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.