Thursday, December 2, 2010

To pinch, or not to pinch ....

...that is the question. I was recently asked how I taught Jackson to retrieve the dumbbell. Since I had been thinking about doing a post on my training philosophy at some point, this question seemed a good lead in.

Jackson is the first dog I have trained for competitive obedience, so please take my random thoughts on training with a grain of salt : )   Every dog is different and it's a journey to find training methods that work for your dog and for you. This is what I have learned - so far - about what works with my dog --- and, that's not to say that other methods may have worked as well.

I am not a purely positive trainer. I choose to use primarily positive reinforcers such as treats and praise to train behaviors. I lure - a lot - when first teaching a behavior. I also use corrections to extinguish behaviors I don't want and to reinforce the notion that he doesn't always have a 'choice.' I don't believe corrections have to be harsh - they only need to get the dog's attention and communicate to him that, 'this is not appropriate behavior, or that was the wrong decision.'  I don't believe that ignoring bad behavior in my dog will make it go away, any more than I believe you should ignore bad behavior when raising children. And, I don't believe correcting my dog damages my relationship with him anymore than I think disciplining children damages your relationship with them. I think it gives them a clear picture of what your expectations are and what's acceptable behavior. Well, that's pretty much it in a nutshell - at least as of today. I'm sure my ideas on training will continue to undergo changes and adjustments with more experience, and more trials and errors!

 All of which brings me to the question, "how did I train the retrieve?" I used the ear pinch method. I started out with putting the dumbbell in Jackson's mouth and having him hold it. I rewarded him for holding it and sometimes he would even take it from my hand. But most times he would choose not to take it. Now, I might have worked on this for a year or so and gotten him to take it on command (and I do know people who did work on it for months and were able to get their dogs to retrieve without pinching their ear), however, I am not that patient of a trainer, and at that time, had no experience with clicker training. We had one training session where we pinched his ear to get him to take the dumbbell. I think we only did it a couple times before he figured out what he needed to do. Today, Jackson has a reliable retrieve. I can't remember one time in the four or five years since we did the ear pinch, that he has refused to retrieve.

Would I use the same method with my next dog? I don't know. I've done some dumbbell work with Jolee, who has a totally different personality/temperament than Jackson and I've been using the clicker training method with her. It has been a lot of fun watching her learn that way and I hope to get back to working with her soon. I'll just have to see how far clicker training takes me.


Honey the Great Dane said...

Interesting post! Like you, I'm not a 100% positive trainer, although I do try to primarily use positive reinforcement first and only use corrections when I really have to - or when the situation is too dangerous. Actually, I DO believe in giving dogs choices but I think that employing corrections the right way means that you actually help dogs make the "right" choice - because it is clear then that Option A is pleasant, Option B unpleasant. This is especially true when the action is a self-rewarding one (like lunging) - in those cases, often only ignoring and rewarding with treats/praise from our side isn't enough to overcome the 'reward' the dog gets from performing that action. So by introducing a correction coupled with that action, the dog is more likely to be deterred from doing it and therefore do the alternative we have asked - ie. make the "right" choice.

I have to admit, though, that I make a distinction between "everyday training & manners" - (where I am very tough and non-negotiable on things like instant recall and no inappropriate behaviours like lunging or jumping) - here I believe correction is warranted because it may affect the dog's safety or place in society as a canine citizen...

...Vs. training for dog sports, which I believe is something that we humans want our dogs to do, supposedly 'for fun' but usually for our own man-made accolades that have no meaning for the dog - and therefore should not be "forced" or trained using punishment as otherwise it is not fair on the dog. They didn't ask to do it and for me, it's not the same kind of "importance" for them to perform Obedience in the ring perfectly as for them to have reliable recall which can save their lives. Therefore, for dog sports, I try to only use positive methods, even if it requires longer and more patience - I think it is the least we owe our dogs, since they're really competing for our benefit and not theirs. I also care a lot about the ATTITUDE of the dog in dog sports and so by using only positive methods, the dog remains happier and more willing - whereas dogs trained with correction often seem very reluctant and subdued - as they associate the stress of corrections with the activity, so that they come to regard the whole activity as a negative experience.


Honey the Great Dane said...


As for the dumbbell retrieve - we went through both methods. The obedience club we were with at the time preferred the traditional negative reinforcement methods, like ear pinch, to teach it - or just forcing the dumbbell into the dog's mouth and forcefully holding it there...I followed instructions in class and tried it with Honey but it really made her shut down and what's more, started to give negative connotations for the whole thing. She HATED the dumbbell and started acting fearful whenever we had to do it in class. I hated seeing her change in atttitude - so I decided to use clicker training. Well, I managed to get her retrieving it happily in 1 WEEK. And she gallops out really enthusiastically and runs back and sits & presents it beautifully - and she is always happy doing it and gets really excited when she sees the dumbbell now. That, to me, is how it should be and I'm so glad I changed methods. And it's 100% reliable too - she has never dropped the dumbbell or refused to do a retrieve or come back slowly - most of the time, she is bursting to run after it before I've ven thrown it. And I faded the clicker & treats out after the 1st week.

So it is not always true that using 100% positive methods takes AGES. Some things do, yes (like lunging) but this sort of specific behaviour/trick is actually much faster with clicker because it communicates exactly to the dog what needs to be done.

I think it might take longer if a dog has been trained using traditional methods for a long time because the dog is afraid of making mistakes for fear of being punished and therefore isn't as keen to offer behaviours or try things out, plus they are also too used to being told what to do or lured all the time - that is why people who have switched over to clicker from traditional often think it takes longer. It takes their dogs a while to gain the confidence to think for themselves and not just wait to be told/shown what to do.

I agree with you about discipline, though - I think modern dog training (like child rearing) has gone to extremes and now you can't even say "No" to your dog without is supposedly damaging your relationship (I always say you can't have much of a relationship in the first place, in that case!) - so I do agree that dogs need discipline and clear consequences for their actions (bad as well as good) but at the same time, I do think that there should be a difference between what dogs must do for necessity to survive & live peacefully in our modern society - and what they must do for "sport". It's like the difference between displine for children for every day manners and school and safety - Vs. using punishment to force children to play an instrument or compete in sports or perform in some other talent show. For those things, if there is any chance you can get the dog to do it using just positive methods, then I think we owe it to them to try.


Lindsay said...

Thanks Kathie!!