An Open Letter to New York Dog Trainers, Part 2

Dog Training For the 21st Century

The Law of Effect

In a blog post, written a while back, Dr. Ian Dunbar wrote: “Edward Lee Thorndike showed that behavior is modified by its consequences and in 1905, he published his Law of Effect, basically stating: Any behavior followed by pleasant consequences will increase in frequency and be more likely to occur in the future, whereas any behavior followed by unpleasant consequences will decrease in frequency and be less likely to occur in the future. The notion of binary feedback is the quintessence of learning theory. The Law of Effect was a wonderful start but as theory was put to practice in education and training, something went very wrong along the way. Over the years, dog training has become overly complicated, time-consuming, technical, mechanical and impersonal — lacking in communication, interaction and relationship. I feel that dog training has lost its way, its voice and its soul. We simply have to get things back on track before dog training … (dare I say it?) … goes to the dogs.”

Dunbar goes on: “I first introduced science-based training techniques to dog trainers way back in 1971. However, over the next decade, I realized that much of laboratory learning theory was either irrelevant or unworkable when people trained animals in real life situations. Few people have the exquisite timing or tireless consistency of a computer, which are both beyond essential when using punishment and even fewer people can compute the variable reinforcement schedules that were most effective for maintaining rates or responding and instilling a stellar work ethic. Consequently, in 1982, I proposed a much simplified practical learning theory.”

He then describes this more desirable, less complicated format:

  • So many puppy classes and workshops are conducted on leash and in my opinion, today’s dogs are much more reactive around other dogs, more fearful of people and the acquisition of bite inhibition has suffered. In my Reliability and Games workshops over the past two years, at least a dozen dogs were attacked and four people were bitten. Also, on-leash training does little to provide owners with off-leash verbal control for dog parks, or at home even.

  • Food lures and food rewards are not being phased out and so food becomes bribes as soon as the dog develops competing doggy interests and is no longer willing to comply.

  • Far too many food rewards are dispensed indiscriminately via rich and relatively ineffective schedules, e.g., continuous reinforcement, that reinforce just as many below-average responses as above-average responses — rates of responding progressively decrease as food loses its reinforcing power and the quality of responses seldom improves.

  • Reward-training has become overly complicated, time-consuming, technical and beyond the capabilities of many owners, who out of frustration turn to different techniques, e.g., on-leash and shock training, which give the illusion of rapid resolution — provided the dog remains within arm’s reach, on-leash or wears a shock collar, of course.

  • As pet dog training became a separate field from obedience/working training, we moved away from ongoing quantification and without a doubt, standards have dropped considerably. Multi-minute stays and off-leash heeling have become somewhat of a rarity in puppy training classes. Lack of quantification and solid data have fueled numerous needless arguments that have virtually cleaved the dog training profession.

  • Perhaps the single biggest detrimental change to dog training is the disappearance of verbal instruction prior to task and verbal feedback.

Dunbar is right that “dog training is no longer working that well,” and that “much of laboratory learning theory [is] either irrelevant or unworkable when people train animals in real life.” His solution, though, is to go back to the simplicity of the past (1905 is a long time ago) rather than live in the present or, better yet, look to the future.

Designed for Simplicity

That said, I won’t argue against the validity of Dunbar’s approach. It’s designed for simplicity, and simplicity, when it works, is much preferable to more complicated processes. And the true application of operant conditioning can be extremely complicated, not just for the average dog owner but for the average dog trainer as well.

Many in the positive training movement have, unfortunately, defined themselves primarily as the anti-dominance, anti-punishment movement, and have misappropriated the word “positive” to mean something it doesn’t. Technically the word positive doesn’t mean a dog is having a positive experience during training. It only means that something has been added which increases the statistical probability that a behavior will be repeated: not actually learned necessarily, just repeated. In like manner, the term positive punishment means that something has been added which increases the statistical probability that a behavior will be extinguished. And there is definitely nothing “positive” about positive punishment.

Either way, this is the 21st Century. And both Dunbar’s approach and the approach used by “positive trainers” are based on 20th Century models of learning. So “modern trainers” are, in fact, not modern at all. They’re using a very old-fashioned technology. In fact, their techniques are more old-fashioned than those of their sworn enemies, Cesar Millan and the dominance crowd. After all, Thorndike’s model dates back to 1905. The operant conditioning model, developed by B. F. Skinner, dates back to 1936. But dominance training didn’t exist until the 1950s. So the alpha model is actually more modern than positive reinforcement training.

The Natural Dog Training Difference

Meanwhile, in 1992, Kevin Behan, a former police and detection dog trainer, put forth a new model of training, learning and behavior in his book, Natural Dog Training. And unlike operant conditioning, which has no model just statistical probabilities, or dominance training, whose model is based on fantasy, Behan’s model was based on some very simple principles of physics. However, because his model was so new, and so “out there”—meaning no one had ever seen, heard or come across anything like it before—it didn’t make a big splash, or as big a splash as it should have.

The reason I think this is important is because even though the number of dog trainers has quadrupled in the period following the economic debacle of 2008, and even though more and more trainers are using “trusted science-based training,” more and more dogs are developing serious behavior problems. (This is not just due to bad training; it's also due to the proliferation of puppy classes, and to breeders sending dogs home at too early an age.)

Since my main focus is solving behavior problems in dogs, including Canine PTSD, and since it’s become widely accepted that behavioral science techniques are woefully ineffective at solving serious behavior problems in dogs (read The Dog Who Loved Too Much), I think it’s time for all trainers to simply investigate and test Natural Dog Training techniques. That’s what I did in 1992. I had no hope that Kevin’s ideas and training methods would be of any value at all. But I did what all right-minded and/or science-based trainers should do. I tested them for myself.

For the Love of the Game

One of the first dogs I did this with was a Jack Russell terrier named Mack. Mack had “flunked” out of his training class on the Upper West Side. Why? Because “he couldn’t learn the down command.” The trainers at his school told Mack’s owner that he was “defective:” whenever they tried to teach him to lie down on command he would either roll over on his back and piddle, or make as if to bite the trainer’s hand. In the first case, the trainer would stand on the leash, pulling Mack to the floor. In the second, the trainer tried to force Mack into position manually.

They told Mack’s owner that he was defective, and that she should take him back to the breeder and get another dog! Yet when I tested some of the techniques I’d read about in Kevin’s book, within 20 minutes of just playing with Mack in the park I had him not only obeying the down command with no resistance, he would happily do it while running at full speed! He would literally dive into position! He didn’t do it because he was forced into. it And he didn’t do it for external rewards. He did it for the love of the game!

In fact, about a year later Mack’s owner called to tell me about a fun game she and Mack would play whenever she went out for pizza. She and Mack would walk over to Columbus Avenue, she’d tie Mack to a parking meter (remember those?), then go inside and order her pizza. While she was inside, and Mack was out on the sidewalk, with one finger, she would give him the signal to lie down, and he would immediately and happily obey.

And this was a dog who “was defective and couldn’t learn the down command.”

So whether you’re a dog owner or a dog trainer, you owe it to yourself and your dogs to ask yourself two simple questions: can I do better than I’m doing now? If so, how?

In my experience, Natural Dog Training is the answer to both.

Lee Charles Kelley

“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.