I’ve been watching a lot of World Dog Training Motivation Transparency Challenge videos this morning. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s an idea from the very wise Jean Donaldson. Dog training has picked up so many coy terms for punishment that it can be hard to tell when a trainer is using even heavy-handed aversive methods. So, Jean Donaldson created this set of questions (roughly paraphrased here) that should be asked to clarify any trainer’s position:
1) What happens if the dog gets it right?
2) What happens if the dog gets it wrong?
3) Is there a less invasive way to proceed?
Professional and amateur dog trainers have been posting videos explaining their stance on these three questions and challenging each other to do the same.
I’ll post the videos I watched this morning below, all of which are from trainers I respect:
First, Grisha Stewart. Her incredible sympathy for reactive/fearful dogs has been an inspiration for me, and her answer to the last question is really wonderful:
Second, Michael Baugh, whose video wins for beautiful production values + sound dog training:
Third, Thomas Mitchell, a great up-and-coming dog trainer from the UK. You may have heard of the Absolute Dogs Training Academy that he runs with Lauren Langman. Tom gets bonus points for fitting the Premack principle into his discussion of rewards (and for chopping off his head in the video, because I always do that, too.)
Finally, I also love Eileen’s video (from Eileen and Dogs), for general awesomeness and for acknowledging that we do stupid things and sometimes need professional help:
What I found most interesting in these videos was their answer to “What happens when the dog gets it wrong?” The answers vary slightly in their specificity, but the general theme is that if the dog makes a mistake it is your fault for asking too much, and we shouldn’t do this.
Let me just say: I agree with the first part of that. I’m not so sure about the second. In fairness, I absolutely believe these trainers would give more nuanced answers over a cup of coffee in a chat with an experienced dog person, and some of them do give more details. The whole point of the Dog Trainers’ Challenge is that it is intended for the general public. So, I’m using my luxury of space and audience here to ruminate.
Is constant success our goal?
If you really want a dog to be successful 100% of the time, you can arrange that. It’s absolutely important to remember both that we can help our dogs succeed and that we can inadvertently make them fail. The more carefully you think about the demands of your training environment, including things like distractions, the better off you’ll be.
But when was the last time you played a game you could always win? If you completed every level of Candy Crush on the first try, would you still be playing it? If every slot machine turned up a jackpot on every pull (and thus could only pay back exactly what you put in), would casinos even exist?
I’m not saying that you should constantly overwhelm your dog, but dog training with zero challenges is boring. Your dog is smarter than you think, and you’ll never know that if you’re obsessed with always setting the dog up to succeed.
As positive trainers, we can let failure be a big bogeyman. “I don’t know what to do if my dog makes a mistake! I can’t correct him?!” The key is to have a plan. Before you start training, ask yourself what you’re going to do if, within the context of this exact training moment, your dog makes the wrong choice. You’ll find that you have more options than you think.