Consistency is Key
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
This is going to be a controversial, I'll just state that upfront. I've mentioned I'm a LIMA trainer before - Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive. I've used all tools because I worked at a balanced training facility and I'm a firm believer that you should fully understand the intended and correct usage of every training tool on the market, even if you never intend to use that tool. I also believe that we, as humans, tend to get wrapped up in our own emotions when determining what is most aversive to our canine companions, something I talk about at length here, these posts go very well together.
However, I believe that we have to train dogs as well live life with empathy, versatility, and consistency. I'm not part of any dog training groups online, despite being part of many many breeding and dog fancier groups. I left all my dog training groups for my own peace of mind. I find that many dog training groups devolve into endless bickering and personal attacks. Ultimately, in my experience this is because of two reasons:
1) Dog trainers often to have far more empathy and understanding for their canine charges than people.
This one is easy to understand- dog trainers are often dog-people. Not people-people. This means they'd much rather spend their timing focusing on their dogs rather than their people. This can be beneficial in a board and train setting since there's only the dog to focus on. But ultimately you still need to show the dog's human what the dog knows. This can be fine in a competition obedience or conformation setting. After all, the focus is the dog. However, if you smile at the judge and have some understand and sympathy for them, this will go a long way.
I'd argue that if you understand learning principals then you should be able to understand humans just as easily as dogs. While I strive not to anthropomorphize my dogs there truly are a lot of similarities in a person's base response compared to a dog's.
If I, an introvert, make the effort to show up to a social gathering (when we aren't in the times of COVID) and everyone's response is: "Jeez, about time you finally showed up." or "Why don't you ever come? Don't you like us?" What you are doing is positively punishing me (please go read the link, it will make the rest of this post make more sense). You are making me feel guilty and bad about being introverted, which will, in fact, result in me showing up less frequently rather than more.
If you call your dog to come back from running with their friends and you immediately take them inside and put them in a crate, you are positively punishing them and making them less likely to come back to you.
So despite the common claim that people and dogs are nothing alike that I see online, ultimately as long as you are internally consistent about your approach in dealing with both, they aren't actually that different in many ways.
2) Trainers often do not apply learning and training principals equally and consistently between working with dogs and working with their people.
There a couple of terms the you need to understand the dog training industry as it currently stands. I'm going to try very hard to keep my bias out of this and explain this as neutrally as possible.
All Positive/Purely Positive/Force Free/R+ Trainers. These are all terms that refer to a trainer that applies positive reinforcement (food, play, praise, petting, freedom) to increase desirable behaviors and Negative Punishment (removing attention, toy, food, etc) to decrease undesirable behaviors. There is a whole spectrum of this style of trainers that exist, all the way from a trainer that primarily uses positive reinforcement but will use very mild aversives. To trainers that state "mild aversive" is a term that is contradictory and that any aversive is still an aversive. Those trainers will often not even use Negative Punishment such as ignoring their job when they jump but will instead always seek to manage, control antecedents, and redirect undesirable behavior. A common term you will see in this school of thinking is science based and many R+ trainers have devoted a lot of time in and research into understanding how dogs learn.
Balanced Trainers. This is a term that refers to a trainer that uses all four quadrants of Operant Conditioning:
Positive Reinforcement- add a reward to increase behavior
Positive Punishment- add an aversive to decrease behavior
Negative Reinforcement- remove an aversive to increase a behavior
Negative Punishment- remove a reward (attention, food, etc) to decrease behavior
Balanced trainers will also typically use every type of training tool, as appropriate to assist in training dogs, unlike R+ trainers that wouldn't use any equipment that would be considered aversive. The key to correct balanced training is finding the individual dog's best motivators and demotivators and applying a blend of operant conditioning to achieve desired results- in short, train the dog in front of you. Not every dog motivates the same.
So let's look at how balanced trainers should approach people if they want to be internally consistent between training dogs and training people.
Essentially, this means that balanced trainers should praise both dogs and people when they perform a desirable behavior. For a dog this could be holding their Down, coming back when called, giving eye contact, waiting at doors, and so many other things. Remember - a trainer doesn't need to ask for a behavior in order to praise and positively reinforce it. For a trainer working with a dog's owner positive reinforcement can be - verbal when they execute a cue correctly, a smile when they demonstrate understanding of principals, I literally have jumped up and down in excitement when an owner got their dog to perform a particularly good recall.
This also means that a balanced trainer will apply positive punishment as appropriate. For dogs this might be: a verbal No when a dog fails to Sit, a leash bump when a dog forges ahead, or a squirt bottle when a dog jumps up. For people this might be: a verbal "Not quite" when an owner doesn't quite get a concept, a rebuke when a person is overly harsh with their dog, or burying their head in the hands when an owner appears hopeless.
A balanced trainer may use negative reinforcement by removing leash pressure when a dog successfully sits, removing a training collar when a dog is walking correctly, or a bark collar that ceases to apply vibration/stimulation/citronella when a dog stops barking. With people negative reinforcement might be removing that pained look on your face when an owner stops doing something incorrect (this isn't particularly professional, per se, try to avoid if you can), removing a verbal correction when the owner begins to perform a behavior correctly, or removing a guiding hand from the owner once they get the feel for handling a long line.
Finally, a balanced trainer will use negative punishment with dogs by ceasing to treat a dog when they break their stay, ceasing to pet a dog who starts pushy behavior such as pawing, or ceasing to walk when the dog pulls (the forward motion is what the dog wants, so removing that is ceasing to reward the dog). With people a trainer will stop verbally praising the owner when they are doing things wrong, they might go silent when an owner goes off on a tangent, or they might drop a client that fails to be compliant with a training program.
That's a whole lot of ways in which a balanced trainer can consistently interact with both a person and a dog.
Positive reinforcement only trainers, if they wish to be internally consistent, thus only should be applying both positive reinforcement and negative punishment with dogs and their owners. It means that a positive only trainer who is being consistent wouldn't say that it's incorrect to use a prong collar, because that would be positively punishing them. They wouldn't say: you're not allow to tell your dog No, because that's applying an aversive to the dog's owner. They won't say: you need to be nicer to your dog, because more than likely the owner will view that as aversive.
Here's the part where I admit my bias, but I'll do my best to do so respectfully. I emphatically believe that is important to give both dogs and humans all of the information available. I believe that you should praise both a dog and a human for doing a good job. I believe you should point out when they aren't doing the best that they can (that doesn't mean yell at them, but make them aware of the error). I believe that making both dogs and people guess when they're wrong and what they need to do in order to be right can often create an unreasonable amount of frustration. I think both dogs and humans need to know when they're doing something unsafe whether that be a dog jumping up on a toddler, counter surfing off the stove, or running into the street or a person using unsafe equipment, unsafe training practices (kneeing a dog in the chest, etc), or using safe equipment unsafely (dog pulling on a flat collar, an extremely loose prong collar, etc).
We all should demand thorough, scientifically rigorous studies on dog and human behavior. That means that if you are study e-collars you need a control group. You nee to quantify a trainer's usage of stim and amount of stim. You need to control for breed and background. I read a ridiculous number of scientific articles about dogs, be they on dog breeding or dog training. There is very little more frustrating to me than reading a badly, incorrectly adjudicated study and that is true regardless of whether the study reinforces my viewpoint or contradicts it. Yes, let's all follow the ever evolving understanding behind the science of dog training, but let's make sure we are maintaining consistency in our standards, even (or perhaps especially) when a study reaffirms our viewpoint.
For all the criticism for balanced training that it's all about punishing the dog and never telling the dog when they're right, proper balanced training is simply appropriate use of all four quadrants. For all the criticism that all positive trainers receive for being "cookie pushers" they have achieved some incredible results in behavior modification and some dog sports. But, when I look at a trainer, I am always going to look for consistency in their ethics and paradigm.