Friday, 4 March 2016

"Just pick out the bits that work for you..."... Why this makes trainers and behaviourists cry!

"Oh just pick out the bits that work for you and your dog and leave the rest..."...

 This is a comment I hear and see written all the time, and frankly it makes me want to bounce my head off the desk.

It is often said in reference to TV programs where trainers use less than humane methods, but its also applied randomly to any advice or training methodology.

There are major issues with this concept though!

Firstly, and I am going to try really hard not to make this sound mean or rude or patronising, because that is absolutely not my intention, to be able to 'pick out what works for you', you need to have a pretty decent knowledge of behaviour, of training, of learning theory.

You need to be able to identify WHY a particular method works, how it works, what the pro's and con's are, what are the potential risks, where is the fall-out, what do you need to look out for.

Then you need to know how you evaluate whether it will 'work for you' - this is something a lot of people don't actually understand, and thats because they don't know the previous stuff, the learning theory, the why's and hows and wherefores of behaviour modification and training.

So thats the first biggy really, you CANNOT pick out what works for you, if you don't have a thorough understanding of what is being done and why it is achieving the results it is ( or appears to be) achieving.

Is that dog quiet and calm now because his fear has been counter conditioned and he is being managed under threshold whilst the behaviour modification plan takes place, or is that dog quiet and 'calm' because he is shut down due to being flooded?

Is that bouncy excitable hooligan of a dog really as confident as he looks or is he really an edgey, nervous type who is constantly over threshold and can't calm down?

Has that dog stopped pulling on the lead because he's learned that walking beside his owner is rewarding, or has he stopped pulling on the lead because he's learned that it causes him severe pain from a shock collar?

Frankly, if you do know enough to be picking out the bits that work for you, you almost certainly wouldn't be asking for advice or watching TV trainers for help.

Secondly, and this is another area where I am aware of the need to tread carefully...

If you are getting great advice, if you have hired a brilliant trainer or behaviourist, and they give you a plan to work through...

Do not 'pick' and choose which bits of it you will follow.

Your trainer will make it clear to you which bits are optional and where you can make choices, if they have not done so, then just do exactly what you were told to do. Do all of it.

Do not leave out bits you do not fancy, do not skip the boring bits, or rush ahead. Please, please, do not miss out the bits you didn't quite understand or aren't sure why they are there.

If your trainer has told you to start crate training by lobbing a treat in the crate and allowing your puppy to wander in and find it, and then lobbing in another treat so your puppy stays in to eat that one, and then waiting a second and lobbing in a third treat... DO EXACTLY THAT..

Do not decide that your pup has been in the crate 10 seconds now and so its time to shut that door and leave the room for 10 minutes... do not decide that thats enough treats for today and shove the pup in without any reward...

When you find a really awesome trainer or behaviourist, really no matter WHAT the problem was you called them in for, its almost certain that the advice will NOT be to do just ONE thing, or change just ONE aspect of your dogs routine or handling.

They will look at your dogs ENTIRE routine, day to day life, every little detail, and every step of that training plan will be necessary. Not optional.

There is almost nothing worse as a behaviour consultant, to hear someone tell a client to just 'pick out the bits that work for you', when you know they have been given a detailed step by step plan.

All too often I hear people say that the positive reinforcement, force free steps they have been given 'do not work' or 'I have tried it all' or 'it doesn't work for my dog'...

In pretty much all the cases where I hear this I find that the owner has not done everything they were told to do, they have picked out the bits they fancy and skipped the rest, or they have skipped the boring beginning stages of the work and jumped in at the deep end.

If you have found yourself a fabulous, force free, positive reinforcement trainer, please do not pick and choose the bits of advice you will follow.

Instead if you find something is hard to do, speak to your trainer - get them to explain why you need to do it, how you might adapt what you need to do to your environment or particular situation.

A good trainer does NOT mind explaining to you in greater depth why something will work, how to adapt and tweak things to fit the environment you have to work in and the dog you are working with.

The above does assume you HAVE a brilliant trainer who is up to date on science and is teaching you how to use positive reinforcement and force free methods.

If you are not sure about your trainers methods - ask them a few simple questions.

What happens if my dog gets it right?
What happens if my dog gets it wrong?
Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

MY answers (in brief) to those questions are as follows.

If your dog gets it right he gets a reward - this may be food or it may be a toy or it may be access to some environment or activity he really likes or it could be something else. The dog determines what he or she finds rewarding, it is not up to me to decide what that will be or impose MY preferences upon him.

Occasionally it may be necessary to increase or decrease the value of a reinforcer (for example a dog who is so nuts about squeaky balls that in the presence of one, he is blind to everything else - we would try to make balls a bit less valuable by perhaps giving him more access to them, or by using less exciting balls, ones that don't squeak or are not covered in yellow fur!).

If the dog gets it wrong - I look at what we were doing, why it went wrong and try a different approach. Perhaps we need to make the task easier, perhaps we need to make it harder, perhaps we need to do something else first.
Sometimes if the dog gets it wrong, nothing happens, he simply doesn't get the reward he was expecting. Your dog will never receive a positive punishment or aversive correction from me.

Are there any less invasive alternatives to what I am suggesting? As far as I am aware, no, however I keep researching, studying and learning and if I find a way that is less invasive, I will use it. I spend a lot of time and money every year ensuring I am keeping my skills up to date and in line with science and humane, force free 'best practice'.

If you ask a trainer or behaviour consultant these three questions and you do not get replies that are very much in line with mine, or you get a confused look or you get an angry or defensive response - walk away!

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