I recently read an article that brought up some deep discussion with fellow dog training nerds. The article itself focused on why positive reinforcement-based training fails and why a balanced approach is better. I’m not going to argue that point as I tire of doing so. I simply do what I do and let the results speak for themselves. 🙂 However, there were several points brought up in the post that I feel need addressing.
First of all, the idea that positive-based training is consequence-free. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Everything you or your dog does has a consequence. It can be a good one or a bad one (and often whether it’s good or bad depends on whether you’re the dog or the trainer!). Ignoring behavior IS a consequence. Giving a treat reward is a consequence. Issuing a correction is a consequence. Training dogs is all about consequences and manipulating them.
If I’m working on waiting at doors, I have several options. If the dog waits calmly at the door when it’s opened, the consequence is that he gets to go outside. If he blasts through the door as soon as it opens, the door is closed and he does not get to go outside (keeping in mind that I’m training so the dog is on a leash to prevent him from self-rewarding with a romp around the yard). You could also give a leash pop or a “No” as a consequence for attempting to go outside before being released to do so.
It’s the same with jumping up. I can ignore the behavior in which case the consequence is that nothing happens for the dog. No going outside or attention from me at all. I can cue an alternative behavior like “sit” and reward that when he complies. Or I can wait for a sit and reward that when he offers it. I can also yell “No” though that can potentially reinforce the behavior if it’s an attention-seeking one. I can also knee the dog in the chest or step into his space though that might inadvertently convince a dog that he shouldn’t come into my space at all (especially if you have a sensitive dog). All of these are consequences for the jumping up behavior from various schools of thought.
The other thing I want to address is the idea that positive training falls apart in the real world because you can’t control the real world in the same way you can in a classroom. Certainly, the idea behind positive reinforcement-based training is that you set things up so that the dog has no choice but to do things right. It’s difficult and often involves a lot of creativity to set a dog up to perform what you want and be unable to do what you don’t want to reward. The whole idea is to teach the dog the proper response in the quickest way possible. Once the dog knows the behavior, you can fade your training tools and start to add in distractions and other real-life scenarios. You slowly work your dog up so that they continue to have success as things get harder. Will real life happen in the meantime? You bet it will. You can’t train for every situation no matter what methods you use. There will be times when you find yourself and your dog in a situation that you haven’t trained for and will need to act anyway. It happens. You just keep on truckin’ and keep that experience in mind as you continue to work together.
No training happens in a vacuum. Even if you train in your living room, it’s not the same every day. There are different scents and different sounds. The lighting can be different. The issue is that training in the same location does not translate to the real world. If the only place you ever train is at the training center, your dog will only be able to perform there. It doesn’t matter what method or ideology you follow. Dogs are poor generalizers. If you only train in a classroom and never anywhere else, the dog will act like it has never been trained whenever you take them elsewhere. That is the issue. Not the methodology. The idea that training only takes place at home or at class. Or that a 6-week class is enough for your dog to be considered “trained.” Training is a life-long process and the training must be maintained. It’s like that old saying “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” Heck, I have even seen dogs with obedience titles who can heel off leash with their handlers inside the gates pulling like freight trains on Flexi leads once they’re outside of the ring. The dog knows how to heel in the ring but the behavior is not reinforced outside of it. Same issue.
All behavior has consequences. That’s how the world works. And, if you want compliance everywhere, you’d better start training everywhere. 🙂