Positive Animal Training

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

In the 1960s behaviorism and the work of BF Skinner reigned and dominated the field of psychology and understanding of animals. In simple terms, animals were thought to just be stimulus-response machines, with little or no emotions or intelligence and certainly no consciousness.

Behaviorists believed that studying lab rats was all that was necessary to understand any behavior because it was all the same. This major error continues to influence many animal research experiments in labs.

One principle of behaviorism came from Classical Conditioning, meaning that if you rewarded an animal with something they desired, such as food, that animal would become conditioned to repeat the behavior that preceded the treat. So, if a dog sits and you give him a treat, the animal learns that sitting results in a treat. If you punish a dog, the behaviorists believe, you will reduce the likelihood of that behavior. Thus overly-simplified position resulted in justifying decades of cruel animal testing in research labs. Behaviorism only focuses on what an animal does in response to events in the environment. Behaviorism is looking at the outside result, the final behavior, and not considering other factors, such as animal instinct, animal emotion, or animal choice and intelligence.

BF Skinner in his lab, with what became to be called the Skinner box. There was no regard to how the rat felt.

While behaviorism still offers some benefits to understanding training, such as the principles of conditioning, it falls short when it comes to the humane understanding of the true needs and desires of animals – in short, their inner lives. Recent research has gone way beyond the mechanistic behavioralist view. The work of many researchers on our reading list expand and explore the true potential of animals for profound experiences such as emotions, empathy, compassion, curiosity, inventiveness, creativity, and love. Including these aspects of an animal's inner world changes how we approach training.

The Major Training Perspectives:

Some training methods use negative methods of punishment, coercion, and fear to change animal behavior. The concept here is that the human must dominate the animal in order to show him who is the boss. This methodology was popularized on TV by Cesar Milan. I admit, BEFORE I became a dog trainer, I watched every episode of Cesar Milan's shows. I had a chance to watch him in person on one of his tour shows.

I believe he is personally gifted, and dogs respond to his natural dog-abilities. However, he is misinformed about his understanding of the role of the Alpha Male (see my blog on The Truth About Alpha Males.) This dominance model doesn't hold up to current scientific understanding about how animals learn, but was very much the style in the 1950s and is still practiced today by some trainers, especially in law enforcement and with military working dogs.

Although dominance methods can create compliance, in many cases, they disrupt the true potential for the human-animal bond, which is based on mutual respect, two-way communication, and trust. As I had a chance to understand the science of positive training methods and became a dog trainer myself, I feel it is very important to educate the public that methods that hurt, frighten, or dominate animals is morally wrong. Dominance is not effective learning. It does not hold up with our current science of animal cognition. It is the wrong approach for those who seek to have a trusting relationship with their animal.

Cherry, a very sweet dog, who was once forced to fight

Having spent thousands of hours volunteering at animal shelters, you see that dogs who have been hit (as evidenced by the fact that they cower when a human raises their arm or holds something above their head) -- end up as owner surrenders. This is because the human may have gotten dominance over their animal, but that animal will often act-out or be destructive in other areas. Thus that animal is often surrendered or abandoned.

Cherry, one of the dogs rescued from Michael Vick's Dog Fighting Ring, is a shining example of how healing is possible for dogs who have been severely traumatized

Animals who have been dominated, hurt or abused suffer trauma just like humans. What is inspiring is that they can heal in the right environment, with lots of safety, love, and patience. They can learn to trust humans again with the right kind of treatment. I have seen even extreme cases, such as one dog who was rescued from the Michael Vick dogfighting compound, his name was Cherry. This black Pitbull was so frightened of everything that when Best Friends Animal Sanctuary rescued him, and took him for a walk, he would just slink along the ground. Best Friends rescued some of these "worst cases" -- which they later named "Victory Dogs" because so many of them were able to be rehabilitated.

Cherry gives love at a screening in NYC of Champions

Cherry has since been adopted by a loving and patient family, and I had a chance to meet him at a screening in NYC of the powerful documentary Champions, which tells the story of these dogs and their rehabilitation, even though in the past rescued fighting dogs were always euthanized at shelters. Cherry was a very happy, well-behaved, loving dog who was able to relax on stage in front of a crowd of strangers and take treats, wag his tail, and pose for pictures. Later Cherry chose a wonderful baby sister, Ellie. Thankfully he has a wonderful life now!

Positive Training Methods began to replace outdated training styles in the 1980s. Ian Dunbar, an English veterinarian, helped popularize this approach and encouraged people to get puppies off to a good start with "puppy parties" and early socialization. Positive Training methods seek to use only positive reinforcement, meaning an animal is rewarded for good behavior (the dog sits, she gets a treat.) Bad behavior is redirected (the dog chews on something she is not supposed to, and she is handed a toy she is allowed to chew.) Some trainers will use a combination of positive and corrective training. For example, some may use positive training methods for 90% of situations but will consider a variety of harsher methods for serious behavioral challenges. Some examples of stronger corrections involve varying degrees of control, such as leash corrections, startling noises or touches, or other dominance methods.

Dolphins, which are most effectively trained with 100% positive methods, meaning, "good" behavior is rewarded, and "wrong" behavior is ignored, have done much to teach us about the effectiveness of positive training for all species.

Today, there is mounting evidence for the use of at least 90% positive training. While this may require more patience and perseverance than methods that override an animal’s will, they result in better physical and emotional health for the animal. One of the most common reasons dogs are "owner-surrenders" to shelters are behavioral problems. In my opinion, this one change, increasing the reliance on positive training methods, may reduce the number of animals who are abandoned, escape, or become "owner-surrender" to overcrowded shelters.

Methods that take into consideration the animal’s needs and wishes are based on greater respect for the animal’s spirit. They take the perspective that animals have needs, emotions, desires, and generally want to please us. It is a matter of showing them or teaching them that positive behavior please us and often gets rewarded.

Autonomy and the Power of Choice

Just as very young children need boundaries and structure (a five-year-old should not run free in a mall, for example), animals who share our lives need training and an understanding of what we desire and what we don't desire. However, HOW we get to this result is a question of what we value. If we want a companion animal who loves, trusts and respects our wishes, positive training methods will have the most effectiveness.

When he was ready, Cherry chose this puppy, Ellie. So now he is the big brother.

Having said that, it is important for children and animals that they have SOME time or areas where they can make their own choices. This means playtime, off-leash. Where they can choose what they want to do and how they do it. Even service dogs and other working dogs need some "downtime," rest time, or play time. They need some time where they can make choices, such as lay in the sun or not -- play with a toy or not -- potty when they need to, engage with others or not and so on. Everybody's situation is different. If you live in a big city, you may not be able to let your dog run off leash. So you have to look at your specific situation and ask yourself "In what ways or situations could my dog make his or her own choices?" Having some "choice time" each day or week, even for twenty minutes can go a long way towards mental and physical health in humans and non-human animals.

Brief History of Animal Training and Methodology

Ever since we took wolf cubs into our caves, we have been socializing dogs to be our best friends. As Mary Burch, PhD states, "Domesticated dogs were used for purposes such as hunting, herding, droving, pulling sleds, and killing vermin. Tibetan Terriers are thought to have been bred and raised by monks in Tibetan monasteries as long as 2000 years ago to serve as pets and assist with the care of flocks and herds. In the 1790s, during her imprisonment, Josephine reportedly used her Pug to carry messages to Napoleon. In the 19th Century, Asian tribes were using sled dogs to carry loads. All of these dogs had some training that was most likely provided by the owners and based on trial-and-error."

In the 1980's many dog trainers began using Operant Conditioning, which comes from Pavlov's discoveries with Classical Conditioning methods which he demonstrated in the 1890s. Here is a brief definition of Classical Conditioning which is still used today by most animal trainers.

Below is a typical description, taken from Wikipedia. Notice how they call an animal an "organism" in order to create a "science-y" sound. It does create emotional distance, but also perpetuates treating animals as if they are unfeeling objects.

While animals' behavior could be controlled by Operant Conditioning, it led to thinking of animals as just "response machines" without regard to how they might feel about controlled.

"Classical conditioning occurs when a conditioned stimulus (CS) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (US). Usually, the conditioned stimulus is a neutral stimulus (e.g., the sound of a bell), the unconditioned stimulus is biologically potent (e.g., the taste of food) and the unconditioned response (UR) to the unconditioned stimulus is an unlearned reflex response (e.g., salivation). After pairing is repeated, the organism (sic) exhibits a conditioned response (CR) to the conditioned stimulus when the conditioned stimulus is presented alone."

Or in simple words, you ring a bell -- then feed the dog. The dog learns that when the bell rings, he will get food, so he begins to anticipate the reward. This method can be very effective to train an animal to do specific behaviors.

Clicker Training:

Clicker training is a positive and effective method to train any animal, especially when consistency of response is valued, such as for working dogs or dogs that must make life-and-death calls.

Karen Pryor, a positive animal trainer, developed a system of clicker training. This method takes into account the need-for-speed in a dog's brain. This means that there needs to be about a one-second interval between what a dog does and his understanding that this a desired behavior. Thus when you give the cue "sit" and the dog sits, you click as her behind is about to touch the ground, helping the dog to "pair" your reaction to her behavior. The click sound lets her know that this is the desired behavior. Then a treat is promptly given. This assumes that you have already done the first step of conditioning so that the dog knows when she hears the clicker, a treat is coming.

This is "smart training" because it takes into account the dog's fast brain, and then allows the human to reach for a treat (which will likely take more than one second). If the time between action and your reward action is slower than one second, it may reduce the effectiveness of pairing the two events. A modification of clicker/response is using the word "good" or "yes" or another specific word that is (preferably only) used as the cue word. But as the human may vary his or her volume, intensity, duration, and other variables when they use the word, the clicker is always exactly the same. Consistency is very important in training. For this reason, the clicker has some advantages over the spoken word, but they can both work.

Clicker training (me holding chicken) with one of my dog training instructors, Marie Selarque, in Hawaii

For me personally, when I was becoming a dog trainer, we worked with clicker training -- but in this case -- we were working with chickens, as they have very fast responses, and are very precise observers.

In training chickens, you had to have almost robotic precision in your movements, because the chickens could make such fine distinctions in your body variation. In this way, training chickens with clickers taught us humans how to be more effective dog trainers, because every movement, including eye movement had to be consistent and precise.

History of Dog Competitions and Systemized Training Methods

Although obedience training was not a part of early dog shows, this became a part of these events in the 1930s. The National Animal Interest Alliance's (NAIA) website gives an overview of how dog shows influenced the creation of systematized dog training:

"Beginning in the late 1700s, in England, informal dog competitions were held in events much like county fairs. By the 1800s, informal dog activities had become popular. Many events were held in local taverns, and the townspeople came to cheer on their favorite dogs. A British tavern called The Blue Anchor was the main headquarters for the Toy Dog Club, and a specialty show for Toy Spaniels was held in The Elephant and Castle tavern in 1834.

In 1859, English dog fanciers held the first organized dog show. The show included only Pointers and Setters, showing the interest at the time in dogs who had been trained for sporting activities. Fourteen years later, The Kennel Club (England) held its first official dog show.

As in England, the earliest interest in organized dog training in the United States focused on sporting dogs. In the 1700s, George Washington maintained a kennel of foxhounds at Mt. Vernon and competitions involving pointers, setters, and hounds were popular. In 1884, a growing national interest in pure-bred dogs resulted in the formation of The American Kennel Club. Initially, the primary focus of the AKC was to maintain a stud book and serve as a central governing body for dog shows.

From the mid-1880s until the 1930s, there were no obedience events at AKC dog shows. An idea that was borrowed from other countries, dog training was becoming well known in the United States in the 1920s, even though (at that time) there were no AKC obedience competitions. Owners could have their dogs boarded and trained by professional trainers. Some owners trained in groups and had local competitions. Training dogs for competition and to earn AKC titles didn’t begin in this country until 1933 when Helene Whitehouse Walker decided to show everyone that her Standard Poodle was far more than just another pretty face."

AKC Agility Competition

People have very strong opinions when it comes to dog shows with their focus on pure breeds with proven lineage. They feel that the elevated value of pure breds means that the public may overlook adopting a mutt from a shelter. But mixed breed dogs are often healthier emotionally and physically. However, the focus on pure breeds with precision movement, body carriage, and training, is what you see in dog shows today. These shows also feature agility competitions.

This short video below shows King, a Wire Terrier, the winner of the Westminster Dog Show in 2019.

Animals Read Energy

Frans De Waal tells a story in his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are about some of the Capuchin monkeys in his lab who started to show poor results on facial recognition tests. What he discovered was that one volunteer lab assistant had a nervous quality. She would touch her hair and change body positions often, which had a stressful effect on the monkeys who didn't know how to interpret her excess motion. This disturbance caused them to perform poorly on tests on which they previously succeeded. The moral of the story is that animals read and react to you as a human. In a training context, it is very important to realize that you may be unconsciously sending the animal mixed messages. You need a high degree of calmness and self-awareness to be an effective animal trainer. Just ask a chicken!

De Waal also mentions that mice in labs generally perform "smarter" when they have females conducting the tests. Perhaps because they are less intimidating in their size, demeanor, voice, body language -- or energy.

The Trust Technique

The Trust Technique, developed by James French in England, is the opposite of the dominance model of training. You might say it is the "cooperation method" in that the trainer always works at the animal's pace, is always respecting the animal's feelings and readiness to move forward. It is based on developing a relationship of trust as the foundation of any training or behavior modification. In other words, the Trust Technique Practitioner will always be observing the animal, watching and listening to how the animal feels, and patiently going step-by-step in the learning process. The goal is to help the animal let go of fear until their natural curiosity propels them to learn or face something that was once scary. I am a Certified Trust Technique Practitioner because it is my favorite way of working with animals. It is a very peaceful process and can work miracles, even with animals who have been traumatized. It is gentle, peaceful, and healing.

Here is a short video of James French using the Trust Technique with horses in a rescue sanctuary. These are all formerly traumatized horses, who have learned to trust James enough to lie down in his lap.

I believe that animals read energy. If you are training a dog or any animal, there is no point in pretending to be patient if you are really feeling impatient, because the animal will read that message and that will override any training instruction. And it is necessary to know when to stop a training session because concentration is no longer possible, thus one should just play or engage in a playful manner. One always wants to end a training session on a positive, successful experience. When success happens, it builds confidence in one’s abilities and talents.

Here is a formerly traumatized horse, Miss Betsy who had been forced to be a drug-runner (where they tie all the horses' legs together so they can't escape) and then when they were finished with her, they left her in a barn to starve.

When we first brought her to the rescue sanctuary, she was afraid of everything, including people who were trying to feed her -- she would kick with all four legs. She was also terrified of dogs.

Here she is during a Trust Technique session with myself and my service dog, Sophia.

We took many wonderful slow walks together after this. Miss Betsy became our best Therapy Horse because her true gentle nature was able to emerge.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection



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