Does being a positive reinforcement trainer equal closed mindedness?
On a recent discussion of this blog, someone commented that I am “closed minded” because of my posts and commitment to positive reinforcement training. This took me by surprise as I have always considered myself to be a very open minded person. And, because going from traditional training methods to positive reinforcement training took such a huge amount of open mindedness, not to mention hard work. If you talked to my friend Colleen, who was the first person to really start encouraging me to research and explore positive reinforcement methods, after years of successfully training with punishment I am sure she would agree. I was resistant because it was foreign and different and learning more about it would require a huge amount of change and hard work on my part. On the other hand, I had not felt good about the methods I was using for a while. More than anything else, I think that part of what was so difficult was that it forced me to recognize that what I had been doing was not the best thing or the kindest thing for my animals or my client’s animals. I was put in a position of having to take a long, hard look at what I had been doing to them in the name of training. It was painful and difficult, but I forced myself and I believe that my dogs and I are better off because of it.
So, the question is, does the fact that I use and recommend positive reinforcement methods mean that I am close minded? Does the fact that I don’t use or recommend compulsion methods mean that I am close minded? Honestly, I don’t think so. How can I be considered close minded to something I have already done? I have “been there and done that” as they say. I cannot, in good conscience, say “just do whatever works” if I believe in my heart of hearts that it is not good for the animal. I believe with complete conviction that many of the methods that people use on dogs in the name of training are painful, scary and intimidating to the dogs. I believe that many dogs (and other animals) are treated with a huge amount of disrespect and that animals deserve to be treated and trained with compassion and respect. I believe that some of the equipment people use on dogs in the name of training are much more aversive and uncomfortable than they realize. I have seen it, I have caused it, I have watched others cause it and now I try to spread the word that there is another way. Is this wrong? Does this mean I am closed minded? I don’t think so, but at least one person believes I am. I wonder why that is.
I believe that part of it is the definition of positive reinforcement in general. Some people believe that they are positive reinforcement trainers because they use food some of the time. It’s true, that when they reinforce behaviors with food they are positively reinforcing the dog, but if they are also using aversive equipment and positive punishment, can they really be considered a positive reinforcement trainer? Not in my mind. People will sometimes argue that what they are doing isn’t “hurting” their animal, but if the animal’s body language indicates that they are frightened or in pain or uncomfortable, I am going to believe the animal. Many of the pieces of equipment that are used were designed to cause discomfort or pain to stop behavior. This is why they “work” to stop a behavior. In my eyes, the only way a technique or piece of equipment “works” is if the behavior is changed without pain or intimidation. I feel that part of being a good teacher is respecting the comfort level of the learner. I believe if my learner (human and non human animals) cannot understand than it is my responsibility as the teacher to change MY behavior in order to the help the learner understand. If I can’t figure something out, I am not going to turn to punishment or aversives, I am going to go back to the drawing board and figure out how I can change or build this behavior while still respecting the animal. Why in the heck should the animal pay for my lack of skill as a trainer?
Something that many people don’t understand is that positive reinforcement training isn’t permissive. Positive reinforcement training doesn’t mean that there are no consequences, it simply means that the consequences I choose to use are not painful, scary or intimidating. My animals are taught rules, boundaries and are trained to respond to the cues I teach, but I don’t turn to methods or equipment that I feel is aversive. It’s really that simple. Punishment (corrections, aversive collars, force) only suppresses behavior, they never, ever build behavior. Punishment, by definition causes a behavior to go down in frequency. Punishment never builds behavior or teaches anyone to do something. So, if what you want to do is build behavior, why wouldn’t you use positive reinforcement? It is so much easier to simply teach the behaviors you want, rather than punish out everything you don’t want. There will always be more behaviors you don’t want, it would take forever to get rid of everything you don’t like, so just focus on what you want and train that! It’s simple really, but I digress…
Like so many other crossover trainers, I have learned for myself, from using both traditional based methods and positive reinforcement that positive reinforcement training is less risky, more enjoyable and more reliable than traditional methods. I have been accused of (and have seen other positive reinforcement trainers) accused of being closed minded because they feel strongly that positive reinforcement training is the way to go. I don’t understand why being committed to training dogs using methods that protect them and their relationships with their owners can be considered negative. When I see an animal being handled in a way that I feel is inhumane, being jerked with a choke collar on for example, it causes my blood to boil. It is painful and upsetting for me to see. It does not feel good to be upset, I wish I could change it, but I can’t. It is my emotional response to what I am seeing. My passion comes from my journey which started there. My commitment is to the animals, if that aggravates people, well, I guess, so be it.
So, for the record, I am not close minded to new ideas, in fact, I absolutely love learning a new method or technique. I attend lectures, seminars, workshops and classes from other trainers regularly. I meet with other trainers in my area monthly to discuss and exchange ideas. I am completely and wholeheartedly open to other ideas, as long as they are in the best interest of the animals. I am only closed minded to techniques or ideas that I feel cause distress, pain, fear or intimidation to the animals I am working with.