Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Finding the Right Balance

Kane staying obediently in his place while exciting stuff goes on in the kitchen.
When we brought home Kane, a one-year-old Border Collie-Black Lab mix, we knew that he would need some training and firm discipline. We'd had a previous failure as dog parents and weren't about to have it again. Kane was for keeps and we needed to ensure that he was well-behaved in all circumstances.

Truth is, we're still working on it. No fault of his; we haven't been as persistent as we could be.

But we learned one lesson really quickly, the hard way.

The "all positive reinforcement" approach does not work with all dogs, and it certainly did not work with Kane.

At our first class with a local "all positive" trainer, Kane was so adrenalized by all the other dogs in the room that the instructor had us take him out into the hall. That was her approach to curbing unacceptable dog behaviour.

In desperation, because he would not behave himself on walks and was risking our safety, we spent an hour with Cher Wood of Streetwise Canine, a trainer who uses what is being called a "balanced" approach to dog training. It includes aversion reinforcement as well as positive reinforcement. Cher takes on the hopeless cases: dogs who have been deemed untrainable and who have been recommended for euthenasia. Her intervention quite literally saves their lives.

Kane was one of those dogs. She turned our lives around.

Since then, I've been learning a lot about the two (somewhat polarized) camps of dog behaviour management.

Positive Training

They don't always specify "all-positive," but if they use the word positive in their program description, then there's a good chance this is what you're looking at.

With positive training, you reward your dog for doing what you want him to do. This encourages him to repeat the desired behaviour. It works really well with dogs who really want to please you, are relatively calm, and who do not have particular anxieties or psychological trauma.

What I found it lacks is any kind of consequence for negative or dangerous behaviour.

Yesterday, I watched a dog run down a hill at lightning speed and head for a dog across the road, oblivious to traffic, children, and the owner who stood still and valiantly called, "Come and get your treat, Sukey! Treat!" in an increasingly desperate voice. "SUKEY! COME HERE AND GET YOUR GODDAMNED TREAT!" (She didn't actually say those words, but that was what her voice conveyed.)

This illustrates the weakness with the positive approach: when Sukey is in a non-aroused state, she probably comes for that treat in the blink of an eye. But when she is stimulated, when her extra-keen doggy senses kick in, or she is adrenalized, all bets are off. She isn't able to make smart choices.

In this picture from February 2014, Kane looks up to Steve for direction.
Balanced Training

The myth about balanced training is that it is cruel. It advises the use of prong collars, e-collars -- tools that, if used improperly or non-stop, can indeed cause injury. But if you've ever seen it in action, you will learn that the negative stimulus is always applied in the least possible intensity.

Here's an example: to train our dog to lie down, we had him sit while wearing his leash and prong collar. Then we said the word, "down," and very, very gently pulled his leash toward the floor until he lay down. As soon as he had his chest and rump down on the floor, we completely released the pressure. Then we rewarded him for his success.

At first, he was clearly uncomfortable -- he was in a room full of dogs and really wanted to just run around and sniff genitals! -- but at no point was he in pain. He did not yelp or whimper or whine. He didn't show the "whale eye." We watched him closely.

Training Kane to walk politely with us, rather than grabbing the leash in his mouth and dragging me all over Ottawa, demonstrates how the negative stimulus works to quickly curb dangerous or unacceptable behaviour. With a properly (i.e., snugly) fitted and positioned (up, under his jaw) prong collar [read my post about using prong collars], we took Kane for a walk. Soon, he was showing how excited he was, bouncing and cavorting while we walked. When he grabbed the leash in his mouth, we yanked quite hard (it lifted his front paws off the ground) while yelling at him, and spun him 180 degrees.

I know that there are readers out there who will hate me, unfriend me, and consider calling the SPCA on me for using that approach. But let me tell you, it worked. He tried it once more on a walk alone with me, and once more on a walk alone with Stephen. The only time I have used it since is when he was completely out of control barking at another dog.

We also use positive reinforcement with Kane, especially with behaviours that do not risk safety.

In both approaches, the goal is to have a happy, healthy, well-behaved dog in your life. I think there are dogs for whom the positive approach works and others who have a higher "set point" for their adrenalin. A lot of rescue dogs come with psychological baggage and phobias. Fear-based behaviours are especially hard to remove with positive reinforcement.

If you remove the negative options from the training tool kit, you may end up with a trainer recommending that a dog be euthanized because there are no other effective options. I find that unacceptable.

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