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 minedepend 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.

  1. I stumbled upon your posts from a GSD site on Facebook, and after clicking a bit, found this post. It really speaks to me because as a trainer seeking to learn, I have come across many different methods from very talented individuals with the one unifying factor: they all look down on all other trainers.

    It saddens me that as an industry (dog training) we are hindering our own growth with all the venomous slurs flung casually about other professionals becoming habitual. A closed mind to any methods other than what one considers the only “Correct” way is the norm. I quickly adapted to become a mute when asked about previous training experience, to avoid a long lecture about the other “idiots” or “barbarians” I had learned from. I felt for my own journey, it has been very worthwhile to explore many different styles of training- from each I discover more to keep in my mental “tool box” to help with the rescue group I aid, and the small number of clients I maintain relationships with. It often astounds people if I decline to help, and recommend another trainer instead because they specialize in a method that would fit perfectly with the client’s needs.

    For the larger picture, sometimes it seems to be forgotten that everyone simply wants to help enrich a canine’s life, and educate a human for the good of all involved.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts. Thank you for having the courage to post, the ethics to report all sides as completely as possible, and the charisma to be entertaining while factual. 🙂

  2. Melissa Kelley says:

    Well said , Robert. 🙂 Thank you for carifying for those people who dont understand . Hope this helps them. For the rest of us , it is a nice confirmation , of what we already believe.

  3. About 7 years ago, I was BLESSED to be found by a dirty, tick-ridden, 42-pounds-soaking-wet female GSD who was wandering the streets. People would say to me “is she pure-bred? Her back is straight…there must be something wrong with her.” I tried to find her owner, and thought that because she was not spayed, she was probably meant to be back-yard bred…yeah, not going to happen!!!

    Since I never went looking for a GSD, I didn’t know…I didn’t care…I only knew she needed a home and it looked like that was going to be with me. She has taught me more in these 7 years than I could ever have learned from a trainer. And I’m NOT bashing trainers or training methods. Without this relationship we have, I fear she would not respond to me at all. I don’t know if that’s true or not – I just know that what we do works, and I’m so thankful to read your posts in support of putting the focus on the relationship. And so I thank you – I really enjoy the information you share with us!