sI have recently been watching some interesting conversations between 'balanced' trainers and 'positive only' trainers. Discussing whether you can make training force free entirely, this is how balanced trainers often try to dirty positive only trainers, and positive only will often try to dirty balanced trainers because they can use tools such as prong collars and e-collars. I take a different stance of being a 'scientific trainer'. This is what I call myself. I use the four quadrants of operant conditioning to allow me to get the best results for my clients and their dogs. Now ideally I have a preference to cause as little stress as possible to the dog whilst training to make the sessions more effective. If a dog is highly stressed, it will shut down and it will seem like you are getting results, when in actual fact the dog is so highly stressed it doesn't know how to respond, so it does nothing instead. This is the state I wish to avoid at all costs. This is a suppression of a behaviour, it does not solve it, it just means the dog is too stressed to respond and will continue to display the behaviour when no longer in the stressful environment. This can actually lead to outbursts, alternative behaviours problems being expressed and even aggression, especially if dealing with dogs that have fears or phobias.
Below is a graphic of the four quadrants so that I can more easily explain both my methods and how things can be done incorrectly. I am not a fan of e-collars or prongs, I feel that alternative methods can be just as effective, but they do take longer and require more input from the handler. I am not going to bash balanced or positive only trainers, I have personal preferences in my training methods and I know they work, I can always find alternative ways to teach something, I do not believe the general public should have access to them too much can go wrong and it does, frequently. I knew of someone who had a trainer recommend an e-collar for their 12 week old shepherd, they poorly executed the use of it and the dog developed a fear that is now needing intensive work to get past. I will explain this in more detail shortly.
graphic was found on google and originally belongs to www.canineessentials.com.au
So if we look at the graphic we have two major ideas, reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement increases a behaviour, punishment reduces a behaviour. Punishment does not have to be things like the traditional newspaper on the nose, it simply means that a behaviour will decrease. We then have positive and negative. Positive means we add in something, negative means we take something away. There are some good examples within the graphic and I will detail them here in text briefly for those not able to view the image:
Positive Reinforcement = giving a reward to increase a desired behaviour . This could be treats, a fuss, it could even be allowing the dog to go and explore its environment or interact with another dog. You find what motivates your dog and you can use it to reinforce your training.
Negative Reinforcement = taking something away in order to reinforce a desired response, such as removing a pressure once the desired behaviour is expressed, thus reinforcing the desired behaviour. This is how head-collars and prong collars are used. Both will give different pressures, prongs will give a deeper more intense pressure than say a head-collar.
Negative Punishment = Taking something away to decrease a behaviour. In the graphic the examples used are withholding a reward or walking away if a dog jumps up. In the case of a frustrated greeter, we would take away the other dog if our own dog is showing signs of inappropriate greeting behaviour such as barking and lunging.
Positive Punishment = Adding something in order to decrease a behaviour. This could be leash corrections, but this is also where e-collars would usually be placed. The discomforting stimulus is meant to stop a behaviour being expressed, such as giving the dog a small shock to stop it chasing deer.
So now we've go these basics explained, I will say a quick thing about e-collars. If the tone function is used they can be coupled with rewards to become a positive secondary reinforcer like a clicker. This way they can become a good thing. However the majority of uses of the e-collar are to stop a behaviour happening so it can cause discomfort and if abused or set too high to the sensitivity of the dog, it can cause pain and high stress levels. The use of an e-collar is not recommended for use on fearful or aggressive dogs as they often only suppress the behaviours and can in fact cause more problems as I mentioned above the graphic.
The aim of dog training should be to cause as little stress as possible, so positive reinforcement and negative punishment should be the first port of call for any training. They cause minimal stress and in the long term more reliable results. A reactive or 'aggressive' dog may just seem aggressive on the outside, but it is in fact reacting according to how its learning history has taught it to react. If we punished the dog for biting say using an e-collar or a smack, we could in fact create more negative associations with whatever is causing the dog to behave in an aggressive manner, teaching it to be even more aggressive the next time round. This is what happened with the 12wk old shepherd. The owner incorrectly timed their 'shock' and the dog developed a fear of people as a person happened to be nearby when they were trying to correct the dog for something else.
So instead we want to teach the dog to react in a more appropriate manner, teach it alternative behaviours and increase its positive emotions towards whatever is making the dog aggressive or fearful. So we would use positive reinforcement, lots of rewards for the behaviours we want, making sure the dog gets things it really enjoys only when exposed to what makes it respond aggressively and over time the dogs response and feelings towards that situation will change to something more generally positive. In some extreme cases when a dog has had a severely detrimental experience, we may only be able to get the dog to maintain a neutral response to the situation. In this case it would likely need management and continuing positive exposure. It may take years in some cases and the dog may never completely overcome its traumatic experience, but we can at least do our best to reduce the stress the dog feels in those situations to make it more comfortable.
When working as a professional trainer, we try not to add emotional and pre-conceived ideas to our cases, however as emotional beings we will always have some emotional response. The same is true with different training methods. We can develop different emotional responses to them dependent on our experiences and this is what can cause the big rifts we see in current training practices. Ultimately training methods should be viewed entirely objectively and this is where a lot of issues come in because various methods can be very emotive to us as humans, and indeed do affect the emotional state of the dog and can cause stress. Some will argue that stress is good for a dog, but as I said earlier, the level of stress can have a big impact on the dog and all dogs have different levels of sensitivity. So we work with the dog in front of us. Figure out the level of stress they can cope with as you work with them. Start off with very simple things, such as seeing how they cope with not being rewarded for an incorrect behaviour. Some dogs can actually find this highly stressful and will refuse to perform afterwards, so we do have to adapt our methods to each dog.
Scientific research has continued to show that ultimately the best and most effective methods for teaching new or changing behaviours in dogs, is positive reinforcement and then negative punishment. They produce the least stress thus keeping the dog in a working frame of mind making the training more effective and consistent achieving more long term results. Any training method can be abused and personally because I do my best to follow the recommended scientific methods, I would not use e-collars or prong collars as they produce too much stress. If you are unsure about how to deal with a situation or you have limited knowledge of the two preferred training methods, consult a professional trainer that has a good education and lots of experience working with many dogs. If you are unsure what you should be looking for I am happy to help you.
Dog Trainer, animal lover, artist and photographer