I worry about common dog training categorizations like “positive” or “balanced.” Two trainers may say they are positive but may mean and do entirely different things, just as two people may consider themselves balanced but may mean two entirely different things.

Still two others may say they are results-based but mean different things. We all work toward results, though it is unethical, at least by the codes of ethics I know, to guarantee cures and success.

As a worrier, I strive to keep to ideals of non-aversive training and conditioning with my clients. Especially since ultimately, the animal being trained is the one who decides what is aversive, the goal may not always be perfectly achievable.

Nevertheless, that’s no reason not to work toward ideals. Some things seem by nature to be aversive and therefore should be avoided:

Force — exerting strength or power upon an animal against its will;

Intimidation — deterring an animal from, or forcing an animal into, some action by inducing fear;

Coercion — dominating or controlling an animal by exploiting anxiety or fear;

Pain — exploiting or creating a distressing sensation in any part of the animal’s body, or exploiting or creating mental or emotional suffering;

Fear — exploiting or manipulating an animal’s pre-existing fear or creating avoidable fear in an animal

In other words, to force, intimidate, coerce, hurt, or scare an animal would be aversive to most any animal and therefore these are not appropriate tactics for training.

You may be wondering what is left, especially if you grew up, as I did, in the long, golden age of punishment. What is left is not “bribery” as some folks unfortunately still misunderstand positive reinforcement training to be. A bribe is something of value given or promised in order to corrupt behavior. Now granted, society has corrupted the meaning of the word “bribe” — or misappropriated it — applying it to the parent-child negotiation relationship so that now it is also used to refer to the act of parents getting kids to behave by giving them special treats: Bobby cleans his room then gets an hour on the computer; Sharon cleans the litter box then borrows the car for the afternoon. But guess what? The good news is that this act of paying children to behave well mirrors, in essence, the respected Applied Behavior Analysis approach to helping autistic children and adults as well as all kinds of humans and other animals all over the world.

Doctors, psychologists, sociologists, zoologists, college professors, do not wield shock or prong collars as teaching tools and expect anyone to heal or learn from them, nor do they yell, scold, squirt, leash pop, or repeat “no, no, no” to those entrusted to them; instead, they teach them with kind, hands-off methods, and they provide them what is reinforcing to them as they learn. These humane teachers do not use aversion on their learners when they don’t learn on first attempts; instead, they ask themselves how they can teach more effectively. Teachers become learners, seeking to improve themselves in response to their mistakes, adjusting their methods, then trying their teaching again. In non-aversive dog training, as in Applied Behavior Analysis, the overarching point is not “Do it because I say so.” Rather, it is something along the lines of “How can I learn enough about you so that you enjoy learning with me, and therefore progress without suffering, and some day, without me?”

Actions are based on expectations. If you weren’t expecting a needed, valued paycheck for doing your job, you would not do it for long. If your boss shocked you, jerked you by your collar, squirted you, or constantly yelled at you to get you to do your work, you probably would quit; if you couldn’t quit, you probably would deeply dislike your boss. Now imagine you had big teeth and claws and no innate connection to human social mores.

Dogs train for food reinforcers because they need and/or value food. If a healthy dog isn’t training for food, it’s likely you just haven’t found the right food. Look for something rare to your dog and super yummy. Each dog decides what is high value food to him/her; if your dog gets excited when you bring it out, begs for it, and tends to respond more readily to your cues when that particular food item is around, that’s probably high value food for your dog. Have that, and a non-aversive canine professional, on hand for your dog’s sessions.

Rain Jordan, CBCC-KA, KPA CTP, is a certified canine training & behavior professional. Visit her at www.elevatedogtraining.com.

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