Thursday, 23 April 2015

Labels - does it really do what it say's on the tin?

Under the surface of the dog training industry, across the world really, there is a bubbling, seething discord going on.

The labels we use to define our selves, or that others use to define us... are causing some problems!

Why do we need labels - well.. some would say we don't need them, and I think that would be a lovely place to live indeed.

If the simple term 'dog trainer' (ooh... is that a label)... in fact meant, automatically and without any further explanation:

"Person who teaches you to train your dog in the most effective and least harmful way possible"...

Well if it meant that I wouldn't be writing this blog!

To date there are the following labels I have come across - some I identify with, some I don't..

Behaviourist, behaviour consultant, force free trainer, positive reinforcement trainer, purely positive trainer, dog trainer, balanced trainer, progressive reinforcement trainer, positive correction trainer......

The list probably goes on and on and on.

Why do all these terms exist? Well, all these people are trying to make it clear what they do, or in some cases, don't do, in terms of training or behaviour work, with dogs.

They are not trying to convey this to other trainers though, they are trying to convey this to the general, non-dog-geek public, who may hire them.

So it seems pretty sensible to me, to try and find a term that sums up what you do, quickly and in a way thats easily accessible and understood by the public.

But thats not really what is happening.

Starting with the ones I actually identify with...

Positive reinforcement trainer - this is a person who uses positive reinforcement, though you may not know what that is, it sounds ok. It doesn't tell you what else they use or what they don't use.

Force free trainer - this is a person who does not use force to train your dog. It doesn't tell you what they do do though and what do you classify as 'force' exactly, are you aware of how force is commonly used in training as if you are not, this may not be particularly appealing or relevant to you.

Purely positive  - as far as I am aware this is someone who claims only to use positive reinforcement, HOWEVER I have in fact never come across one of these people who actually exists as a working trainer. I have come across idealistic people who think this is what they do with their own dogs, and far more commonly I have come across these as theoretical people who appear to exist only in the minds of those who want to justify something or things THEY do that are perhaps not so nice...

This is a really misleading term as a ;purely positive' trainer in terms of learning theory quadrants, would therefore potentially use positive punishment too... and thats not what those who claim they exist, claim they do... so I am going to discount this one as I don't think they are actually real!

Progressive reinforcement trainer - these do exist, but do you know what that actually means? I like and admire the person who came up with this term and she is a really excellent trainer but honestly, I struggle to quantify what that means too so I don't expect anyone else to get it.

Balanced trainer - now that sounds nice?  We all need a bit of balance in our lives, but a balanced trainer is in fact someone who uses positive punishments AND positive rewards... so they might use a choke or a prong collar on your dog and hurt him or cause fear, but they will also give him some treats if he does something good too... sounds ok but its not actually how the science works. But I digress!

Behaviour consultant/behaviourist - now this SHOULD mean someone who is focusing on your dogs behaviour and how to alter it, which may or may not involve some training, they should know HOW your dog thinks and solves problems and reacts emotionally, and how to change that, and how to manage things safely... but in the UK at least, anyone can call themselves this (and in fact any of the above terms) and you have little way of knowing if their knowledge of dog behaviour came out of a cracker, or was verified by an accredited and up to date professional body.

So... thats where we are, there are all these people and they will all tell you they can train your dog, or teach you to train your dog....

But how do YOU know they are going to do it in a way thats kind, effective, SAFE... despite all these labels, you still don't really know!

I happen to like 'force free' - as a generic cover for what I do.. yeah, most people get that 'force' isnt very nice, so doing something without force is probably better.

It is not perfect though and I will be the first to admit that.

So to begin with, 'Force Free' tells you that I do not use force when I am training or modifying behaviour.

Note this when I am training or as part of a behaviour modification plan'.... because there are times when I am working with my dogs, your dogs, whoevers dogs, when I may have to do something that is NOT a part of the training plan, that is not a training or behaviour modification technique, its a safety technique, its a 'don't be bitten, run over or dead' technique.

So whilst I am a force free trainer... hell YES I will pull a dog out of the road by whatever appendage I can grab applying whatever force is necessary to stop that dog being a flat-dog.

Of COURSE I will grab a dog in a dog fight by his tail and his scruff and hoik him out of it using plenty of force.

But pulling a dog out of a road or out of a fight are not training, they are not part of behaviour modification plans, I will not tell you to fix your dogs behaviour or train him a new behaviour, by doing those things (or many others)...  those are not training situations, those are emergencies.

You may think it is silly to have to spell that out, but there are some folk, and categorically, these are without exception, people who are proponents of training methods and behaviour modification methods that DO use force, who like to stir the pot, and throw in ridiculous scenarios and suggest that we cannot be force free trainers, and that the ideology of force free training is impossible and we are all kidding ourselves OR of course, that we WOULD stand by and watch a dog get itself killed because we can't use force.

Stop being dickheads people, seriously!

Force free training is about far more though than just 'not using force' - its about opening your bloody mind and seeing a way round a problem using your brain, rather than your brawn.

I am, as a force free trainer, highly unlikely to have to do either of the things I set out above, because part of force free training means I wouldn't BE working that car chasing dog so close to traffic before he was ready, so the chances of an accident are much reduced.

I would not BE working that dog aggressive dog so close to other dogs that the opportunity to have a fight would not occur, so I would not have to use force to split up a fight that won't happen!

I have thought outside the box, I have used the massive brain I have evolved, and figured out a way to fix the problems without just hitting things with sticks until they do my bidding or bite my arm off!

A trainer who really, should be top of his game, and very clearly has a serious chip on his shoulder, recently posted that we have to make dogs do things that they won't like from time to time and by that reasoning, he posits that we MUST therefore, force them.

And if you follow his logic, we must all use force and there are no force free trainers...

He suggests that we force a dog to wear a collar and lead - actually I pair the sight, feel, sounds and sensation of being restrained with high value food rewards, working gradually always remaining below the dogs threshold so the dog WANTS to wear the collar, wear the lead, follow me around, so he feels a tug on his lead adn thinks YAY that means goodies!

No force there, a shit load of clever human brain manipulating the less clever canine brain, YES of course... but no force.

He suggests that we force a dog to follow us - he might, I don't - I teach my dog that following me is really fun to do, from such a young age that not following me has really  not occurred to him. With older dogs I manage their environments so its not an issue, until they learn to want to be with me - so we drive to secure places where they don't need to be on a lead, and we teach, again, below threshold and build a bond so they do want to be with me and it becomes a non-issue. No force there then either.

He says that because we have to take our dogs to the vets or have them ride in the car, we must therefore use force to achieve this but again as the examples above... no, we don't - we can take the time to set our dogs up to want to do what we need to do in almost every situation.

The one time we cant is the emergencies life throws at us, and for sure, we will sometimes need to do something a dog won't like then.

But what Mr Force-Is-Necessary fails to realise, is when we GIVE dogs choice where possible, when we set them up so that they make the right choices and they enjoy doing so...

We also build in a HUGE degree of tolerance for the times we have to take total control and say 'nope, sorry this has to happen' - we don't damage the relationship.

And of course, we are still a force free trainer even if we have had to carry a screaming dog with a broken leg into a car and take him to the vets and hold him down on the table, because when did you last pick up a dog in an emergency and think AH, THIS IS A TRAINING SITUATION RIGHT HERE...

So maybe our labels are not good enough, maybe we need better ones, maybe it would be fucking peachy as anything to live in a world where we don't need any labels at all... I would like that.

But as long as there are people who think that because in rare, non training situation emergencies, we HAVE to use force, it is okay to use force whenever, wherever, as part of a training protocol, then I will feel the very REAL need to find a label for myself that distances me from them.

I do not want people to think 'dog trainer = forces dogs to do things they don't want to do'.

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