Something I seem to be seeing and hearing a lot of lately is the assumption that those of us who use positive reinforcement/force free/whatever you want to call them methods simply wave treats or toys in our dogs face no matter what they do. Want the dog to recall from chasing that deer? Wave a toy at him and all is sorted! Dog is about to run into the road? Offer him a piece of cheese and disaster averted. I’m sure anyone who uses non aversive methods to train has seen or heard these sort of examples before, usually given as a reason for why “purely positive” can’t or won’t work or isn’t practical. And I’m sure that like me you’ve often rolled your eyes, heaved a sigh and tried to explain that there’s a hell of a lot more to it than simply waving treats and toys around. I thought I’d address some of the common misconceptions I hear about the methods I use. An actual post about dog training rather than life with Spen, who’d have thunk it!
Firstly, no, I do not reward my dog for doing things I don’t want by giving him treats or playing a game with him. That wouldn’t make any sense would it? Nor do I simply ignore all unwanted behaviour. Some behaviours do get ignored and die out because there is no reward from them. Self rewarding behaviours I try to pre-empt and ask for an alternative behaviour instead. So instead of letting Spen jump up when someone approaches and then punishing that I ask him to sit BEFORE he jumps up and then the sit is rewarded. If I allowed him to get to the jumping up before asking for and rewarding the sit there’s a good chance he’d learn the chain of jump up, sit, get rewarded. And no, if my dog were about to hurl himself under a car I wouldn’t wave a treat at him and hope for the best, I’d grab him however possible. An emergency like that is not a training situation, let’s be sensible about things.
Secondly, no, I do not need to have treats on me for my dog to do as I ask. If I’ve forgotten them or have run out then he’s not suddenly going to stop listening to me. For one, I don’t only use food to reward Spencer. There are a hell of a lot of things out there that can be used as a reward and food is only one of them. Let’s look at what Spen finds rewarding while out and about just off the top of my head and in no particular order.
- a game of chase
- saying hello to person or dog (with their okay of course)
- me being silly and engaging him
So looking at that list (which I’m sure I could expand upon if I really thought about it) there is always something available for me to use as a reward. Which leads on to the whole “I don’t want to have to keep rewarding my dog” thing people seem to have going on. I don’t understand this attitude, I really don’t. Why do you not want to keep rewarding your dog for doing things for you? Why do you think he should keep doing them just because you ask him to? Would you keep on doing everything someone said just because they told you to? I wouldn’t. I’d start asking why. Especially for more difficult or time consuming things. Why should dogs not be paid for what they do?
Thirdly, the whole “positive is not permissive” saying is true. My dog is not allowed to simply do as he pleases. There are rules and boundaries and these are enforced. Just not in ways that cause him pain or fear. And again, let’s not be silly and mistake an emergency situation such as running out into the road (this is almost always the one brought up) for a training situation. But then I suppose it depends on what you consider “permissive” really. Spencer can still have a tendency to bark at other dogs in frustration if he can’t meet. We’re working on self control and he is so, so much better than he was but there’s the occasional lapse. I know some would punish him for it while I don’t as I don’t feel it would really help in the long run. If I think he’s likely to react out of frustration I’ll either move him on or try to distract him with treats or working with me before he starts barking. Nor was Rupert punished for his fearful reaction to other dogs as again, I don’t feel it would have helped. So in that respect perhaps I could be seen as permissive by some.
Fourthly (I’m not even sure that’s a word but oh well), dogs do not need to be punished for getting it wrong to be reliable with the right behaviour. Or at least not yelled at or physically punished anyway. Some say that not getting a treat is punishment but if I start looking too in depth at it all I end up with a headache and feeling utterly baffled lol. It’s the idea that dogs must be set up to get it wrong and then punished for getting it wrong for the behaviour to be reliable I disagree with. Yes, my dog makes mistakes and those mistakes are not reinforced (hopefully!) but deliberately setting him up to fail so I can punish him does not sit right with me at all. I much prefer to teach him what I do want him to do and give him reasons to do it than to have to make him not want to do the things I don’t like.
Now don’t get me wrong, Spencer is no angel, far from it in fact. But I have a reasonably well mannered dog who I can enjoy taking out and about and who is mostly a pleasure to live with. Nor am I a saint. There have been occasions where I’ve reverted to the typical primate behaviours of jerking things around and yelling when I’m frustrated or angry. But for the most part I train using methods that do not cause my dog any pain or fear. No, I do not as a rule yell at my dog or hit him or yank on his neck or jab him or “show him who’s boss” or anything like that. But at the same time it’s really not a matter of waving a magic wand, farting out some fairy dust and sparkles and suddenly it’s all rainbows and butterflies. I’m getting a little tired of being accused of using “namby pamby” or “airy fairy” methods and ridiculed for them to be honest. I’ve put in a lot of hard work with my dog to get to where we are now and to get there with him happy and confident rather than worried and shut down. No, he’s not perfect but who is?