Saturday, September 24, 2011

In Defence of Choice

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'
Isaac Asimov

I have been paid to train other people’s dogs since 1993, and over the years, I have done a lot of thinking, learning and developing.  I started out as a jerk and treat trainer, and I wasn’t very good at it at first.  In fact, I am more than willing to bet that I caused harm to a number of dogs, but along the way, I honed my skills and became better at this.  In fact, over the years, as a jerk and treat trainer, I developed good solid and meaningful relationships with many dogs and helped many people to do that same thing.  I also along the way learned how to help people to help their dogs overcome fears, aggression issues and other behaviour problems, using jerk and treat methods.  I will admit that I didn’t understand learning theory, and my understanding of behaviour was fairly limited, but at that time, I developed skills and helped people to develop skills and in the end, I was a fairly effective trainer.

Through the nineties and in the early two thousands, I like many other trainers went through a wonderful, exciting, fabulous learning curve.  I learned about clicker training, and ethology and learning theory.  I read Donaldson, and Dunbar and Reid and Bailey and Burch and so many others and soaked up information like a sponge.  This process of learning caused me to decide to change my training process to one where I stopped using choke collars as my first tool of choice and move towards using the clicker instead when teaching my students and their dogs about training.  

During that time, one of my students used a choke collar in exactly the way I had taught her to use it.  Her dog lunged forward, and she braced her body against the lunge and the dog dropped back to heel position.  I didn’t see the lunge, but I know what it looked like-I had seen her do this many times in the past and she was good at it.  Unfortunately, the collar failed and the large ring closed around one of the links and closed the collar down to about two thirds of what it ought to be.  It took us fifteen minutes to locate tools and extricate the dog from this deadly snare and we almost lost her.  By the time we got her out, her tongue was protruding and blue.  That was the last class I ever permitted snare collars to be used in at Dogs in the Park.  That was also a formative experience in terms of committing me to more humane methods of training.

In the 1998 I obtained a seven month old German Shepherd who had never been on anything other than cement floors in a cow barn and occasionally on grass.  He had been to the vet, but really hadn’t been into town much.  I lived in town and when this dog came into my life I was working full time in outdoor education and part time as a dog trainer.  I named him Crow, and started my first “clicker only” dog.  Now admittedly, I only had six or seven years under my belt training using a clicker, and although I knew the tool well, I was probably not the best clicker trainer in the whole world.  None the less, with resources like Don’t Shoot The Dog, and Sue Ailsby, Shirley Chong and Clicker Solutions, I wanted to make certain that this dog was never going to experience positive punishment. 

I will admit that this dog was not the easiest dog in the world to make this commitment to, but I was determined to walk a kinder road.  I was already clicker training with all my students dogs.  I was already clicker training the dogs I had “crossed over” with.  I had more practice than the students I work with now who are picking up the clicker for the first time, and I had taught many new students to train their dogs using only a clicker and a handful of treats.

Crow was afraid of floors, trucks, new people, some dogs, and a wide variety of animate and inanimate objects.  I worked with him for about two years, patiently and sometimes not so patiently but carefully never using positive punishment or negative reinforcement, and we got to the point where Crow knew most of the novice routine, the open routine, some agility and basic manners. 

In the summer of 2000, I took three months off of work to try and figure out what I wanted to do next career wise, as the outdoor education field was not sufficiently lucrative to keep going with.  And during that summer, I really began to learn about training.

Every morning, Crow and I would walk with John and Bear to the train station and see him off.  Then Crow, Bear and I would go and have a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop.  They would stay outside on a down stay and I would go in and read the paper, keeping an eye on them, and giving people treats to give them while they stayed.  My dogs had the best down stays of any dogs I had ever met.  The one behaviour Crow and I struggled with and that got in the way of our relationship was leash manners.  

Crow had a decent working heel in the ring, and I could make him stop pulling by “being a tree”.  He got very proficient at charging out to the end of the leash, jerking my arm and then herding around me to my left side and repeating.  I used the clicker and a head halter and we could fudge it as far as the second corner from our house.  The fact was that after two years of clicker training and stopping, he was not very good at walking nicely on leash.  We spent hundreds of hours working on this; gently and carefully, using only R+ and P-.  And I was getting injured.  I pulled my brachiocephalic nerve when a large aggressive dog I was working with on a flat collar tried to take out a jogger.  That meant that I had little feeling in my left hand, and that injury was being exacerbated by Crow pulling as we walked John to the train.  Being pulled on leash this way did nothing to endear Crow to me, but every day, I worked on this.

One day, just as we were leaving to walk with John to the train, Crow spied something and lunged, and yanked my arm yet one more time.  I was hurt, yet again.  And in a fit of frustration, I went back into the house and got out a prong collar.  One lunge and Crow came back to heel position and we walked nicely to the train station.  He tried it once a day for two more days.  Within two weeks we were back on the flat collar.  And I learned something really important.  Commitment to a method is less important to me than clear communication.  That two week period allowed me to teach Crow that he was never ever going to be permitted to lunge on leash, and as a result, our relationship improved enormously.  After using the prong collar, I enjoyed my daily walks with Crow.  Before, I dreaded them.  After, we were able to go places we had not been able to go previously, without risk to me and my arm.  Before, I was limiting where I would walk him.

Could I teach it now, using only a clicker?  Maybe.  Maybe not though.  It took me about four years to get to the point where I talked openly about this with my clicker training friends, because I reliably get one of four responses.  Either I am lazy, undereducated, I like hurting dogs or I have resorted to using pain when I choose to use pain.  Let’s take each in turn.

First, I am lazy.  I would argue that when you take two years to teach a dog to walk on lead and they aren’t getting the message to never ever pull on leash, then the trainer isn’t lazy.  I might be more skilled now, but this is a dog who had not been on leash till he was seven months and then had to be on leash daily for the rest of his life-he was a challenge to work with for sure.  But it wasn’t laziness that made me reach for the prong.  I worked daily, sometimes for several hours a day with this dog. 

Second, I am undereducated.  So I just don’t know better.  Lets consider.  I have passed both the CPDT-KA and the CPDT-KSA, I am a CDBC and I am preparing to sit the CBCC.  I have been to two Clicker Expos, two or three PABAs, seen Pam Reid, read her book, seen Ian Dunbar at least three times, and read all of his books and seen most of his video tapes, I have seen Nick Dodman several times and read all of his work, Kathy Sdao and read some of her work via the net, watched the BowWow girls videos, been to John Rogerson’s weekend intensive, been to several Suzanne Clothier seminars, been to a Sue Ailsby workshop, plus I was one of the principle editors on Barbara Handelmann’s dog behaviour book.  I think I have the education piece covered nicely.

Thirdly, I like hurting dogs.  Give me a break.  That one is just plain rude.  I don’t like causing pain to dogs, but I also don’t like being hurt by large aggressive dogs who do things from time to time that are dangerous to me, and I will use whatever means is needed to follow one of the most basic premises of working with animals that I know; keep everyone safe at all times, including the dog.  If I have to move a large aggressive mastiff from the car to the vet clinic and that dog is likely going to try and eat the receptionist, yes, I get the receptionist out of the way, but I will also choose a tool that equalizes the strength of us-so I will likely choose a prong collar in that case. 

Finally, I have resorted to pain.  Yup, with Crow, I did resort to pain.  I will tell you though, that now I don’t resort.  I choose after careful consideration to use pain if I think it is the most appropriate option.  I am aware that when I choose to use a prong or shock collar I am choosing to use pain.  I am no longer resorting.  I will say that the two years I struggled with leash manners with Crow resulted in a lot of “resorting” that I wish I had not done.  I would sometimes lose my temper and leave him in a huff and go into the house seething at this dog who was just not getting it.  And then I would be remorseful for hours and days afterwards, thinking I wasn’t worthy of this animal, or of teaching dog training or of being part of the training community.  Resorting is never a good choice because we are unclear about our objectives and motives, and it leaves us with guilt and distress.

If you visit the CCPDT website at, you will find there a copy of their humane hierarchy.  While I don’t like everything about it, I would like to point out that the use of positive punishments are on that hierarchy.  This means that a professional organization, vetted and examined by animal behaviourists and veterinary behaviourists recognizes what many in the training community don’t: that sometimes, the use of aversives, including pain is appropriate.  Not always.  Not even often.  But some of the time. 

If you visit the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants website, you can learn about LIMA; Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive; the guidelines that we follow when we practice behaviour consulting.  This means that where ever possible, we don’t choose aversives as our first line for training, but that we don’t rule out that they might be beneficial in some cases.

The use of aversives in dog training has been a hot topic this week.  Some people want to approve or prohibit equipment based on some mysterious aversion factor.  Prongs are bad, and halters are good.  Or halters are bad, but flat collars are good.  Clickers are good.  Treats are bad.  The problem is that it isn’t that simple.  This is a subject fraught with shades of grey.  I use head halters a lot and in fact was one of the first trainers in Guelph to have one in the eighties; I had to order mine from Roger Mugford in England.  I was also one of the first people in Guelph to use a clicker; we had to order them at $5 a piece from the states and we spent a lot of time trying to rig them from juice bottle tops.  There is no simple way to quantify good versus bad when it comes to our tools.

Determining if a tool is an aversive is a bit of a trick.  Ultimately, you have to ask the dog if he finds something aversive.  I have had clients with dogs in my classes who find the clicker itself so unpleasant they cannot be in a room full of clicker training.  The handler can use the theory of marking the behaviour, but they cannot use the clicker itself.  I have met more than my share of dogs who find the head halter so aversive they cannot even think, so we cannot rubber stamp that tool either.  I have seen thin skinned dogs develop sores under flat collars and flat harnesses and front attachment harnesses; a sore is certainly aversive. 

When I choose to use a tool that is going to cause discomfort or even pain, I have a responsibility to use it with great consideration and care.  I have decided that relationship is more important to me than is commitment to a tool or a quadrant.  Determining our values is the responsibility of educated professionals.  I have decided that commiting to using only positive reinforcement is not necessarily going to mean that relationships will be better; it often does, but it doesn't always. 

 No one questions when a veterinarian cuts into their dog with a scalpel if that is what they need to do to save their dog’s life.  When I am faced with a dog who is injuring his handler, and I can quickly resolve this with a prong, then I MIGHT choose to use a prong.  Maybe.  As a professional it is my responsibility to choose carefully what tool I use.  Like the medical professional, the training professional should never choose to use a painful procedure when a pain free alternative is viable.  But as a professional I also believe that some of the time, I must choose to use a tool I would prefer not to use.  The more I read about applied behaviour analysis, about how we practice our craft of training, the more I feel that we are arguing the wrong points when it comes to equipment and aversives.  It is not the aversive that should be in question.  It should come down to safety, for the families and the dogs who we serve.  When we are faced with sending a dog home to a family where the dog is going to pull his person out of a wheelchair, there are worse choices than a prong collar.  When we are faced with a farmer who will shoot a dog who has killed a lamb, there are worse choices than a shock collar.  And finally, when we or our clients lose our tempers and resort to scruffing, cuffing or screaming at the dog, and then we spend hours self flagellating, when we could have chosen to use a well thought out aversive, we are wasting valuable training opportunities.  

I have written this primarily because of two conversations this past week.  The first was with a rabidly positive reinforcement trainer who would never use an aversive on a dog but felt no compunction about calling me names and making unfounded accusations about my abilities as a dog trainer as well as my personal habits.  The second was a client of mine; a very talented clicker trainer who is working with an extremely difficult young terrier.  She began reading a memoir of another very talented trainer, and emailed me to tell me she felt she just didn’t measure up-she had expressed anger at her dog after he bolted down the street for the umpteenth time.  This prompted me to come clean to the world.  I support the choice, amongst well trained and educated trainers to CHOOSE to use an aversive.  Whichever aversive they think is appropriate.  I do not support the wholesale use of aversives without thought or without consideration.  But I do support the right of professionals to choose to use whatever tools they feel are the most appropriate to a given situation.  That in part is what separates professionals from amateurs; our education and experience, our background and our understanding.  I am not a positive reinforcement trainer; I am a professional who will choose the best option to keep everyone safe at all times including the dog, and who will work with you to develop the best relationship you can possibly have with your dog.


  1. I agree completely with you. One of the best aspects of the CPDT that I found was the concentration on client relationships. So many so-called "positive" trainers are downright rude and nasty to their clients because they forget that the human part of the equation is as important as the dog part, maybe more since it's the human part that pays for the training.

  2. I thought this post was amazing. I felt as though you brought forth many of the answers I'd been looking for when people ask why I choose to do this with one dog (of mine) and do another with the other.

    Thank you for being so open and honest. And for saying what other dog trainers are afraid to admit.

  3. Thank you for being so open and honest when writing this, and actually just for writing this in the first place! It is a shame when good trainers know how to help a dog more efficiently with the use of some aversive and probably would if it was their own dog but choose to keep this solution to themselves as some sort of a dirty little secret. The dog industry has become far too politically correct and it does not serve our dog companions well. This theology war has become much more about the people's egos and proving one's point then it has about what actually works and benefits the individual dogs. And yes, funny how many of the "purely positive" trainers can be down right nasty towards other human beings.

  4. We cannot call this a dirty secret. As long as we are ashamed, we miss the point I was trying to make. When you choose to use punishment; whatever punsihment we might choose, choose it with care and use it only when you must, but never hang your head down just because you chose what you feel is in the best interest of the dog.

  5. Just discovered your blog,so am coming late to the conversation, but here's how I think about it. The goal is for both the person and the dog to be happy. Sometimes the quickest way to that goal is through the judicious use of an adversive. Like you, I had very nice clicker-trained heeling with my aussie pup, but all the "be a tree" and "penalty yards" in the world weren't convincing her to walk on a loose lead. She was annoying me and I was annoying her when we both wanted to be out for a walk -- not training, just walking. I got her a pinch collar, and within a few minutes we were walking and having a nice time. Result, dog happy and person happy.
    Rather than being doctrinaire about "good" and "bad" or "kind" and "unkind," it makes far more sense to consider the particular needs, gifts and challenges of both the trainer and the dog in any given situation, and choose from there. With the goal that both the person and the dog are happy.

  6. That is just exactly the point I am making Lynn. When we look at things from the perspective of good versus bad and not from the point of view of relationship, we miss the better part of why we have dogs.

  7. It is ironic that many PP polar zealots can be the most aversive in tone, attitude and communique. It makes my head 'cock' to one side and back trying to discern from the contrast in their behaviour..there ought to be a study on this peculiarity..the PP interaction toward alternative thought I mean and not so much my bewilderment.

    Even odder (than me) is any attempt to redirect their caustic attitude via timbits, bagels with cream cheese and pleasantries only seems to infuriate them more..if there was any time to invoke a pinch collar..well