What is Real Clicker Training?

Note: I have noticed from the enthusiastic response to this article something rather interesting. The objections presented in the comments run to several basic themes. One type of objection picks a tiny point and emphasizes it well beyond the main theme of the article.That is called a “straw-dog” argument – where contradicting a lesser point is supposed to neutralize the bigger issues. The rest of my blog has the equivalent of a 300 page book on topics that all relate to the real world. Some of those articles may answer your questions in the broader context. As you read this I would suggest that this is about real animals – straw dogs need not apply.

Recently I gave a series of presentations at a dog behavior expo in California. One of the attendees was a recent graduate of an on-line dog training academy. She told me that after her graduation she felt as if something had been missing and that my presentation connected the dots and filled in the gaps. The critical missing element wasn’t using a clicker or focusing on using almost exclusively positive means to shape and craft behaviors – the core concept of the presentation. She had heard the positive stuff from many sources and realized the critical importance of using mainly positive methods. She was missing the process of creating unpleasant consequences for inappropriate behavior or for failure to obey a command.

At the same seminar, one person complained that I was merely an old-style “force trainer” and requested that the sponsors get a real clicker trainer, next time. These opposite perspectives on the same method of training prompted the current topic – what, exactly, is a clicker trainer and why are people confused about that means?

In May of 1992, Karen Pryor and I gave a seminar in Vallejo, California. It was the first of more than a dozen that we did together. (The actual name “clicker training” was coined in an article published in the AKC Gazette several months later and popularized on the then embryonic internet.) At the time of that first seminar, I had already clicker trained about 1,000 dogs over a period of about five years. I worked primarily by veterinary referral with dogs who were at the “deal-breaker” stage in their lives. Karen’s knowledge came from years of marine mammal experience indirectly based on Keller Breland’s brilliant interpretation of Skinnerian operant conditioning. Her book, Don’t Shoot the Dog had created a stir in the dog-training community. It is a tantalizing description of training that isn’t rooted in aversive control. It is also only loosely connected to reality and behavior analysis. The title, in Karen’s defense, was selected by an editor at the publishing house. However, the idea that it somehow tells you how to avoid shooting the dog is a leap. The biggest shortcoming of the book is that it sticks to the same assumptions of all Skinner-based training methods –

  1. You can teach any animal to do anything
  2. Positive reinforcement can control any behavior
  3. Aversive control is dangerous and, if you understand modern, science-based training techniques, unnecessary.
  4. These assumptions are validated by science and confirmed by proven accomplishments within marine mammal, exotic animal and laboratory training environments.

These four assumptions are currently in vogue in every academic institution, veterinary behavior organization, animal behavior association and almost all of the dog trainer’s organizations in the country. Too bad they are neither scientific nor true. There is also an undertone that if you don’t use these methods the only alternative is to shoot the dog – a gross exaggeration that implies that punishment that will save an animal’s life is A) Not a part of the equation and B) closely associated with shooting the dog. Ironically, it is the absence of punishment that most often leads to a dog’s death. (See this post for a specific example that is close to home for me.  http://clickandtreat.com/wordpress/?p=945 )

In many times, in many places, people have decided to believe things that aren’t true. In a recent survey, 75% of people believe in UFOs, yet 75% of people have never seen one. While there may be some overlap between the two groups, the fact remains – seeing may believe, but believing doesn’t require seeing. The problem was, and is, that the foundational assumptions of “all positive” training are based on myopic research and the behavior of grazing, browsing animals such as rats, pigeons and dolphins in complete captivity. They are not directly applicable to predatory beasts like dogs. Additionally “positive” training is not based on objective observation. It is an ideological catechism that must ignore reality and block any logical questions about the product of its use.

The Seductive Fantasy: A Coercion-Free World for Dogs.
This bias in favor of positive reinforcement is the primary flaw in both behavior analysis and main-stream clicker training. Serious dog trainers raise a skeptical eye at the suggestion that aversive control isn’t really necessary and that any use of compulsion is merely the first resort of uneducated, incompetent or brutal trainers – the common mantra of all-positive trainers. Likewise, anyone who has trained a working dog realizes that there isn’t any treat in the world that will stop a Jack Russell from chasing a squirrel. When Karen Pryor claimed that she could do that at a seminar in Toledo, Ohio in 1992, the rational trainers rolled their eyes. I did too. I restated reality at the expense of contradicting my fellow presenter. I knew Karen’s dog. She couldn’t have called him away from sniffing a bug, let alone stop him from chasing a squirrel. She only said it because she was trying to counter the logical objection to her positive ideology. A connection between reality and her claims of effectiveness was completely absent during the time I worked with her. She said what she thought would advance her mission. She’s still doing it, more than 20 years later – and still hasn’t clicker trained a dog to any standard. Contemplate that for a  moment – an expert who has never actually done what she claims is her specialty.

The reality is that only aversive control is capable of stopping a dog from being a dog when it feels like it  – and dogs chase squirrels. Ultimately, there is no greater treat for a predator than the act of predation. From the beginning of the schism within clicker training, (meaning my version based on years of experience and Karen’s alluring claims) this dichotomy raised a question of overall efficacy, regardless of sweeping promises of superior performance and control. However, this issue of effectiveness was actually based on a misrepresentation and a misconception. At all of the clicker training seminars done by Karen and myself, except one, I presented a section on aversive control and my belief that it is a necessary part of dependable performance. I have given exactly two seminars that did not include specific information about the ethics, practice and wisdom of using aversive control. (Here’s a copy of the first article about clicker training to back up my statement. I also have the only video from that seminar. FirstClickerPublication1993DogWorld )The first was at Karen’s request and the second was a prohibition from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers in Britain. (I regretted the first one but not the second. A fool and his money are soon parted. I was also required to do an “advanced” seminar for the UK APDT. I didn’t think there were any advanced clicker trainers but I did it anyway. I asked the audience the critical question. “How many of you have clicker trained more than one dog.” One woman raised her had. She had trained two dogs – both her own. Hubris is often laughable.) The perception of clicker training being all-positive was in the minds and hopes of the attendees rather than in the content of the presentations. In effect, many of the people who flocked to clicker training were entranced in all-positive training and dismissed any information that conflicted with their ideology.

When Science Reared its Ugly Head:
An additional complication in the development of clicker training resulted because the method was introduced simultaneously at a dog training seminar and a scientific conference. The Association for Behavior Analysis (ABA, now ABAI) was having a conference in San Francisco that coincided with a request by Kathleen Chin of PuppyWorks for Karen to do a seminar based on Don’t Shoot the Dog. Karen was also invited to put together a panel discussion for ABA demonstrating the progress that animal trainers were making using operant conditioning in zoos, aquariums and dog training. The panel was well received and ABA welcomed the new focus and new people into the fold. The problem was, and still is, that behavior analysis has little to do with training animals in the real world. As dog trainers started sucking up to behavioral scientists, the education passed in the wrong direction. The trainers had something that could have revitalized behavior analysis – but instead, the trainers wanted the trappings of science and sold out their unique perspective on behavior. Too bad for both. People enamored of the all-positive perspective used the “positive” bias of Skinnerian ideology to justify their position – even though they were working with a species that doesn’t fit the Skinnerian mold. The absence of real-world examples of dependable performance with dogs didn’t stop the headlong rush to ape the language and ideology of behavior analysis.

The Fly In the Ointment: The Ancient Art of Effective Training
To be plain, there is a huge problem with using the existing scientific framework to improve dog training. Dog training works from its foundation all the way through complex topics and applications. Scientific training is flawed at its core. Even if it offers some innovations, it can’t be used reliably in the real world and isn’t really an improvement on what already exists. Traditional dog training methodology has worked for more than 15,000 years in hundreds of different applications with hundreds of millions of dogs. Science-style training has repeatedly failed to give dependable performance in the same settings. The examples of “positive” based failures are endless. Watch any agility competition and you will see dog after dog that will not reliably hold a “stay” at the start line, has trouble with the pause table and has to be distracted at the finish to prevent the dog from biting the handler. Likewise, they periodically “dope-off” and simply leave the ring – often to pursue instinctive behaviors like attacking other dogs. The questions that arise from these common problems are simple and obvious. How is it that a Border Collie herding sheep will lie like a rock at any time and any distance from the handler, but can’t freeze on a pause table in the agility ring? How is it that an Australian Shepherd isn’t allowed to bite sheep when it is herding, but has to have a rope-toy waved in front of its face to accommodate the expected bite at the finish of an agility run? Why can’t the agility dogs perform with the same level of accuracy as their working counterparts? Trust me, it’s not the breeding, it’s the training. Agility trainers are adamantly opposed to correcting their dogs because they are afraid it will slow them down – even though corrections do not slow down real herding dogs. The result of this mistaken conclusion is a batch of loose-canons who perform well below the standards of even conformation handlers – where any lack of focus means you lose the contest and any sign of aggression is cause for dismissal and ejection from the grounds.

To be specific, dog trainers have a history of creating a mutually beneficial, productive and dependable bond between themselves and a former competitor – a violent, moody, hungry, nasty, pushy and again, hungry animal who by all rights should routinely turn on their masters – but they don’t. These creatures are kept in human habitations and help control herds and flocks of food animals – but don’t eat them. They hunt for lost people, hunt for mines, protect our homes, share our beds and live off our scraps. They retrieve game without leaving teeth marks (or rip the prey and hold it while a hunter comfortably shoots it.) and protect our homes from intruders. There is no other species as bonded to us as dogs. Here’s the rub. Humans love dogs. Humans do not generally love rats and pigeons. Scientists study rats and pigeons. Scientists do not study dogs. (This is starting to change as general research grant money is drying up and the scientists are scrambling to be meaningful) The assumption that rigorous study of rats and pigeons will yield valid information about dogs is a leap of faith, yet to be proven, with all evidence pointing to the contrary. Studies of dogs that mirror rat/pigeon studies fall well short of current and past accomplishments by trainers. Comparison studies of how rat and pigeon methods could work with dogs have never been conducted scientifically. Meaning, the claims of efficacy surrounding behavior analysis and dog training are simply speculation and not at all the result of scientific investigation or simple documentation. To quote the old Southern aphorism, “that dog don’t hunt.”

Dogs Can’t Hunt in a Skinner Box:
To prove what I say, consider this. There have been thousands of studies of rats and pigeons by behavioral scientists over the last 80 years. Other than the pioneering work of Ivan Pavlov, dogs have been almost studiously avoided by behavioral scientists. (Again, this is changing but not for the better. Some scientists are seeking to corner the dog market by “proving” things that dog people have known for millennia.) With one or two noticeable exceptions, every behavior analyst sets up theoretical experimentation on rats and pigeons. At major scientific conferences, you will find hundreds of papers, panel discussions, workshops, poster sessions and invited addresses based on studies of ….you guessed it, rats and pigeons. Dogs are almost never mentioned outside the cocktail lounge in the lobby. Even contemporary studies of dogs wear the straight-jacket of the Skinnerian experimental process.

The best example of the failure of behavior analysis with dogs was done by Keller Breland – B.F. Skinner’s first graduate student. Breland left academia and decided to train animals in 1945. His first attempt at a training career focused on dogs – a ready market for advanced, scientific methods. He failed. He then moved to birds, marine mammals, pigs and a host of other species. He was hugely successful with all of them – except dogs. Meaning he succeeded with browsing, grazing animals that were in complete confinement. Dogs are starver/gorger/hunters that have great freedom in captivity. They aren’t wired the same as those other animals. A dog will sneer at a treat when hungry merely because it’s the wrong time of day or the treat isn’t enough to match the task. That is because their progenitors eat about once a week. Then they gorge. Then they starve. Then they gorge. (Note: Breland did train mine-detection dogs in the early part of the Viet Nam war, but the dogs were trained by the military to sit, down and come – meaning, they were not trained with “all positive” means. In effect, Breland’s work was composed of “add-ons” to the dogs’ core repertoires and did not constitute a successful demonstration of Skinnerian methodology.)

When the Positive Ideology Hurts People – In this case, disabled people
Another example of this use of rat and bird methods with dogs was conducted at a major assistance dog institute who desired a less forceful means of training assistance dogs. Two “experts” were contracted to create the new training methodology based on “positive”, clicker training methods. The experts used Skinner-Breland style methods, though neither had ever trained a working dog before. Needless to say, it failed. The experts claimed that the assistance dog school didn’t follow instructions. (One of them still uses this as a credential while admitting it didn’t work. Huh?) The school stoutly defended their diligence and maintained that the method didn’t work. (I talked at length to the director) By comparison, Paws With a Cause, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, switched to clicker training about 20 years ago. They graduate almost 200 working dogs per year that are the finest examples of assistance dogs anywhere. The difference is they do not use the Skinner-Breland model of “all positive” training. Punishment and compulsion are deftly used to create happy, reliable working dogs along with clickers, treats and a wealth of positive reinforcement.

To gain insight into why speculation without scientific proof can lead you astray, consider the two species most mentioned among “scientific” dog trainers – dogs and dolphins. Both species are considered carnivorous predators – but there, the comparison ends. Dolphins eat things that are roughly 300 times smaller than they are. Wolves eat things that are ten to fifteen times bigger than they are. Mullet never band together to attack dolphins and dolphins never have to “take the hit” when finding their meals. They graze on schools of fish that cannot hurt or impede them. Behaviorally, dolphins more closely compare to grazing, browsing animals such as rats and pigeons than wolves or dogs who hunt animals many times their size and pay a regular price of pain and injury in order to stay alive. Using a training method that works for a grazing animal isn’t likely to work effectively on a full-blown, rip your head off, I don’t care how big you are, meat eater…and it doesn’t.

Ironically, Keller Breland understood that different species had instinctive behaviors that made any “cookie-cutter” training method unworkable. That was the primary disagreement he had with his mentor, Fred Skinner. In 1960, Breland rebutted this concept with a scientific paper called “The Misbehavior of Organisms” – an obvious jab at Skinner’s magnum opus, The Behavior of Organisms. In his paper, Keller points out several significant areas where positive reinforcement shaping simply didn’t work. The problem was something Breland called “instinctive drift.” This is a perfect example where scientific speculation fell apart when actually put to a test. One of Breland’s examples pointed to Skinner’s primary rule – reinforce a behavior and you get more of it. Virtually everyone accepts that rule as scientific dogma. To shoot a TV commercial, Breland had to teach young pigs to put a large coin in a jumbo piggy-bank. He quickly established the behavior as advertised. The piglets became adept at picking up coins and putting them in banks. Then the other hoof dropped. Within a few weeks of learning the behavior, the pigs stopped picking up the coins and started pushing them around with their noses – their instinctive behavior of “rooting” for food. He also catalogued chickens who scratched the ground with their feet, regardless of losing opportunities for food rewards. The chickens were being controlled by an instinctive behavior, triggered by an opportunity for food that simultaneously prevented them from getting food. According to Skinner, this couldn’t be – but based on Breland’s direct observation, it was. Many animals obey mini-instincts that in specific situations seem stupid – like African Wild Dogs so mesmerized by visual stimuli that they stand stupidly watching Wildebeest run past them as several of their fellows struggle to bring one to the ground. Instead of throwing their weight of numbers to rapidly secure a meal, the animals gaze dopily at the running Wildebeests, potentially losing the meal by not working as a pack. Breland would suggest that this type of instinct trumps Skinner’s assumption that “reinforcement” can control any behavior. He’d be right, too.

Ideological Myopia and False Assumptions:
While Breland’s claim that instinct had to be considered when speculating about the potential of “positive” operant conditioning, he missed the bigger picture. There are many different ways for any species to react to external events. In the case of dogs, Breland and a host of others have failed to integrate a dog’s ability to “take the hit” and continue to perform happily. The universal assumption that science-based operant conditioning should never include aversive control is as mindless as Skinner’s decision to ignore instinct as it applied to positive reinforcement. Additionally, Breland failed to realize that unless you use aversive control to compel or inhibit a dog’s behavior, reliability is practically impossible. It is the nature of dogs to be autonomous in many things, but especially in hunting mode. The mesmerized African Hunting Dogs are not an exception, they are the rule. When your Jack Russell sees a running squirrel, no hot-dog in the world is going to dissuade him from making a bee-line for his prey. The only thing that can create reliable control over that dog in that situation is some form of powerful aversive control – we all know that, even if the multitude tries to evade the reality. Yes, I realize that is political heresy – but nonetheless it is true. My boss is veritas – truth for truth’s sake. I highly recommend signing up.

Jumpin 02

A click and a treat for “sit” rather than jumping – and example of contingent positive reinforcement

Jumping 01

Potentially fatal jumping behavior


Practical Considerations:
So, the real problem with clicker training is that there are two separate views of the process. One side sticks to the Skinner/Breland preference for positive reinforcement in all things and places a taboo on investigating, discussing or using aversive control. The other perspective assumes that neither reinforcement nor punishment can possibly be good or evil, without a reference to a specific task or goal. Only in the context of a specific application can any behavioral effect be judged as beneficial or damaging. For example, hundreds of thousands of dogs are destroyed each year because they greet humans by jumping on them. This behavior is taught to them by humans when they are infants – with positive reinforcement. To stop a dog with a long history of jumping on people a non-dangerous punishment procedure can quickly inhibit the behavior. In this example, positive reinforcement causes the deaths of many dogs while positive punishment could save them. It is the choice of the trainer to select the tool that is most likely fix the problem. For effective clicker trainers, the key is to find the right combination of behavioral effects that are likely to teach correct behavior and make it dependable in the real world. If you follow the punishment with clicks and treats for correct behavior an inhibition can be created that leaves a lasting absence of the unacceptable behavior with only beneficial side-effects – a loving, polite dog that will stay in the home.

Not surprisingly, the latter view is far more likely to develop dynamic, happy, dependable working dogs. It’s not surprising because it’s the formula that has worked for more than 15,000 years — from a shepherd working a Border Collie in Scotland to a Viking hunting Moose in Norway. Dogs that work in the real world have never been trained with “all positive” methods and work happily even though they have been punished and compelled by their handlers to do their jobs correctly. (If you are ideologically driven I must remind you that “punishment” is not a synonym for abuse.)  For example, the Border Collie was bonked on the head with a shepherd’s staff, as an infant or adolescent, when he failed to “lie there” – a clear and common use of aversive control that had no traumatic effect on the dog’s behavior. Instead, the adult animal reliably lies when told and doesn’t argue. No tangible reinforcement need be offered to correct or enhance the dog’s performance other than the opportunity to chase sheep – an instinctive, internal motivation. His tail wags and his smile is undeniable – even though he was “punished” for improper behavior. Likewise, an Elkhound will trail a moose for many hours and then hold it at bay by darting and circling the animal while barking rhythmically – an instinctive behavior common to that breed. No hot-dog treat will influence this behavior once it has been triggered. If the hunter wishes to modify the dog’s style, aversive control is the only type that can be effective. If you choose not to use aversive control, your Elkhound will hunt willy-nilly, as he sees fit – another instinctive behavior. All dogs are essentially autonomous unless influenced by external events such as “training.” If you are a “positive only” clicker trainer, you might as well stay home.

In the long run, behavior is a natural phenomenon, like gravity – it exists independent of anyone’s opinion. Either your method works in the real world or it doesn’t. Adding a clicker to an all-positive methodology doesn’t help. (The largest big-box pet supplies store wanted me to “fix” their ineffective training program by teaching clicker training to their supervisors. I laughed at them. Their training doesn’t work because there is no aversive control. ) The clicker yields incredibly precise behavior under very limited conditions but an exclusively positive process fails miserably when you need it the most regardless of how precise a behavior is in a vacuum. All of the claims and promises of someone’s success are meaningless if you can’t replicate them using the same specific instructions. The real purpose and promise of clicker training is to develop an understanding of behavior that transcends anything that has come before. Intentionally limiting your knowledge to one aspect of learning while ignoring the full spectrum of the phenomenon yields imperfect knowledge – and to paraphrase B.F. Skinner, bad theories lead to bad practice. Real clicker training emphasizes the process of connecting information to motivation in order to help our dogs reach their full potential. Denying them the experiences that can make them great should be done with full knowledge that it is a personal choice rather than a scientific rule.

*Nature requires all animals to avoid things. Our behavioral abilities include sophisticated ways to adapt to things that could hurt us. To remove this vital aspect of experience is like removing a vital nutrient from an animal’s diet.

89 thoughts on “What is Real Clicker Training?

  1. This should be required reading for anyone who is considering going into the field of dog training; in all dog trainer places of education; by ALL veterinarians and behaviorists; and by ANYONE who EVER owns a dog. Thank you Gary, for being able to so eloquently state what are truths. Thank you from all of us who consider ourselves ‘balanced’ dog trainers, and use whatever method or technique is needed to get the job done.

  2. Having met BF Skinner in the mid-80s and hearing him speak of the tremendous power of both neg reinforcement and punishment, I’ve long fought the all-positive dog training movement. However, I’ve felt like a lone voice in the wilderness. Thank you for FINALLY publicizing the all-positive hoax!

  3. Very interesting post. However, please don’t lump all Agility trainers together. I’ve been competing in Agility for over 15 years and have yet to meet a pure positive trainer.

  4. Dear Aimee, I don’t lump all agility trainers together. I simply comment on the common practice within that sport of criticizing people who use aversive control and the failure to punish dangerous behaviors such as missing contacts, leaving the ring, attacking other dogs, failing to hold a “pause” and a host of other things that are plainly visible when watching the end-result of their training methods. Here’s an article that includes a citation of a very well known “positive” agility competitor and how she solved the problem of being bitten by her own dog. If you email me at wilkesgm@aol.com I’ll tell you who it was. http://www.clickandtreat.com/html/inhibitions.HTM

  5. That’s what I’ve always said in my 35+ years of professional dog training. Dogs need to know that a sanction is available for not complying.

  6. I’ve trained dogs both ways, even the same dog both ways. When training in a negative way I may get results but I am miserable. My agility dogs performance have blossomed under positive training,,, and I am asking them to do something not in their nature. Based on my own personal experience your article has done nothing to change my mind. Just hoping you don’t beat your kids to get results. My parents used your methods and they got results, but there is no loving relationship as a result. I want a relationship with my dogs and kids. Not fear based obedience.

    • Bella, you seem to have missed the point. I do not do “negative” training. The article isn’t about that. Your characterization of “fear based training” is a gross exaggeration. By that logic, if you use a leash you are a “negative” trainer as a leash punishes free movement.

    • Who said anything about “beating”? This is what frustrates me today about “dog-trainers” who feel it should be positive only. They seem to think it’s either beating or clicker training. Ever heard of common sense and mild corrections? Missing the point indeed.

  7. The trend of ‘all positive’ is dangerous and frankly doesn’t exist in my opinion. That said, as a trainer I chose to not use harsh corrections but aversives are a part of normal life. I do agility with fast, high drive dogs and laying a tooth on me during or at the end of a run, or redirecting that high arousal onto another dog would never be acceptable and they know it. I also hunt with my guys (although not as much as I or they would like) and encourage those drives that are hard wired and bred into them. They will and do recall off of chasing critters when told too Want to p.o a working terrierman/woman off? Bring a dog to the working field that isn’t trained and wont recall or fights other dogs. You’ll get told in a heartbeat to get your dog, put it on the truck and don’t bring it back until it is trained. I have (for almost 20 yrs) working bred Jack Russell Terriers. 🙂

  8. Very thought provoking article. Has some good points I am going to mull over. Not going to please a lot of people, but I hope it causes discussion.

  9. THANK YOU! So much wonderful information.
    And this “(If you are ideologically driven I must remind you that “punishment” is not a synonym for abuse.)” Absolutely.

  10. Gary –

    The four assumptions you list above are both flawed and incomplete based on my understanding of the current science of dog training. Your assertion that “These four assumptions are currently in vogue in every academic institution, veterinary behavior organization, animal behavior association and almost all of the dog trainer’s organizations in the country. Too bad they are neither scientific nor true.” is not supported by any evidence that I can find in this article. It is opinion.

    The follow-on arguments you make referring to Breland’s “Misbehaviour of Organisms”, concepts like competing reinforcers in the environment beyond the control of the trainer, etc. are valid but they are not outside the bounds of what I have learned in the current literature of “modern science-based dog training.” To me, there seem to be many straw-men here that you easily knock down. I just don’t find the straw-men accurate representations of what I have learned.

    While I understand the value of such tactics in swaying public opinion, I’m not prone to swallow them whole cloth just because “Karen Pryor and I gave a seminar in Vallejo, California. It was the first of more than a dozen that we did together.” You clearly have a deep history and knowledge base in dog training. This makes the mis-characterizations in your piece above all the more puzzling. My own study of canine science and dog training has led me far beyond Skinner and Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog.”

    To frame your arguments as defining “real clicker training” does them a disservice. Much of what you present has value. It is simply that you contrast it against what you see as “wrong” with those who claim to be “clicker trainers.” And that’s just unfortunate.

    Eric Brad

  11. Dear Brad,
    How do the four dicta differ from what you were taught and where did you learn it? There is not a single course, text, instructor, internship or practical certification in the use of aversive control. Try to find any citation from any modern literature that explains how to punish or compel a behavior. It is a cherry picked catechism. Consider that you’ve never read Ulrich, Wolfe and Dulaney. JEAB, 1969, Punishment of Shock Induced Aggression. It’s a foundational set of discoveries. If you’ve never read it or heard it mentioned then your education is lacking – as is the mainstream of modern behavior analysis.

    As for why I get to define what real clicker training is, it is because I created a broad, effective methodology before that first seminar with more than 1,000 dogs. I am now more than 25 years down the road. As lunatics have promoted that clicker training is all positive, this is the counterpoint. I am not trying to sway anyone. I am simply revealing what happened and why the fictions are truly false. Why would I do service to people who created and promote a flawed ideology? There is no disservice in revealing a fraud. The disservice is in failing to scrutinize scoundrels who lie and fib to gain elevated status and money. So, I’ll ask you the question, since you are so knowledgeable. How do you stop a single behavior, now? If you don’t know, then your comments merely prove my point.

    • It’s “Eric” actually. Common mistake. Curse of having 2 “first” names I guess.

      Just a quick glance at my bookshelf but both “How Dogs Learn” by Burch and Bailey and “Excel-erated Learning” by Dr. Pamela Reid contain extensive explanations of the use and function of Negative and Postive Punishment. Dr. Reid’s book offers some real world examples of Positive Punishment and suggests parameters for how it should be implemented if that is what the trainer chooses to do so.

      My difficulty is not with your assertion that reward-only training is incomplete. On that point we agree. It’s unfortunate that you have taken me for an apologist for what you are arguing against.

      Lunatics may well have promoted that “clicker training” is all positive. Lunatics have also promoted that you should bomb abortion clinics in the name of Jesus. There are lunatics out there. And many of them know how to use the Internet. I’m not sure what your point is. Are you saying that they have perverted YOUR concept?

      The disservice you do is to yourself. Much of what you write in this piece is accurate and valid. The problems start for me when you present them in an “us versus them” fashion. They are wrong and you are right. Why not simply say that this is what you have found and that this is what you think? Can’t we just leave the lunatics out of the discussion?

      As to how I would stop an unwanted behaviour NOW, well, I have always said the fastest and most effective way to stop behaviour is by using a handgun. But most people don’t feel that is a reasonable way to go because you can’t get any other behaviour after that. So I would say that you could apply the strongest aversive stimulus you know of for that particular dog and, as Dr. Reid suggests, apply it at “wrath of god” levels so there can be no mistaking the intent. Do I have that correct?

      Eric Brad

  12. One of the biggest issues I have with the “pure positive” movement is that the terminology is flawed. People love to talk about how they are only positive with their dogs, and are never negative. But, most people use that terminology to mean they only give their dog “good” or “happy” or “positive” information. In pure Skinnerian terms, “positive” = additive and “negative” = subtractive. Thus, positive reinforcement and positive punishment are both valid terms.

    I believe that contrast is important to learning. If there are only gradations of “good”, then I suppose it could be argued that plain kibble is “bad” while roast beef is “good” as reinforcers.

    Thanks, Gary, for a riveting read.

  13. Eric, you missed the point. Where did they learn these things since there is no academic course anywhere (and wasn’t when the were in school) that would teach how to use punishment correctly. Many behavior analysts give lip service to a concept of balance, however, their first loyalty is to Skinner. This is from the FAQ’s of the Association for Behavior Analysis website.

    “Throughout his career, Skinner opposed the use of all forms of punishment; he advocated positive ways of changing behavior. ”
    That is the statement of an ideologue. It is a restatement of the philosophy of normative hedonism.

    The reference to lunatics and the reality of “us vs. them” is a result of more than 30 years of abusive and condescending attacks from only one side of the argument. For instance, from Murray Sidman, “Coercion and Its Fallout.”

    ““We could, however, use negative reinforcement to coerce the dog into sitting. Suppose that whenever we command, “Sit!” we also beat the animal, continuing until the dog happens to sit (a common technique in “obedience training”). When the dog gets up, we again give the command and the beating, stopping only when the animal sits again. Being beaten is ordinarily a negative reinforcer, so the dog is likely do(sic) do whatever terminates a beating; it learns to sit when commanded to do so. “Sit!” becomes a threat that the dog can terminate by sitting.
    In this example, the dog learns to sit because of the negative reinforcement contingency; sitting prevents or ends beatings. The beatings also punish everything the dog does except sitting; all other actions produce a beating. But just punishing the animal for doing something else does not teach it to sit. At most, punishment only teaches it what not to do.”

    Murray never saw that. He made it up. It is not a “common” practice of dog trainers and never has been because it wouldn’t work. If you wish to pick a bone of contention with someone about disservice, look to ideologues like him. He is aggrandized as a visionary by modern dog trainers.
    As for you assertion that I do myself a disservice, you are not in a position to make that determination. i.e. Who are you to make such a judgement?
    So the question still stands because you didn’t answer it correctly. How do you stop a single behavior now – and cite which academic course you took to learn how to do that. You might also dig a little deeper into behavior analysis than Burch, Bailey and Reid. Like maybe Phil Hineline, Nate Azrin, Saul Axelrod, Ogden Lindsley and Charles Catania. If you have an open mind, browse through my blog. I will always entertain a conversation – but I don’t converse with people who haven’t done their homework. As I said, read Ulrich, Wolfe and Dulaney and then we’ll talk. In the meantime, you can bone up on this – it explains the four criteria that must be met to inhibit a behavior and no, it’s not just about using punishment at the Wrath of God level. Nate Azrin demonstrated that this is not a valid assumption. http://clickandtreat.com/wordpress/?p=158

    • Gary –

      I’m not really interested in trotting out credentials for you to shoot holes in. I don’t believe I owe you that. I think I understand where you are coming from. I think it’s unfair of you to over-generalize all “science-based training” as strictly tied to Skinner, Behaviour Analysis, Karen Pryor, Clickers, etc.

      I’m sorry if you feel your methodology has not been given the attention you feel it deserves. It is my opinion that you would be better served by promoting the advantages to your ideas and techniques rather than looking to shoot holes in opposing viewpoints. But that is just my opinion. I wish you well, in any case.

      Thanks for an interesting exchange. I found a lot to consider in your comments not the least of which is your interest in credentials and your assertion that Dr. Sidman is, in fact, a liar.

      Eric Brad

      • Eric, why aren’t you interested in trotting out credentials? You initiated the conversation but get gun-shy when I wish to speak about specifics. Your facebook page has no personal information that would explain what you do or where you learned what you know. Your blog reveals more – that you are a franchisee or equivalent of Kevin Behan’s methods. So, what work have you done in the field of behavior analysis? You can see my bio on my web page. I have credentials in that field and have known many of the great behavior analysts of the 20th century. Where did you get your knowledge of this discipline? You have made no cogent comments about anything regarding the field. If you wish to see the paper trail of the intentional distortion of reality you can look here. It gives anyone the opportunity to check my statements – but it requires actually reading the literature and engaging in other than bromides. http://clickandtreat.com/wordpress/?p=321

          • Eric, as I said, when confronted with specifics you fold up. You decided that you were in a position to give me advice and defended people, not concepts. Now you want to suggest that the topic of behavior is important to you. As I said, you present nothing in public that would make you qualified to discuss the topic at any kind of serious level or any professional accomplishments that would lend credence to your position. I have made several references to articles in the literature and on my blog, not my website, that justify my comments. You have offered nothing to counter my statements. So if you wish to discuss the ideas and concepts, you will have to start at some point. So, let’s start with what you know. Where did you learn anything about behavior that would make your opinion valid about either behavior analysis or clicker training?

  14. Thank you….. I have been a dog groomer for over 30 years and although I have to do “negative” things to dogs while I groom, they still respect and come back every time very happy to see me. They will still need to be brushed when matted and have their nails done, not something they would consider a positive. While grooming if I am not capable of keeping a wiggling dog still they could be badly hurt. I am consistent, fair and calm and I truley care about all of them.
    During these 30+ years of working with dogs from a vet clinic to grooming, training and rescue I have seen the wave of choke and prong collars to the all positive reinforcement movement. I compare it to the old school days of the ruler to the hand to the schools of today where everyone gets a pat on the head and a trophy just for showing up. We have gone from a scared, over punished and depressed people to a new wave of young people who expect the world on a platter with no consequences or work ethic.
    In rescue we have a short time to work with each dog to get the best we can out before finding a new home just to start over again with another. Each one different, by breed and learned behaviors before they arrive. We adjust to them and they to us and we teach, with consistency, positive as well as negative reinforcement. Again, by negative I mean a sound, a gentle touch and a pull on a leash (No choke, no shock, no prong) If no one ever says “no” and lets you know you are doing wrong how does anyone expect these dogs to learn?
    I went to my grand daughter’s first day at preschool and heard them say “We do not do time out or punishment here” I remember cringing and thinking , “Oh no, how will they ever learn?” I am scared for the world when all of these children become adults and get themselves a dog.

  15. Gary,

    Thank you for this article. Having focused primarily on training working dogs since I started training professionally, I’ve found it difficult to justify the use of both a clicker and aversives/punishment to many of the other trainers I encounter. There are many traditional trainers who mock the use of a clicker because of its association with the “purely positive” or “force free” crowds. They are vehemently opposed to the use of a clicker although they may be using other markers in their training without being aware that a verbal marker serves the same function. I’ve attended seminars, workshops and classes and often find myself in discussions with other “clicker trainers” who I know disapprove of my use of a correction collar, physical pressure, verbal corrections or even “no reward markers.” I feel as though my ability to produce motivated, precise and reliable dogs means nothing because I am using tools they don’t approve of. Just recently, I was discussing the tendency of trainers to want to avoid telling their dogs no or to even admit that perhaps the dog made a mistake or chose to be disobedient. I am always curious to what standard these dogs are capable of working and if they could be reliable in a variety of environments. I hope your article is heard and considered not only by trainers who agree with you, but also by those who would like to believe punishment, corrections and aversives are cruel and unnecessary.

  16. Interesting read…only half way through. Still digesting. I do not necessarily disagree with your conclusion, but I do recognize some problems with your premise. If I understand your premise correctly, an “all positive” training is deficient for predators. However, I have to bring up falconry. For as long (if not longer) as dogs have been domesticated, man has cooperatively hunted with wild birds of prey. I am a master falconer…trust me when I say that no aversive techniques are used with hawks. Additionally, there is a population of Harris hawk living in the SW US that cooperatively hunts to take down larger prey (8 pound jackrabbits taken down by 2 pound hawks). Because of the cooperative nature of these birds, hawks of this strain are highly prized by falconers.

    • Rick, the point is that Skinner’s methodology was invented to cater to animals that are browsing, grazing animals. Even Killer Whales for the most part kill salmon and sea lions that are smaller than they. They must eat constantly or they do not get fresh water. Wolves eat about once a week. They do not always want food. A dog will fail to respond to a treat in the middle of they day because they are diurnal – dawn and dusk hunters. Hawks occasionally fly off despite the efforts of their handlers, don’t they? Why do you think they don’t come with 100% reliability?

      • Gary… words are insufficient. I’m not trying to attack and I am not sure if you are taking my words as attack. Trying to understand your points.

        To answer you question: The reason hawks do not return to the handler (I wouldn’t say “fly off”, because their job is to fly off in pursuit of game) is 99% of the time due to insufficient weight management. To train a hawk, the bird’s weight is reduced in order to produce a need/desire for food, and then that need/desire is capitalized upon using R+ to train a recall. If the weight is not sufficiently reduced, the hawk will (pun intended) flip us the bird. I’ve flown, probably 12 different hawks, and failed to recover only one (due to poor weight management).

        You stated that your point is that Skinner developed his techniques using prey/grazer animals. I further understood your point (from the article) to be that when predators are returned to situations where they are out of direct contact with the handler, and when their instinctual prey drive rises up…that R+ (alone) is insufficient. skimming your other material, in that situation, you need an inhibitor…a bonker.

        Do I get you (at least from a 1000 foot view)?

        My point is that falconers have used R+ for millenia before Skinner was born, to a standard sufficient to practice their sport. Many birds to a 100% reliability. Apparently, those who have tried any sort of inhibitor action have failed. I have not tried this, nor have I ever had need.

        Now, having said that, there is little that falconers try to inhibit. We are nearly always adding behaviors, never reducing anything. Hawks soar…we want the bird to soar higher. Hawks fly…we want them to fly towards us on command. The one behavior that seems contrary to instinct is releasing prey. A hawk is routinely trained to release prey in favor of a very small treat. My hawks will release a whole rabbit in favor of a morsel the size of my little finger. This is not PhD hawk training…it is hawk training 101. The explanation comes from analogy: what would you rather have, if you are extremely hungry: a whole live cow, or a cooked hamburger.

      • Well, I have to disagree with that. It can be hard work training an animal that doesn’t have to work for their food. I mean, if they eat grass, it’s not like they have to try very hard to find it. They don’t have to pounce on their opportunities to access grass because it may not be there a few hours later when they feel more hungry. I clicker trained rabbits and a wild hare for a while, and it was much harder than clicker training dogs, and a large part of those difficulties came from differing attitudes towards food. Dogs eat when they are not hungry. They even eat when they are kind of stressed out. My hare only ate when he felt completely safe, and making a wild hare feel safe is not exactly easy. They rely on being able to outrun danger. The rabbits I have trained would only work for a few minutes, no matter what you were offering. Canids are quite opportunistic. I think that makes them easier to train with positive reinforcement, to be honest. I can train my dogs minutes after they have just had a large meal. They don’t really care. I have had no trouble at all getting dogs to work for food in the middle of the day. They are somewhat crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk), but a little conditioning goes a long way. If you have “time to train!” signals, they usually come to the party.

        • Melissa,
          My point was that the Skinnerian perspective is built on examining a single behavior each of two species – rats and pigeons. They do not study wild hares. If you train enough dogs you will find that many of them do not eat because of the time of day or because they are not well socialized. That isn’t really the point. The point is that the scientific model for behavior is incomplete and based on faulty assumptions that become wildly inaccurate when extrapolated.

  17. Types of punishment should be limited to things that do not hurt the dog – taking away reward and/or removing dog from the reward ie first teaching the dog to like having their collar grabbed and then when punishing moving dog away from visual view of stimulus. This article makes it sound like snapping the leash to teach a sit is ok. Also, if you don’t let the dog learn that chasing a squirrel is rewarding in the first place (by limiting their access) the dog won’t chase squirrels. My dogs don’t chase the squirrels or deer or birds that come into my yard, and one of my dogs is a rescue high drive low impulse control border collie. I never let them chase so they don’t know it is fun to chase. Your article is simply fodder for the pain trainers out there shameful.

    • Angela,
      I hate to correct your statement, but keeping a cattle dog in a box so that it never sees another animal will not stop it from chasing and heeling a cow the first time he sees one. That your dogs behave in a fashion that does not conform to a rule does not mean the rule is not generally correct. So I will point out the fly in the ointment. Pica is the “ingestion of inedible objects.” How will you stop that behavior using your methods?

      • Thank you again Gary. All these people who have never owned a “real drive” dog and say if it never does that it will never want to. Well what do you say to someone like my best friend who just brought over her 2 year old Frenchie who just tried to kill my 20 rabbit she saw for the first time. Maybe she dreamed of them in her sleep before she ever saw one????These people have no understanding of genetics and what dogs are programed to do.

    • You have obviously never owned a “real Terrier” or dealt with 95 Pit Bull mixes going after dogs and other prey, then coming up at you because your the one at the end of the leash. I would like to see you Click away that behavior in a very short time…..because that is all the time these dogs have to turn their behavior around. Don’t hate others for having to put a little more pressure into their training, we are all here trying to help save dogs. Let’s all respect each other and understand each of us may have certain gifts and talents.

  18. I have a hard time following these discussions with the use of undefined terms, and frankly misuse of others.

    Positive means additive, negative means subtractive. Positive does not mean treats and good things, and negative does not mean beating or pain. Dr. Skinner would be amazes at how you all have corrupted some very simple concepts.

    • Neil,
      Skinner didn’t own the English language. He distorted it by creating a nomenclature that only describes the myopic world of an operant chamber. EG: Extinction does not exist outside the operant chamber. Removing “reinforcement” does not remove behaviors or associations. What it may do is return a behavior to baseline or give the appearance that it has disappeared. However, Pavlov established that removing “reinforcement” from an association does not remove the association from the animal’s repertoire. When it comes back, it comes back at 100%. The English language includes multiple definitions of words. Skinner’s proprietary language doesn’t translate well so people who wish to communicate can speak both dialects. To quote Dr. Ogden R. Lindsley, “Speak plain English whenever possible.” I am sure you know who he was and why his advice should be acknowledged.

      • Thank you for the most logical explanation.

        But is it not unlike redefining Fried’ s transference to mean replacing a love of chocolate for carrots?

        True, neither own the language, but I feel if we are going to promote their disciplines we ought not make up meanings the are the opposite of their original intent.

        Leave Skinner out of it and I might better understand thinking positive = pleasure.

        But then I am old.

        Again thank you.

  19. Hi Gary –
    Quite a number of years ago Gary demonstrated the “bonk” method (empty 2 liter bottle) on my search and rescue German Shepherd Coyote at an APDT conference. He demonstrated that you could stop a dog from going after food with a few surprising “bonks”. Coyote got the message, and then immediately recovered and was happy and friendly to Gary. I believe that members of APDT objected to the method and Gary was never again asked to their conferences.
    Aside from that, my now search and rescue GSD Raven can be sharp to children and some other dogs. I worked with positive methods, but finally went back to the “bonk bottle”. It stopped her from rushing other people and dogs. I periodically have to refresh that this instinctive behavior is not acceptable by setting her up. She has become so much more reliable.

    • Hey, Marcie – great to hear from you. Yes, I remember Coyote and getting attacked by some members of APDT. Laughable then and laughable now. Glad to hear you are doing well. I put your logo on a ball cap and wear it proudly. I’ll email you later.

      • Hi Gary,
        Several yrs.ago I was at one of your seminars and saw you demonstrate the use of a rolled up towel to bonk the dog for lunging and be aggressive. This interrupted the dogs frame of mind, got his attention so the dog realized what behavior was inappropriate.
        I’ve been training dogs for over 35yrs. all breeds and I believe in a balanced approach to training. Once a dog understands an exercise and fails to perform the exercise correctly then a correction helps teach the dog how to do it correctly. My dogs enjoy their training and I have fun too as I do use some food but mostly toys as rewards.
        I was telling someone that my dog got a rabbitt and wouldn’t give it up. She stated I should teach him to drop it. LOL. This dog has Utility Training and knows an out command. There was no way he was going to give it up prancing around like a proud peacock. I had to apply some pressure to his buckle collar to get him to release it. Some of these more positive don’t do that to your dog don’t have a clue that some dogs are not going to play by their rules.

        Thanks for the great article.

  20. Gary, Interesting article. I have “clicker trained many dogs as well as other animals. I would just like to throw out that although not a Jack Russel, I did “clicker train” a Border Terrier to heel off leash thru my woods, be released to go play and reliably recall on cue. My bullmastiff was as 100 % reliable off leash at great distance with great distraction. My B & T Coonhound pup is well on her way. I have no hesitancy in taking her in the woods with me. The training is well thought out, presented and progressed. I think that this is a very important point to make, as well as having a very good working knowledge of “Premack. I know of other “clicker trainers” who have gained equal success as I have. But I will be the first to acknowledge that it takes knowledge, experience and commitment to a systematic and well presented training program to gain such results.

    • Thanks for mentioning the Premack Principle. My dogs know that there is a time to be a dog, chase squirrels and a time to work. They also know if they respond, that a release to the environment is likely as well.They can work reliably off leash around squirrels, horses, dogs, cats, etc. And they DO professionally in a live stunt dog show, where everyone is watching and the stakes are high.

      In the live show, the premack principle is not an option, and yet they STILL work reliably off leash for hotdogs without ever having received a correction or aversive methods.

      I’m not working with super biddable dogs here, I have 3 Boston Terriers in the show. Two are so high drive that upon meeting a lure course for the first time their response was screaming at the top of their lungs! One puppy is so high drive that when she was watching an adult play with a flirt pole, she broke free from the person holding her and latched onto the dogs foot and started thrashing around! Fixed that without aversive methods too.

      I’m not talking about dogs with perfectly calm temperaments sitting in crates while each other works, we have a circus style show where all of the dogs sit on boxes while they take turns performing. A 30 minute stay with my back turned to them with squirrels, dogs, kids holding hot dogs etc. Im talking about a Boston Terrier that was very very very dog reactive, trained and modified with a clicker, sitting on a box surrounded by dogs, with no stress.

      We learned this from Susan Garrett and Leslie Mcdevitt – incredible agility trainers! Even though we don’t do agility.

      So if you want to say that the average pet owner doesn’t want to put in the work? fine. But don’t say it can’t be done.. because it is being done all over the world by hundreds or thousands of dog owners.

      Ill put my money where my mouth is with my dogs and go against any trainer using aversive methods.

  21. THANK YOU, THANK YOU , Gary, for being honest about this whole thing. I am old enough to remember your first lectures with Karen and listening with half an ear, knowing in reality that this just could not work. Owning Pit Bulls for many years (Putting a UD and many CDX”s and other titles on many rescued pits) I knew what “real drive” was and there was no clicker that could stop it. I was trained by Ian’s main portage Gwen Bohenkemp and always thought I was pretty positive but the people now drank some crazy Koolaid and I am now the devil. LIke you say Gary, they would rather see dead dogs in shelters, then say “no”(well in short you say this) I don’t get it, were all here to help dogs and I worked in shelters for many years, this makes no sense why I and so many others should be in fear of grabbing a dog from lunging at something.
    Thank you agin for your clarity, this should be required reading for all trainers!

  22. I would like to also add that I really enjoyed how you commented about how the training was done in Zoo’s and laboratories . A friend of mine worked in Zoo’s for many years using clickers, I tried so many times to explain to her that was a controlled environment and not the real world where new smells , animals and other stimuluses were constantly happening.
    We need more great articles like this put out there, please she (maybe in a shorter form) with more groups.

    • Lyssa,

      You are right!

      Some of these positive trainers would rather tell the owners to put the dog down than to explore other ideas and admit their method doesn’t always work.

      We should all be here to save dogs.

      I am glad to hear Gary speak out. We need more of it.

  23. Hi Gary,
    I started reading and watching you videos a few weeks ago. I am not a trainer but just someone who wants to learn the best way to work with my two Golden’s. I have read many books, articles and watched many videos that go from one end of the spectrum to the other. After reading this post I read Breland’s “Misbehavior of Organisms”. I found it interesting. Anyway I just wanted to say thanks for all the information and keep up the good work.

  24. Well written article. Dogs are relational beings and I clearly show why the ideology associated with clicker training is so problematic with influencing a dog’s decision making process. Those who promote treats, clickers are misrepresenting learning theory as it relates to response. They are not qualifying the type of influence happening as it connects to response. Those who promote this ideology are suffering from an identity crisis and couldn’t define what a balanced dog is if their life depended on it. Many have personal dogs with behavior issues they ignore while promoting this ideology as the second coming. It is beyond hypocritical. Those involved in promoting this trash lack ethics and are neither honest with themselves or those they are exploiting with this foolishness.

    • Carolee,
      What kind of citations do you think are required? This isn’t a scientific paper, it’s a blog post. If you have objections you should spell them out so they can be addressed.

  25. My name is Joel Beckman, I was a Seaworld killer whale trainer at both Orlando and San Diego, I left as a senior trainer to start a dog training business with my wife who was also a marine mammal trainer. And now own a large dog training company in San Diego. This article puts into words very eloquently something that I have known for a few years now but couldn’t have said it nearly as well. Many Positive Reinforcement trainers and the Positive reinforcement “movement” bases it’s method on what is/was done in the marine mammal world,but there are huge differences between the animals and industries.
    And while the dog training industry is very fractured and neither side seems to like the other, it’s the mainly positive reinforcement trainers that aren’t afraid to us “punishment” that actually have clients and are making a difference in peoples lives while being able to sleep at night because they are not slapping a shock collar on a dog.
    I’m going to have all my trainers read it and hope all positive reinforcement, dominance based, and punishment based trainers read it as well. Contact me if you are doing any events/conferences in LA or SD.

  26. YES yes yes! I have been on both sides of the training technique curve and when clicker training first came out I was ALLL over it and loved the ability to isolate specific behaviors and fine tune them ….. Butt…… Butt……I also soon so a lot of PP trainers flailing to address more difficult issues. Another trainer brought me a young dog she was working with that had horrible jumping and biting issues and I watcher her turn away from this dog for over 30 minutes. When she finally stopped and looked at me in defeat, I put a choke collar on the dog, corrected him twice and I could never get him to bite or jump again. Now before anyone says he was “traumatized” he was having a blast playing ball and tug, just never jumped or bit me again. I meet more owners ready to give their dogs up after a PP trainer than those that have not works with anyone. Great article Gary!!!

    • Jean,

      I have been training dogs for over 35 yrs. all breeds. Although I do use some food but more toys to reinforce appropriate behavior I agree that sometimes those corrections are more communicative to the dog than all the PP training you can muster. It creates a happy dog who then understands what you are trying to tell him. then reinforce positively and the dog is happy and having a good time. Some dogs just need more clarification. You have to show the dog the difference.

  27. I feel like there are some good points, here, but I am very uneasy that it seems emotion and arousal are once again getting short shrift and being ignored. I would cautiously suggest that reliability in agility dogs is a little loose more because people are dealing with highly aroused dogs that may not have been taught good self control to go with their ability to ramp up to enormous heights of arousal than because there is a problem with positive reinforcement. Although, it’s also possible they are not applying positive reinforcement well in the first place. It’s also possible there are stimuli in the agility environment that the dog is not comfortable with, and the behavioural spillover is a result of conflict and anxiety. Furthermore, I think your assertion that dogs “take a hit” in the process of getting food and this is part of their makeup is a fairly large leap. 1) Lots of dogs have very little persistence and very little interest in hunting, and quite a lot of interest in safe, sedate scavenging. 2) Prey animals are notorious for tearing themselves up in attempts to escape from perceived threat. I do not believe this ability to “take a hit” is a function of food acquisition strategies, so much as a function of arousal. If you train at high arousal with very happy dogs, they will recover pretty well from a punishment. But will they recover just as well at low arousal? What about if they are in a negative emotional state? While we’re at it, what do we even mean by “good recovery”?

    Another thing being ignored is the effects of conditioning. I don’t know how other people train recalls with positive reinforcement, but I practice A LOT with high value rewards when I know they will come back. The response becomes very strong before you put any squirrels or whatever into the mix. There are a lot of ways you can mix up reward rates, conditioning, and Premack to get pretty reliable recalls. I don’t have 100% reliability, but I do have about 98% reliability with my spitz boys, and love to watch them whirl on a pinhead and gallop back with joy painted all over them when they are recalled.

    I suspect I have been put into the “enemy” camp by some positive trainers because I am repeatedly advocating for the use of negative reinforcement in training in some scenarios. I repeatedly argue that it is a humane thing to help a frightened animal avoid what frightens them. I am not stridently against punishment. If you really want to suppress a behaviour, that’s what punishment is for. I typically find I either don’t really want to suppress a behaviour or I am not in a situation where I can apply punishment in as controlled a fashion as I want to, so I find other solutions. Solutions involving reinforcement do work IME. Why fight it?

    • Gary Wilkes is one of the most eloquent proponents of appropriate punishment. But he does oversimplify and tends to be a bit one-size-fits-all when it comes to the particulars of actually applying punishment to a specific dog in a specific time and place.

      • Between my blog and my youtube channel your comment misses the mark. All of the seminars I did with Karen Pryor and all of the seminars I have given save, one each, have included sections on using aversive control with live demonstrations. My youtube channel, wilkesgm1, shows you the process in real situations and set-piece demos that show the process in detail. My Doggie Repair Kit video still stands alone as the only place you can learn the fundamentals, “to a specific dog in a specific time and place”. Can you name someone else who has presented more information on the practical application who has balanced it with equally advanced lessons in the use of positive reinforcement?

  28. Gary, I find it VERY interesting that you removed my comment to this article. I just mentioned that although not a Jack Russel, I did train a Border Terrier (via clicker training) to heel off lead thru my woods, be released to play and recall with out hesitation…..as well as other breeeds of dogs. I guess you do not want your cult like followers to hear the trush of what is possible when one truly understands and uses positive reinforcement to it’s max!

    • Linda,
      I have no doubt that the reason I pulled your post is that it was one more “positive reinforcement can do anything if you are just good enough” comment. I have many more posts on my blog discussing that topic but this is not the place for it. If you wish to suggest that there is no need for aversive control or that it is intrinsically harmful and without benefit then I would suggest you go to the myriad of sites on the internet that will pat you on the back.

      • Odd, I just read Linda’s post. It was right there. One of the limitations of an all positive approach to training the recall that I discovered with my Jack Russell was that she was rock solid on it for several years no matter what the distraction until she was allowed to hang out with a dog who had a very poor recall (my mistake). That dog didn’t come back and it seemed to be the first time that it ever occurred to her that there was actually a choice. We’ve had to retrain with consequences for non-compliance.

        • Laurie, when I went back to find Linda’s post I couldn’t find it. I didn’t trash it – it would have stayed in the “trash” folder. However, I use about 98% positive reinforcement to solve problems. When someone tells me that there is an advantage to using 100% in the real world, I’m going to call them on it. Otherwise, the Seeing Eye is somehow cruel. I think not. I wouldn’t go under a blind-fold with a dog that has no negative consequence for walking a blind person into a man-hole.

  29. I stumbled across this article and just wanted to say THANK YOU, for having voiced what I knew anecdotally from having raised shelties for many years. I enjoy clicker training for what it can do, but realize in the real world (including watching dams with their litters or one of my dogs with another in the pack) that negative reinforcement is part and parcel of how dogs learn with each other as well as with humans. To think a dog will respect boundaries of behavior 100% by use of positive reinforcement only has always been pie in the sky thinking. But then, what the heck do I know? I’ve never done a scientific study. I’ve just lived with canines for 30 yrs….

  30. Gary, you and Karen presented seminar in Reading PA in Jan’96 and used my 4mo old Vizsla male Rhett as a demonstrator puppy. I was amazed at how quickly you trained him with C&T, jumping up to touch the wand tip. Shaping the behavior and rewarding it. It was magical. He was an extrodinarily intelligent dog and you brought that out immediately.

  31. Sorry Gary … I’m an old timer and well schooled on the four legs of the table. But that video sequence is just dumb dog training.
    It’s a Golden. Uh yeah, its gonna jump up on people. Big surprize.
    All I see is a sequence of 1.) set dog up knowing it will fail 2.) use pre-planned punishment.
    Howz about training a solid redirect using the doorbell as a cue for reward.
    If a Golden thought everytime a doorbell rang that meant cookies … they would so totally forget about jumping up and assume the cookie position.

    • Lisa Marie. If you look at the rest of my blog you will see plenty of articles that deal with fundamental principles that answer your questions fully. The dog in the video had been through two training programs – all positive, all failure. The owner was getting to the point of getting rid of the dog. So, no, teaching some fancy contrived use of positive reinforcement begs the question of what advantage do you get? None. The dog wasn’t harmed. She is wagging her tail through the entire event. She also has an inhibition to jumping up on people that using exclusively positive reinforcement cannot provide. That is because positive reinforcement cannot, by definition, inhibit a behavior. Unless you can come up with a compelling reason that an owner at the end of her rope is supposed to take weeks to teach first a respondent association to the door bell and then an operant response that does not prevent the old behavior from coming back, your suggestions are off the mark.

  32. Note: Jordan Schaul tried to post this and it went to never-never land. He requested that I post it, so here it is…

    After years of working with captive wildlife, I decided to dedicate my time to working with dog owners. The market is wide open compared to the paucity of opportunities to work with wildlife, although my first clients have actually been falconers.

    As you know and alluded to, “Don’t Shoot the Dog” was branded as the bible for animal trainers in the zoo community. Hence, I thought that it would guide me as a dog trainer. As appropriate as it may be for zoo/sanctuary animal trainers, keepers and other husbandry personnel, who in my opinion spend the vast majority of their time shaping and capturing a very specific and, perhaps, narrow repertoire of behaviors, it is largely inadequate for dog training, in my opinion. I mentioned to some former ranking SeaWorld trainers and colleagues of mine that reliance on positive reinforcement was wholly inadequate for training dogs outside the home. When I suggested that effective and consistent “recall” in the context of busy off-leash dog park is a good litmus test for challenging the cued behavior and that it required corrective aides compatible with compulsive training, their reply was that the whole notion of a dog park is a “bad idea.” I was astounded to hear them dismiss my sentiment. I stand by my need to use some aversive conditioning and I wholly support your arguments. Thanks again.

    Jordan Schaul, PhD

  33. Thanks for the article 🙂 Really interesting! Don’t like generalising (‘Agility people’ etc.) but can understand the point, but wuth many aspects – totally agree!

    • Lila, In order to avoid using the inaccurate classification of “all” I suggested a common belief of agility trainers. We have a club here in Phoenix where no person on the grounds is allowed to even say “NO” – let alone apply a tangible punishment. I would suggest that the few people in agility to do use punishment do it secretly because they would be attacked if they did it publicly. i.e. I think the shoe fits.

  34. I’m just throwing my two cents in. I just started working with a couple of labs whose owner was at her wits end. They barked, counter surfed and charged the door. The black one was in a constant state of arousal. The owner is an experienced dog owner but she said she has never owned a dog like this one. We did on session of boundary training with the dogs getting bonked for charging the door. When I checked back with the owner a week later she said the energy of the house changed that very first day. Everyone was more relaxed and the dog who was always amped up was actually happily wagging her tail for the first time in a year. There are times when a properly applied punisher can get a dog into a calm state of mind in a matter of minutes and allow her to get her brain in gear instead of constantly reacting. I have never seen it happen like that with an all positive approach.

  35. Great article. I may be one of the few posters who has actually had Gary to my house to train my dogs, and I regularly suggest him to other people who complain about their dogs. If he can get a pack of six dogs (including two Chihuahuas, a dachshund, a Chinese crested and a miniature pincher) to stop yapping, successfully, when someone comes to the door using only a rolled up towel, that’s a huge success in my book. And they all stopped within fifteen minutes during his first visit. It was like magic. They all get their paycheck for acting as I want them to, but they also know the consequences when they don’t. Just like real life.

  36. Great article. Loved the point where asking how many people in the crowd had trained more than one dog and only one person raised their hand – priceless. I see about 400 dogs annually for training and behavior issues. Probably 80% have positive only training histories – almost all of them have behavioral issues (which is why I am called) and I’m still waiting to find any that can sit or lay down reliably – let alone stay there. 10 % have a training history that includes balanced methods using some consequences or corrections, and these fogs are always well behaved with the owners just wanting to push some things forward (off leash, etc.). The last 5% have not training at all prior to the owner calling me. In any event, I can count on the fingers of one hand, the number of dogs I’m called to help each year with a balanced training background. I run out of fingers counting the ones with positive only histories every week. Thankfully, most owners have common sense and will judge real world results. I’m still looking for the “positive only theorists” who can actually show me some reliably trained, well-behaved dogs. Because in my daily travels I’m not finding them.

    • Guy,
      We work in the same world. Thanks for the comment – it will help convince those who have been brow-beaten by the ‘positive’ bullies. 🙂

  37. Finally,
    Told it like its.
    A true dog talk from a true dog person.
    Exccellent article.

    Yes, heard of affluenza?
    I feel seen many dogs with this condition.

  38. Just read another article on PICA, surgery and 100%positvie training philosophy.
    I couldn’t help myself adding this.

    As a former vet tech and professional dog trainer making a living doing dog training for the last 29 yrs, I’ve seen many cases of foreign body surgeries as in that article.

    Before I begin, just to clear the air, I’m not affiliated with any particular training sector or any organizations but I have witnessed the evolution of this trade in recent few decades as many of you have.
    While I welcome all kinds of ideas and tools, I try very hard to stay off the grid from all that non sense politics between different training regimes but try do just my job: getting dogs trained.

    I started my first dog Guy’s life at 9 as a learning show dog handler, then became a vet tech. Worked in several small animal hospitals and worked in the wildlife health center in Bronx zoo for a few years as a LVT before I became a full time dog trainer.

    I see average 300 dogs a year and I use clicker training in many of my cases which also include cats, birds, pot belly pigs and other critters.
    My client tells?
    From a former president to a homeless man accompanied by his canine soul mate.

    Well… If you’re an animal guy like me, I even clicked about a dozen of lizards.
    Heck, how about some fish? Or a fiddler crab or two that can wave n dance on a flash light cue? I’ve done it. I have had lots of fun doing it and will be doing it in the future having much fun.

    However, I use every possible tools and different approaches available out there.
    My favorite sport is schtzhund training and I’ve titled my GSDs to sch3 from green puppies from my own breeding.
    Just so to tell you that I don’t bulge my veins in my neck over a foot ball game or baseball games:). Poked around some agility, some utility, some herding trials too with my border collie in my younger years.
    I’ve been lucky to have teachers and mentors who showed me 2 different trainers training the same dog using same tool, per say a choker?, producing completely 2 different results.
    One being a happy dog that is willing to perform while loving it’s handler. The other being the dog is a bit nervous about the other handler.
    Presentation, the mechanical skill sets, the timing do matter.
    Practice! practice! practice! Practice does matter.

    Having said, I can also tell you that I have had my own brushes with number of philosophers(?) who attempt to speculate, analyze and speculate some more to get dogs trained while they should be busy holding leash, treats whatever tools they may need in their hands and actually get the dog training done.

    A total disrespect to the Art part of the dog training ! What about The honing the skill part! How about the Crafmanship!
    A mechanical skill set can only be realized by practice and drills which are often over looked and lacked by many positive reinforcement trainers from this cult like clan, especially online ones!

    I’ve seen, I mean, in person in action in several occasions, the famous Dolphin trainer who cannot read dogs language while possessing the poorest timing of clicking ….
    How about her shelter dog Debarking seminar?
    A very hopeful but pitiful one that only sounds so great..
    But it stops there……as a mere meandering between hopes and ideology, almost like that of an activist.

    Above all, it doesn’t matter how good a training method/approach it may be, or even further more how good dog trainer you are doesn’t matter. if your client, the owner cannot perform the tasks effectively and skillfully. This, I believe, goes for any training methods, tools or learning theories.

    No disrespect but many of my clients got awkward timing of reinforcement. Some can be improved. Others cannot be. another truth to be told 🙂
    Much of my clients, regular folks who are busy making living, raising kids don’t, can’t or even sometime won’t behave like people who belong to an obedience or agility club.
    Many of them?
    They just simply enjoy having fun training their pups and dogs while addressing some dos and don’t and some obedience. In essence they appreciate the process of the training itself more or less than the result of it.

    As a professional pet dog trainer, one should know,
    “It’s not what a trainer can do… It’s about how he helps his clients to get to where they need to be.”
    I even find using a demo dog seem sometime oxy-moron thing to do while many trainers do accompany “demo dogs” in counseling clients.
    Think about it.
    No psy will have his or her genius demo child to show what can be done or how raising a child should be done:)

    So for me? Each owner and dog team will guide me to recommend certain training approach and tools for them.

    Gary speaks truth and his feet are anchored in reality.
    Wish he gets his clicks and treats which he so deserves for this excellent article .

    Thanks Gary for speaking out.

  39. OMG! Finally… someone who is “Practical.” I train Sheepdogs for competition (Australia). When I started some 10 yrs or more ago, I knew absolutely NOTHING about training a dog for anything. The reality was that I needed a Dog to work the sheep I owned as I could no longer herd them on foot. I spent many hundreds of hours researching various dog training methods on the “net” and bought many books in order to try to understand dogs in general and how to train one for working with sheep. I then did some practical “schools” with a very reputable trainer and within 12 months was competing with some success. I ASOLUTELY LOVE YOUR “take” on training. You are absolutely correct about working dogs. No edible treat in the world or any amount of pats and “good boys” can distract a good working dog from it’s “prey”. My only criticism is that I am having to wade through all this scientific stuff/theories and “who said whats” to get to the CRUX. I have found myself having to “google” terminologies for definitions to try to “get” what you are talking about, but once understood (mostly) I have been able to begin to analyse some of the methods we use in training a sheepdog. I will definitely be “soaking up” as much of you as I am able. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  40. Great article. It makes perfect sense to me that there should be some kind of consequence for behavior that the owner does not want. Should b the same for children too.!!

  41. Dear Mr. Wilkes,
    Thanks for the article. It is a useful correction. For 35 years I’ve trained working sheepdogs and though I’ve (rarely) used treats or ecollars mostly I shape the expression of the dog’s genetics with body language. I could not train your Jack Russel and probably wouldn’t try to train your cattledog to be a useful stockdog.

    My question is basic: when the human voice/whistle is so much subtler, variable and ranging, why use a clicker?

    Preferring the penny whistle to the philharmonic is not self evident choice.

    Donald McCaig

    • Donald, first, it’s a privilege to see your name pop up. Your metaphor is off-target. A clicker is a construction tool that allows teaching fundamental behaviors in advance of the dog’s need to know. This can be augmented using remote targets to teach a fetch to a dog that has trouble with going out far enough. These types of tools are no different than John Holmes use of a chicken-wire circle to introduce pups to herding and teaching come-by, way-to-me, lie there and walk on – with real animals in real time without the inherent errors of trying to do it with no prep or controls.

      The advantages to the clicker are several. First, it is NOT attached to any person. That means I can pass the baton to a student with ease. EG: I can hand a clicker to an amateur and they can teach my cattle dog whatever they like, with an instant rapport. Your voice is your voice. No amateur or even a polished herding trainer can duplicate the subtleties of your voice and whistle – both primarily tools for controlling already existing behaviors. The clicker is used when information is still lacking to make a finished behavior. It’s not used in actual practice. Symphonies often stop in the middle of a measure at the whim of the conductor – while never stopping in the middle of the performance.

      Next, a clicker marks a tenth of a second. Your voice does not. You are taking pictures for the dog with a slow shutter. That makes linking a specific piece of information to a specific consequence takes longer. The more information that has to be sorted, the slower the process.

      The bottom line is that the best test is to use it and compare. Or, get someone’s clicker trained dog and run a blind trial – you with your voice and the owner with a clicker. See who puts a new behavior together faster.

      That being said, real clicker training isn’t just about the clicker. It is about using a model for both positive, negative and neutral influences and learning to control variability vs. consistency. In the herding world much is dependent on the dog’s innate tendencies – until you push it into a slightly different genre. You can drive cows but it’s tougher with sheep. A ewe might get feisty, but a bull will gore. Some herding breeds do cross-over easily, some do not. My Cattle Dog got a little to mouthy with some goats yesterday and needed to have his go-to bite suppressed. The word ‘NO’ is the anti-clicker. It marks the instant he started going upward to the goat’s hip. Because it is a short, unique signal, he instantly backed off – and got bonked for his trouble. 15 minutes later he was working sheep and lambs and his demeanor was far steadier. If I wanted him to be a working dog, I’d use clicker’s, targets, e-collars, bonkers or short pieces of hose to check his headlong rush. It’s about having a very full tool-box and making a choice of which to use, when.

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