Sunday, October 2, 2011

Rectangular Thinking or Being Congruent When Teaching and Training.

Definition of CONGRUENCE
: the quality or state of agreeing, coinciding, or being congruent
: a statement that two numbers or geometric figures are congruent 

Six years ago or so a friend and I were sitting in her kitchen and she paid me one of the highest compliments I have ever been paid.  She looked right at me and said “Sue, you are the most congruent person I know”.  Although I like to be complimented, and she obviously meant this in a good way, I was confused.  I was thinking about rectangles and the third grade, and the rectangles having to have properties that were the same; the same angles in each corner or the same lengths of each side.  My confusion must have shown on my face because my friend said to me “I mean that you do what you say”.  I was still confused and I asked her to explain.

Her explanation was fairly long but it related to how I train my dogs and it boiled down to this.  As a dog trainer, I do what I say that I do.  I believe certain things and I work those principles.  I believe for instance that the majority of dog training should be based in positive reinforcement.  But I also believe that a professional should have the choice to choose to use positive punishment in appropriate situations.  I believe that when you goof and hurt someone’s feelings or you say something in anger it is important to apologize and make amends where you can.  I also believe that you should treat people as well as you strive to treat your canine pupils.

This subject came up today with some colleagues after a seminar.  Not all of us treat our human clients as well as we expect them and teach them to treat their dogs.  With three professional certified trainers around the table and one up and coming assistant, we relayed example after example of trainers treating their clients (often ourselves!) poorly all while telling them how they needed to be kinder to their dogs.  We hear over and over again that punishment has no place in training, and then the person doing the telling will crash down an audience member for having the wrong idea or answer.

This very thing happened to me at a seminar offered by a very well known professional.  On the first day, she asked the audience what Ivan Pavlov had won the Nobel Prize for.  I put up my hand and astounded her by answering correctly that it was for Physiology and Medicine in 1904, for the work he had done studying the salivary secretions of dogs, which led to the understanding of conditioned reflexes or classical conditioning.  You can find out more about Pavlov and his Nobel prize at

The speaker was a bit stunned and let the audience know that no one had ever gotten that question right, and gave me a little slip of paper so that I could enter a draw to win a prize.  Hmmm...sounds good; here is a presenter who is violently positive reinforcement based, and who believes that R+ is the way to go, and when I get an answer right, she rewards me.  Sort of.  The problem is that she isn’t rewarding me at all; she is in fact setting me up for potential disappointment.  No matter; I am willing to play games so I happily all day try really hard to answer her questions.  And I collect a bunch of tickets.  And I don’t win anything.  Gambling is a funny thing.  If you gamble, you might win, but if you don’t win, you feel bad.  So I went home feeling bad.  Although she had reinforced me each time I had answered a question correctly, in the end the reinforcement, slips of paper, were not something I actually wanted and could not be turned in for anything tangible.  I would have been happier with her praise or acknowledgement than I was with slips of paper, promising something big, but getting nothing in fact.  

Never the less on day two, I played her game again, but this time she was less enthusiastic about my performance, so she called on me less frequently.  This was mildly annoying but where she lost all my respect was when she did call upon me, and I got the right answer, and she held out the ticket and then TOOK IT BACK, justifying to the audience that I had already won enough tickets.  And I was really, really angry. 
The trainer in question set up a reinforcement schedule which was dicey to begin with; winning the CHANCE to get a prize is a twisted form of token economy where the learner may or may not get a prize.  It is like a click where treats are on a variable schedule, something we were lectured never to do!  And when she started to give me a ticket and then didn’t I became very resentful.  So here was a trainer who was trying to teach us the importance of reinforcement and the value of positive reinforcement based training and she was scrambling it up so very badly that in the end, I decided that I just wouldn’t reward her performance with any more attendance, potentially keeping money out of her pocket.  In point of fact, I was so annoyed that when directly asked what I think of her methods, I am pretty clear that I don’t think that she is as good as her press kit would have us believe.  I don’t slander her, or bad mouth her ( and no, I won’t kiss and tell you who she is), but I don’t support her either and don’t encourage others to go see her.  The problem isn’t that she mis-used reinforcement, although that IS a problem.  The problem is that she was incongruent.

I have been to several large educational seminars, where speakers are invited to teach about science based, dog friendly training.  And at these seminars, I often hear that dog friendly means exclusively positive reinforcement training.  The sad thing is that most of these speakers don’t have anything in their definition beyond dog friendly means positive reinforcement.  Do I believe that the bulk of our training ought to be positive reinforcement based?  Yup.  I do.  I use it all the time, and reserve the use of positive punishment for occasions when I don’t think that positive reinforcement will be effective or efficient training.  The problem is that I don’t see a whole lot of evidence of these trainers really taking the needs of their animals into account.  I see live animal demos with dogs who are afraid and anxious, being handled by people who don’t connect with the animal before trying to get behaviours from them with a clicker.  Dog friendly means a lot more than not using pain to train; it means also looking at the “Left Side of the Dog” ( and acknowledging that there is more here than an input/output machine.  It should also mean acknowledging the dog; greeting the dog, saying hello and checking in with him frequently to see if he is still doing okay and ready to work.  It means standing up and saying something when you see another trainer doing something that is unpleasant or dangerous to the dog.  If you are going to be dog friendly and be congruent, you need to have a broad and complete definition of what you mean by dog friendly, and you need to apply those principles not only to the dog in your hands, but congruently to all the creatures, including the humans in the audience.

Which brings me full circle to being congruent.  I goofed today when I was teaching and spoke harshly to a student and hurt her feelings.  I am sorry and I told her so.  Sometimes I goof with my dogs; I have lost my temper with my puppy and expressed my frustration when she has been barking for a very long time.  One of the reasons that my friend felt that I was congruent was because although I advocate for primarily positive reinforcement based training, I will also admit that from time to time, I goof.  I use punishment when there might be another alternative.  I sometimes lose my temper with my students, both canine and human.  I have even been known to lose my temper with John, my husband.  What I have learned from the speakers I am thinking about is that we must be congruent in our thinking about how we train, and how we live our lives.  Warts and all.  Being congruent is what allows us to be real to our friends and clients.  Jung may have said it best when he said that if you want to know what a person’s values are, you should look at what that person does.  With so many of us trying to provide humane training solutions to dogs, we need to look at the big picture of what our own behaviour says about how we should treat both our human and our canine students. 


  1. Outstanding article -- I was still sleepy-headed till I found this on your facebook link to my page but am now WIDE awake! Sharing, sharing, sharing onwards your candour, insight and eminent good sense so eloquently and clearly put ... thanks, Sue.

  2. I love the way that your mind works, Sue.