The Problem With ‘Fad’ Training
Nobody likes to hear that they are, in any way, failing those we care about. Whether it is children, pets or ourselves, the thought that we are teaching self-destructive habits to anybody is truly heart breaking. It’s no wonder, then, that as soon as some new article comes out about healthy living, you can guarantee a swarm of interest as everyone jumps on the band wagon.
The same can easily be said of our canine friends, whose method of training has become big business over the past few years. Naturally, this has led to a number of fad regimes which in many ways can paint an unrealistic – and often dangerous – picture of how to train an animal.
Purely Positive Reinforcement
Marketed as the only humane way to train an animal, the exclusively positive reinforcement approach to dog training has its roots in marine animal parks. Here, in front of thousands of applauding fans, animal trainers are shown to reward the animals – normally dolphins and killer whales – with short whistle bursts and treats for every good deed.
In many ways, this follows the same psychology of clicker training. Eventually the animal will associate desired behavior with rewards and begin to act on cue for their handlers. The sad fact of the matter is that while this would seem to be a great way to train an animal, there is a lot more going on behind the scenes.
These animals are isolated in sterile, distraction free enclosures all day, every day. The only time they are mentally challenged and encouraged to socialize is during the short periods where they are engaged by their trainers. It’s hard to imagine what this would be like for an intelligent animal, but this form of captivity will obviously promote a very response behavior.
In the wild, killer whales and dolphins are defined by their hunting prowess. Often hunting in packs, their natural survival instincts encourage co-dependence on one another in order to survive. This instinct is exploited by the training programs, which encourage starvation for the periods of time that the animals are not in training. This encourages co-operation with the trainer and natural competition to try and out-do any other animals in the area, with the added benefit of making it seem to the audience that trainer and animal share a mutual and inseparable bond.
To see how the negative effects of how this form of training can impede an otherwise intelligent animal, I highly recommend looking up the tragic story of Tilikum, the killer whale that was involved in the death of three people, including two trainers. This was the subject of the CNN documentary film Black Fish (2013).
The worst thing about it is it doesn’t even seem to be completely effective. Anyone who has ever been to SeaWorld and the like will know that quite often, many animals will simply refuse to participate. This is often played for laughs, but goes some way to highlighting the negative results this form of training ends in. This says nothing about the extreme levels of stress many of these animals will feel on a daily basis, between isolation, starvation and performance anxiety.
While the idea is encouraging, there sadly is no such thing as a purely positive method of training, even for dogs. To achieve just the appearance of positive reinforcement, marine trainers use punishment regularly to condition the animal into the correct level of conditioning. There have even been scientific studies that prove denying a dog an anticipated treat will often cause more psychological stress than a moment’s correction, which goes a long way to describing the brutal levels of punishment that must be felt by the killer whales of SeaWorld.
An odd choice of language, as the idea behind not using force to train a dog goes against even using a collar and leash. Holding a dog back from sprinting off the moment you leave the house requires more than a degree of force, as does withholding treats for misbehavior – which forces a response from the dog.
I have found these sort of paradoxes again and again when looking into the supposed ‘force free’ method of training, it would seem there is little more to this than an emotive title to appeal to the dog loving community. It seems shameless, and I would challenge you to look these methods up and see if you think there is more to this than a business proposition and a beneficial way of training your pets.
In all honesty, there are going to be weaknesses and limitations in every form of training in one scenario or another. A trainer that retains an open mind, rather than doggedly (pun intended) pursuing a fixed ideology is one that will greatly benefit the lives of you and your dogs. They will be able to remain flexible, approaching different challenges from multiple angles and reach the core of the problem, without losing integrity in the face of defeat.
Don’t get me wrong, positive reinforcement is of course a wonderful thing when training dogs. It can encourage and modify behavior without the need to unnecessarily harm and punish them, however there are some occasions when this is simply not enough. A balanced approach will encourage trainers and dogs to work together to find a solution to consistent misbehavior, without the need to overindulge or psychologically punish the dog.
Anyone who truly cares for the welfare of our dogs will understand that being fixed doggedly to a single method is only going to encourage laziness and misunderstanding in the wider community. Of course we all want the best for our dogs, but appealing to the empathy of dog owners just feels like a grab for profit, without regard to the feelings and behavior of our pets.
If anything, the only thing a trainer truly needs to grasp is open-mindedness in a sea of confusion. They must hold the emotional needs of the dog highest and, what’s more, keep their integrity while so many others fall short.
If you have more questions about your dog, contact us!
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