Anyone who spends any time on FaceBook reading the arguments between trainers who train mainly with positive reinforcement and those who don’t has seen this question. Just lately I have seen three different versions of it:
- But what if your dog runs out into traffic? Are you going to save him by throwing cookies at him?
- But what if your dog runs out into traffic? You’re going to pull on the leash. That’s negative reinforcement and the same as using a shock collar.
- But what if your dog runs out into traffic? If you grab him that could cause stress, and I thought you’re supposed to be 100% stress free?
I’m going to answer these questions. Perhaps it will help others formulate their thoughts in these kinds of discussions.
The traffic question is an interesting meme. The underlying message is, “When push comes to shove, positive reinforcement training is ineffective. It’s dangerous because you have no acceptable way to control your dog. Your dog could die.”
There are further messages:
- In #1, juxtaposing “cookies” with this life and death situation is both mocking and implies we have no methods of controlling our dogs.
- In #2, the implication is, that although we can prevent our dogs by pulling the leash, if we do, then we are hypocrites because that causes pressure and that’s aversive. These folks are claiming that the bottom line is that there no way to distinguish between what we do and what shock trainers do.
- And in #3, the subject is stress. This writer got the idea that we try to completely eliminate stress from our dogs’ lives, and that therefore we would let them risk their lives rather than grab them.
Here are the briefest responses I could come up with to the three versions of the question. I’m also going to describe an actual conversation I had about one of these that turned out all right.
- No, throwing cookies at a dog running into traffic would not be an effective way of stopping him. But with “cookies” (or more properly, positive reinforcement of all types) I can do the following:
- train him that staying by my side is the best thing ever;
- use classical conditioning to teach him not to flinch from a collar grab or quick movement from me;
- train a beautiful recall;
- teach him a great “leave it,” which often generalizes well; and
- train him to lie down on cue in all sorts of situations. I can use the “distance down” when coming to me would not be a good solution.
Also I can use common sense. I don’t know anyone personally who would have their dog offleash in busy traffic, whatever kind of trainer they are. Those whose dogs are reliable offleash are likely to be very careful where they do that, plus they have all the above tools at their disposal.
- Likening pulling on a leash (in an emergency no less) with the habitual use of a shock collar to force a dog’s compliance is an example of the logical fallacy called the continuum fallacy. I will be discussing this further in a future post. But the short version is that the continuum fallacy erroneously claims that because there is a range of possibilities between two extremes, there is no meaningful difference between them. In this case the extremes are pulling on a leash to remove a dog from an emergency, which can constitute negative reinforcement, and using a negative reinforcement protocol with a shock collar as a training method to make them come when called and perform other behaviors. It doesn’t matter that these have a small commonality (negative reinforcement). The respective quantities of aversive used (as a one time emergency move vs a regular method of training) are hugely different. You can see Jean Donaldson’s elegant rant on this subject here.
- The question about being 100% stress free misrepresents most trainers’ outlook and constitutes a straw man fallacy. That’s when you argue against a version of your opponent’s position that you or someone else made up, instead of what they are actually saying. Valuing kindness to our animals is quite different from claiming we can and should provide them a completely stress-free existence. And similarly to #2, what a person does habitually (try to make their pets’ lives as pleasant and fun as possible and build up a relationship of trust) and what she might have to do in an emergency (grab them in a potentially startling way) are completely different. You can break a person’s ribs doing CPR, but that doesn’t mean you condone going around punching them the rest of the time.
A trainer who promotes prong collar use recently asked question #3 on a FaceBook thread. He said that his question was genuine. He asked, “Do you allow your child to run into the street because holding their hand stresses them?” He said he really wanted to know because he was trying to understand. So I answered. Here is a slightly edited version of what I said.
I am going to take you at your word that your question is geniune. Good for you for asking and really wanting to know. But I find the question about allowing a child to run into the street rather than holding their hand very, very strange.
Like [the previous poster], I would have established a long time before that moment that holding my hand had very positive associations. But I will add that in any life or death situation, I would do whatever it took with a kid or a dog to physically prevent themselves from running into harm. Including something that might startle or even hurt them if necessary.
The point is that a training session is not a life or death situation. It is a controlled environment. There is no analogy between these two situations. And in the training I do with dogs I want them first to learn that I will protect them. I won’t hurt them. They can come to me for help. I am going to set them up to succeed from the beginning.
The second thing I want to teach them is confidence and competence in problem solving. Training does sometimes introduce stress. But it needs to be added in a very controlled way. It is well documented with many, many species that fear and/or excessive stress are impediments to learning. So I will indeed, like other posters, be watching my dogs for signs of stress. The more I learn about dog body communication, the better I can do that.
I find the argument that we need to hurt or startle our dogs to help them develop life skills completely empty. (Not sure you said that exactly, but I certainly hear it a lot.) A mature dog has the cognitive ability of what, a two year old child? We are not preparing them to go out in the world on their own. (And even if we were, we wouldn’t have to hurt them.)
We are trying to prepare them for things they will likely encounter. And pain associated with or dealt out with by me (or other humans) is something they will encounter very infrequently as long as I have any say about it! It is something they can be specifically conditioned about, for instance receiving shots at the vet and other husbandry skills.
My correspondent wrote back and said he appreciated my answer. He said he had recently seen some parents do the very thing he described (give up on grabbing their child in a potentially dangerous situation because it might upset her, and she did run into the street) and that’s why it came to mind. He said that he understood the other point of view better now, and pointed out that we even had some common ground: that some stress is OK and should be introduced gradually.
I panicked a little internally, wanting to write back “But our definition of stress is completely different!!” Then I thought to myself, just back off. We actually have a point of agreement. Don’t ruin it.
This person is not going to stop using a prong because of a Facebook conversation. My friends are not going to condemn me for my comments about stress that could be taken amiss or quoted out of context. Instead, why not just enjoy the moment and figure that one person out there who uses prong collars may stop believing force free trainers are like permissive parents? And that might lead to some other realizations, who knows? I really did appreciate his politeness and apparent interest.
Besides the irritation of hearing it with such repetition, I do not like the “traffic” question because I don’t think it is kindly to bring it up lightly as a point of argument. I have known of accidents to happen to dogs belonging to the most prudent people and the most careless. I’m sure none of them appreciate hearing the subject thrown up as a threat.
So I will end this by asking for comments about safety behaviors. What do you teach your dogs that could save their lives? I wrote a short post with a couple of videos about what I do: Safety Behaviors: Down at a Distance and Recalls. I hope for comments about some other important behaviors and perhaps some videos. (Does anybody train extreme collar grabs?)
Here is a demonstration of Clara’s down at a long distance. I can’t claim that much credit for it. It’s a huge advantage with a ball crazy dog that they learn that the reinforcement can happen “out there” as well as near their handler, so it’s not a big leap for them to do stuff at a distance.
Thanks for reading! Coming up:
- The Humane Hierarchy
- Movies, Translated
- What’s in a Name?
- When Management Succeeds
- Level 1 Breakfast (quick behavior drills)