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Positive reinforcement is only one of four options that a trainer can apply in shaping and modifying behaviour.
The higher the skill and experience levels of the dog trainer, the more ability the trainer has to appropriately apply each of the 4 options in a way that is best suited to the individual dogs temperament, and in a way that advances the dog’s learning towards realisation of the desired training outcomes.
There is a falsehood being spread amongst the dog training community that punishment has no place in dog training – this push is being led by organisations and some individuals that, whilst claiming to have the best interests of the dog and heart, clearly have political power and financial reward operating as their primary motivators. Such organisations and individuals frequently play on the legitimate emotional connection that people have to dogs and rely heavily on selling partial science as the whole story in order to justify their agenda to the trusting masses that are simply looking to do the best thing for their dogs.
That’s right – partial science, packaged as the whole truth and then wrapped in a healthy layer of guilt. Where does the guilt play a role I hear you ask?
Dog owners are made to feel guilty for expecting a reliable performance from their dogs. Training towards reliable obedience responses under high distraction is a necessary part of responsible canine guardianship in todays modern society.
Trainers are made to feel guilty because they choose to put the dog first and act in line with the higher purpose of ensuring canine (and human) safety through reliable obedience responses.
Dog owners are frequently made to feel guilty for even considering any option other than the “purely positive” curriculum that they are currently enrolled in.
Even after many months of effort and despite the trainer/s they are working with being unable to offer them appropriate and effective advice, many clients are indoctrinated to believe that to look forward and seek results beyond the limited efficacy of a “purely positive” methodology makes them irresponsible, inhumane and cruel. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
It is also a fact that a lot of trainers and businesses that spread the “purely positive” myth to their clients and throughout the community are typically very picky about the dogs they decide to train. Of course if your philosphy (belief system) about dog training is flawed, your methodology (systems and practices) will also be flawed, thereby limiting your effectiveness as a dog trainer.
Trainers that dare to speak out (as I am doing now) are regularly vilified and demonised because the “purely positive” movement makes a distinction that the use of punishment in training is cruel. These organisations and individuals are heavily invested (often financially) in the falsehood that any person that uses any punishment for any reason relies solely only abusive physical punishment to teach a dog to do, or not to do, all things. After all, to encourage belief that there is an easily achieved balance between both ends of the spectrum not only directly contradicts their world view but implies that there is a better way – a way that offers dogs and their owners a broader benefit.
Responsible dog training must have the end goal of producing a reliable recall, a reliable drop (prone position) and a reliable loose leash walk in a way that is practical for owners and handlers to consistently apply in highly dynamic, high distraction, real world scenarios such as shopping centers, busy cafes, local sporting events and dog parks.
As a dog’s training progresses and the dog matures towards adulthood we have an ethical obligation to the dog and to our community to ensure that our dog’s understanding of his training progressively evolves from ‘I like to do that thing you taught me’ to ‘I absolutely must to do that thing I like to do, when I am told to do it’.
Punishment is seldom the answer, but it may well form part of a broader solution in some form, for some dogs and in some situations. It is almost never used as a stand alone solution by even moderately skilled trainers and dog owners, but is instead applied in a predictable, minimal fashion that is clearly understood by the dog. Any contingencies are mindfully counteracted by concerted high level efforts to motivate dogs to perform for us in many other ways including the use of food, touch and play. The result? Balance.
If your dog trainer tells you that punishment is either the only way to train, or that it is never appropriate and that you and/or a given training device are evil, bad or cruel then vote with your feet and find a better informed trainer – there are still some of us around. Great dog training is reward based in nature, but it also must deal with training a dog for abstinence and action.
As with so much in life the key is a balanced approach, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle of both arguements.