The Stages of Crossover

When I crossed over to training with positive reinforcement, I had no idea how much my behavior and even my belief system would need to change. I had to question my faith in some long-held cultural assumptions and learn to rely on scientific observation and analysis.

Crossing over was a lengthy process for me, and even now, after more than 10 years, I occasionally fall back onto old assumptions and behaviors. I wonder sometimes if I am the only one so vulnerable to cultural programming. But a quick look around social media says no, I’m probably not.

There are intellectual, emotional, and cultural barriers to crossing over. For me, certain barriers were so large that they defined whole phases in my thinking and practice about training. I’ll share several of these phases here. Maybe they will be familiar to some of you. And maybe identifying them could be helpful to trainers who meet with resistance or confusion from their clients. Once upon a time, I was that client.

“I Tried R+ and It Didn’t Work”

This was my experience, and it was real—it’s not just something people say to provoke positive reinforcement trainers. I went in and out of this phase, trying and failing several times.

In 2002, when I got my rat terrier, Cricket, I read about positive reinforcement training on the young Internet. I wanted to teach Cricket to walk on a loose leash. I read about the “Be a Tree” method, wherein one stops forward progress whenever the dog pulls. I thought I was trying positive reinforcement training when I tried to be a tree. It sounded elegant and reasonable. But I didn’t know to start indoors, in low distraction. What I had read didn’t mention using food as a reinforcer when the dog was walking nicely, so I didn’t. And I didn’t know about any of the quadrants then, much less recognize the presence of the other three in the protocol as I was practicing it.

Lovely little Cricket—I don’t have a photo of our “Be a Tree” fiasco

I followed the “Be a Tree” protocol as faithfully as I knew how every day for six months, and, not surprisingly, it didn’t work. Cricket would immediately tighten the leash, and I would stop. She would stand there, barking. I would wait until she accidentally loosened the leash. (It often took a while.) Then we would go on, perhaps three more steps, and the process would repeat.

Now I know that she was probably too far over threshold to perceive that the loosening of the leash was connected to being allowed to go forward and that some sort of reinforcement (though not intended by me) was working to maintain the barking. And I know for sure my timing was bad. But since my attempt at the method was unsuccessful, I assumed that positive reinforcement training in general didn’t work. If I had known about learning theory then, I wouldn’t have hesitated to further generalize that learning theory didn’t work either. (Indeed, that was a later phase.)

Isn’t that a little strange? Why would I reject the whole thing rather than consider that my knowledge might be incomplete?

Suppose I had an orthopedic problem and needed surgery. The operation, a well-understood and documented procedure to be performed by a skilled surgeon, had a predicted 90 percent chance of success—but it failed.

My possible responses might include:

• The surgeon did her best, but due to complications I was forewarned about, the method failed
• The surgeon failed
• Western medicine failed

It’s so easy to jump to that third response with dog training. When we are new to training, the idea that it could be based in science is new too. And the science doesn’t always fit well with a lot of what we “know” from living in a punishment-based culture.

“R+ Is Not Practical”

Summer, my crossover dog, pursuing her passion for squirrels

Believe it or not, I failed a second time with loose leash walking, four years later and with a different dog. I was toying with positive reinforcement training again and had read about Premack’s principle, a theory stating that a stronger response will reinforce a weaker response. Since my new dog, Summer, was fixated on squirrels, I decided that running together to a tree where there was a squirrel would be the reward for walking nicely for a few steps and sitting and giving me eye contact. She quickly learned how to “ask” to run to the squirrel. The problem was getting her attention back after that. Also, I had accidentally created the adrenaline-filled, anticipatory stay so prized by some agility competitors. Summer was on pins and needles, then exploded into action when released. But I lacked the skill to get her back, and I saw that the main result was Summer getting more and more hyped up on walks.

I thought, “Well, that worked, but it’s sure not very practical.”

“Force Is Necessary for Dogs with Issues”

Another common phase of crossing over is the period where we believe that positive reinforcement is fine for most dogs/teaching tricks/teaching the basics, but we still need to punish dogs with behavior problems. Yes, I really believed this. I remember one night at an obedience club seeing a dog that was said to be aggressive. I told my friend that I was glad the dog was wearing a prong collar—this was a dog who needed it, and we had to consider the safety of the other dogs. It made intuitive sense to me that tough dogs needed a tougher approach. (I had never watched that show, by the way. And the idea of “being the boss” resonated culturally well before Cesar came along.)

I could think of no option except to suppress the “bad” behavior. I perceived a dog who bit as being “tough and mean,” rather than afraid, as he probably was. And I had no clue that wearing a prong could worsen his fears, as well as exacerbate the risk of aggression against the other dogs.

“My Dog Is Different”

Even after I had grasped the rudiments of operant learning, I figured there must be exceptions to the basic principles. I didn’t understand the breadth and depth of behavior science. I would swear up and down that a certain behavior that one of my dogs performed regularly was not getting reinforced. Or I would search for things that “didn’t work” as predicted. When I thought I’d found one, I had this victorious a-ha feeling: I just knew my dog was different! I had a grand old time going around saying how this didn’t work and that didn’t work.

“I’ve Got It Figured, and It’s Not What They Think!”

Text: The Phases of Crossing Over  • I tried R+ and it didn’t work • R+ is not practical • Force is necessary for dogs with issues • My dog is different • I’ve got it figured, and it’s not what “they” think  Don't get stuck the way I did! Keep studying and training.

A little learning is a dangerous thing, at least for some of us. At some point, I was convinced that I had realized things that almost no one else had. I had it all figured out. And I found support from the iconoclasts: I would glom onto scholarly articles that didn’t say what the people who circulated them thought they did, opinion pieces by critics of behavioral science who didn’t understand it, and arguments that had elements of truth that had been falsely generalized.

I distrusted expertise in behavior analysis and figured that the iconoclast du jour had found a loophole. The trouble was that I didn’t (and still don’t) know the basics well enough to be “proving” that there were exceptions. I’m not saying there’s no nuance to the science; I’m saying that when I perceived something as exceptional I was merely mistaken.

“Not So Fast!”

This is not exactly a phase, but more of a common setback during crossover. I remember an example from a conversation with a force-free trainer friend. We were talking about a talented young agility student. He was taking lessons with a local so-called balanced trainer known for her rough handling. I mentioned this to my friend, and she said, “Oh I hate it when children are taught to hurt their dogs.”

I flinched, bigtime. Even though I had reported this development as bad news, I wasn’t ready to hear blunt language about hurting a dog. I had trained punitively only for a short time, never liked it, and had quit more than a year before. Still, I reflexively defended the rough trainer. Why? I don’t even know.

I Made It Anyway

Despite spending so much time arguing and looking for loopholes, eventually I “got it.” I started seeing how behavior is a map of what is reinforcing. I perceived the fallout of aversives. I learned about competing reinforcers and saw how, when a method failed, one common reason was that there was reinforcement coming from another source. I realized that training involved mechanical skill, and that without it certain methods wouldn’t work well. Failures became easier to analyze. I learned enough about canine body language to see the obvious differences in the demeanors of dogs trained primarily with aversives and those who weren’t.

What Pushed Me Off the Fence?

What helped? Seeing more and more examples of positive reinforcement working. Learning about the theory. Learning about the role emotions play in behavior. Repetition.

But it may well have been agility lessons with an excellent teacher that finally helped me turn the corner. Human neophytes in agility see their dogs go the “wrong” direction or take the “wrong” obstacle again and again. Without the influence of good teachers or other resources, students blame the dog. My teacher challenged my assumptions repeatedly, with gentle but inexorable logic.

Summer pursuing a new passion

If I claimed that my dog “defied” me by taking the tunnel, my teacher would remind me how much I had reinforced tunnel work. If I complained that my dog turned in front of me, my teacher would point out that I had slowed down just before she turned. When I thought my dog took a “random” direction, my teacher would instruct me to look where my own feet were pointing. She showed me over and over that my dog’s seemingly inexplicable behavior was usually a direct response to mine.

Most important, she helped me figure out what would motivate my dog more than the wildlife on the other side of the fence. Seeing my dog’s interest level change from, “This is okay if there is nothing else to do” to “Please, oh please, let’s play again!” showed me the true power of positive reinforcement.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Barks from the Guild under the title “The Crossover Client” and was edited for the magazine by Kiki Yablon.

27 thoughts on “The Stages of Crossover

  1. Maggie is reactive and we just started agility and I’m also starting to see how in agility every nuance the owner does – is taken on by the dogs. They really do take a lot of cues from us. Great article. Thank you.

  2. I am very familiar with positive reinforcement training and, with ongoing professional trainer guidance, it worked beautifully for Ray (who was classified as a challenging dog). Force was never applied to Ray, and he was never punished per se. He was either rewarded … or the reward was withheld, depending on the circumstances. Our big advantage with Ray was that he was (still is) highly food motivated. That made training so much easier!

    I was told to decide whether I wanted Ray to cooperate because he wanted to, or because he feared the consequences. The answer was a “no-brainer.”

    I was also told that threatening a teenager with a 2 x 4 will get cooperation until they decide to move out on their own. Threatening a dog may well also get cooperation for a while … but it cannot move out, and so its next move could well be a bite!

      1. Hi Leeann – You are taking it too literally. There is still, sadly, ongoing support for training by domination, just as there is support for physical punishment and/or threats of physical punishment.

        The 2″ x 4″ analogy is an exaggeration of course, but it does highlight what can happen if the human/canine relationship becomes physical. In the analogy, it is hopefully obvious that while a teenager has the option to leave home if circumstances are unpalatable, a dog does not have that same option.

        There have been numerous examples of a dog owner “pushing” the dog just a little too far, and getting bitten a a result.

        Whether the analogy applies to you will depend on how you define “corrections”.

        Our beloved Ray had an abused past and, when we adopted him, he was aggressive to all people and other dogs. Our “corrective measure” was to teach him that people and dogs = treats. i.e. through positive reinforcement.

        Our “corrective measure” if he relapsed was to simply withhold his treat.

        I hope that helps you to understand the comment. Regards.

  3. Excellent article, and very true. I have been through almost all those stages. My first dog, whom I got in 1995, was trained with “jerk and praise”. We went from pet obedience into a competition class with the same instructor, where the pot was sweetened with food rewards for getting it right, but there was still a lot of leash-popping and ear-pinching, and we assumed we could not train to the level we wanted without some correction. . When clicker training first popped up on the radar screen I sneered. I was slowly converted, and used Morgan Specter’s book, but was severely handicapped by the lack of a skilled instructor. For a few years I had access to a trainer who was both a competitor and a KPA trainer, and then she moved away. They are scarce out here in flyover country, and I have not been able to find another.
    The guide dog school I raise for seems to have gone through a similar process. They got stuck at “but we can’t have dogs who will only work when there’s food available” , but have since moved far towards R+, with a hiatus at “but blind people can’t tell when to click”. They got through that one, too. If dogs who are literally trusted with people’s lives can do it…
    I am currently reading (and highly recommend) Hannah Brannigan’s Awesome Obedience. She filled in a missing piece for me–if you try to take information and techniques from the self-identified “balanced trainers”–nothing like claiming the moral high ground–but leave out the punishment it just doesn’t work very well; I think that’s why Nina’s heeling has always sucked. I knew not to jerk on the leash, but was not very skilled at identifying and marking correct heel position, let alone building in enough duration for a complete heeling pattern. Plus I toe out badly with my left foot, so all my dogs have received unintended P+ for being right where they should be.
    There’s also the not-very-skilled R+ trainer who inadvertently screws up, and then becomes everyone’s Horrible Example of Why It Won’t Work. I’ve known at least one of those, and I fear becoming one.

  4. I think that most people have a hard time extricating themselves from the cultural fog. We humans are constantly reinforced for being tough on others and punished for not punishing.
    I work with people who foster dogs; most of the dogs are unsocialized (by hoarders, backyard breeders, and people whose vet said don’t let the puppy out until he’s had his last shots). It’s often hard to explain how much fear these dogs are experiencing, when the fosters just see obnoxious behaviors.
    I’m posting a link to this article on our Facebook page, if you don’t mind. It’s not an easy transition and I think it’s helpful for people to see how others struggle with it and that they can get there and help the dogs. Thanks so much for reposting it.

  5. How do you do counter conditioning to strangers when a dog is a severe resource guarder and the presence of food increases (rather than decreases) the dog’s anxiety?

    1. **I’m removing my response because it turned out, as we heard more from Leann, that my comments were not all that helpful for her situation.** Eileen

      1. He used to resource guard his food bowl and things he found in the house (he also has PICA and coprophagia), but I’ve addressed those issues. But the method is changing his attitude of ME approaching things he has.

        I can’t imagine a training scenario where I can change his emotional response to strangers approaching. Every time I’ve tried he gets MORE worried when food (his biggest motivator) comes out. I’m stuck, and no positive trainer has yet to recommend a solution.

      2. Oh, and a follow up. My dog’s resource guarding of food bowl and found items in the house was severe. He attacked my youngest son, then me (when I tried to intervene to protect my son). My gut reaction was to put him down until I did research and discovered that resource guarding could be addressed via counter conditioning.

        I’m pretty sure that his reactivity (lunging barking) towards strangers who look at me (or him) or talk to me (or him) is resource guarding me and not fear based.

        1. Leaannsavage, that’s what I was afraid of hearing. This is outside the realm of resource guarding or “positive training”, and into treatment of pathological behavior. It’s when the symptom of resource guarding is due to a skills deficit, then something like counter conditioning is an effective teaching tool. But if it’s strongly anxiety driven, things like positive reinforcement will not work, simply because you can not achieve it. Remember, resource guarding is an exhibited behavior which is only a symptom, and not a cause.

          From your description, I’d suggest turning away from any blogs or trainers, and find a behaviorist or vet behaviorist.

      3. Her statement may have implied that her dog is currently anxious with strangers. If so, you have resource guarding with an anxiety background. Once the anxiety is resolved, the resource guarding is fairly easy. If it’s not resolved, you may never handle the resource guarding with other people.

        I don’t know why you’d need a unique stimulus, unless you are cueing the behavior, which means the behavior will not occur by itself, which seems of limited use.

        In most cases, handling resource guarding is more a teaching issue, as neither of our species are born to share. With that, clear communications are far more important than anything else.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and journey through your transition! I really enjoyed reading your article! I hope it will help many out there that are questioning their methods to tip over to the positive side 🙂

  7. Interesting, Eileen, how a scientific mind like yours can be fooled by denial.
    May I tell you a different story ? My story (very short).
    I fell into positive reinforcement dog training because… of the cold wave that froze a third of my olive trees in February 2012. A year later, still fighting discouragment, I was spending hours watching Hope for Paws rescue videos on YouTube. That lead me to dog training videos, and luckily the first that caught my attention were Donna Hill’s. I did not have a dog at the time.
    It took another few months before I welcomed Inouk into our house. I applyed without questionning them all the principles of positive reinforcement dog training. Probably because the first behavior I taught Inouk as a puppy was “Leave it”, and she learned.
    From there, whenever Inouk wasn’t getting it, I knew that I was doing something wrong.
    I often remind myself this saying “trust your instrument”, which is a tech version of “the dog is always right”.

  8. Eileen – this is a wonderful post. I figured I was just an extremely slow and incompetent learner as Habi, who didn’t respond to traditional training, forced me into “clicker training” a decade ago. It’s so reassuring to hear that others, too, struggle to understand and put into action what is a real paradigm shift.

    For those of us who don’t have easy access to a local R+ trainer, thank goodness for online schools. Both the Karen Pryor Academy and the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA, which has classes on far more than dog sports) have online courses, and there are undoubtedly others as well. I’ve taken quite a few classes from FDSA, and all have been terrific.

  9. I’ve been thinking about this Post and would offer some additional thoughts/comments re positive reinforcement training (PRT). A common criticism I have heard is that you should not bribe a dog to behave. My response is simply “I am not bribing Ray to do anything”. The response to that is usually “But that’s exactly what you are doing!”

    To anybody unfamiliar with PRT, there is a huge difference between a bribe and a reward. A bribe is offered BEFORE an action is taken. A reward is offered AFTER an action is taken. PRT is reward based.

    Another factor is the dog owner who believes that they have done a good job training their dog. Of course they may well have done, but a simple test will be the judge. Ask the dog owner to give a simple instruction (e.g. “Sit!). Then ask the owner to repeat it but this time with their back to the dog.

    Dogs are heavily dependent on body language and so, contrary to what many people believe, they may not relate to the sound being made to a request (e.g to sit). In fact they may well be responding to a slight bend at the waist or a hand movement or some other idiosyncrasy of which the owner may be unaware. It is important to understand that both verbal and non-verbal communications are important. You may not be able to shout across that field …. or you may become physically incapacitated for a while.

    Finally (these points are the benefits of building relationships with trainers as we worked with our Ray!) … If the dog is behaving in an unacceptable manner, try and define why it is doing whatever it is doing. If you can understand why something is happening, you are on the way to resolving the problem. To try and address an issue by guesswork is likely to result in failure.

    We have so much to thank our local Humane Society trainers for, as they freely offered their experience as we confronted Ray’s numerous challenges.

    1. Sorry I haven’t been replying much, but you make some great points, here! I used to do a lot of the “giving cues from strange positions” practice. Try getting your dog to sit from a down when you are lying on your back! For fun, here is an old video where I do some of that. The sky is the limit regarding the strange permutations you can make up, and they **all** help your dog generalize cues better.

    2. On bribes and +R, you omitted the case where the dog expects the food reward, and will not perform the action unless he believes it is coming. I’ve seen that many times, and I’d still call that a bribe. That’s a classic case of a +R failure where they didn’t reinforce exactly what they wanted.

      On testing the training, I give him to another person and leave the room. IMO, if you need to turn your back after teaching each new command, then something is wrong. It should be during attending and orienting conditioning that all of that is handled.

      On body language, I have never seen a slight bend at the waist have any significance. However, the totality of your body language certainly does. I have seen many people have difficulty training when their body language and responses differ from the given command. This sometimes takes weeks of effort for the person to change and effectively communicate with the dog. Just as important are your responses to any action the dog may take.

      People form habits, and getting them to change can be difficult. When working with many very scared dogs, some people simply could not learn appropriate manners for approaching the dogs, while you could see the dogs were fairly calm with other. And no amount of nice articles or +R attempts will change this.

      On understanding a dog’s action, you say to define it instead of guess, but the difference isn’t clear. I suspect you mean controlled scenarios where you can vary different actions, to see how the dog’s response may change, and thereby determine what he’s reacting to, and in what manner. Bearing in mind that, just like with people, after a while some things are done simply by habit.

  10. If anyone would be so helpful as to post the best resources for being better at leash walking, especially starting from baby steps, I’d be really grateful. I’ve given up, and your posts motivate me to keep trying. I have 2 older but still bouncy labradors who walk me. At least I’ve finally stopped trying to walk both at the same time (first mistake). Thank you.

    1. Susan,
      I feel your pain. I think walking nicely on leash is one of the very hardest things to teach, largely because dogs and humans have such different natural paces. They must think we are as slow as slugs!

      Here is one of the best resources I know of. This is Part 1 of a three-part series by Helix Fairweather. The others will come up once you start.

      I like it because it shows the whole process from the beginning, not just a window into the training at some point.

      Another great resource that starts from the beginning is “Lazy Leash” in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels books. She starts with teaching the dog to be on leash standing still! Why didn’t I think of that instead of charging on ahead with my dogs?

      I hope these help!


  11. We used 2 approaches with Ray. One was to call him back (when he starts pulling ahead) and treat him when he was back. He soon caught on to where the treat pocket was and eventually would stay close to it!

    The other perspective was to confuse him about where we were going. So as soon as he took off, we would turn around and go in a different direction. Once he accepted that he had no clue where we were going, he would hang back. For a couple of days we would be doing lots of impulsive turns but the confusion (and the treat pocket) rectified the situation.

    Having a food motivated dog is a huge asset!

  12. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and honest post, Eileen. I’ve tucked this article away for days now, wanting to give it 100% of my attention, because I kept singing in my head, “She’s gonna say it!! She’s gonna say it!! She’s gonna tell us *THE*Magic*Phrase* that made her leave old-school training and embrace modern, scientific +R!!!” Sooooo actually I’m a little sad now!! 😀

    I’ve been wondering literally for years what I could say or explain to +P trainers that would make them INSTANTLY embrace modern methods, and just KNEW there was a magic word or phrase I didn’t know about that I could utter and have them go, “Oh, man, you’re RIGHT. What was I thinking?! I will never, ever use punishment-based methods again!”

    But I guess the whole point is just for us to keep walking the walk, rather than trying to talk the talk (which invariably leads to denigrating discussions and massive mud-slinging on line, so not even worth getting into), and let each person arrive at their own conclusion and methodology they feel ethically comfortable using and embracing.

    1. Glenda, I think you could say that almost everything I write is a search for that magic phrase! I never quite stop. But sadly, I don’t think it exists.

      I love your comment. Yes, we need to keep walking the walk. 😀

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