Thursday, August 20, 2015

If Jon Snow were a dog trainer, he'd still know nothing

"Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius."
-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A personal favorite quote of mine, so incredibly pertinent for dog trainers.

Dog training is a vastly unregulated industry, mostly because of the infinitely complex logistics of doing so, and lack of resources through the appropriate agencies which regulate other fields. This allows for a disparity in paid dog trainers wider than the Grand Canyon. From an average owner reading a few books, taking a few classes, and hanging out their shingle as a professional with less dogs trained under their belt than they have fingers, to international level competitors admired the world over, the kind other professionals pay hundreds to thousands of dollars to work with, and everything in between.

To the trainer seeking dog owners of the world: Who does your potential trainer admire? Whose books do they read? Whose seminars do they attend? What do they aspire to achieve with their own dogs that they have not yet? Do not take your trainer's passion to learn as a sign that they are less capable, in fact, truly open minded trainers seek out even more talented and accomplished trainers to build their repertoire, and they do so regularly. The very finest trainers have not only pet owners as clients- but other dog trainers.

To my fellow dog trainers of the world, be you fresh and new sweet summer children, or grizzled veterans, leashes in hand while I was still playing with my She-Ra dolls: Who do you learn from? Are you still learning? Are you seeking out the company of other trainers, to share ideas with, to be your series of checks and balances when training in solitude prevents you from seeing your own bad habits? Are you still attempting brand new things with your own dogs?

The beauty of dog training, to me, has always been the never ending learning process. You may train dogs your entire life and have more to learn. The mind is a sponge, and it never dries up when you keep running it under fresh water.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A picky handler is a fair handler

Today, I'd like to address a common problem in dog training, for owners and even for many trainers- inconsistency, particularly the reinforcement of sloppy obedience.

First, I want to get out the way immediately that when I grip about precision, I'm not griping about shaping. Naturally, in shaping, we are building up a set of behaviors that are often not even named yet. Creating desire and familiarity with these behaviors is, to me, an independent process (at least initially) from what I want to discuss today.

Let's understand first why precision is important at all. Our dogs are truly brilliant animals capable of well beyond even what the most loving of owners already realizes, and can understand exceedingly precise behaviors and positions well and promptly. By keeping our standards for obedience high from the very beginning, we send a clear picture to the dog of what we will and will not reinforce. The rules should not change out from under the dog constantly.

Many of us have heard this from clients:

"I don't really care if he sits straight at heel, hes sitting, right?"

"I don't need a perfect heel, she's not a show dog."

There's no lack of trainers who will accommodate that thinking, either, but let's think about the picture we present to the dog. If we do not set parameters to our expectations, for ourselves even before the dogs, how do we ensure we are being fair? Here's an example from a handler who is attempting to teach correct position with food reward.

Rover sits about 20 degrees crooked from his handler after being told to heel. Last time he sat about 40 degrees crooked, so the handler rewards this sit. On the next sit, Rover is about 90 degrees crooked and stretching his head over the handler's leg to look at something. The handler regains his eye contact and rewards him. The next sit, Rover now swivels a full 180 degrees and has completely left the heel position. Now the handler addresses the issue and takes measures to return Rover to their side. Rover returns halfway, and is at a 90 degree angle. The handler does not reward this, but tries again until Rover is completely straight, then rewards him. The next repetition Rover is back to being about 20 degrees crooked, which the handler still rewards.

Does Rover know where the correct position really is? If he does, he doesn't know he must be there 100% of the time to earn reward. Not knowing exactly what must be done to earn reward will create confusion and eventually lack of interest for an activity Rover simply cannot understand due to inconsistent reward. In spite of the handler trying to make it a fun and positive experience, we have still left Rover with an unclear picture, and potentially devaluing the reward. If Rover is a sensitive dog, he may become frustrated or stressed when he wasn't rewarded at the second 90 degree crooked sit, when he was on the first one.

Here's another example, this one from a video I actually have watched, from the perspective of a trainer using collar pops to teach correct position (I know, I's a topic for another day).

Max's handler is walking back forth and telling Max to "heel". Max goes approximately a foot ahead of the handler, and is popped back and told "heel". He returns, but is slightly too far out, and is told "good boy". Handler turns sharply while Max is somewhat lagging, and when Max is about three feet behind, receives a pop and is told again "heel". Max drops his nose to sniff and is popped up "heel". Max drops his nose again and is told to sit. He sits about 70 degrees crooked. He is praised. Forward they go again, until Max is about two feet ahead and he is popped "heel" again. On the next sit, Max is straight and correct for the first time in the session. Handler is neutral.

Does Max know where the correct position really is? Chances are, he is also utterly confused. The corrections came inconsistently, and at differing positions from the handler, so Max does not know when corrections appear, or what is expected of him. Max, as this point, is certainly frustrated and more stressed than Rover.

The moment we name a command, it should be with a crystal clear, precise picture of where the dog is meant to be each and every time the handler utters it. There should be no doubt in the dog's mind- this is it! I've got it! I've earned my reward! For those of us who use correction, please understand the power and implications of your tools, to use them with inconsistency will create problems greater than those you seek to rectify.

How does precision work affect the average owner? Many of my clients are pet owners, and every one has heard me say, "You may not need flawless obedience, but you will want the dog it creates." Focused, respectful, engaged, calm, willing. Precision obedience creates a concise, highly rewardable, safe position for a dog to maintain. This is highly useful when working with various social problems, such as barking at dogs, spooking at cars, etc. Sloppy obedience can create a far foggier picture for the dog, one they will float in and out of at will.

Now, I am certainly not saying that a dog must live its life in heel, nor am I saying dogs cannot master more vague concepts such as loose-lead walking without heel, or a casual recall. What I am saying, if you're going to train in obedience, train it with pickiness, and train it fairly.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Training doesn't fit in a box, and neither should our language when discussing it

What kind of dog trainer are you?

This seemingly simple question, with an infinitely complicated answer for many, has been plagueing dog trainers, and in my opinion, the entire dog training community for decades, but only since the broad spread of the internet has it truly begun to have a powerful impact on the dog training industry.

Balanced. Postitive reinforcement. Force Free. E-collar. Natural. Clicker. Science based.

These, and more, are the tiny, restrictive boxes dog trainers are expected to fit their entire craft into. A craft that is also expected to encompass a lengthy list of abilitites, problem solving capacitites, titling venues, every breed of dog and type of owner under the sun. Decades of experience, wrapped up into one or two words.

We, as a training community, need to stop. Stop choking one another with stereotypes and cliches, and stop limiting ourselves. These labels are not industry standards, and even their meaning varies from person to person- and therein much of the problem lies. Let's break down what each of these names is meant to represent, and what they really say about everyone else.

"Balanced" training is meant to represent a style that utilizes all quadrants of operant conditioning, in very basic lay terms, discipline and reward. But what type of discipline? That distinction remains somewhat vague, as it has become a broad catch-all term for any trainer who incorporates physical correction. One "balanced" trainer can be vastly and shockingly different from another. This particular label presents two unfavorable assumptions. The first being that the "balanced" trainer uses all four OC quadrants equally. I have found this to be patently false in most cases, in fact, the quadrant most actively in use by them is positive reinforcement. It also implies that other methods are unbalanced. What are some synonyms for unbalanced? Unequal, unhinged, unstable. Like most of the training labels I'm discussing today, the name itself carries a subtle insult.

"Positive reinforcement" (R+) and "force free" are two terms that often are lumped together but can have small, but distinct differences. Many of the R+ trainers I've had the pleasure of talking to and learning from are quite open about their training being primarily positive reinforcement, but of course will acknowledge that even the withholding of reward can no longer be considered R+. "Force free" trainers use the same methodology (training without physical correction or molding) in most cases, but is the name accurate? Withholding reward until correct action is offered is certainly sound thinking, but many argue that mental coercion is still a form of force, therefore the label itself is incorrect. Let's break down the implications of these names. "Force free" says, "I don't train with manhandling or harsh punishment", again, a very sound philosophy, but carries the implication that any other method is unkind. "Positive reinforcement" is better, I think, but as I mentioned earlier, this school of thought certainly doesn't have the market cornered on high value reward.

"Science-based" is not far away from the previous two, however, every trainer of every school of thought uses the science of animal behavior every time they train a dog, whether they know it or not. Dog trainers were doing incredible things with dogs long before animal behavior studies existed. While modern science has given dog trainers incredible insight and food for thought, the assumption should not exist that a trainer who doesn't work the way a "science based" trainer does is an uneducated cretin.

"Natural" training, to be entirely honest, is the foggiest to me in terms of direct application to teach specific tasks. It seems Cesar-esque to me,without the use of training collars or food, and is meant to be based on relationship without tools or tangible reward. If anyone out there can send me some videos on this style teaching very specific commands, I'd be grateful. I'm sure you can see where I'm heading now- the opposite of natural is of course "unnatural", to me an unfair and false way to label both "R+" and "balanced" work.

As for "e-collar","clicker" etc., I refuse to label any trainer based on one tool of many they may use. I am not a prong collar or a piece of Red Barn.

Now the labels get uglier. Punishment trainer. Shock trainer. Cookie-pusher. I will be frank, when you see these labels, walk away. If you're an owner looking for a trainer, walk away. If you're a trainer or a training enthusiast trying to have a discussion, walk away. These are more than labels, they are insults, and those using them likely do not care a whit that what they choose to call themselves also carries a demeaning undertone to others.

The sooner we abandon labels, the sooner we can spread our knowledge to one another with respect and open minds, and do the most good for the ones who really matter- the dogs. To do this, we must absolutely own the fact that a great deal of very poor work is being done in every style. Defeatist, permissive "FF/R+" training; harsh, unrewarding "balanced" training; "natural" work that accomplishes next to nothing- it's everywhere, and we know it. Rather than attack the worst of every other style, try representing the very best of your own.

Some of you may be looking at this laughing to yourselves, thinking, "Hey! I'm a PositiveReinforcementBalancedCookiePushingScienceRespectingECollarClicker trainer!"

No, you aren't, my friend. You're a dog trainer.