Where Training Becomes Mastery

Debate Over Training Methods

By on Feb 24, 2016 in Articles |

I have read some really stupid associations used when talking about training methods. The biggest assertion is the one that proponents of positive reinforcement training make. They profess the ideology that “whenever a trainer uses negative motivation he will get side effects that are negative.” A trainer of killer whales once said, “If you put a shock collar on a killer whale you will have a very short training session because there is a good chance that the whale will eat you when you get into the pool.” The trainer went on to say that, “aggression is caused by negative training methods.” If this is true how does he account for the millions of dogs that are aggressive which have never been trained by any trainer, positive or negative? Some dog trainers take this generalized statement and apply it to dog training as a truth, which it is not. They believe what the whale trainer says is true, (I believe it as well, with this exception, that if you act as a threat or an enemy to something as large as a killer whale that he will take appropriate measures to eliminate the threat) but then apply it to their way of training dogs. They believe that if they ever use any kind of punishment that it will in some future way cause aggression to occur. They make the assumption from statements like the whale trainer’s, that negative punishment gets side effects and all negative punishment causes aggression. So let’s take a moment and review what happens in nature. A killer whale if he wants dominance of his pod pushes into another or grabs another would be threat and drags them, pushes them or hits them with his tale much the same way a horse shows his dominance in the herd. This kind of behavior is all negative punishment to the whale, horse, dog that is being pushed, hit, kicked, bitten, and struck. The negative punishment doesn’t make them more aggressive but on the contrary submissive. There are side effects, which are a structured organization with leadership. Look with me for a moment at this scenario. If you are out swimming in the ocean, you must certainly know that you can be on the food chain of the killer whale and you must know that he will most likely kill you even if you offer him a fish. However if you were larger than him and you bumped into him with your nose or tail he would now have been trained by you to move out of his way through negative punishment. Does he now become more aggressive and go home an beat one of his children and wife?  He simply has learned that you are dominant and he moves when you come swimming by.  Now switch with me to dogs. A puppy will jump and nip at its mother in a playful manner for fun and attention. When the mother has had enough she nips him sometimes quite harshly. The puppy soon learns that it needs to be careful around mother, especially when she growls or curls her lip at it. It knows that it needs to back off or it might get bit. Again the animal was trained with negative punishment. It is a proven fact that when you take a puppy away from its mother before it has learned this lesson about controlling its  aggression, (which I believe is around 48 days) it will be more aggressive with others when it is older. It remembers the lesson taught it by its mother throughout its whole life.

Let me tell you a story about training horses. I trained my horse to lounge on cue. He learned this behavior through a reward system. After he had learned this behavior and refused to obey I reminded him with a slap on the butt that I was serious about his obedience. I have only had to remind him once or twice since that time with a spank when he challenged me in later life. One day he injured his leg on fence. It was serious and I needed to take him to the Vets. I walked him to the horse trailer and tried to coax him on with a bucket of oats. I tried pulling him on and he refused. I stepped out and gave him the cue to move forward, the same cue to lounge and he stepped on. He knew that I was serious and that a consequence would follow. His training through negative punishment saved his life. This horse was trained with both positive reinforcement and negative punishment, but when the positive failed he responded because he had also been trained to be obedient in all situations.

Now let’s jump back to the killer whale trainer. He was not big or strong enough, nor swam well enough to become dominant and so he was left with the only way he could to get the whale to respond to him and that was with positive reinforcement. That is completely logical. It is also completely logical that he can’t use negative punishment, positive punishment or use negative reinforcement the way you can with dogs and horses. It leaves him only one way to train whales and that is through positive reinforcement. Will the Killer Whale always respond? No, but regularly enough to put on a show, but when the whale takes him in his mouth to the depths of the pool the trainer is at his mercy and has no command nor respect to be released on a give command. The whale responds only to food which has to strictly be rationed at the right time and with enough food for the animal to respond. If they don’t he won’t obey when he has a full stomach.

Now back to the flawed thinking of some dog trainers. I read trainers testimonies of when they were training a bunch of dogs with their owners that when the handlers would pull on the dog collars harshly when their dogs acted aggressive towards other dogs it was believed to cause them to be more aggressive towards their handlers. Their conclusion was that aggression bred aggression. When we truly examine the case it often appears that most of the handlers had not established themselves as the leader and that their dogs were simply exerting their place in a new pack. Those handlers who had previously established themselves as leaders had little problem. A second issue arises and that is the fact that when dogs are introduced into another pack that they must re-establish themselves within that pack, and where you might have been their leader at home you now were no longer in that position until you establish yourself in a position of dominance.  Your dog may take on a new leader in that situation if you allowed it to happen. If you have ever watched an episode of the Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan, almost every episode is Cesar teaching the dog owners how to become the leader of the pack to stop most all bad behaviors, especially aggression.

I know that in today’s society we want to be politically correct and treat our animals as if they were human. This is called anthropomorphism when we give human characteristics to animals, plants and objects. Simply put, don’t do it.

Lastly, when you have trained a dog using only positive reinforcement and have never trained him with the negative, there will come a time when you will be challenged for pack position and your dog will become aggressive when he never has shown it before. This is referred to as aggressive behavior through positive reinforcement training. Does it happen? Yes it does. Does it always happen? No it doesn’t. Just like training a dog with some negative punishment they may become aggressive at some time.  But if you stick with natural behavioral training you will be more successful than if you used only one or the other. Natural is using the natural behavioral training methods taught within the herd, pack or pod whenever possible. Use all the means available to you to become successful. Use positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement to get the behavior to increase and use negative punishment and positive punishment to get them to decrease.