A Clarification of Sorts

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I totally get why many pet owners, correction based trainers, and back yard trainers,  cringe when someone says they are a ‘positive reinforcement trainer’. I get it.

And just for clarification – positive and negative in training terms are mathematical in nature, not emotional. Positive refers to ‘adding’, and Negative refers to ‘subtracting’.

However, for further clarification, those terminologies have also been bastardized in the main stream media, and dog park conversations. If you were to ask a regular ol’ dog owner – Positive would mean throwing cookies about and talking like a fairy, and Negative would mean a military style of precision with physical corrections.

There of course are little truths in there, but for sure not really. Go ahead and blame Burrhus Frederic Skinner for the terminology and confusion, for sure there were better words and definitions he could have used, one of his assistants at the time could have pointed that out to him, because I’ll bet you money, they were just as confused as most people are today.

There are a ton of preconceived ideas about Trainers.

Positive Reinforcement Trainers, are thought of as women. Not true.

Soft, easy, nanny like cherubs, that are permissive and forgiving of everything, prefer small non controversial dogs, run away from dogs that are large and bark, and have the patience of Mother Teresa. For sure, 100% untrue.

I myself would fall into the category of a Positive Reinforcement Trainer, kind of, but I’ll get to that in a minute. I’m fully okay with people thinking I throw cookies and talk like a fairy, better that than an image of me kicking a dog or hanging a dog on a prong collar. So I’ll take it.

What I really am, or part of what I really am, is a Marker/Reward Trainer. Because truth be told, no Trainer can be 100% positive, meaning 100% of the time adding something a dog likes, it’s impossible. So a Marker/Reward Trainer is someone who ‘marks’ a behavior with an audible/unemotional noise maker, or with a word, or with a hand/body signal, and then rewards that behavior with what the dog finds most rewarding.

It takes keen observation, meticulous timing, and a truck load of understanding if done correctly.

When I am working with a dog, mine or someone else’, that dog has my full attention, because I am learning how to understand a lot of things in a very short period of time, sometimes just seconds.

Hello how are you?

Who are you?

What is important to you?

What are you bringing to the table today?

What do you want me to know about you?

Are you wanting to work with me?

Do I have what you want?

Do you know that I will be kind and you can trust me?

Are you ready?

When I am training I don’t use verbal or physical corrections. Training for me is teaching, and teaching is gifting knowledge and skills so their is understanding.

Do I ever use corrections (remember – negative, taking something away) – yes, yes I do. But it isn’t in the name of teaching, it is always for safety of some kind.

Verbally I tend to float towards HEY! – usually if my dogs are going too fast through a gate or small entry way, a way of slowing them down. Sometimes when my littermates are getting a bit too tense with each other I will also say HEY! a bit louder, meaning not okay, find your own spaces.

Physically I tend to pick a dog up and remove them, use a ‘leg out’ to separate them, or what comes most naturally to me is an ‘angry face’ (resting Bitch face is what you might know better, oh lucky me), pursed lips, blank eyes, and annoyed looking, kind of. I have never had to harm, hurt, or scare a dog when using a correction, ever.

With any correction, it is to stop a behavior that would cause harm to self, place, or others. I wouldn’t use a correction for shoes in the mouth, dirt on the floor, jumping on the counter, those are all people management issues. And as the saying goes, suck it up buttercup, if you have dogs, you have to have management.

When I work with a dog I am doing that, working with a dog, NOT against a dog. psst – if you take nothing else away from this article, take that away. Always work with a dog.

So, I hope that helps, Nancy

5 comments

  1. I prefer to think of my style of training as least invasive, minimally aversive (LIMA,) or force-free as I don’t force my dog to do anything, or definitely you could call it reward-based, either one of those is fine. I don’t like being accused of being “purely positive” as it seems to be a term invented by trainers who use force/pain to train dogs to mock those who don’t.

  2. I continue to be annoyed by Skinner using the word punishment incorrectly. And by people using the word ‘science’ incorrectly. we do NOT train “scientifically” nor is our training ‘science-base’. We use training methods that have been ‘scientifically shown to be more effective with less unwanted side effects.
    Reward-based seems to be the best description that most people comprehend.

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