About fifteen years ago, when I started apprenticing as a trainer, I used leash corrections and other forms of “discipline”. I no longer leash correct, and have not for more than a decade. This is not because I had a moral agenda. I simply needed an effective training solution.
Kiki, my learning dog pulled like a tugboat. We tried so many techniques we could have been the poster child for:
“But I tried positive reinforcement and it did not work.”
I chuckled and snickered with other trainers, “Ignore bad behaviour? So you just LET the dog knock grandma to the ground?” Teaching with food and then proofing with corrections seemed to make more sense.
We ran the gamut on protocols:
|Food luring||Collar corrections – flat collar|
|Collar corrections – nylon slip||Head halter use|
|Head halter to reposition dog||Head halter corrections|
|Chain choke collar correction||Special choke collar correction (sits behind the dog’s ears)|
|Clicker instead of verbal marker||Penalty yards|
|Be a tree||Change of direction|
|Reward dog for releasing leash pressure||Reward with approach to distractions|
|Hiding food rewards/surprise||Finger poking the dog|
Failure was not from a lack of effort or poor timing. That special choke collar came from a very large, well-known training facility. Ironically, they market themselves as being positive.
I have heard people say that positive reinforcement did not work for their pets. Upon further digging, their chart looks oddly similar to mine. This is not positive reinforcement. This is a mixed bag of reinforcements and punishments, more aversive than not. We don’t even know if any of the elements were executed correctly. In hindsight, I know that in Kiki’s case, they were not.
Kiki was lucky because I am stubborn. Despite multiple trainers telling me to give up on her, I kept searching for a solution. Our journey took us to a workshop and some private sessions where some exercises had a profound impact on my way of thinking. I realized that intending to use positive reinforcement was not the same as using it effectively.
In each of these exercises, we initially fed so quickly it was obscene. The clicker took on a machine gun staccato. Feed! Faster! Click – TREAT! Click – TREAT! Again! Again! Faster! You’re clicking too slowly!
I can’t emphasize how fast we were feeding that dog. She was right and right and right.
Twitchy toes Kiki, who couldn’t stand still on account of her tail wagging so hard, learned a stand for exam. On the formal recall, she learned to target a bulldog clip attached to the front of my shirt. I stepped back 5 cm, asked for the touch – click and treat. Five centimeters seems absurdly easy! (That’s two inches for my American friends.)
Wouldn’t you know: it worked. Not only did it work, we finally moved AWAY from food rewards. The gasp I heard at her first competition as she charged toward me and sat in a perfect front , I can still hear it. It’s one of my fondest memories of Kiki. Within months of measured, planned and well-executed positive reinforcement, Kiki stopped pulling on leash. Did I mention, she did this on a body harness?
Properly executed, positive reinforcement works.
It all comes down to the Bob Bailey trinity. Timing – criteria – rate of reinforcement. While providing feedback at the right moment in time is important, it is equally important to raise expectations in small, measured increments. Too big of a leap and the dog goes from right to wrong. We also need to provide fast feedback in the initial stages of training. Pause too long between reinforcements and the dog checks out, gets bored or would rather be elsewhere.
The greatest irony being that strong technique allows owners to wean away from food treats faster. A few weeks or a month of good technique may include bursts of obscene machine gun clicking. The alternative is months or years of slow feeding and searching for the miracle cure that may or may not come.
It doesn’t help when fear of food mongering encourages people to reduce treat use. Stingy feeding and large leaps in criteria create a weak technical foundation. That weakness is what creates, “I tried positive reinforcement, but it did not work.”
Technique matters…period. The tougher the dog, the more important technique becomes. I see those dogs as the ones that point a paw at me and say, “You have more learning to do….I shall point out your technical weaknesses!” I cherish those dogs for the lessons. I truly hope that I never fall into the mindset to think that I know it all.
Re-visit the dog training trinity first when a dog is not responding in the way you want. We seem to spend so much time, effort and money adding new tools to the toolbox. It pays to sharpen and hone the essential tools we already have.
It’s like buying a food processor because your dull knife won’t cut a tomato. Of course the knife isn’t working. You have not maintained it. Sharpen it. Don’t neglect the essential tools of timing, criteria and rate of reinforcement. They are the ones you need to count on. Really, it’s not a moral issue. At the end of the day we want dog training that works.