Nothing sparks greater internet debates amongst dog people than training methods – are you force free, are you purely positive, do you use aversives, are you pack theory or dominance theory? We have a label for every type of trainer imaginable, and all of these labels carry a lot of emotion.
I was judgmental and emotional when I got into dog training – I went to a few seminars, took some courses, learned about learning theory, trained a few dogs, and I thought I could change the world with “positive” training methods. I could “fix” everything – nobody could possibly need a pinch collar or an e-collar? They cause pain! Who wants to hurt his/her dog?
Far too many years have passed by, and my experience has grown, along with my education. I have handled literally thousands of dogs, from feral to pet dogs to working dogs to extremely dangerous dogs. And while the majority of my training was and still is “positive”, I learned that there is a place for those two quadrants of operant conditioning that should never be named: positive punishment and negative reinforcement.
Let’s clarify what these two quadrants mean. Positive punishment means that I am adding an unpleasant consequence to a behaviour in order to decrease the occurrence/intensity of that behaviour. In negative reinforcement, I am removing an unpleasant stimulus in order to strengthen a behaviour. These two quadrants of learning certainly work, but they come with a lengthy list of rules that include precision of timing, consistency, strength of the aversive stimulus, proper association of the aversive and more. Sounds nasty and difficult, right?
So what prompted me to go to the dark side? A fast car that nearly collided with my beloved and very fast dog. It was an early spring morning, when the temperature and moisture in the air is perfect for carrying scent. We had stepped out for a morning walk, and Mulder, who is confident and well trained, put his nose in the air, got onto a scent and sped off. I recalled him – he had years of good recall, all trained with fantastic rewards. He slowed to look at me, essentially gave me the paw, and sped off in pursuit of delectable roadkill. At the same time, a vehicle was speeding down my road and as that vehicle hit the curve of the road, Mulder was crossing the pavement at the same time, while I was running and screaming (helpful, I know). I was calculating the time it would take me to drive to the closest emergency clinic, which one I should go to, and what would be the consequences to Mulder being hit by a car – would he die? Could he still work? I played worse case scenario in my head.
Luckily, the car saw Mulder and braked. Mulder visited the road kill that was more exciting than myself, and then he returned to the proper side of the road. I promptly attached his leash, went inside, drank a coffee and got out an e-collar. Yes, a shock collar – call it what you want, but I was not going to lose my beloved dog to a car, as long as I could help it.
After my coffee, I went out with the dogs, established what level of stimulation Mulder responded to (starting at zero, of course, and incrementally working my way up), and he learned that if I recalled him, and he did not come, he would experience low-level stimulation, and he could turn that off by coming to me. It did not take more than 3 repetitions, and he was reliably recalling without me having to use the stimulation. I gradually added in distractions, and my problem was significantly reduced.
I felt relieved. I later discussed the training with a colleague of mine, and she asked me how I felt ethically about my decision and training – I had caused my dog pain, on purpose. I said I felt fine because I had potentially saved my dog’s life, and it was unethical for me to not use my knowledge and skills. The pain of a permanent injury or death far outweighed the pain of a shock, and he was still being rewarded for the desired behavior – it only took 3 shocks for Mulder to understand that not coming when called carried a consequence. We did his training out in the pasture – he is not afraid of the pasture, nor myself, nor putting on the collar.
I am going to be judged on this blog post – I might as well be tied to the stake and burnt because I use an e-collar on my dog, following the least intrusive, minimally aversive protocol and the science and application of learning theory. Judge all you want, but my dog still loves working with me, and I am able to continue to enjoy working with him.