I have recently had to revisit the whole issue of correction when a friend and colleague went off to Vet Tech college and was required to attend an obedience class where each student was taught how to use a “correction” collar. Simply put, they were instructed that if they did not apply a strangulation device on the neck of the dog they were working with to correct his behaviour, they would never be permitted to become Vet Techs. This course was taught by a Vet Tech, who is mentored by a local compulsion based trainer. Food treats were also permitted in the class, but any time the dog got out of line, the students were instructed on how to “correct” the dog, using a snare type collar. Furthermore, the students were told never to use negative reinforcement or punishment; that was bad. The instructor was unable to define any of the three terms, and was completely unaware of the AVSAB position papers on punishment and dominance, and taught the class that they needed to dominate the dogs they were working with.
This has me thinking about a number of important issues. The first of which is that this explains why I get such baffled looks from the techs I encounter when I tell them that they need to stop using punishment-they have after all spent time in college where they were taught never to use punishment, only correction. And what you learn in college must be correct, right? After all, the facts taught at college are correct, are they not? In this case, they are not.
The next thing that this brings to mind is the whole idea of “correction”. What is “correction”? Used in the context of dog training it usually means some unpleasant penalty applied to bring the dog back in line, closer to what the trainer would like him to do. So if the dog lunges forward and you want him to stand by your side, you either yank back on the leash and “correct” the dog back into place, or you brace yourself so that the dog corrects himself back into place. Won’t sit? No worries; jerk up on the leash and scoop under the knees and “correct” the dog’s position. No problem. How about the down? Well there you could “correct” the dog’s position by yanking the dog’s collar towards the ground and pulling his legs out from underneath him.
I should add that I am fairly accomplished in this form of training. I learned to train this way, so I am well familiar with the misconceptions that go along with learning a new way to think about training. When I was learning this, everything was framed in terms of the dog not doing what I wanted, and I needing to “correct” his behaviour. I was fairly resistant to the change too; I heard about clicker training and my initial impression was “That can’t work! How will the dog know that he must do as I say?” Time passes and I have learned and grown. By learning and growing, I found some things out.
To start with if my goal is “correction”, then there are lots of ways to achieve this, beginning with using a treat to achieve the correct behaviour. Much easier on the dog for sure! Or I could put the dog in a better position to get the right behaviour to begin with so that he doesn’t need to be “corrected”. And I need to be clear; “correction” implies that the dog knows what I want him to do. How can you train a dog to do something that he doesn’t already know by correcting wrong behaviours when he doesn’t know the right behaviour to begin with?
Correction is a euphemism for positive punishment and negative reinforcement, plain and simple. So when my colleague went to vet tech college, armed with information about the science of behaviourism and was told by an instructor that she should not use these accurate words, but instead should “correct” the dog she was working with, a travesty occurred. The travesty is that the education she went to get is continuing the myth of correction that is holding solid, science based training back by between twenty and forty years. And that is a pity.
The implications for this are wide ranging. When I have a client who goes to the vet in a couple of years, and I have explained correction to her and why she should not use it when training her dog, there is a good chance that her vet tech, a professional with credibility, will contradict my information. Ultimately, the client loses out because the professionals who are trying to help her don’t have the same information, and it becomes a match of credibility between me and the vet tech. It doesn’t matter that the vet tech knows about as much about medicine as I do about behaviour; both of us and the client and ultimately the dog all lose.
My challenge is to find a way to reach out to the veterinary technician college and help them to understand that they should change their curriculum and stop teaching information that is incorrect. We also need to help vets and vet techs to find people who are well trained and who understand the science of behaviour to help their clients. Vet techs, vets, trainers and behaviour consultants all need to keep in mind that we each have specialized information. We need to work together and not against one another. And ultimately we need to work to ensure that the dogs in our care all get the best most up to date care from the appropriate professional, be it medical or behavioural.