The “Real World” Argument

Any dog trainer who’s spent any amount of time feebly arguing on the internet has likely encountered the “real world” argument. It’s an argument most frequently seen from trainers who utilize correction collars and few  (if any) treats. They consider verbal praise to be a sufficient reward (and for some dogs in some cases, it is).

These folks sometimes lambaste us “cookie pushers” and say our reward-based training will not hold up in the “real world.”  Frankly, I didn’t realize I was training in an alternate reality! Neat!

But what they mean by “real world” is “out and about where your dog could actually get hurt if they don’t listen to you.” Where they could chase a squirrel into traffic, a loud noise could startle them into running away, they try to harass a venomous snake, etc. They say there’s more to communicating with your dog than shoving treats in their face for every problem.

I don’t disagree with that last statement at all. There is a lot more to it than treats. Treats will be almost useless if you have not also built a strong bond filled with trust and respect. The same goes for any other training tool, though.

Why do us “cookie pushers” use treats so much? They’re easy and most dogs will work for them. Plus they’re a great way to teach fearful dogs we’re safe and to associate us with good things That’s it. It is phenomenally arrogant and misguided to expect an animal simpler than ourselves to work for little to no payoff. Some dogs love working with us and are willing to do it for lesser rewards, such as verbal praise. Other dogs need more incentive. Much like I’m gonna need a dozen donuts rather than a pat on the back if you want me to help clean your house. Well, depending on who you are – if our relationship is stronger I may be willing to settle for half a dozen.

I love the people who say “you won’t always have treats on you.” They’re not wrong, but this exhibits a misunderstanding of how proper reward-based training is done. If you need treats to get your dog to respond to you every time, you’ve screwed  up your training. Skilled reward-based trainers use treats heavily when initially teaching behaviors and when increasing criteria (distance, distraction, duration, etc.). After that it’s best to work with a variable reinforcement schedule – no need to reward every behavior, and do it unpredictably. Think like a slot machine. They’re addictive for a reason. Your dog doesn’t know for certain if he’ll get a reward this time, but he’ll damn well try, just in case.

Let me clarify and get this out of the way: I am not in the “correction collars are torture devices!!!” camp. There are some dogs trained with these collars who perform beautifully and enjoy it (whether they would be even more amazing if trained without the collars, I can’t say). They’re just not my thing. For my purposes, I’ve never needed them. If I can get my dog to avoid danger with reward-based training and management (leashes, etc.), I prefer to go that route.

My point is that yes, reward-based training can work for the “real world” too. My dog was never physically corrected, but he had a rock solid recall. I was able to repeatedly call him back to me in the middle of chasing squirrels while off-leash (this was THE single most rewarding thing in life to him, mind you). His recall and equally solid “wait” cues actually stopped him from walking into the road a couple of times (once was when he was after a squirrel, the other was when he was following me to my car).

I had made working with me so rewarding and built up his trust in me so strongly that he would listen when he knew full-well I had no treats on me (and I frequently walked him without treats because I didn’t need them). I had conditioned such a strong positive feeling when he heard one of his cues that his response became automatic. He didn’t fear the consequence of what would happen if he didn’t listen, he loved what happened when he did listen. He loved working with me.

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“Okay, I will trust your judgment here and assume this isn’t as weird as I think it is…”

Plenty of other reward-based trainers have achieved the same (if not better) results. Even with “hard” or “high drive” breeds that allegedly need a “firm hand” when training.

I’ll admit this is more difficult to achieve with some dogs (scent hounds, amirite?). But it’s very possible if done properly and I’m simply tired of people misunderstanding that.

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Stop Guilt Tripping People Who Give Up Their Pets

As an animal lover who is involved in the local shelter/rescue community, I of course see a lot of stuff related to these interests on social media. Something I’ve been seeing crop up way too much lately is making those who give up their pets feel like guilty, heartless people. It doesn’t matter what the reason was, you are a monster if you abandon your sweet, precious, angel furbaby. This mindset needs to stop.

As an animal shelter employee, I get to hear all sorts of reasons people give up their pets. A very common one is because the owners are moving. Many of us wouldn’t dream of moving to a place that didn’t allow our pets, or we can’t fathom people who are just too lazy/uncaring to bring their pets with them on a long trip.

Do you know how difficult it was for me to find an affordable apartment that would allow my 60lb dog that wasn’t even one of the “dangerous” breeds? I couldn’t find a place. I had to remain living with my friend and his parents (and to them I am eternally grateful). I have since found an affordable, pet-friendly place, but it’s one that is NOT easy to come by (though my dog had since passed away). The only reason I snagged it is because of social connections. That dog was my world and moving without him wasn’t an option, but having him severely limited my housing options. I didn’t make a lot of money, but I made enough to comfortably care for the two of us. Now that I’m paying rent it would have been difficult to do this (I’m having a hard enough time affording care for myself, frankly). It’s a lot more difficult than “well don’t move to a place that doesn’t allow pets” or “well then buy your own home.” Some of us can’t afford that luxury. Sometimes things change and money gets tight. Not everyone who gives up their pet because they’re moving are heartless – sometimes they just don’t have any other choice. I’ve seen my share of people bawling their eyes out at the shelter when giving up their pet because they don’t want to, but they’re out of options. Maybe they don’t have any friends or family able to watch their pet until they get back on their feet. You don’t know. So don’t assume.

I don’t even want to imagine how difficult it is for people with multiple pets, really large dogs (so many places had a 25lb weight limit), or people with “dangerous” breeds.

I could go through and hash out all the other common reasons pets are surrendered or where they choose to surrender them to, but that’s tedious and I would just end up reiterating “things are not always that simple, don’t make assumptions about their life” every time.  Even dedicated, knowledgeable, devoted dog owners may run into circumstances that force them to give up their beloved pet. Chances are they feel awful enough surrendering their pet. Making them feel guilty and horrible achieves nothing other than convincing them that all rescue people are horrible, crazy people (and let’s face it, some of you are).

Don’t get me wrong, there are some really stupid reasons people have given up their pet. But if they care so little and are willing to give up their pet over something so stupid, do you really want that person keeping that pet?

Not everyone has the same attitude about pets you do. Some people view them as pets, tools, or property, not family members. You’re not going to change that. Especially not by getting pissy and judgmental. If you really want to change anything, start educating in a more open, understanding way – and preferably only to people willing to hear what you have to say. Otherwise it is wasted effort that only serves to leave you perpetually angry with the world and making the shelter/rescue community look bad. This angry, holier-than-thou bullshit in these communities needs to stop.