It’s a term that we dog trainers throw around quite a bit, but what, exactly, does it mean to YPBY? There’s quite a spread among reward-based trainers – from the capture-click diehards to the lure-reward faithful. Philosophy in dog training is a pretty hot topic.
Lori and I were mentored by Jean Donaldson, the founder of The Academy for Dog Trainers and author of the seminal book, The Culture Clash. All of our interactions with dogs are shaped by the methods taught to us by Jean, which are rooted in the science behind how animals learn.
For us, force-free (or aversives-free) training means that we do not, under any circumstances, employ pain, fear or startle to train dogs. We have no use for pain collars, shake cans, alpha rolls, intimidation, etc. Not only do we simply not have the stomachs to knowingly instill pain or fear in a dog, but we also don’t need to. Operant and classical conditioning, the foundation for all animal learning, give us all the tools we need to train dogs and modify their behavior – without subjugating their nature.
The training method that we employ (while certainly influenced by pioneers like Karen Pryor and Ian Dunbar) draws most heavily from the work of Marian and Keller Breland. They pioneered what is usually described as “production training”, which was used to train thousands of animals across a variety of species for several different purposes. As students of BF Skinner (the psychologist who coined the term “operant conditioning”), the Brelands’ methods were based in the notion that consequences drive behavior. The surviving link to this method – Bob Bailey – is another of our heroes.
Okay, so enough for the history lesson. What does all that techie stuff mean? Well, for Lori and me, it means that we leverage the good stuff, i.e. rewards. We reward the dog for performing behaviors that we’d like to see more of (aka positive reinforcement) and remove rewards for behaviors we’d like to see less of (aka negative punishment). Reward-based training yields behaviors that are more reliable than those achieved through traditional methods, which focus heavily on the “bad stuff.” Further, when we incorporate the “bad stuff,” we run the risk of creating negative associations in our dogs – which is not a risk that we’re willing to take.
So what do we do when a negative association is already installed in a dog we’re working with? A dog who aggresses to strangers, or fears other dogs, or guards his food bowl? We get in there and change the underlying emotion, once again, using the “good stuff.” We teach the dog that fear-invoking stimuli predict good things. We show him, for example, that a human approaching his food bowl while he’s eating means he gets a bonus – something way more spectacular than his normal ration. And voila – we get a dog who LOVES it when humans approach.
But perhaps most importantly, our methods are transparent – both to the dog we’re working with and to his guardian. At each step in the process, we set clear, achievable criteria, so that the dog knows exactly what he must do to earn reinforcement. Similarly, we make it crystal clear to our clients precisely how we will motivate their dog. No talk of murky motivators like energy, leadership or dominance. Just frequent, timely, and meaningful reinforcement.