Force-Free Training and the Continuum Fallacy: Defining Ourselves
Although this post is about discussions and accusations about humane training, it doesn’t provide fodder for pithy sound bites or snappy answers. The whole point of it is why it can be difficult to explain succinctly our position as science-based, humane trainers in the face of opposition. I hope it can be helpful for some folks. Gathering information, thinking this through, and writing about it has settled my nerves about a lot of things regarding the conflicts between trainers. Here we go.
Here’s something that force-free trainers hear a lot:
“There’s no such thing as force-free training because…”
- “You use leashes and that’s force, the same or worse than a shock collar”
- “If your dog ran out into traffic you would grab him or pull on the leash”
- “You all use force too, you’re just hypocrites about it”
- “Harnesses are more cruel than prong collars”
Here Comes the Continuum Fallacy
I have previously written a bit on the continuum fallacy, in But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic? I wrote:
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… 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 one time to remove a dog from danger, and using a negative reinforcement protocol with a shock collar as a training method to teach them via force to come when called…
The examples cited above both employ negative reinforcement, or at least aversive pressure (we can’t really say if reinforcement occurred in the emergency situation since it’s a one trial example). Therefore there is a continuum of such usages between them.
More commonly the extremes cited are two types of training: training based as much as possible on positive reinforcement (along with desensitization and classical conditioning), and training based almost entirely on negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and flooding, such as shock collar training.
You wouldn’t think there was any common ground between these two. But there is, or rather, there are intermediate states between them. Please bear with me if the idea offends you. My point is that they are absolutely different in essence, even though there exists the continuum.
So on the continuum, next to the trainers who use shock exclusively are the ones who do use some food or play as positive reinforcement in addition to the shock used aversively. Next to them are the “balanced” trainers who combine positive reinforcement with “corrections.” Next to them are the ones who use a shock or prong collar for proofing only. Then the ones who use a shock collar in only one specific situation. And so on. (These could be split more finely of course.)
Going past the middle to the R+ paradigm side are the folks who don’t intentionally use any aversive tools, but carry old habits (Eileen raises hand). We occasionally do something that is aversive to the dog, for instance, taking a step forward to apply pressure if a dog breaks a stay. We do this because of old habits or lack of knowledge of other ways, but no matter why, it’s still aversive to the dog.
I’m not going to describe every step from here on out. But we can travel farther and farther into R+ territory as other methods drop away. But truthfully, most people don’t get to the point of never using negative reinforcement or negative punishment or extinction. As I’ve mentioned, that necessitates an almost godlike ability to predict every possible behavioral interaction if you live with your animal. And even if we consider only formal training sessions, it depends on the dedication and creativity of the trainer to unlearn our human punishment programming and get more and more fluent in humane methods.
Because of the infinite gradations between the two extremes, there are those who would argue you can’t make a distinction between them. They would be employing the continuum fallacy. This link has a good definition and some nice examples of it.
One common application of the continuum fallacy is to claim that the concept the other party is describing does not even exist. Does that sound familiar? Punishment based trainers, particularly shock collar trainers, like to claim that there is “no such thing as force free training.” Since we use things like leashes and collars that are naturally agents of force (although we take pains to ameliorate that), and because some aversive situations are just going to occur in life, they claim that there can be no distinction, none, made between what we do and what they do with their specifically-designed-to-hurt tools. This argument is incorrect (especially when they throw in the straw man of “purely positive”), and a way of trying to talk us out of existence. I’ve written an entire post on it.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting. The continuum fallacy is connected to something called an “open concept.” This really enlightened me about why it’s so hard for us in the force free community to come up with a single name for ourselves, and why we are repeatedly told we don’t exist. What we are trying to describe is a complex combination of a training philosophy, methods, and a mesh of practices. “The kind of trainers we are” is an open concept.
Open and Closed Concepts
So many things fell into place when I read about this.
A closed concept is something that can be exactly defined, such as a triangle. But many of the most important things in life can not be exactly defined. From “Open and Closed Concepts and the Continuum Fallacy” by Sandra LaFave:
An open concept is one for which the connotation cannot be precisely specified; rather, we recognize members of the class by their resemblance to paradigms of the concept.
Here are some examples. Vegetarian. Christian. Pacifist. Have you ever heard someone arguing about the definition of any of these or over who belongs to the group? I thought so. Yet the various individuals who identify with these terms can define their habits and belief systems beautifully, and they are often at the core of the person’s identity.
The philosopher Wittgenstein (Austrian, 1889-1951) wrote about open concepts. His example was the concept of “game.” He advised the reader to think of different games and to try to think of what was common to them all. (My suggestion: use the examples of patty-cake, football (American or world), board games, and the often deadly games played in the Roman Coliseum, and try the exercise.) He wrote that you cannot identify one single characteristic common to all examples of games.
But that doesn’t negate the concept of game. He analyzed the similarities and differences in several types of games and concluded:
And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing; sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. –Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations as quoted by Donald Palmer in “Does the Center Hold?”, p. 394
As I mentioned, I think the lack of a commonly agreed upon name by all in the community is one bit of evidence that “the kind of training we do” is an open concept. For that reason, for brevity, and to introduce a little levity into a heavy subject, I’m going to call force-free, science-based, humane, primarily positive reinforcement training “Glupling Training.”
It would be easier to live in a world where we could say, “If you do these five things, and don’t do these five things, then you are a bona fide Glupling trainer.” Nice clean line in the sand. But we don’t live in that world. Glupling training is a philosophy; a group of methods; a paradigm. I strive for it. I think most of you out there reading this are striving for it. I’ve got certain great trainers and thinkers in mind as my role models and perhaps you do too. But we need to acknowledge that the edges of the definition are not universally agreed upon.
For instance, within the Glupling community there are heated discussions about head halters and front attach harnesses, and whether these are OK as permanent solutions, temporary management aids during training, or never OK. People disagree about the use of Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) and Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT). Some people seek to be two-quadrant trainers (positive reinforcement and negative punishment). For some trainers negative reinforcement protocols are OK in general, others go case by case, still others try for “never.” How about No Reward Markers? Or whether it’s OK to yelp as a training technique when a puppy bites you?
I have watched other groups in similar throes of self definition. Organic gardening discussion groups talk about whether the use of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) disqualifies someone from the group. “Childless by choice” people argue whether people who never had kids of their own but then marry people with children still “count.” There is discussion about whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to people who are or have been dependent on alcohol. This is just a completely typical situation with open concepts. I would even argue that these discussions can be healthy, as long as they don’t start to eat up your life.
The bigger troubles start with the people outside of the particular community who object to it. With regard to Glupling training, these are the folks who want force-based methods to be socially acceptable and so attack the Glupling paradigm. These folks have two main strategies.
- Some trot out straw men and the continuum fallacy and simply claim that Glupling training does not exist. These are the ones whom I describe in my blog post, “But Purely Positive is a LIE!“
- Others jump onto the Glupling bandwagon and market themselves as Glupling trainers, prong or shock collars included. This method has the effect of diffusing the definition of Glupling training and confusing the public. You can find lots of folks on the Internet who salt the word “positive” throughout their website, even if they use physical dominance techniques, prong collars, or shock. These folks accomplish several things by adopting the term, “positive.” First, it is popular right now and it sounds wholesome and good. Second, they add to the confusion (some groups have actually created credentials and initialisms that are identical or similar to established organizations). Third, they help maintain the public’s confusion about the processes of operant learning, since “positive” in the behavioral sense absolutely does not equal “wholesome and good.” And fourth, as added by an early reader of this post, who would want to market themselves as someone who will throw things at your dog and yell “bah”? “Positive” sounds much nicer, doesn’t it?
One observation I have about these continuum fallacy arguments: it seems to always be the side with the less restrictive definition that is arguing that the other side doesn’t exist, not the other way around. Vegetarians never argue that omnivores don’t exist. Organic gardeners never argue that gardeners who use non-organic techniques don’t exist.
This disagreement is typified by a group of people (or an individual) seeking to distinguish themselves from others who are simultaneously trying to negate the distinction.
Static vs Dynamic
I said above that it would be nice to live in a world where Glupling training was easy to define. But actually…one of the hallmarks of Glupling trainers is that we are always using the science to find ways to be more humane, more fair, and better trainers for our animals. The research moves us forward. So perhaps two of my (fictional) five things that might have defined Glupling training in 1998 are completely out of date in 2013. But that’s a good thing. Given a choice between an approach that is static and claims to know everything and be perfectly complete and definable, and one that allows room for growth and speculation and doesn’t claim to be perfect this very instant….well, you know which one I would choose.
By the way, that is one of the reasons I keep my hand in the discussions and arguments on the Internet. I learn stuff that way.
I have recently written a handful of posts with a deliberate intention of publishing talking points for Glupling trainers who are confronted by the same rhetoric from force-based trainers over and over. The posts are listed below.
I had hoped for this post to join that group, but I’m not sure how helpful it is. It has been very helpful for me as I mentioned above because it has clarified some difficult things in my mind. Like, why do these fights keep going on and on? But this post is not the kind of thing a person can quote in an argument and say, “Hah! Read this! It proves my point!” Not even close.
But I will throw in some tips on dealing with the continuum fallacy when confronted with a version of it in debate. Dr. LaFave suggests a simple statement that even if there may be a continuum between extremes, the concepts at each end are meaningful. I mean, nobody really believes that black and white are the same because there are shades of gray in between. And she suggests that people who use words in eccentric ways (my example: like shock collar trainers who say the method is positive and force-free) should be called on to defend their eccentric usages of these terms and give good reasons for them.
And this from me: When I have encountered the continuum fallacy, in my observation it has not usually been an innocent misunderstanding. It is usually from someone who, in my opinion, is determined to obfuscate. If I find that to be the case, I will state my position once, if at all (and for the benefit of others who may be reading, and not with the hope of convincing the other person) and move on. In short, as my grandmother used to say, “Don’t argue with someone you have to educate.”
This post is part of a series:
- But Purely Positive is a LIE!
- But We Don’t Give Our Kids a Cookie Every Time They Tie Their Shoes!
- But It’s Unhealthy to Protect Your Dog From All Stress!
- But Every Dog is Different!
- But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic?
- But I Want to Use ALL the Tools in My Toolbox!
- What You Reinforce is What You Get
- But He Was Wagging His Tail!