship? Now I KNOW You Are Smoking Something... He's Just Your Dog...

Um - no, he maybe my dog but he is not 'just' my dog - he is his own dog too. And yes, we have a relationship and that needs work to keep it good.

He is not my dog, nor am I his person merely because I bought him or adopted him from rescue and made him live with me - do that to a person and its called kidnap/slavery/abduction...

We have a relationship based on him being the dog and doing the dog stuff, and me being the human in charge of all the human stuff.

So he gets to excel at running around, and I recognise that thats his strength. I get to excel at buying the dog food, he sucks at that, he'd live on Cheerios and sausages given the chance.

R+ means I need to consider his dogness - what makes him tick, what does he live for, what does he tolerate for my benefit, what does he outright hate, what are his fears.

A sneaky side effect here is, I start to consider this for everyone, not just my dog. I'm more interested in what another persons motivation is, how can I get the best from them, what are their strengths?

R+ gives me a way to communicate with my dog, in a way he understands, and we both enjoy - it makes me interested to know what his body language means. Whats that raise of an eyebrow for, how about that tension around his mouth?

R+ means I understand that every communication is important, I should not waste it, on either side. What I say needs to be useful to him, and I must make use of what he says to me...

So, Now You Talk To Your Dog, and He Talks Back?...



Listening is necessary, dogs can only talk to us if we listen, and we need to listen with our EYES as well as our ears.

When my lurcher see's a deer in the hedgerow, that split second look back she gives me is the opening of a conversation.

"Do you see that? I see it!"
"I see it too, but no, you cannot chase that one. Sorry."
"Aww. Ok then what shall I do"
"You shall come here to me and we shall see what else there is around."

That conversation happens in that split second, there may not even be a single word. If I was talking to a friend or on my phone, or looking the other way - that conversation would not have happened. The conversation that would occur if I had missed this opening might be more like...


No I am kidding (a little).. it would be ..

'Do you see that? I see it'...

'You don't seem to be interested, well I'll make my own decision... RUN FOR YOUR LIFE DEER!'

*dog vanishes over horizon*

If I were focusing on just stopping behavior I do not like (which is what punishment based training does), that first conversation would never happen, my dog would have no interest in looking back to see what I think because, once off lead, she would be completely aware I have no real control.

If I were harsh enough to put a shock collar on her, it still wouldn't happen because her association would be 'see the deer, fear the shock', she wouldn't be turning back to ask me anything!

There is no conversation when the answer is guaranteed to be No. In fact, most of us, if we know the answer will definitely be 'no'... won't ask the question. We will just do it.

So... You Don't Say No?


I don't, well, I am human, I slip up, but I try very very hard not to say No.

No shuts down a conversation. No means the conversation never happens. No means the question isn't asked. No means that I stop thinking about things properly. No means my dog hasn't got a clue what she SHOULD do.

Instead, R+ forces me to think outside the box. To come at the problem from another angle.

Ok - I don't want my dog to chase deer, particularly not deer in a hedgerow which if chased, is going to dive into the hedge, through it and into the unknown on the other side - could be a field full of livestock, a road.. who knows!

But my dog can chase some things - she can chase rabbits in some places for example. And she knows through habit we have created, that if I say she must come back to me rather than chase (notice, no 'no' there.. an alternative behaviour instead) the reason is that the chase would not be successful. She actually thinks I can tell which prey she is able to catch and which she isn't.

The reason for that is, in thinking outside the box and considering her needs and desires, her strengths and skills, I have only ever allowed her to chase rabbits she stands a high chance of catching.

The times she has ignored me and chased a rabbit I did not indicate - she has failed to catch, and whilst the enjoyment of the chase is high, for HER the reward is the catch and nothing can beat that.

So, because I wanted to own a dog who thinks like this and needs to hunt, I learned enough about the behavior of deer and rabbits to identify which ones are likely catches and which are not!

Wow, R+ made me go and learn about rabbits and deer in order to keep my dog happy!

Fortunately not all of my dogs are this specialist, the rest are a little easier going!

Thinking outside the box opens up my mind - I realise that the only thing limiting what I can do with my dogs, beyond their physical limitations, is my own brain.

One of my dogs enjoys stealing things - he finds it immensely rewarding. I could get wound up and annoyed by this but I don't, because I have the 'zen', I understand why he does it, and that I could be more tidy, then he'd have nothing to steal.

But R+ makes me go a little further - I can use his desire and satisfaction from stealing to my own ends - devious!

He doesn't 'get' clicker training, or should I say 'didn't'... he would go to sleep if I brought out a clicker, thinking about stuff was hard, he got no buzz out of getting something 'right' as some of my other dogs do, the reward was ok (cheese, sausage, all things he likes a lot) but it lacked that extra something that really made it worth playing the game.

So I set up a few sessions where he was clicked and rewarded once or twice for something so simple (merely existing in front of me for the first few sessions)... and then I would 'forget' the dish of treats on the table and leave the room..

He would steal them. He would be super happy about this.

In a week I taught this dog that clicker training WAS fun, by allowing him the opportunity to steal a dish of treats at some random point in the session.

Now, he adores it, and we make the element of theft more random, he doesn't always get to steal, and when he does sometimes its a huge jackpot, sometimes its really not much at all.

He is now the first dog to throw me some shapes, offer me some new behaviours when the clicker comes out, rather than the last!

 So, what you are saying is, R+ training has made you a nicer person. More thoughtful, calmer, more considerate of other peoples needs.

It has tested and increased your ability to think outside the box and opened up your mind to a multitude of options and ways to use it.

Yep. Dreadful isn't it!