The Positive Vs. Traditional Training Debate

January 12, 2008

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Background music:  I Can’t Get No Satisfaction… the Rolling Stones.  Some guys are working on my house and it is playing on their radio.   

I just unsubbed myself from a discussion group about canine aggression which I joined as a little experiment.  (Nah, I won’t say which one!) Over the two days on the list, someone came up with a problem with a young dog bugging an older dog and the older dog getting snarky in return.  My suggestion?  Management during meal times.  Teach the dogs what to do instead of snarking at each other.  I didn’t respond to their recommendations to correct, I just added Manage and Teach.  There was no serious aggression yet- it was all managable without punishing either dog.  (I know a little something about canine aggression.) 

I posted a couple of times before getting a public rebuke from a list moderator saying that what I was saying was “rhetoric that doesn’t work” and referring to positive training as “the dark side”, while, out of the other side of her mouth, saying this was a list for trainers to talk openly about training without “fear of being unsubbed or worse”.  Yet they were making it clear right from the start that I was not free to suggest anything on that list that didn’t involve corrections.  I was being told that I should fear being unsubbed or worse.  (What’s worse in discussion group land?  Is she going to stalk me?  Geez.)

Talk openly, my eye.  It seems to be quite difficult for positive and correction-based trainers to speak openly together … even when we want to.  But I can understand.  On my own discussion list I will shut down conversations that get adversarial, so maybe that moderator had a history of such.  Not with me, though … she didn’t give me a chance.  She went into correction mode before she got to know me.  I realized I wasn’t going to learn anything there and opted to leave. 

Her response demonstrated a definite defensive posture she had obviously learned before I came along, and a clear over-reading of what I wrote. That’s sadly common.  I’m thinking it means too many positive trainers aren’t positive with their correction-based colleagues.  That’s something we should work on, but it’s hard when we’re being yelled at. 

From what the moderator wrote, the list assumes that positive training is nothing but clickers and treats for all problems.  There’s so much misinformation about it.  I was a handy target for whatever anger they’ve learned to have toward anyone working to effectively change animal behavior without causing them unnecessary pain and distress. 

There are those clicker trainers with limited repertoires that use nothing but clicks and treats, but as clicker trainers mature in the profession they learn a lot more. The clicker is a great teaching tool for many things. It’s not appropriate for everything.  When someone jumps right on that old “You can’t cure all ills with clickers!” bandwagon I know I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t know much about positive training. I hope if you’re reading this you’ll take that as a cue to study. 

Probably the best thing about the positive training world is that the members are largely devoted to learning, studying, even, in some cases going back to school and investing great amounts of time, money and effort to really know what they are talking about.  I have to be frank.  I don’t see this on the correction-based training side.  It’s their choice… but it means they can’t defend their practices.  They can only be defensive.

The biggest problem I have with the Anti-Positive side (or as a colleague of mine calls it, Negative Training) is that they often dismiss or even ridicule scientific research on behavior and training.  They aren’t educated in the sciences of behavior, they don’t know how learning works.  Yet they condemn positive trainers for following the science and training effectively without force and pain. 

What kind of world is it that promotes force and pain and won’t listen to alternatives?  Even when those alternatives are proven to be effective? 

Curiouser and Curiouser. 

We’re closing today’s blog with

Feelin’ Alright by Joe Cocker.  Playing on iTunes.   

Seems I’ve got to have a chance of scene…

Every night I have the strangest dream…

Imprisoned by the way it might have been…

Left here on my own, or so it seems…

I’ve got to leave before I start to scream…

Someone locked the door and turned the key.

Feelin’ Alright… not feeling that good myself… oh oh…

But in fact, I am feeling pretty good.  Next song up…

“This is the story of Minnie the Moocher…

She was a red hot hoochie coocher…

She was the roughest toughest friend,

But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale.”

… by Band From TV.  Check it out on iTunes.  A row of good tunes can turn around a bad mood.  “Hi de hi, hi de ho… told you before that I love you so…” 

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2 Responses to “The Positive Vs. Traditional Training Debate”

  1. Rose O'Hara Says:

    As usual, spot on! Too often, what these trainers have learned is that they have to “bite first” when they see anything they recognize as “positive”. Those who adhere most stringently to force based training in this manner have chosen to react in exactly the way we are claiming the DOG sometimes does to negative training . They recognize something they fear and don’t like and move to block that feeling before they encounter more pain and fear themselves. Truly it’s sad. However, I see many trainers who would NEVER use force on a DOG, or negative measures to teach the DOG, but don’t hesitate to use them on HUMANS they are teaching, i.e., bery negative or derogatory comments that are probably embarassing or meant to shame the human into different behavior! They fully grasp the concept for DOGS but have not changed their negative behavior towards their HUMAN students on the other end of the leash from the DOG!! In fact, one went so far on a teaching list to declare that as a High School teacher, they didn’t believe it was their JOB to motivate their students, either in HS, OR in dog training class! (I wanted to ask where they teach so we could all avoid it!) They believed students should come equipped with their OWN MOTIVATION!! HOW would THAT happen? They weren’t able to explain how someone was supposed to be continually self motivated with no encouragement from their instructor at any time. The rest of the list reacted with disbelief and incredulity. The origninal poster also stated that they felt that those of us discussing how to maintain and encourage motivation on the part of our students were only doing it to maintain our income from those students and they considered that to be greed on our part. Geez. You just can’t reach some people! (And I hope they retire SOON, SOONER, SOONEST, from our public education system, too!)


  2. Your best bet is to search for the best positive trainer you can find. She will accidentally use corrections once in a while, but she will make fewer mistakes because she knows how to do effective positive training.

    Read Karen Pryor’s new book, “Reaching the Animal Mind” and her old book, “Don’t Shoot The Dog” for starters. Then read Pat Miller’s book, “The Power Of Positive Dog Training.” Patricia McConnell has a number of good books, but start with The Other End of the Leash.

    Good luck to you! When I discovered positive training it not only improved how I manage my pets, it changed how I raised my kids, and I even changed careers and went back to school and got a Master’s Degree in Behavior Analysis so that my whole life could be influenced more positively. It’s been great for me.


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