Frustrated by Force Free Fundamentalism

I will not apologize for my love of alliteration, by the way.

So, it’s time for a rant. I am what many would call a “positive” trainer – I use reward-based methods, I focus on building trust and guiding the dog to perform the appropriate behavior. I never use any physical corrections (unless you count nudging my very oblivious dog to get him to move out of my way in my tiny apartment).

"I do what I want."

“I do what I want.”

There is a relatively new movement in the training world called “force free” training. They also heavily focus on rewarding the dog for doing the correct behavior and are against any harsh corrections. They feel using pain or intimidation to coerce a dog into doing what you want is an unnecessary use of force. These forceful corrections may be administered via choke chain, prong collar, shock collar, hitting/kicking, body blocking, shouting “no!”, or anything that makes the dog feel “forced” into performing the behavior to avoid something unpleasant. I am, technically, a force free trainer. If a dog is uncomfortable with something I don’t make them do it. Instead I will work with them until they are comfortable with it or find an alternative way.

I know some force free trainers who are lovely, reasonable, talented people. This post is not about them. This is about the force free fundies. The people who make me ashamed to call myself a force free trainer for fear I will be associated with them. There’s a reason the word “extremist” has a negative connotation. That is when you start to lose perspective and reason. There are some force free fundies out there who seem to believe causing the dog any amount of stress is simply too “mean.” Some of the particularly nutty ones will go on to tell you that even withholding a reward is “mean.” They argue that it’s technically “negative punishment” (one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning). The annoying thing about the quadrants is that some trainers focus way, WAY too much on them. If something can technically be considered “positive punishment” they will refuse to use that technique. They don’t stop to think and take into account whether or not that individual dog even finds it punishing. It’s kind of a complicated mess drowning in technicalities, so I won’t bore you trying to explain the quadrants further. Some folks need to stop treating the quadrants like some dog trainer religion where positive reinforcement is your almighty God and positive punishment is the dark lord Satan. In fact, don’t even think about them when training. They are irrelevant (note that I am not saying they are unimportant, just… don’t worry about them so much).

Probably how force free fundies view the quadrants.

Probably how force free fundies view the quadrants.

For example, some force free fundies are even very much against no reward markers (when you essentially tell the dog “no, sorry, that’s not what I asked for, try again”) because it’s technically a punishment and OH LAWD HAVE MERCY, WHY WOULD YOU BE SO CRUEL? Training should be a fun and engaging experience, yes, I totally agree. But whether they want to admit it or not, there are some dogs that are totally okay with no reward markers. Some even do better with them because it’s helpful feedback that can get them on the right track quicker and set them up for success more frequently. I can’t use no reward markers on my German Shepherd mix. He is a very sensitive flower and would get very upset if I told him “nope” even with the happiest tone and body language. When you give our Border Collie a no reward marker, though, she has that “oh okay, I should try something else, got it, thanks!” moment which gets her back on the right track more quickly than if I didn’t use it at all. Instead she would likely just keep flailing down the wrong track and get incredibly frustrated that she wasn’t nailing it. So what would be more “mean” there?

The force free fundies are also the people who will recoil in horror if you so much as say “prong collars can be used effectively,” because their filters are completely screwed up and all they hear is “I love inflicting pain on dogs, and I probably also punch toddlers for fun.”

I’m gonna say it. Prong collars can be used effectively. So can shock collars and choke chains. That does not mean I use or recommend them. If they were not effective when used properly (yes, there is a proper way) then they would not be so widely used still. Some dogs are not sensitive to the corrections at all and the rewards (whatever they may be for the dog) outweigh the discomfort of the punishment enough to keep them engaged and learning. I would be an idiot in denial if I refused to admit that. But I still don’t use or recommend them because largely I find them unnecessary and the potential behavioral fallout is too great a risk to take in my opinion. But force free fundies will close their eyes, plug their ears, and go “LALALA CAN’T HEAR YOU” because they write it off as “too mean.” Thinking and observing in an objective and critical manner is apparently too much effort. Some use and misinterpret science to push their moral agenda. To make matters worse, the fundies I’ve encountered are very rarely positive in their approach with people. They can’t even consistently practice what they preach.

To my reasonable force free peeps: keep on doin’ what you’re doin’. To the fundies: take a deep breath and get some perspective. You’re not winning anyone over this way.

Edit (11/03/14) – The following is some boring comments and my boring responses to them, feel free to skip this part: Oh me oh my, this post is getting a lot of attention lately. There have been some comments on social media I wanted to address here in case anyone else had the same thoughts and were curious about a response from me.

Someone commented:

“This person is missing the point. I wonder if they realize there is a REASON some people stick to pesky things like science, behavior psych, and learning theory. ANY form of +P is susceptible to the SAME fallout, no matter how mild. We chose to not use +P and -R because of documented potential for fallout, coupled with the fact that there ARE better ways without that potential.
No matter the subject, I really don’t like to see people brush off science and facts as personal agendas and as things that are optional or to be taken into consideration but not too seriously. Learn to science, plzkthx.”

I am totally not dismissing science here, but I didn’t go into detail because when you think critically about something, especially science, it can become an impressively deep rabbit hole that is incredibly boring to most people who stumble across my blog (Prescott Breeden and Eric Brad have already posted on why the quadrants are more dicey than we think, I recommend seeking out those articles if you want to get into it more). And while I don’t necessarily care if I get a ton of readers, I don’t want to bore them to death either.

I completely understand that +P carries the risk of fallout. I don’t know if you missed the part in my post about my dog who is extremely sensitive to any kind of punishment. He would attempt to disengage from training if I so much as used a no reward marker with the happiest tone and body language possible. In my early training days I accidentally poisoned his “stay” cue by using body blocking, which I didn’t recognize at the time he was very uncomfortable with. Teaching him has been a great learning experience and how to go about things without using anything the dog considers punishing. I am absolutely not advocating for the use of aversives in dog training (an alarming amount of people think just because someone says they can work means they advocate for them – I just don’t want people lying to themselves). But I do recognize that they can work on certain dogs with little to no fallout – otherwise these tools and techniques would not still be so widely used on service, military, and police dogs. But I also recognize many of those dogs probably wash out because the correction-based training does not work for them in particular, whereas they would have succeeded beautifully with positive techniques and a good trainer. I have never used leash corrections, choke, prong, or shock collars and I do not foresee myself ever needing them. But I have not trained every dog in the world. I preach about how every dog is different, and that means it is entirely possible there is a dog out there that thrives just fine on a prong. I don’t know. It’s unlikely a dog will do better with those tools and techniques than with just positive training alone, but I keep an open mind.

By the way, when I talk about science, I mean legitimate science – peer-reviewed papers by people with PhDs. Not some article written by a KPA graduate or what have you. But I totally agree that the legitimate science does support “positive” training methods. That is why I use and advocate for them. But the science also says that things like prong collars are sometimes not straight-up torture as some of the extremists seem to believe. Science and emotions don’t mix. I understand it’s hard not to get passionate about this. It is very hard to watch dogs suffer from the owner’s ignorance. But we’re not going to win them over if we come off as condescending and puritanical. I know people who have been pushed away from positive training simply because of the extremist attitudes of some folks in the community. We’re screwing ourselves over and making positive training look bad. So it’s a problem I’d like to see diminish. This is just a little rant thrown into the depths of the internet in an attempt to get people think more critically and be a little less judgmental – I assure you I spend much more time actually out at public events working with organizations to promote positive training and an understanding of canine behavior, as well as working with shelter dogs so the adopters can see what this training is capable of.

Another comment said:

I get the intent especially since her next blog talks about how some people are using fake profiles – talking to themselves in threads using multiple profiles and a bunch of other stuff.
However, I usually find that people who express, “I don’t do x because…I’d much prefer y” are immediately attacked as being fundamentalists. I’m not sure we should set up a scenario where expressing how to get better results or use fewer aversives is belittled or censored in a “you ought to be more positive – yeah – you the person who is expressing how you do things.”
I find that these types of posts just act as a call to arms – a “hip hip hooray that someone is telling those R+ trainers to shut up already.
I don’t think the majority of R+ trainers are taking a moral high ground. I’m a crossover trainer. I wouldn’t do that to the harshest force trainer because I used corrections in the past.”

It may be because my experience with the extremists have been particularly abundant and frustrating, so I was perhaps a bit heated when I wrote this post. I totally have no problem with the “I don’t do x because I’d much prefer y” people. I love anyone who can have a civil conversation about training and be reasonable, even if I disagree with them. I know sometimes they get targeted, but rest assured they’re not who this post is about. I won’t go into detail about who it is about because they don’t need the extra attention and as you pointed out, my next post “Beware the Crazy” goes over some of them. I can understand how some may feel this is a “yay someone is telling those R+ trainers to shut up” post, but there’s only such much control I have over how someone interprets my words. If they took two seconds to read the “about me” page they’d know that’s not what I’m saying. I love R+, I practice it, I advocate for it, I educate the public about it. But in a reasonable manner. I suppose I wouldn’t say the majority of R+ trainers are taking the moral high ground, no, but there is definitely a very vocal minority who are souring it for many people – myself included. I just don’t want to see more and more people going down that extremist, holier-than-thou path. I love seeing people be reasonable, critical thinkers just as much as I love helping people understand and work with their dogs more humanely.

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What Clicker Training Is Not

There is some… misunderstanding among some people about clicker training, and how exactly it works. Let me start with a quick list of what clicker training is NOT:

  • Bribery
  • A hippie-dippy love-and-peace method with no boundaries
  • Ineffective

Let’s tackle these one at a time, shall we?

Ah, the bribery theory… we meet again. A ridiculous amount of people seem to think most positive reinforcement methods, including clicker training, are a way of bribing the dog into doing what you want it to do, that the dog becomes dependent on the food to perform. And I can totally see why they would think that. When you take it at face value, we are giving the dog a treat in return for doing something. He’s not doing it because he wanted to of his own accord. He’s not doing it because he just loves us sooo much that he’ll do anything to please us. He’s doing it for food. A basic animal need. A bribe.

What these short-sighted folk are not quite grasping is why food is used and how to use it so that it does not become a bribe. It’s only bribery to your dog if you’re doing it all wrong. For instance, I would argue that lure-reward training is probably bribery, yeah. For the most part, the dog is focused on the food, not the handler. That’s not what we do.

To understand how clicker training works, you must first understand dog behavior and how they learn. It’s a science. A proven one, for that matter. To put it simply, we use food because it makes the dog happy. It changes their emotional state. For instance, with a dog that is fearful of other dogs, we use food to bring her emotional state into a happier one every time she sees another dog. She starts making that connection (dogs are a bit more simplistic than us in this area, obviously), and pretty soon she begins looking at other dogs excitedly, even when there are no treats present. I know plenty of positive reinforcement trained dogs who will perform cues when he/she knows there are no treats around. It’s because he has been conditioned to enjoy performing that behavior, because his emotional state was changed to make it a fun experience.

Try and think of it this way: let’s say you and some friends go to the amusement park for a day of fun and excitement. But while you’re there, it seems as though you have the worst luck. You lose your wallet, strangers are rude and unhelpful, you keep stepping in gum, and there are screaming children. You know this is supposed to be a fun place, but you had a miserable experience, and you don’t look forward to coming back as much as you used to. There was nothing wrong with the park itself, but your emotional state while you were there made it an unpleasant experience. On the other hand, if everything had gone smoothly, you found a $10 bill on the ground, and you had a blast with your friends, then of course you would be more excited to come back because you had a positive experience associated with the park.

If you are just shoving food in the dog’s face trying to get it to do what you want constantly, and he will not perform unless there is food present, then yes, that is bribery, and you have goofed up your training. We do not even touch our bait bags until the dog has performed a desired behavior. There is also the magic of variable ratio rewards. A great little article on that can be found here: http://www.clickermagic.com/clicker_primer/clicker_p18.html

But to sum it up, once the dog has the behavior down, you begin rewarding only intermittently and randomly, so the dog never knows when a reward is coming.

Also, if you find bribery so damned abhorrent, then I’m gonna have to ask you for your boss’ phone number, because he/she should be told that apparently you would be perfectly fine working for no pay. It will never cease to irritate me how some people expect our dogs to be perfect, to be better than us.  If you aren’t willing to do half the crap you ask of your dog, why should she be expected to do it for nothing? Why did you opt to get a relatively simple creature with its own mind when clearly what you wanted was a flawless robot with advanced AI? Stop it. It’s not fair to the dog.

Clicker training is also not a hippie-dippy method where we’re all about love and peace and kindness and letting the dog walk all over us. Trust me, I hate that stuff. Sure, we don’t psychologically or physically punish the dog, because that’s, y’know… not good… but we don’t let the dog get away with everything and walk all over us. We often use negative punishment (taking away something the dog wants) when the dog performs an undesirable behavior. This is akin to grounding your child. It doesn’t harm them, but it does get the message across. It is entirely possible to be a benevolent leader without the use of physical/psychological intimidation and force, I assure you. You didn’t follow and obey the kid that bullied you in high school, did you? Probably not, but if you did it’s safe to say it was a very unhealthy relationship in which you were not happy.

Luckily I don’t actually encounter many people who claim clicker training is just downright ineffective, so I will keep this part relatively short (maybe). Just take a look at this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTsw7RlmyJE

Those dogs were trained with clicker training. Notice how they look happy and clearly enjoy performing the behaviors, plus they are focusing on the handler, not the treats (in some cases she wasn’t even wearing her treat bag at all). She has some excellent videos of her methods as well, not just the results.

Some people claim that positive reinforcement only training (with no physical corrections or punishments) failed to help their dog and others. That it simply did not work on them. I would have loved to have witnessed the people using these methods to find out why they failed. Training is a skill and an art – if you don’t do it correctly, of course it is going to fail. Too many trainers blame the methods when they need to re-evaluate their skills as a trainer, and they need to learn it’s okay to admit you need work. I sure do. Clicker training is NOT for lazy people with short attention spans. It takes so much more patience and work than harsher methods. But people today are obsessed with shortcutting and quick fixes. That extra time and patience is worth my dog’s emotional well-being, not to mention the trust and confidence it builds up.

Now, why do people still deny this method? Why deny proven science? Because they either don’t/won’t/can’t understand it or they’re too stuck on the fact that their outdated methods still work (it’s usually a combination of both). Yes, your methods of yelling, alpha rolling, and leash corrections do work — quite well in some cases. I have never said anything to the contrary. But there are better ways. I can shut up a screaming child by slapping duct tape over its mouth, but you don’t see that being a highly recommended method. It is entirely possible to train your dog without having to strike fear into her, without having to intimidate and physically harm her. There are ways to train her that strengthens her trust in you, that improves the bond between you as partners. And yet still, so many people prefer to bully their dogs into compliance… It is heartbreaking to me as a future trainer, and as a human being.