Understanding terminology used in the training & behaviour industry

March 14th 2016

This blog post has been inspired for two reasons – the first is the number of fallout cases I have seen recently following consultations or training sessions with unqualified ‘trainers’ or ‘behaviourists’ in the area. The second is to provide an explanation of terminology that is often used so an informed decision can be made about the methods used by some individuals.

 

‘Balanced’ dog training

This term is used to describe training that uses both positive reinforcement along with positive punishment/negative reinforcement. This may not necessarily include physical corrections but involves intimidation and threatening human behaviour that aims to suppress unwanted behaviours. Then you also reward the dog for exhibiting desired behaviours. So humans equal unpredictability in the eye of the dog, and we know that lack of predictability in an animal’s environment leads to stress.

The argument is that there isn’t one way to train a dog, which is absolutely true! Good job there are many different ways to train that don’t involve bully-ish behaviours then, isn’t it? What every dog does require is a trainer or behaviourist who has an understanding of how emotion affects behaviour, because simply attempting to suppress unwanted behaviours won’t be taking this into account at all, and this is where the fallout occurs. Intimidating an already frightened dog by staring them out is going to do nothing for the human-animal bond and will simply increase the dog’s perception of threat and fear. Any trainer who claims otherwise is clearly lacking in knowledge of Learning Theory and should spend some time reading and learning from Jean Donaldson, Emily Larlam, and Nando Brown to name a few.

Science has consistently shown that punitive techniques are no more effective than reward-based techniques, and that dogs trained using punishment-based techniques experience much more stress and anxiety during training. The biggest misconception about positive training is that there’s no discipline, but humane discipline and boundary training is a key part of positive training. But that discipline involves teaching a dog to make the right decisions by giving them alternatives, not constantly correcting them.

‘No treat’ training

If a trainer or behaviourist brags about being able to modify an animal’s behaviour without the use of treats, walk away! Reward-based trainers use many different reinforcers depending on the individual dog. Functional reinforcers involve using the dog’s environment (‘life rewards’) to reward behaviours. The Premack principle involves using a more probable behaviour to reinforce a less probable behaviour. Sounds a bit complicated but it isn’t – it’s just based on science.

Our dogs are reliant on us to provide them with food every day, so why is the idea of getting the food out of the dog bowl and into the dog’s training routine difficult for some trainers to grasp? Food is universally motivating for all animals – we can’t survive without it. Food is readily available and portable, and makes it possible to train in a variety of situations and environments. If it is being used as a bribe or the dog becomes dependent on food before responding, it simply means the training has been done poorly in the first place. Even then, it’s far easier to correct this error than it would be to resolve any training that has consisted of motivating a dog to avoid fear or pain.

Pack leadership & Dominance Theory

The concept of dogs striving to be leader of the pack or ‘alpha’ has long been disproved, and in recent years I am certainly seeing a greater number of clients who are aware of this – yet somehow some of these so-called ‘professionals’ and go-to ‘experts’ are still basing their training techniques on such theories.

Dog whispering/listening

These terms became popular following a certain TV personality and various other unqualified ‘trainers’ who wrote books and set up a franchise of their branded training methods. It’s ironic, because the terms suggest calm, gentle training techniques but the reality is, it’s anything but. In my experience, ‘listeners’ actually have no clue how to listen to the dog, by reading their body language and understanding stress signals, and ‘whispering’ involves out-dated pack/dominance theories and techniques that do not protect the dog from fear or pain.

‘Respect’ training

Who do you respect more: the boss who insists you work overtime without pay or the boss who recognizes your hard work and gives you an extra bonus in your pay at the end of the week?

Dogs that are trained with aversives don’t ‘respect’ their handler any more than a person who gives their wallet to a mugger. Force and intimidation may get a response, but it has nothing to do with respect, nor does it ensure a reliable response in the absence of a threat (such as when your dog is off-leash, out of your reach). Respect cannot be forced; it must be earned.

‘Fix within a week’ training

Again, if anyone promises you this, please reconsider your choice of trainer. First of all, there is no such thing as a ‘fix’ when you’re working with animal’s emotions and behaviours. There is no guaranteed cure. Secondly, some training and control issues can be resolved fairly quickly, but altering an animal’s emotional state takes time. Suppressing an animal’s behaviour appears to be a quick fix, but the reality is that the fallout takes a lot longer to resolve than the initial problem would have using force-free methods.

 

Please research carefully before handing over money to someone who is meant to be helping you and your dog. Ensure their costs cover qualifications (including a thorough understanding of Learning Theory) and on-going Continuing Professional Development to keep them up-to-date with the latest scientific research. Techniques used by unqualified trainers and behaviourists can be extremely detrimental to dog welfare, and owners end up investing time and money in techniques they believed would help their dog because a ‘professional’ advised it. It takes no skill to advise an aversive spray-collar, which then has to be increased to a shock-collar as the dog is more motivated to exhibit the unwanted behaviour than avoid the punishment. True, there can be fallout from positive-based trainers who maybe aren’t as experienced or qualified as they should be, but the reality is that a poorly timed reinforcer is not as detrimental in the long-run as a dog trained with aversives.