Honestly, I’m weary of this debate over Training Methods. But every time I write about it, readership of GSA spikes dramatically. I’m obviously addressing something that strikes a chord. I’ve only had a sprinkling of negative comments, and a boatload of positives. People want to be allowed the freedom to choose training methods without militancy, I guess. The reason I wrote this post, was because I recently published my conclusion that Positive Reinforcement/Operant Conditioning was an “Incomplete” method on it’s own. Two readers took great exception to this conclusion, and practically demanded explanation/clarification/ or retraction. So, for the sake of the few, here’s how I’ve come to my conclusions.
In 1637, a mathematician named Pierre de Fermat was working on a very specialized theory involving algebraic constructs. In a leading study of mathematics called Arithmetica Fermat stumbled across a formula that caught his eye. It sparked something in his thinking, and he scrawled in the book his thoughts. He wrote, “Remarkable Proof…”, and started over 300 years of controversy and obsessive study. Proof of what?? Ever since, a continuing series of” long-haired, lab rats” has pursued the final answer to that obscure question. (It was finally solved in 1995, but that’s another story)
I recently had my own “Fermats” type experience. I didn’t grasp the significance at the outset, but it has now become crystal clear. It all began at the Public Library. I was reading a well known book by “Clicker-Training” guru, Karen Pryor. Here’s the paragraph that I was reading, with an emboldened highlight of the operative phrase.
A few weeks later I fly to Indiana. At Wolf Park, Erich Klinghammer is eager to have me go into the pens and meet some wolves personally, to “experience their boisterousness.” This I am not willing to do. Klinghammer is six feet four with a big Germanic bass voice. He walks through the gate into the main pack’s enclosure and booms, “Good morning, wolves!” The wolves gather around him, waving their tails and jumping up to greet him: “Good morning, Dr. Klinghammer!” For me, I think it would be “Good morning, breakfast.”
Besides, I don’t need to be close to a wolf to work the training magic; in fact, both of us are safer and will feel better with a fence between us. This wonderful technology does not depend on my being able to impress or dominate the wolf. Nor does it depend on making friends first, or on having a “good relationship.” That’s often a happy outcome, but it’s not a requirement: the laws of reinforcement will get the job done.”-Karen Pryor
The interesting part of this excerpt was a comment that a reader of the book had scrawled into the margin. It read: “This woman really misses the point of having a dog! Sounds like she’s tuning a piano, or de-fragging a harddrive…”
Hmmmm…. As I continued to peruse this copy of the book, (I’ve read the book multiple times, but never saw this particular copy) there were other passages underlined and commented on.
… Now we have a new way of dealing with animals. Out of real science we’ve developed a training technology. It’s completely benign; punishment and force are never part of the learning system. And it produces real communication between two species.
Traditional animal training, the way it’s been practiced for millennia, relies largely on force, intimidation, and pain. While traditional trainers may also use praise and rewards, dominating the animal and obtaining control over its behavior are the main goals, and the main tools are fear and pain.-Karen Pryor
The superscription beside this paragraph, written in bold handwriting, said, “When Science is employed in it’s purest form, the sentient being,( in this case, “Dog”) is ignored wholesale.”
I agree. I have called Positive Reinforcement/Operant Conditioning “Incomplete” because it is thought of proudly as “Science”, THE only method that is proper. Many of it’s practitioners preach the gospel of having degree’s and higher education. Dog trainers/behaviorist without such educational assertions in choo-choo train fashion behind their names, are scoffed at, and put aside as “Uneducated”. When examined with a unjaundiced eye, you can find any number of “Science” projects that eliminated the “Sentient Being” from the equations entirely. I wonder if Robert Oppenheimer ever came home at the end of a workday and said to his wife, “Hi Honey! I’m Home! Today I created a terrible weapon that could be used to incinerate a 100,00o,000 at the same time! How was your day?” Probably not. It was pure science. Without consideration of the consequences to the people of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Japan.
Aristotle, one of our first pure “Scientists” postulated the Spontaneous Generation Theory which stated that life could spring forth from nothing. That would certainly free mankind from any responsibility for his actions, wouldn’t it? Pure Science.
One of the oldest and most controversial theories in psychology and philosophy is the theory of the blank slate, or tabula rasa, which argues that people are born with no built-in personality traits or proclivities.. The idea found its most famous expression in psychology in the ideas of Sigmund Freud, whose theories of the unconscious stressed that the elemental aspects of an individual’s personality were constructed by their earliest childhood experiences.
While there’s little doubt that a person’s experiences and learned behaviors have a huge impact on their disposition, it is also now widely accepted that genes and other family traits inherited from birth, along with certain innate instincts, also play a crucial role. This was only proven after years of study that covered the ways in which similar gestures like smiling and certain features of language could be found throughout the world in radically different cultures. Meanwhile, studies of adopted children and twins raised in separate families have come to similar conclusions about the ways certain traits can exist from birth. Pure Science. Again, completely wrong, but accepted as gospel by those with “Higher Education”.
When you reduce anything to “Pure Science”, you lose the wonderful chaos that is contained within all living, sentient creatures. And I’m NOT anthropomorphizing our dogs either. I have rejected the notion that dogs are little people in dog suits. Dogs are dogs, and humans are humans. They are different from one another. But when a “Happy Dog” is, as Pryor words it, “Nor does it (Positive Reinforcement training. Italics mine) depend on making friends first, or on having a “good relationship.” That’s often a happy outcome, but it’s not a requirement…” Then, pure science has taken over, and will ultimately be found wanting.
The lost equation is this: Build a relationship with the sentient, intelligent, and loving being that your dog was created to be. The science that supports Positive Reinforcement is a wonderful tool that belongs in a trainers bag of tools…Along with many other methods that fit a particular dog during its training. Don’t be so impressed with any one human that espouses one method as “The end all, be all” method that stops learning, growing and expanding your own knowledge. Glean from all methods. Don’t waste your time bickering and whining because someone says something you don’t happen to agree with in the dog training arena. And above all else…
Let me emphasize that properly…Above All Else, put your dogs happiness and well-being above your methodology. Too many dogs become robots, stressed and unfulfilled by owners/trainers that force the dog into the currently accepted mold of an industry. Be your dogs best buddy everyday, and he or she will reward you by being the best dog in the world.