In the not so distant past, most of us considered pressure to be physical, in particular in relation to our dogs but also in relation to our children. Dog won’t sit on cue? Push the dog’s rear end down and pull up on the collar. Dog doesn’t come when called? Drag the dog in by the leash or push the button on a remote collar. The externally applied, physical punisher could be painful (shock collar) or annoying (push down on the dog’s butt) but in all cases the expectation was to provide a physical, external consequence that the learner would work to avoid. And with kids? Spare the rod and spoil the child. Same thing.
And then…change! Next up? Food and toys and…emotional pressure. A novice trainer working well beyond their capacity to apply and understand concepts, inadvertently training through withholding reinforcement rather than teaching desired behaviors. A frustrated, stressed and unhappy trainer, pushing past the dog’s interest or capacity to learn or retain new information, repeating the same techniques over and over even as the dog does not progress. Negative markers that ensure the learner’s failure is duly noted and commented on. The worst that is done to the dog? Loss of a cookie and the disappointment of the teacher. The worst!
So which is worse? A smack on the butt or a deep sigh from a frustrated trainer? Or maybe both at the same time to really make your point.
As with all things, which is worse depends on the learner and what happens over time– maybe tomorrow or maybe in six months but the moment that the pressure is applied reveals only the tip of the iceberg. Some dogs (and people) are extremely sensitive to emotional pressure and shut down completely, whereas other dogs (and people) appear oblivious. Make an error? Take the consequence and go at it again, regardless of what form the pressure comes in or for how long it is applied. These flexible, forgiving and pressure tolerant dogs make excellent competitors. They are often prized for their apparent capacity to learn rather than for this innate quality of temperament. It is rare that anyone asks the question: Did this dog succeed because of our training method or in spite of it? We’re just happy that something worked and even happier to take credit for the final result.
The underlying assumptions about who retains control over the training event- the application of pressure and reinforcers – has remained the same, even as we have changed our methods. We have retained this right as the teacher. Indeed, until relatively recently no one was asking the learner if they wanted to participate at all, not to mention when that training might occur or for how long it might take place. Of course they want to participate! Food! Toys! Games! We’re having so much fun!
And yet we all see dogs who have never bought into the program. The food, the toys, and the games? Whatever. Given a choice, they walk away from training, and the owner calls them back. If training is so awesome, a veritable doggy Disneyland, why do we need to call them back? We have not relinquished control – just changed the tools.
That reality is changing and, in my opinion, will have some significant and widespread effects on training (humans, dogs and otherwise) in the near future.
I believe the future involves more than just allowing the learner to opt in and to opt out (though that’s pretty cool, it has been around for a while). The future includes asking for the learner’s active permission to start, and to continue, with training. To direct the choices that are made about what is trained, for how long and under what circumstances. The future weaves choice and consent through all aspects of training, behavior work and competition. The future includes using active consent as a reinforcer in and of itself – the right to walk away as a significant part of the reinforcement package and the right to continue as a valued reinforcer – in and of itself. Reinforced by the choice to participate in the activity – kind of amazing really.
Until rather recently, we have neglected the power of choice and self-determination as reinforcers that can be used throughout an entire training session. Animals of all types will work harder, longer and with more effort if their opinion is both requested and respected as training progresses.
What does this look like?
Engagement training to reduce food or toy reinforcers in highly trained dogs. The dog decides when training starts and as engagement training progresses, the dog is asked if they want training to continue INSTEAD of handing over a cookie or toy as the “go-to” reinforcer. The end result? Dogs that work very hard, often for relatively little payout or under challenging conditions. All dogs? Of course not – it’s perfectly possible that your dog may not particularly like what you have to offer in the way of choice of work (obedience? agility?), choice of motivator (food? toys? Play?), and choice of conditions (stressful? Emotional triggers nearby?) But the obvious improvement in the majority of dogs makes this approach hard to dismiss out of hand.
Consent (Start button) behaviors. The dog clearly indicates to the handler – yes, you can start! Yes, you can continue! I am willing to do this with you! Consent behaviors which give the dog an instant start and stop option for communication – a cornerstone of modern and thoughtful cooperative and veterinary care and currently working its way into various aspects of competition dog training from teaching to proofing to competition.
Counter conditioning with buy-in. The dog lets the handler know…. I’m ready. That scary guy can approach. I can handle this building. I want to do this with you – I want to play this game. And more! The dog can also say, ‘Stop; I need a break”. Amazing. Effective. As Leslie McDevitt stresses in her upcoming book, training is a conversation with our dogs; fluid and ever-changing as circumstances change around us.
In all cases, the dog chooses and the handler listens. The handler asks again and again; “is this okay with you?” and the conversation flows. The learner has taken control and directs the process when that is possible, resulting in more effective training sessions with less stress, and the teacher has an opportunity to identify, often on a second by second basis, what is influencing their dog and their decisions. What an amazing way to grow our skills!
For those of you who have worked with choice and consent in your training, you know how well it works; it is the missing piece for so many animals. For those of you who have not explored these concepts, this whole discussion may sound ridiculous. Maybe as ridiculous as training dogs with cookies rather than corrections sounded thirty years ago. I mean, what happens if the dog opts out? Where are the consequences?
What happens if the dog opts out? About the same as dogs who opt out when they recognize that there are no cookies or corrections in the middle of a competition – we’ve never gotten past that pesky detail, have we. Dogs opt out all the time, and at the most inconvenient times too! No method has ever generated guarantees when living beings are involved. Animals, including humans, opt out. We don’t like to think about that too much but that doesn’t change the facts.
Learners have opted out in times past. They opt out in current times. And they will opt out in the future. What we do next? That kind of depends on what activity they are opting out of. Opting out of the jump that you indicated might suggest a different response than opting out of a life-threatening medical procedure that needs to take place RIGHT NOW. If you cannot recognize the difference then you have control issues of your own to think through, never mind the dog.
Cool things are on the horizon.