For years I have struggled to find a label to define my approach to training. In general, I have reverted to using either “force free” trainer or “positive reinforcement-based” trainer. While neither accurately defines my training I think it gives the most information to other people about what they might expect if they work with me or listen to things I say. I’m not comfortable with “science-based trainer” as a term because it is wholly inaccurate for me. My training is not science based; it’s based on experience. I’ve worked with thousands of dogs and I have paid attention and I have learned things. And since the laws of learning and quadrants take place whether I understand them or not, referencing them tells you nothing about what I do with those bits of knowledge, so that label does not work for me. I have no dominant training style- marking or luring or capturing or creating habits or…whatever. I use all of them with no particular preference except expediency and adapting to the dog or the handler or the circumstance.
On occasion I will call myself a “relationship based” trainer. I actually think that is the closest to being accurate; I look very carefully at relationships between people, dogs, and society. Unfortunately, that term has been adopted by people who use praise with corrections or who also define themselves as balanced as their primary approach, and that most certainly does not represent my position.
Does it matter what I say? Does it matter what I call myself?
Yes, it does. Because as I described in a recent blog, words and labels provide a shorthand to others. As I say frequently, what I really want is to be understood. If I say I am a balanced trainer, then other people who consider themselves balanced trainers are more likely to listen to what I have to say, and people who consider themselves force free or positive reinforcement are likely to be skeptical or not listen to me at all. Conversely, if I call myself a positive trainer, I would expect to draw in a different audience and repel the other. Labels simplify our lives so we don’t have to think so hard all the time. You are not likely to want to read every blog and watch every video by every trainer; shorthand labels help us get it down to a reasonable few where we might perceive a benefit.
So what’s the problem? If I say I am a force free or positive reinforcement trainer, then in the name of honesty I feel like I should be living up to that label. In this age of social media, odds are very good that any given individual will never have a chance to watch me train or visit me in my home so they cannot figure out for themselves who I am as a trainer. And I don’t have a label I feel good about. Not even close.
I have found myself changing where I place the emphasis in my conversations to account for this. Not because my approach has changed but because I have some concerns about how my choice of labels is being interpreted in terms of what I actually do. Specifically, how I handler failure in training – in particular outside of formal, competition oriented work.
Here’s an example. Someone asked me recently what I do if my dog breaks an informal stay (settle). My dog gets up and wanders away. And my response was that I put the dog back. That was my response because it is what I do. Furthermore, that is my response because I think it is the best thing to do! I return the dog to the spot in a very neutral manner, re-cue the position without a reinforcer, and continue with my training. My dog may not like my solution – I do it anyway.
I have always done this but because the culture of positive reinforcement trainers, of which I consider myself one, focuses on making the dog right and setting up excellent training sessions with almost no discussion of what to do when things go wrong, this is all quite uncomfortable! Frankly, I find that any discussion of failure at all creates palpable stress and anxiety in a portion of the force free audience; they dislike the conversation, presumably because of the slippery slope problem…. addressing errors must mean harming the dog – anything short of “reducing criteria and ensuring that the handler takes responsibility” is bad – a slippery slope to an abused dog. How else might one reduce behavior when the definition of punishment is to reduce behavior? Aren’t punishers bad?
Interesting question. If every time a dog tries to get on a piece of furniture where they are not allowed I physically remove them then the behavior will decrease. The dog will recognize the inevitability of the situation. Have I harmed the dog? Have I used a positive reinforcement technique? No and no. The dog is not harmed, I have not used positive reinforcement, and my relationship with my dog within my home improves, because they are now free to make choices that I find acceptable. But force free? Not at all. I have defied my label.
Someone else may use different techniques. I’m good with that! But I’d like to know who is who, because it will help me understand who I should be learning from as well. Not because I would choose one over the other, but because it would depend on what I was trying to learn. Alas, our current set of labels do not give me that freedom. Indeed, I feel like our current set of labels are designed to prevent me from asking the question in the first place.
To handle the discomfort of discussions that do not lend themselves easily to simple answers, some individuals will start talking about atypical dogs showing atypical behaviors. Dogs with anxiety. Dogs with unusual temperaments or tweaks, etc. And soon, by muddying the waters that differentiate typical and atypical, the conversation ends without much guidance for the average person just trying to get through a typical day with a dog showing both desirable and undesirable behaviors. I’m a big fan of discussing atypical behavior because I think it’s important but those refinements shouldn’t be used to prevent normal and open conversations that address normal dogs and situations. If they are, soon we will find ourselves only having conversations that have no meaning at all in a valiant attempt to avoid offending anyone.
So why do I feel a need to distance myself from that? Why do I need to have this conversation at all?
Partly it’s the cognitive dissonance I feel when there is an elephant in the living room. Failure happens, so we should be discussing how people handle it, otherwise we’ll get guilt ridden closet correctors who don’t know what else to do and they are afraid to ask because the culture discourages it, or we’ll get people who stay positive until the frustration overwhelms them and then they completely overreact.
Or, we get untrained dogs. Rather than taking responsibility for getting from here to there, people simply don’t train at all – instead relying extensively on crates and cookies to get through the day with no expectation of even the most basic skills from their typical dogs – skills that would allow for an improved dog-person relationship. And while that is a perfectly acceptable choice, I want to know that before I take advice from someone else or follow their opinions. I have an expectation of effectiveness and rather little desire to learn from those who don’t share that.
It occurred to me the other day that I have no idea how the vast majority of my colleagues handle failure when it occurs, and I would be too uncomfortable to simply ask. Not because I cannot ask, but because I don’t like to put people in uncomfortable situations. Maybe they don’t like to talk about it.
“Split more finely” and “lower criteria” may be perfectly fine answers within a formal training session for the majority of behaviors, but life takes place 24 hours a day – most of it not amenable to an impromptu training session. If I have to take my dog to the vet and they don’t want to get in their crate, I’m going to put them in there. Unless the dog in question is truly atypical in behavior, in which case I may ask the vet to come to the house, or maybe I have arranged for medication to be given in advance before the dog goes to the vet.
On the other hand, my dogs are trained without a lot of effort. They show no significant behavior problems, have an incredible amount of freedom in the house, and are trustworthy in a variety of situations, I feel no particular need to carry cookies everywhere I go through the day. Yet when I address atypical dogs or situations? I adapt! Brito’s recall will be highly reinforced for life – that’s because in public his arousal levels spike easily, and if I want him to come when called then I had better keep up on that high rate of reinforcement and considering my training options. I consider him atypical in that regard – and I’m working on it.
There is no accurate label that I know of to describe how I train dogs. If you allow me sentences, I can get there. But a word? I don’t have one. Which means I am misleading people who believe I am thoroughly force free while losing access to people who have decided that my approach should be labeled balanced, and yet they don’t find me there – nor will they as I am not balanced.
So, with all of that, what is my approach to training?
I want to see a happy dog with a happy handler within a happy society. I think all three matter, and as long as each representative is fairly typical, that approach should drive a training plan which is kind and effective. Effectiveness is crucial.
To be kind and effective, I also have to be on the lookout for atypical behavior or circumstances which might be present in the dog, the handier, or the specific society in which the team resides. Within any given circumstance one of the three might have to give a little – a player might not get their way. I’m okay with that.
And the second part? I do not use physical pain and discomfort or fear unless the circumstances are quite unusual. For example, the time I saw my dog running towards my driveway where a car showed up unexpectedly, I can guarantee you I screamed “no” – with the genuine hope of creating sufficient fear that he would hit the ground. Atypical circumstances deserve atypical responses.
If anyone has a proper label for me, feel free to share it.
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One of the best articles I’ve read in a while. Thank you!
Thank you for responding.
I, like you, don’t fit in a label “boat”. Glad you wrote this article. I just strive for mutual respect in my household of 5 dogs. They respect me, I respect them and they must respect each other. Do i sometimes say “excuse me” with a tone if they squabble. You betcha. Sorry i don’t have a label for you. Some of us don’t fit in a box. Then again no two dogs fit in the same box either. If what you’re doing isn’t getting results you need to try something else. I’m rambling, sorry. Thanks again for this article.
So yes, I agree wholeheartedly with what you have written here and feel it describes my ‘training style’ quite well. While I strive to be as ‘force free,’ ‘positive’ and kind as possible, I believe dogs should also be told no. They thrive with known boundaries, it puts them at ease having clear rules and not having to worry about everything. But I also wouldn’t hurt them unless it was dire circumstances or I was trying to help them (like treating an injury or prying their mouth open to get an object away from them that could hurt them).
Here’s an example or two of something that happened recently with one of our foster dogs. The rescue I was fostering this dog through is supposedly a positive reinforcement only kind of place so I do my best to adhere to that, but sometimes it’s just not effective. So this dog likes to bark, a lot. So she’d sit there and bark for a long time. Doing my best, I ignored it as long as I could, but eventually I couldn’t take it and told her ENOUGH in a stern voice and she stopped (finally). Her barking is very self rewarding for her so she’d happily just keep going. Also that same dog, once I crate trained her, started guarding her crate from my dogs. She’d tell them off and get snippy about it, I of course corrected her by saying no and then she’d loose access to that area for a little while. I mentioned this behavior to the foster coordinator and she was not particularly thrilled that I correct her for doing that, but the alternative she gave me was to just let her do that, like what? I’m not going to allow her to go after my dogs. Arrgh. I do really like this particular foster and she improved quite a lot in our care and the shelter has been quite happy with all the progress I make with their dogs, and very pleasant to work with otherwise, but some behaviors you can’t just ignore and others you can’t just wait out. My S.O. dropped off and picked up our current foster for her spay, who I have a martingale collar on so she can’t slip it since she is a flight risk and is still scared easily by many things (and was brought in using one of my own escape proof harnesses, not even using the collar). And upon pick up the vet for the shelter told him she would recommend not using such a collar on her, no explanation why. I am happy to listen and to learn about different techniques and ideas, but I will not just blindly do what someone tells me to. I am not a sheep. Rant over I think! Hahaha, I imagine you have encountered instances such as these before and felt the frustrations that I have sometimes with all these ‘positive only’ people.
Anyways, I totally feel you and this post really speaks to me. I would love for more people to read this.
Beginning of the 3rd to the last paragraph, “To be kind and effective,…”
That’s your label, Kind & Effective.
I certainly like that one.
Honest. Intuitive. I think both of these words describe you as a trainer, but they really do not succinctly and adequately describe your training style.
I hate labels. I understand the need and labeling saves time and effort, but I still dislike them.
This was an excellent piece and it is why I respect and adore you as a trainer.
Thank you; that is a nice thing to read!
I agree with you regarding it is not ever gonna be All positive. What I have found is, once the bond is set, most everything comes with very little effort. I love it when my dog realizes we are a Team, working together.
I think of your approach as “affiliative pragmatism”. Pragmatism, as I understand it, focuses on problem solving and effect. It’s not the same as saying “whatever works”; the best solution depends on your criteria. If your criterion is to get the dog in the crate with as little harm as possible, then, yes, whatever works for that particular dog. Pragmatism avoids ideals, if ideals take you away from the best solution to the problem (again, as defined by your criteria). For the pragmatist, ideas (and science) are valued routes to knowledge that must be tested through experience. I would add “affiliative”, though, to highlight your interest in relationships and community; to flag a general trend in your criteria. This is my idle, Saturday-afternoon musing on your blog post 🙂
I appreciate your musings and thank you for sharing :-).
If you have to have a label, I would say kind and practical. Otherwise it’s should just be Denise Fenzi. That should be enough. 😁
I was thinking of the label “Effective Trainer”. I don’t think there is such a label currently, so you could define the training style of that label. However, the other suggestion of “Kind Effective Trainer” explains the style more fully, and I think would connect you with those who want to similarly train.
Kind is a good modifier to the “Effective” portion of the label. After all, kindness can involve short term negative actions to beget long term gains, as in the examples you give. For example, It is kinder to use fear or force to prevent your dog from being hit by a car than to do nothing forceful or fearful.
I think you practice training a bit outside the current labels, so a new one is definitely in order.
Thank you so much for this. I honestly wished you had written it 3 years ago when I got my pup and started this journey into positive training. I had struggled so much with what to do in everyday situations when I wasn’t training. I felt like a failure whenever I said no to him or had to physically remove him from a situation or was just trying to make him understand that I didn’t need his assistance in the bathroom. I’ve gotten past that finally, we’ve grown together and have come to understandings, but your post means a lot to me. I hope it helps others in the same situations. I like “relationship centered training”. Relationships go both ways. In relationships with dogs as well as kids it is important to teach them how to learn, how to be safe, how to be confident, how to make good choices, and how to have fun without going over the top. They need to learn what is expected and what is not allowed in the fairest most respectful way possible. It’s not always easy to find the “right” way to do that, but I think if your approach is to consider the relationship first, it’ll all work out in the wash.
Better late than never! If this post is helpful to you, then I will assume it is helpful to other people as well – some of whom are just starting out their journey. Best of luck as you move forward.
Another thought. You are also a “Communicative Trainer”. Maybe add the “Affiliative” or “Kindness” modifiers, as suggested by others, to “Communicative” to further define the style. You are a terrific communicator and I think your training reflects that.
It is definitely hard to shut me up! :-). Thank you for responding.
Excellent read and put some things into my head that I had not thought of….you are amazing!
I watch my dogs communicate and wonder what they might be saying….usually when the bark is in a different tone. They all get along so I guess their training within their pack (3 labs) is effective. However, I’m a converted positive reinforcement trainer, per se. in difficult situation, I sometimes slip to an old method, but quickly stop myself and get back to “my happy training self”. I’ve come a long ways and have an awesome training friend that has traveled this same path with me. I’m still learning and enjoying my training so much more than previous dogs. I admire your teaching skills, your philosophy and enjoy your blogs and training sessions. So, in a nutshell….as long as we continue to grow in our training society in a positive role….I don’t think we can identify you or any of use in one word.
I love your blog posts. They put my own thoughts much clearer than I could. I would call you a Kind, Effective Trainer with a full tool box. Me, my general answer is..It depends..on the dog, owner and context. The owners’ goals may not be the same as mine but first, do no harm and make the dog feel safe with the owner, wiling to defer to the owner. Mistakes or failures are not negatives to me..they are cues that we have not taught the dog and /or owner how to proceed. I may start a lesson with Plan A but might need to quickly change to Plan B or C…depending on the day and circumstances. I try very hard not to use labels, I think it gives a person an excuse not to work on specific issues or makes people defensive and uncomfortable.
Denise, I love this blog. Not being as entrenched in the training world, I have called myself “balanced”. It is awkward though. Forced to give you a label, I might go with brilliant and empathic. We can go in all sorts of circles about all different types of dogs (roughly paralleling types of trainers), but the hard truth is that each dog is unique and the best trainers have a huge tool kit from which the pick the best tools for any particular dog in any given circumstance. No and Oops, physical restraint and physical correction may not be the most commonly used tools, but they should be in the tool kit for when they are the best tool for the situation. Thank you for pointing out the elephant.
Denise this is a great article and helped me immensely. I have a very typical 19month old lab who is occasionally atypical I am very uncomfortable telling anyone that when she is out of control I yell out of fear that she is in danger or my hone is. It is a symptom of our society and I’m glad to know that I am doing the VERY BEST that I can in a very kind and sensitive way but when firmness is needed it’s what my dog gets. I don’t hit her or scream at her but I will take her collar and crate her until she settles. And she does settle She’s a lovely well adjusted happy super little girl and I’m her mom. As with my children my job is to teach her that SHE can make good choices and that it will enhance her life! I feel so much better after reading your article. The ‘dog police’ css as n be pretty intimidating but I love all that you do. Thank you!!
I see something happening in dog training that parallels what has been happening in massage therapy training for eons – lots of people out there ‘re-packaging’ bodywork techniques with fancy new names but still teaching the same techniques everyone else is, within four or five style buckets.. One person however, really did come up with something revolutionary- Ida Rolf. She too could never name what she was doing, it was her students that started calling it Rolfing, and it mushroomed from there. And even though it is currently hard to tell, the impact of her contributions to bodywork are still growing. I see you in a similar quandary Ida Rolf found herself in back in her day (1950’s to ‘70’s) – a) wanting a shift in the current mess dog training seems to be in, b) having something truly revolutionary compared to what is currently being done out there, c) being very passionate and persistent about it all, but d) really struggling with the how’s and why’s to get the message out there in the right way to the right people with the right language. But Ida Rolf just kept trying; learning from each attempt and succeeding enough to start ‘the revolution’ that has mushroomed with those that got it and are still working to keep her message going.
In a nutshell – I too don’t have any good labels for your real-life, relationship-based approach, and ‘FDSA’ might be the closest yet to a name for it so far. But keep on trying to find what will catch on, because those of us that get it will keep using it, living it in real life out there, and sharing it with anyone who can/will listen too. And I think that is really how the right name will evolve, just like Rolfing (now actually Structural Integration if you really want to know, since some of the ‘rolfers’ got proprietary, lol!)
Great article. I’m new to +R training (long gap without a dog for dog sports) and while I love a lot about the “new” training methods (which I know have been around for decades without me), I’ve been really turned off by the excessive permissiveness o sometimes see. My dogs do not run the place and never will. They live a great life but there are times they just have to do things they may not choose to do. I think this article is a message that needs to be heard far and wide.
Maybe this isn’t quite what you’re looking for but how I’ve learned to identify my training style comes from something I learned from a horse trainer: “Be as gentle as possible, but as firm as necessary.” That’s me. It sums up beautifully my strive to find the most positive ways possible to gain willful compliance from my dogs yet I can still give my dogs “tough love” when it’s required. In those cases I use the most gentle correction that’s effective but still they’re corrections.
Now, that said, I barely have any use for corrections in the actual teaching of behaviors because when my dog’s know we’re in a training session they’re trying very hard to figure out what I want and there are no penalties for these “honest” mistakes. I want them to feel free to guess at what I want with no fear of failure. The worst thing that can happen is they have to try again.
However, it’s very different if we’re in the yard and I’m asking for a recall which they’ve given me 9999999 times before but now they’re blowing me off because they want to chase a cat or something. In those cases, choosing to not listen is not an option and I will enforce the command–as gently as possible, but as firm as necessary. Because that’s a safety issue.
I’ve worked them in my yard (which is not fenced) on electronic training collars to get very reliable recalls. Usually they come readily but the few times they have not, they got a sterner giving of the command, and if that didn’t work then a vibration on the collar, and if it came to it, a mild shock. It always progressed like that, so they understand that if they blow off the gentler stuff then it was going to get stronger from there. The result is if I have to reprimand, generally adopting a sterner tone is all that’s needed.
And I like it like that. Using the greater force actually made it possible to use less force! They usually take me seriously when I just verbally insist they stop something. And often they don’t even challenge me in the first place!
Another really important thing to me in my training, that I think is also contained in my “label” is that I don’t hold a grudge against the dog. Like I once had to shock a dog because it had taken off after a cat and ignored my calling it and a vibration on the collar. I was scared the cat was going to get hurt or I’d lose the dog. However when I upped the correction to a shock stopped it the dog dead in his tracks and he immediately ran back to me. As soon as he was back I praised and rewarded heavily, telling him how happy I was with him for coming.
So yeah, I’m as gentle as possible but as firm as necessary! 🙂 You could also says that I strive for “respect without fear.” I want dogs to understand that if you just follow a few simple rules, you have nothing to worry about and I am fun as hell!!! I’m the gateway to treats and play and learning all kinds of fun things. But if you blow me off, you’ll be made to feel uncomfortable for a little bit. So what’s the point in going against me? That’s no fun. Work with me and life is awesome!
So I don’t know if either of these labels help you, but hopefully it added a slightly different perspective to the conversation and thus was food for your thought.