Idealism and Realism in Dog Training

I recently heard that a trainer said that "balanced training," the use of both positive and negative consequence in training dogs, was B.S. Without going into my thoughts on what kind of individual disagrees that animals need to understand both positive and negative consequences to their actions, let's talk about this concept a bit more.

Saying that balanced training is B.S. is tantamount to saying that medicine is B.S. because it doesn't feel good all the time. As a child, I tried my damnedest to convince my mom that the nasty pink stuff, or the weirdly-sweet-with-a-strong-hint-of-deception purple stuff was not good for me. She didn't listen to me, because she knew they would make me feel better. And let's not get into the hundreds of medicines and treatments that hurt like hell, stress the body, or temporarily make you sicker before making you better.

I spent years as a paramedic and had my fair share of cardiac pacings, where you use a strong external electrical stimulus to capture someone's cardiac rhythm and guide it, so to speak. The external electrical stimulus has to be strong enough to get through the layers of skin, muscle, and bone, and convince the heart cells to adapt its same rhythm. The patient feels not just one shock, but a shock for every single pace - sometimes one every second. As medics, we had some fast acting pain meds at our disposal, which we used liberally in these cases, but even with them I never saw a patient that didn't feel immense pain during this treatment out in the field. Though incredibly painful, it saved many a life.

The notion that training dogs always has to be pleasant is actually a ridiculous one, and one that I hope we develop enough collective common sense to eighty-six. Aiming to make any experience as pleasant as possible for all involved is a great thing; but speaking realistically, what long term life experiences have you had that have been pleasant all the time? Your job? Raising children? Your sex life? And, if you can think of one, did you grow or develop as a human being in all that pleasantness? The truth is that many humans can agree that some of their moments of great growth, when they developed the most empathy or magnanimity, was in their triumph over an obstacle or challenge. 

Don't get me wrong. Dogs need many, many good experiences, and when it comes to training, they should have good experiences in abundance and certainly more than anything else. But most at some point also need some unpleasant ones should their actions warrant them. For example, a dog I am currently working with is a phenomenal dog. I love his attitude, the way he carries himself, his confidence. But I've been asked to work with him, in part, because of his resource guarding, which led to him grabbing the family's small senior dog by the face and not letting go. This guy is 100 pounds. So while we work on the pleasant experiences — trusting me and enjoying the training experience, feeling safe with a resource while other dogs are around, using rewards to teach him to drop/leave/recall from resources, generally making him feel more comfortable — I also communicate that grabbing other dogs and not letting go of them because they looked at your food is not acceptable. That part is likely to be unpleasant.

But here's the thing: dogs are hardwired to learn from unpleasant experiences. It's one of those things mother nature rooted in their communication system. Watch a rude dog greet a dog that demands respect. Within seconds, the respectful dog creates an unpleasant experience for the rude dog. The rude dog generally responds to that by tapering the rudeness, and sometimes the two dogs try again and sometimes they don't. Learning from unpleasant experiences shouldn't be a foreign concept for humans either. Avoiding trouble, debt, prison, injury, illness, or death are common reasons many of us choose not to do things we sometimes want to do. Avoiding an unpleasant experience indicates that we have a visceral understanding of unpleasantness, and that we choose not to risk experiencing that feeling. But we understand that our actions could result in consequences that we don't enjoy.

Trainers who believe dogs should never feel stressed, never experience negative consequence, or never feel worried...ever...will tell you that humans are more evolved and therefore shouldn't use consequences in training. As evolved as we may be, which is debatable and very subjective (and doesn't mean that we have surmounted a basic understanding of life: reward and punishment), we still bring animals into our homes and lives. I know, I know. It's hard to hear that, but, yes, dogs are animals. As much as we love them, all dogs still bite, many will chase and kill, many can be reactive, and some endanger themselves or others while following their instincts. So when someone tells me that humans are too evolved to correct dogs for endangering themselves or others, it ultimately tells me that they have too arrogant a perspective to communicate with another living being in a way that that living being inherently understands.

Life is about balance. Dogs that lack the understanding that both positive and negative consequences apply to life can hurt others, make others afraid, hurt themselves, or simply end up miserable. Take, for example, the dog I worked with that was so territorial aggressive that she bit multiple people in the house and broke through a window and a sliding glass door in attempts to attack passersby. In her training program, we built a lot of trust and used a lot of motivation and reward to work on her comfort when people passed or entered the home. And we explained through clear and fair negative consequence that displays of aggression would not be tolerated. Her owners stepped up, and now they can have gatherings in their home while giving their dog freedom without having to be muzzled or restricted. They can also give their guests peace of mind, and the confidence that what starts out as visits to a friend's doesn't have to end with a trip to the hospital.

It's doubtful there will ever be a world without positive and negative consequence for any living being. And the more certain groups of trainers try to push, through deceit and tricky legislation, that training be strangely one-sided, the less prepared dogs will be to live in society and the less prepared humans will be to handle them. Before spouting off about how "prongs are wrong" or debuting some other asinine slogan, let's give some thought to some of the simple truths of life: beings learn through positive and negative consequence, for example. And, no, withholding rewards isn't a viable workaround to occasionally having to give a correction, as it isn't always going to convince someone to stop doing something. A millionaire may not care about losing $2,000 for being late to work more than they are allowed. If a dog's inherent reward for a behavior is greater than the extrinsic reward you have to offer, withholding that reward isn't likely to create any change in the dog's behavior. 

While I'm not the first trainer to write about this, I won't be the last, and I haven't really said anything new; I hope that we can soon put an end to the battle that is raging between trainers. A battle that signifies very little other than the serious imbalance between idealism and realism. There's a lot at stake here, and while dogs deserve to have wonderful experiences and live amazing lives, so do the humans that care for them and the ones they interact with on a daily basis.