What People Don’t Know About What They Do

I had an interesting experience last Friday evening. My family and I attended a presentation by a scientist who works with big cats in South America. She is working to learn the travel patterns of several species, in order to create contiguous greenspace for the cats, so that they aren’t killed on highways, roads, and in settled areas. I think this is great work, and admirable. She works with a Conservation Dog, who is trained to find the scat of specific cats, which helps to map their travel, for the purposes stated above. She also trains Conservation Dogs and their handlers. This event was hosted by our obedience club, which is a clicker training club, working to use positive reinforcement based methods for dog (and people!) training, and as little punishment as possible. When the presenter first began her talk, she went out of her way to mention that, “We use positive reinforcement to train our dogs, just like you!”

Well, not exactly. She went on to explain how the dogs are trained to alert on specific scents/scat by reinforcing them with a tennis ball and play time. Someone asked how the dogs know the difference between the scat they’re looking for, and the scat to ignore. She explained that they have samples of various scats, and when the dog alerts to the wrong one, they yell “NO!” and no tennis ball. Okay, so positive reinforcement and positive punishment together. Not exactly how I train, or the club trains, but clearly not something that the presenter understood. My husband asked, “How much positive punishment do you normally use?” Several people in the crowd laughed, and I heard mutters of “I’ve never heard punishment called positive before..*snicker*” These were not members of our club, or trainers, just members of the general public, who had been invited by club members. The presenter looked puzzled, and said, “I’m not familiar with that term…? We use positive reinforcement training”. Then she was asked about safety in the field. She explained the electronic collar snake aversion training. Then she explained that the dogs all wear electronic collars in the field, “just in case you need to break them off of a scent, or a trail”. Definitely not the type of training that we use. She also explained that “These dogs aren’t like family pets, they can’t sleep in beds, or on the couch, they have to sleep in kennels, and they can’t have any toys or play unless they’re working”.

I found the whole event a good reminder that not everyone knows what he or she is doing, from a scientific/behavioral science perspective, when training dogs or other animals. I am not judging the trainer, or her training, it’s just an interesting reminder to me that people who work with dogs pretty much all have good intentions, most think they are using “Positive Training” and many do not understand the science behind what they are teaching or the methods they are using, even if they are scientists with a strong science background in other areas. This just brings home to me again how vital it really is to have a clear, well defined, vocabulary when discussing training and behavior modification with other trainers and the public. I will continue in my quest to be clear, explain well, and help my students know exactly what they are doing, and as much as possible, the hows and whys of the techniques they’re employing. I want an open dialogue, with clear definitions, to help build understanding of what we do as trainers and teachers, what our intentions are, and how our outcomes are achieved. I hope my fellow trainers will join me.