Confessions of a Dog Trainer

Confessions of a Dog Trainer

I have found this topic to come up on my personal Facebook feed and in other blogs often in the last few months, and I feel like I have to set the record straight.
I am a positive reinforcement trainer. (Technically I am a crossover trainer, but that’s a blog for another day) I go through training treats like most businesses go through paper clips. I have to keep my finger nails short because I get dog cookie goo stuck underneath them on a regular basis and that’s just gross. More often than not, I am seen at the grocery store with my treat pouch still on my waist. (It’s a good day if there is also a tug in my back pocket) This is just the beginning of the thought process though.

Nerdy Stuff

Time to get science-y! (Don’t worry this is just a very simple overview of what is going on in my brain when i explain what we are doing) The basis of learning is defined through operant and classical conditioning. Every experience you have can be traced back to these two concepts. Through Operant conditioning all stimulus in the environment is paired with either a negative or positive experience. Simple examples: the stove is hot, and you burn your finger when you touch it. Next time you go near the stove you remember that it might be hot. Classical conditioning is where a previously neutral stimulus is paired with a consequence. Pavlov’s dogs and the dinner bell. In your house it’s probably the sound of the food hitting the food bowl. The bowl itself had no meaning to your dog until he learned that it provided his dinner. TA DA! Classical conditioning!

Diving deeper!

Don’t lose me quite yet! Operant conditioning breaks behavior changes into 4 main parts to achieve the results you are looking for. Keeping in mind for this example we want to encourage a behavior. Positive reinforcement adds a pleasant stimulus for a correct behavior, like a cookie. Positive punishment adds a negative stimulus for an incorrect behavior, like a loud noise. Negative Reinforcement takes away a pleasant stimulus, removing access to the cookie. Negative punishment, takes away the negative stimulus, letting up pressure on the collar.

Positive Reinforcement Positive Punishment
Negative Reinforcement Negative Punishment

Now, any good trainer has a very strong grasp of these concepts. (thankfully, I have a degree in Psychology so you don’t have to get one!) A good positive reinforcement trainer knows how to use these concepts in a way that does not cause pain or fear to get the results you are looking for.

It does not mean that we only use Positive Reinforcement!

My dogs have to sit before I open the crate door. If they see coming out of their crate as reinforcement, then not opening the door can be seen as Positive Punishment. I am removing the ability to gain reinforcement by closing the crate door. No fear, no pain. Just consequence.

The Misconception!

There seems to be this misconception that you cannot train difficult behaviors, or aggression from dogs using this method. That my friends, blows my mind! I am racking my brain trying to figure out what I am missing! Clients, do you agree with me that my method is definitely getting you closer to your goals?

It seems that people who do not truly understand what Positive Reinforcement training is, think that we let dogs run amuck until we can find a behavior that we like to reinforce. I know my clients can attest to the fact that no one is running amuck when I am around! The dogs have rules and consequences that are doled out when needed, but the consequences are not based on adding fear or applying pain.

Pixie is scared of new people. She was a scared little puppy in the shelter and that’s the temperament I have to work with. Instead of correcting her every time she barked at something, we took time to understand the why behind the behavior and by using Positive Reinforcement, we are working to make the presence of new people not so scary.
Did I let her sit on the corner and bark at people until she decided it was time to take a cookie? HAHA! Definitely not. If she was over threshold, then I removed her from the aversive stimulus. (Negative punishment, see how that works!) She then began to pair the presence of new people with something good (cookies) in situations where she was able to think and process what was going on. Pixie rarely barks at people these days. (Unless they are super sketchy and I get nervous, then I’m usually okay if she stares or barks a bit) And if you see her at the dock you wonder what the heck I am talking about.

Final Thought

Now, I am not bashing anyone’s preferred method of training. I have many friends who walk their dogs on a prong collar and that is just fine for them and me. I know the proper way to fit and use a prong collar, and a slip lead, from days past, and I have chosen different methods based on the results I see, and  the results my clients see. My clients are enjoying progress and seeing changes in their dogs that they could not imagine when they started training. Happy clients and happy dogs, are enough reason for me to continue using the methods I have chosen.  I don’t think I would have happy clients, if what I was doing wasn’t working!


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