Romancing The Cookie
Like many other obedience competitors, I started training my first dog at a local club. The club had a rich tradition, and had been in business for many years. So I joined, and quickly became hooked on dog training. I loved working with my dog, and never missed a training session. The problem was my dog didn't love it. The more we trained, the more she hated it. At the time, I felt that her poor attitude toward training, was because the club didn't approve of food and toys. I now know that was only part of the problem. The real cause of my dog's poor attitude was my own lack of knowledge, a teaching program that focused on physical corrections, a system that lacked balance between positive and negative, and my dog's own soft temperament. In reality, her dislike of obedience had little to do with food and toys. But in my mind, all she needed was positive motivational training. I wanted ears up and eyes bright. I knew in my heart that the positive trainers had the answer...if I was just reinforcing enough, my dog would love to work for me. So for the next four years, I took off my leash, filled my cheeks with food, my pockets with toys, and had a wonderful time teaching my dog.
To obtain my goal, I embarked on a quest for knowledge, that continues today. I attended every motivational seminar, watched every video, read every book, even joined the clicker list on the Internet. My vocabulary expanded, and I learned the difference between a lure and a reward, between positive and negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment, between primary and secondary reinforcers. I studied schedules of reinforcement, and knew that variable schedules with a variety of reinforcers, produced the best results. I developed both verbal and physical Conditioned Reinforcers for use in the ring. I put my heart and soul into learning as much as I could about learning theory itself. BF Skinner became a household name, and Operant Conditioning was the game. In the back of my mind, I knew Skinner's work included both positive and negative, but I wanted to believe that I could achieve what the marine mammal trainers have achieved. The more I worked with my dog, the more positive my training became. Corrections were a thing of the past. My dog was simply stunning, with ears up and eyes bright. She loved training and so did I. Together we romanced the cookie.
You see, pure positive, or pure motivational training (call it whatever you want), was a "feel good" method, and I felt wonderful. It's a very romantic idea. Imagine actually training your dog without any negatives. Teaching your dog to offer a vast array of behaviors in hopes of reinforcement. Imagine walking into the obedience ring with a dog that displays the utmost in willingness and enjoyment, simply because you positively conditioned it. The creativity in teaching behaviors, via hands off shaping, is a high in itself. Further reinforcement came from our results in the obedience ring. In Novice A, we brought home nothing but Blue ribbons, in Open A we placed on every leg. The move to Open B was a piece of cake. Our first OB trial, and there we were in the front row, along with three OTCh teams. I was hooked, and I was in love with cookie-power. Looking back on those four years, I wonder just how much pure positive had to do with dog training. For me, it may have had more to do with self validation.
Though we never quite achieved the same level of utmost in the ring, that we enjoyed in training, we scored well, and she was basically a happy worker. But there were little nagging problems undermining our journey through Utility. We finished the UD with two firsts, and a second placement, but behaviors had started to break down. We're now working on the UDX, and those little nagging problems that we never really faced, are no longer little problems. Under the pure positive (no physical aversives ever) approach, when behaviors break down it's often thought that the behavior simply isn't reinforcing enough. I still believe that theory is true, but I now know the answer is not always another cookie. Where did the romance go sour for us? I feel that we encountered three major areas of breakdown in teaching performance exercises, using a totally non-corrective approach. My dog learned what behaviors to do, but never learned what not to. I failed to lead with my relationship, and lead with rewards instead. Reinforcement schedules for training and performance were not balanced.
First, because the focus was always on correct behavior, my dog never learned what wasn't an option. Yes, she tends to escalate those behaviors that bring reinforcement. But she still explored other options, and she learned some interesting things from that exploration. She learned that the environment is jam packed with it's own wonderful array of reinforcers. She learned that if she chose not to do the behavior I requested, because something else was more reinforcing, that her choice carried no negative consequence. Sure, I withheld the cookie, but she was reinforced anyway. Besides, she could always earn a cookie later whenever she wanted one. She actually learned that the environment was more reinforcing at times, than I was. Because our training was correction free, we encountered problems in training when she would refuse to do a behavior. I only had two options, one was to abort the exercise, the other was to bribe her through it. Neither are acceptable. I watched her like a hawk, for any sign of stress. Whenever she showed the slightest sign of aversion, I would work around it. I had not taught my dog to deal with stress, to learn that she could be successful when presented with a challenge, I had not given her the confidence that achievement brings.
My next area of breakdown when using a pure positive approach was the lack of developing a meaningful working relationship with my dog. While our relationship in life is incredible, our relationship in training never reached that same level. Reflecting back, I believe that my mistake was in leading with the reinforcer, instead of my relationship. I had both verbal and physical Conditioned Reinforcers. Like many other trainers, I had taught my dog that the word "yes" meant that you did the right behavior, and that you have earned some reward. I did not teach her that her behavior pleased me, or that it was fun for her to do. No, I romanced the cookie, and lead with my reinforcement. Earning the cookie became the focal point in training, and I was the delivery boy. I actually took myself out of the training picture. What happened to verbal and physical praise, the interaction between teammates, the joy in working? I offered it, but in reality it was nothing but a distraction. She was not learning what I thought she was. I thought I was being reinforcing, while she continued to romance the cookie.
My final point of failure in the application of a pure positive approach, occurred as I got better, and better at it. I knew my dog was quite context sensitive, and that she knew cookies wouldn't be falling from the heavens in the ring. So I did what any savvy pure positive trainer would do. I started to mix up my reinforcers. I used various kinds of food, toys, and finally added games to the training picture. I thought I had it all figured out. Well while this plan sounded good, and while my dog was marvelous in training, a strange thing happened. I had made training so wonderful, and stress free, that the AKC ring with it's limited reinforcements, and all of it's formality, could never measure up. I taught my dog, and myself, that the ring was no fun, and that it was a very stressful place.
Today I'm trying a more balanced approach. I'm thankful for the great learning experiences that I have encountered. Through my initial Correct and Praise club experience, I learned to focus on the positive, not the negative. Through my use of pure positive, I've learned to focus on the positive, but include the negative. From my dog, I've learned that she is not a dolphin, that she is my dog and she is the true master of this game. That she has her own needs, abilities and limitations. That my job is to foster an environment where she can learn to be the best she can be. I've learned that she is my friend, my partner, and a very honest creature. I've learned that the AKC ring with it's limited fixed reinforcement schedule, is not Sea World.
I've learned not to base behaviors on types of reinforcement that I can never deliver during performance. I've started to enlighten my dog that all behaviors have a consequence, some are positive, some are not. I'm not avoiding stress issues. I'm working through them. I'm leading with my relationship now. I'm working to become the jackpot. I've learned that correction does not have to be painful, that correction can enhance learning and build confidence. I've learned that corrections should never be made in anger, or used to make up for a trainers lack of knowledge. I've learned that they are a valid teaching tool.
Our goal now, is to interact and play, to gain attention and approval...not to earn a cookie. I'm working to develop ways through sounds and gestures, to actually reinforce my dog in the ring. I don't want to tell her that she will get her reward after the performance is done. I want to reinforce during. I want her to love working, and being with me. We still enjoy our cookies, but now the romance belongs to us.