Now That I Have Your Attention

Blog Category: Blog

By Tyler Muto

My recent post A Silent Killer, created quite a stir as anticipated. The words within contained a pretty serious charge: That a very small faction of trainers, who believe that no dog should ever be trained with the use of aversives, regardless of the situation, are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of dogs.

Of course there was some pretty heated criticism of this assertion, unfortunately much of that criticism was unjustified. There will be more to be said on this matter, but for now I only have the time to address one of the main concerns.

Of the critiques, the most popular seemed to be the misinterpretation that the above statement somehow translates to “Positive reinforcement training is bad.” I’m not even sure how someone could draw that conclusion based on what was actually stated in my post, but let me be the first to straighten out the confusion:

Positive reinforcement training is great. I love it, and I use it every day. It is a vital component of any overall training program, and in many situations it may be all that is necessary. There has been so much advancement in the realm of rewards-based training that we are able to do so much more than we ever could before.

Where I differ from some of my critics, is that I do not believe that reward based techniques will work with every dog/owner in every situation. In fact, I don’t believe that ANY tool or technique or philosophy is going to work ALL the time.

To be clear, what I am saying is aversive free techniques by themselves do not work all the time, and neither do tools such a prong collars or e-collars.

And here we come to an important distinction: Although positive techniques do not work all the time, I do believe that they should ALWAYS be employed, even when utilizing other tools as well. Aversive techniques do not work all the time either, and should NOT always be employed for every situation. However, there are some situations in which aversive techniques are necessary and preferred (in conjunction with positive techniques.)

No single technique, philosophy, tool, method or approach is going to be the holy grail of dog training. My personal belief, and what I have seen in my daily practice working with dogs, is that the best chances of success occur when we utilize several techniques in varying proportion based on the individual dog. In fact, in my experience (yes, my subjective experience) is that the whole is often greater than the sum of it’s parts. In other words, by combing techniques I have experienced that the outcome is far better than the outcomes of the singular techniques. The more tools that we understand and utilize, the better the likelihood of success.

To be fair, there are many traditional “punishment” based trainers that really need to educate themselves better on the modern aversive free techniques. They may try to use rewards in training, but they do it rather poorly. These trainers could be far more effective if they were able to employ modern learning theory and operant conditioning into their protocols. But again, at least they try, and they are not attempting to rid the world of clickers and cookies.

“So,” one might ask “why are you saying that the trainers who oppose aversives are responsible for the deaths of dogs, and not the trainers who oppose positive techniques.”

The answer to this is simple, and it is entirely based on my own subjective experience. I have met many trainers who oppose all use of aversives. Many are my critics, and they claim to take their position on ethical grounds. However, I have never met a trainer who opposed all uses of positive techniques. I have never met someone who points at the person using a clicker and says “That’s inhumane and abusive.”

If I ever did encounter the person who held the belief that “No dog in any situation should be trained with aversive free techniques ever.” Then I would hold them just as responsible and place as much of the blame on them.

My standpoint is simple. See, no one who is reasonable will claim that they are successful 100% of the time. No one who is reasonable would even say that the techniques that they use are always successful 100% of the time (Not even the ‘science’ would support that claim). We all fail sometimes. So my question is this: In those instances when you fail, can you say honestly that you exhausted all possibilities that are within your ability?

If the answer is no, then I wonder how that answer is justified in the name of ethics.

What I am pushing for is a bit more open-mindedness. a bit more willingness to try techniques that you may not love, but that could mean the difference between success and failure. A little bit of understanding that by abolishing a tool or technique completely, we may actually close the door for a lot of dogs.

This is not a debate over which technique or tool is the best. In fact it’s the opposite. Far too much time and energy is wasted between trainers arguing over methodology. Somehow it gets forgotten that we are all in this working towards the same goal: We are trying to improve the lives of dogs. While well-meaning trainers are arguing with other well-meaning trainers over who’s methods are better/more scientific/more humane/more effective, there are real evils out there such as puppy mills, hoarders, neglecters, abusers, and breed specific legislation that we should be uniting against.

If you read between the lines of my original post the message is clear: Close-midedness and hatred amongst dog trainers is responsible for the deaths of hundred of thousands of dogs.

Yes, I made a very jarring statement. But it got your attention didn’t it?


Post Script:

I purposefully interchange between labels such as “positive training,” “Reward-based training” and “Aversive Free training“. There were tons of critics who decided that it was more important to argue about the terminology of my original post rather than the principals at hand.  I get it, I know that some of these labels aren’t accurate descriptors based on the proper use of learning theory terminology. I also don’t give a hoot. There are more important things to discuss. I know learning theory and the appropriate use of terms like the back of my hand. If you are going to comment and argue about terminology, please go elsewhere and don’t waste our time.

Post Post Script:

This is my opinion. If you don’t like it, you are free to read something else.