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Is Dog Training an Animal Welfare Issue?

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In a recent conversation with Karen, she said, “I didn’t invent clicker training, mother nature did. I first stumbled across the info as a dolphin trainer in the 60’s. A scientific article came out about B.J. Skinner’s lab in Harvard, back in the early days of reinforcement theory. Animals are always looking for news in their environment. There is an equal amount of opportunity for animals to look for good news as bad news. Think about what is reinforcing a behavior. Why is the animal pulling away? Why is the animal digging? The animal isn’t the cause of it’s behavior. When people look at what is really going on in an animal’s mind, it gets them off of the punishment kick.”

I learned so much in both my interview with Karen, and at my attendance at Clicker Expo last weekend in Newport Beach. Here are a few of my questions she answered:

LS: How does clicker training help our domesticated animals?
KP: It liberates them from being passive, obedient creatures and brings them into the world as conscious partners. We are creating different relationships with them that is built on trust, because the humans have become predictable and reliable.

L.S. How are they learning?
K.P. We have been making animals do stuff since we first started domesticating them. This is a different agreement. We are now saying to them, if you can make me click, I will pay you and I will pay you something you really like. This is very different from traditional obedience. While it looks like humans are training animals, it’s really the reverse. If you teach a cat to touch it’s nose and the cat is interested, in five or 10 minutes the cat can train you to jump through a hoop. Many cats have trained me to hold up the embroidery hoop.

L.S. How would clicker training help to solve a behavior problem?
K.P. In most cases, either the human or something in the environment has been reinforcing the undesired behavior. That enforcement needs to be stopped and then an opposing behavior added.

LS: Could it be as simple as this? A dog jumps up on greeters at the door. At one time or another, they’ve been rewarded with attention, even if it was negative attention. Create a desired behavior such as “sit”, marked with a click, and rewarded with a treat. A dog can’t jump and sit at the same time and when he gets rewarded more for sits than for jumping, he’ll want to create more sits, of his own choice.
KP: Yes.

LS: Why do you not recommend the use of prong collars and training collars (choke collars)?
KP: As soon as you go to punishment, your animal is in a different place. Dogs will work to avoid punishment, but it also can ruin dogs that can’t take it. You will just get a different dog than one that isn’t exposed to aversive training methods.

LS: How has this helped other animals besides dogs?

KP: Clicker training works with all animals and all species. In my opinion, nobody should be allowed to get married and have children without first clicker training a chicken. Clicker training has swept the US and beyond in Zoos in the last 10 years. It is even allowing us to give better care to them, especially medical care. In the past, when an animal needed antibiotics, you had to put them in a squeeze cage causing panic and danger, or drop it to them chemically. This could be dangerous because it is very difficult to estimate the weight of a polar bear, so that was always the last resort. Now any keeper willing to pick up the clicker technique can treat any animal in a safe and humane manner. I once was heartbroken when I saw a rhino die because she couldn’t receive the medicine she needed. Now, lots of rhinos in zoos are being trained with operant conditioning. As a by-product, instead of the animal being afraid of the keeper, the keeper becomes some known quantity over which you have some control. The animals are still wild, but even a crocodile has been known to say, “Hi, how are you? Good to see you.” Enough learning takes place that I don’t know where the bottom line is.

Next: More about the Clicker Expo

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Read more: Behavior & Communication, Cats, Dogs, Everyday Pet Care, Less Common Pets, Pets, Wildlife, , , , , ,

By Lisa Spector, Canine Music Expert, Juilliard Graduate, and co-creator of Through a Dog’s Ear.

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Lisa Spector

Lisa Spector is a concert pianist, Juilliard graduate, and canine music expert. She is co-founder of Through a Dog's Ear, the first music clinically demonstrated to calm the canine nervous system. Their new high-tech pet gadget, iCalmDog, is the portable solution to canine anxiety. Lisa shares her home and her heart with her two "career change" Labrador Retrievers from Guide Dogs for the Blind, Sanchez and Gina. Follow Lisa's blog here.


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4:43AM PST on Feb 12, 2013

Yes, Christine, all different, and all kinds of different training "methods" may or may not work even with the same dog on a different day. You said you were "shocked" to hear about "prong" collars. I find that "shocking", actually. I'd never used one until I got my present GSD, but I was shown how to use it "properly" when I worked with a professional trainer to help deal with her high energy and issues. I've already explained what those were. When you have a very large animal that outweighs YOU, has had no previous training and your own safety, as well as that of others is at stake, sometimes you can't rely on just "positive reinforcement". The "prong" worked in some situations, but not all. One thing rarely does.

11:29PM PST on Feb 3, 2013

Dogs are as different as people. I've had dogs that would take to their beds if I so much as lowered my voice, and others who would cheerfully continue digging up the rose beds no matter what I did, looking at me quizzically as if to say "what's the problem?" Much depends on their breed and past treatment. I use positive reinforcement, and was horrified to hear about prong collars, which I'd never heard of here in Australia. I was pleased to hear at least one positive thing to come from Skinner's work. For those unfamiliar with him, he was a sadistic ghoul who delighted in torturing animals in labs, with his charming inventions such as the "rape rack" and the "pit of despair". If there is a hell, this man is surely there. On a lighter note, thank you for the hyaena video, which was truly amazing.

1:36PM PST on Jan 28, 2013

thanks for sharing :)

7:25AM PST on Jan 20, 2013

interesting read on others thoughts--Suzanne L. I also feel that Dogs enjoy learning new things/commands and will with the sound of our voices and just a hand jester--our Sparky is so eager to please...

10:34PM PST on Jan 19, 2013

( cont)........ She had to keep them separated by TWO floors in her home and securely locked "kiddy gates" and they could never be in the same room together, even with her in-between them.

I've had GSD's 4 times. The first 3 dogs were easily trained by the "usual" methods. The one I now have is an adoptee, and she was a completely untrained 2-1/2-yr-old when I took her in. Nothing worked with her and I hired a professional trainer who had experience with K-9 dogs, specifically GSD's. We had 6 private sessions and while some of the methods she suggested work, they don't work 100% of the time and more "specialized" to this dog things are needed. She is not the "sharpest knife in the drawer" (very unusual for a GSD) but has an extremely high prey drive and is very stubborn and determined when she does set her mind on something. She has a very short attention span on everything else. She cannot be trusted around cats 100% of the time, and I have 4 cats. She also will steal food every chance she has by whatever means she can use. She will chase anything that moves. She is slowing down now at age 11, but she has been a 9 year challenge. Methods used with her would have made a mental wreck out of my Golden.

10:29PM PST on Jan 19, 2013

Jennifer R., I tend to agree with you. I mentioned Cesar Milan because his name is so well-respected and well-known amongst the public. Personally, I don't agree with much of what he says or does. Sometimes, he comes across to me as trying to be some kind of behavioralist far more than he should and he has no education on human pyschology as far as I know. I also know from decades of personal experience and with many, MANY breeds, and even with many dogs within the same breed, that the same methods can't always achieve the same results. Dogs are as different as people. While roller-blading down the middle of a street in Watts with 8 Pitbulls is impressive, it doesn't necessarily mean that everyone can or should do that. He also "lost me" when he tried (and unsuccessfully, I might add) to "rehabilitating" two very aggressive Jack Russells. One entire hour show was devoted to these dogs and it ended with Cesar holding them both by the scruffs of their necks off the ground. The show was filled with "gaps" and they never did show that these two animals never ended up killing each other. Cesar was bitten by one of them and pretty severely. His "Sssshhh" didn't do squat with these dogs! This was clearly a case that one of the dogs had to be rehomed. It happens. The owner was a very longtime owner of the breed and one of those dogs had killed her 3rd dog and the ones fighting were sisters. She had to keep them separated by TWO floors in her home and securely locked "k

8:24PM PST on Jan 19, 2013

Cesar Milan should not be used as an example of proper dog training methods -- the man does not deserve his own show or even a moment of positive attention. His methods are opposed by the leading animal behaviorists. See:

3:25AM PST on Jan 16, 2013


9:03PM PST on Jan 15, 2013

Somewhat misleading article. When the writer refers to "old school methods" that give a command "to do it or else" and then a jerk on the collar, that is not quite how it should be done. Cesar Millan is one who most identify with "proper" training methods and he uses this to a degree. Dogs' minds don't work quite the way human minds work, so it is not going to be effective to say, "Okay, Spot, please don't jump on me because it hurts". They identify with getting a knee in the chest IF they jump, and at the same time, told "No", "quit" or whatever word one wants to use. A good trainer starts gently and uses a verbal command and waits to see if that is enough. If it isn't, a little bit of a physical reprimand (such as the knee thing) is then added. Some dogs "get it" with the first verbal command of "No" or "quit". Others require much more.

John S., I can't "click" my fingers, so yes, a clicker works much better.

Chris, you are very judgmental. Good for you that you can satisfy your dogs' energy needs to hand-walking and they never go outside without you. Some dogs require much more than that, and yes, training collars. I would dare you to try to train a 150-lb. dog like a Malemute by handwalking. The dog would be walking (rather PULLING) you.

8:14PM PST on Jan 15, 2013

I have trained my pets with positive reinforcement and it worked perfectly. I would NEVER do anything to them that would cause them the least bit of pain. I get complimented all the time on how well behaved my dog is, so for me positive reinforcement worked like a charm.

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