I wish I could be a reward-only trainer. I don’t enjoy correcting dogs or putting any “pressure” on them. I love dogs. That’s why I chose this career.
Unfortunately, because I specialize in helping dog owners to achieve success in real world
situations, some amount of pressure/correction/punishment is often necessary. The reality is that even in situations where a reward-only approach could potentially work for the dog, it often doesn’t work for the dog-human team. The tremendous amount of required skill, patience, time etc. is often unattainable, unrealistic, and out of reach for the average dog owner. I’m not happy about this, but it is the reality that dog trainers are faced with. Even if all dog owners started on the right track from puppyhood, this would be a challenge. Working with owners who have dropped the ball of puppy training, or rescue dogs that often come with a bit of “baggage” only emphasizes the issue.
I wish I could be a reward-only trainer, but if I were I wouldn’t be able to help nearly as many dog owners to achieve balance with their dogs.
I want to help as many dog owners as possible, but doing so requires that I take part in the less comfortable, less enjoyable, less than ideal parts of dog training.
cog·ni·tive dis·so·nance n. [PSYCHOLOGY] the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, esp. as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.
This dichotomy is something I often struggle with. But I shouldn’t.
I understand the reward-only movement, and why it’s so alluring. Contrary to many people outside of this movement, I do actually believe, that in some cases, it is possible to create truly balanced and reliable dogs without the use of negative reinforcement or positive punishment. I have seen a very few skilled trainers who have been able to achieve sufficient real world reliability with their own dogs using an only reward-based approach. Those people are few and far between, but I am glad they are there, to inspire the rest of us to think outside of the box to achieve more with rewards.
However, although I have traveled around the country and worked with hundreds of trainers, I am yet to encounter a reward-only trainer who is able to reliably achieve those same results with the average family. Especially when it comes to modifying serious behavioral problems. This is only to be expected. If only a small percentage of professional trainers are achieving real world reliability (not just excelling in a sport) with their own dogs, is it realistic to expect the average dog owner who has only a fraction of the skill, experience, patience, and time to be able to do it?
As a trainer who works with families, I am regularly faced with situations where those families have been through multiple reward-only programs without success, and they are nearly ready to give up on their dog. To do what’s truly in the best interest of both the dog and the owner, a little pressure/correction can make a world of difference. And the end result of that, seeing the family and their dog “whole” again, is what gets me up every morning. Without someone to teach them the proper way to use negative reinforcement and positive punishment as a part of a well rounded training program, both the family and the dog would continue to suffer.
I’ve heard all the arguments on both sides:
“Dogs will never be reliable and respect their owner if all the person does is dispense treats”
Well, go hang out with someone like Susan Garrett in Ontario and tell me how she managed to do it?
“If you can’t train a dog without the use of aversives, then you shouldn’t own a dog”
Well, then we will have to immediately euthanize billions of dogs around the world. There is already an overpopulation issue, and if we eliminate all but the best of the best, elite dog owners, we would have a big mess on our hands. People are going to use pressure/corrections with their dogs out of necessity, and the responsible thing to do is to provide education so at least they do it properly and fairly.
The arguments on both sides are endless. They exist in the industry, on social media, and inside of me. If you are a professional dog trainer who truly wants the best for dogs, these arguments should exist inside of you too.
Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species…discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, re-evaluate and criticize. Consistency is the playground of dull minds… Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset.
-Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
These contradicting views are essential for the progress of the industry. Without the desire for more humane dog training that created and continues to drive the reward-only movement, dog trainers would still be using antiquated techniques such as filling a hole with water and submerging a dog’s head to discourage digging, or suspending their feet off the ground with a choke chain until they vomit to discourage unruly leash manners (Yes both these “methods” were accepted and published in dog training manuals of the mid 1900’s).
Without trainers who continue to question the limitations of reward-only training, and who are willing to confront the less-comfortable parts of training when punishment may be necessary, many families would be left frustrated and without the help they need.
When these arguments take place in places like social media, they fuel hatred and anger. However, when we embrace these contradictions within ourselves, they fuel progress and innovation.
Whereas the industry used to be split into distinct camps: Trainers who use “force” and trainers who use “bribery.” The truly modern dog trainer employs the best from both sides. We now understand that “reward” doesn’t equal “bribe”, and “pressure” doesn’t equal “force, fear and pain.” We are using sophisticated reward-based protocols to shape behavior and improve the dog’s desire to learn, while using subtle and graceful applications of pressure to increase reliability and bridge the gaps where an individual constraints may limit us otherwise.
We should all be continuing to become more skilled with reward-based techniques. The more skilled you become, the less pressure you will find yourself using. We should also all be refining our skills when it comes to negative reinforcement and punishment, so that when we do have to use some pressure, we can do it with the utmost care and consideration for the dog.
The reward-only trainer who is content with seeing their clients struggle in the name of staying true to their idealized view of what constitutes “humane” dog training should be ashamed of themselves.
The “balanced” trainer who gives the occasional treat, but is perfectly happy relying on pressure to get the job done, without pausing for a moment and considering that perhaps the reason they need to use pressure is due to a deficiency of their own skills, should probably find a new profession.
I don’t care which side of the fence you fall on. Put your ideals aside, embrace the turmoil inside of yourself, and help us lead this profession and this craft into the future.