A blog about dog training and dog breeding…and other sundry matters

Posts tagged ‘Cesar Millan’

Unmasking the Myths Surrounding Positive-Based Dog Training

The Boston Globe featured a great article promoting positive reinforcement-based training.  This method, although widely used by animal trainers in zoos, trainers of working and performance animals, and pet dog trainers, receives its fair share of critics who are die-hard, card-carrying practitioners of methods originally espoused by trainers like William Koehler.

Today’s Koehler-advocates argue that punishment-based training “has always worked.”  Well, if it did, why is it that there are so many dogs with serious issues, and I’m not taking about dogs that are born with personality disorders–such as fear aggression– or whose brains are simply not wired correctly, but have never been exposed to punishment based training.  That’s the subject of a whole ‘nother blog article.

I’m talking here about dogs that have had their choke collars popped, or been hung by their collars everytime they see a human or another animal nearby, and are now terribly dog or people-aggressive.  I own one such dog, my rottweiler Busta.  When I started out training, I used these same harsh methods because I didn’t know any better.  My method of teaching Busta to ignore other dogs was to yank his prong collar and yell “leave it” everytime a dog appeared on the horizon.  Well guess what, Busta associates other dogs with pain, so he goes over the top when he sees them.  He’s terrible on walks; he’s terrible in the car.  I don’t carry him in the car much because he’ll destroy the backseat to get to another dog.

The Boston Globe makes some interesting points, and a few that need clarifying.  First of all, postive reinforcement does not mean permissive.  It is not acceptable for a dog to jump on people, go potty in the house, chew up furnishings, or bark for hours on end.  Trainers do not simply ignore unwanted behaviors.  We, instead, do one of two things: distract the dog so it will discontinue the behavior, or ask it to offer another behavior that are incompatible with the unwanted one.

In a training situation, where I’m training specific behaviors, like heeling.  I reward the dog with a click and treat when it’s walking on my left side, shoulder in line with my knee.  The clicks and treats cease once the dog forges ahead, lags behind, or decides to walk on my right side.  Sometimes I’ll call the dog back, but very often the dog realizes that I’m no longer interacting with it and will return on its own accord. Pretty soon the dog gets the idea:  “heel” means walk on Mom’s left side, because really good things happen there.

Positive reinforcement doesn’t not mean that you have to spend a really long time teaching an animal a behavior.  I found that to be true with punishment-based methods.  If you are teaching a behavior for the first time, like sit, or chase your tail, or lick your lips, and you have the right approach, the dog will learn these behaviors very quickly.  My puppies learn new behaviors in a few days.

What takes long is changing a dog’s emotion to some stimulus.  If you have an over-the-top aggressive dog, yes, a positive reinforcement approach to behavior modification will take a long time.  Why? Simply because you are working against a behavior that the dog has learned over a period of time, and has been rewarding to him in the past.  An aggressive dog has learned that snarling and lunging at people will make them back off.  The perceived threat has gone, the dog is rewarded, so the dog adds this behavior to its repertoire.

Think of human behavior.  A child has a really bad experience during a medical procedure; every subsequent visit to the doctor elicits behavior that makes carrying out the procedure difficult or impossible. Positive reinforcement has to work against the child’s emotional reaction to the procedure, and it’s subsequent behavior, and that is very hard to change.

According to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Cesar Millan’s approach to dog training creates a “…quick fix that will unravel.”  When a dog experiences punishment for lunging/snarling at humans, it learns to avoid the punishment by not engaging in the behavior in the first place.  The dog no longer reacts.  Unfortunately, though, the dog’s emotions remain the same:  it still feels as though humans are a threat. 

Now that’s dangerous.  To the unsuspecting human, the dog appears “cured” of its aggression.  The dog tolerates people walking by it, or being petted. Then one day, when it’s owners feel that those aggression days are long behind them, a veterinarian leans over the dog during an examination, or a child hugs the dog.  Disaster strikes.  The dog looses it, and savages the vet or the child.  The dog is labeled “dangerous” and is then euthanized, simply because fear got the better of it and it just couldn’t think of another appropriate behavior.

What gives positive reinforcement an edge over punishment-based training is that it is based upon science.  Clicker training, as the Globe article points out, developed out of B.F. Skinner’s work on operant conditioning.  It is applicable to all species of animals–from fish to humans–because it is based upon the science of learning.  True, all clicker trainers sometimes have to go on gut instinct when working with a dog, because like humans, not all dogs learn in the same way.  But their decisions made on the gut level have the science of learning theories behind it.  That, to me, is enough to make me try this method on both my canine and human students.

To read the article, click here.

Positive Dog Training

I saw this article in the NYTimes, and had to post it here.  It’s great that positive dog training is becoming popular. Enjoy!

August 3, 2009
The Puppy Diaries
Our Puppy Whisperer
Jill Abramson

Pure joy is Scout at the beach, paddling in the water, her adorable head bobbing above the waves.

She is so cute it is hard to be tough.

In her mouthing during play, Scout has drawn blood on my forearm. On walks, she either pulls on the leash or refuses to budge. When a rabbit ran by us the other night, I almost landed in a ditch. Although we have had some luck teaching her to sit and come, our puppy training skills are rusty and the Monks, wise as they are, sometimes don’t have instant answers to our problems.

In a loopy canine version of “The Gift of the Magi,” Henry (my husband, not O.) and I, unbeknownst to each other, both put in a somewhat desperate call, on the same day, to the same trainer who runs a once-a-week puppy kindergarten class.

I liked Diane Abbott the minute I heard her voice. For every tale of woe I described, her reaction was an amused giggle. She offered free tips on the phone, like taking an old washrag, tying it in a knot and putting it in the freezer. The cold terrycloth bowtie that resulted was a new instrument for puppy-teething relief.

In his initial conversation with Diane, Henry had been so favorably impressed that he had booked a home consultation with her.

I’d watched enough Cesar Millan to know that owners, as much as their dogs, are the ones who need the training. So I wasn’t surprised that Diane spent most of our two-hour session talking to Henry and me in our living area, with Scout attentively watching and occasionally being called on for demonstrations.

We’d been telling Scout “No,” in stern voices every time she did something we did not like. Instead, Diane said, we should be focusing less on the negative behavior and rewarding her for the positive. “Concentrate on what we want,” Diane urged. “Don’t give attention to what we don’t like.” When Scout responded in the way we wanted, a treat was in order. Diane kept a little pack on her belt brimming with small treats.

When Scout nipped too hard during play, Diane suggested that we say “Ouch,” put our hands up, stop play, but then resume in a few seconds. This is how puppies play with their littermates. When one gets hurt and squeals, play stops for a bit and then begins again. When Scout jumped up on us, Diane urged us to turn to the side and look away, ignoring Scout for a few seconds rather than scolding her, and then getting her to sit, followed by a reward.

She thought Scout had become bored with the same toys and suggested a Kong, a cylindrical rubber chew toy that can be filled with food and puppy treats and even put in the freezer. “It can really keep them busy,” she said. “It’s fun and interesting for them to work at getting what’s inside.” Diane succeeded in getting Scout to respond to a number of different commands, including showing, repeatedly, that she recognized her name. She offered rewards for every bit of good behavior and suggested that we do the same, even if the treat was just a piece of kibble.

At mealtime, Scout had started barking loudly as we prepared her bowl, and fortunately, Diane had a cure. She suggested that we ask Scout to sit before we put her bowl down and then reward her with a piece of kibble. It worked. The barking stopped.

Diane thinks small bits of human food are good for dogs and gave us a list of approved and forbidden ones. Yogurt, already on her diet, was fine, along with carrot chunks, cheese and other items. On the verboten list, because they can poison a dog, were grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, onions, garlic and, oddly, nutmeg.

All of this, of course, ran contrary to Henry’s human food ban. But hearing more about Diane’s common-sense attitude toward food, he declared, “You have changed my mind.”

Among dog trainers, there is a raging argument between those who favor the Cesar Millan pack leader approach, which requires firm command and control, and those who prefer the positive reinforcement and reward technique used by Diane and other trainers. The Monks combine some of both.

Shawn Stewart has been training dogs for 15 years in New York and New Jersey and has worked with animal shelters, breed rescue groups and homeland defense canine units. When he’s asked what method he uses, he says his answer is based on individual considerations about the dog, the owner and the environment. “There are these two sides lined up against each other,” he says. “I’m in the middle. No one out there can say that any one method will fit any dog or owner.”

Henry and I agree that Scout needs to be rigorously trained, and she seems eager to learn and respond. But in parenting and dog ownership our style has been anything but dictatorial. So Diane’s guidance on how to reward Scout’s good behavior with offerings of affection, play and food is helping all of us make training progress. She’s also teaching us to use a clicker to mark approval when Scout does as we ask. Soon Scout will be attending Diane’s kindergarten. We like that our puppy whisperer signs her e-mail messages: Warmest wags, Diane.

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