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Positive Trainers: Defining Ourselves By Our Methods, Not Our Tools

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

Eileen Koval, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

I am writing this because I have worked with many people recently who either skipped or quit early training with their puppies because they were not comfortable with a clicker, did not want to use one, or their puppy was noise sensitive. They come to me with behavior issues that surface later due to lack of early training and socialization. It is extremely hard to find positive-based training classes that do not require the use of a clicker. Some of my clients in both my private and group classes come to me solely because I am willing to work with them using voice markers. Clickers and positive training are not synonymous, so these people are being done a disservice by having to search high and low to find someone who does not define positive training by the equipment they use. So many give up and just don’t get training.

Let me preface this by saying that clickers are a wonderful tool that help handlers mark behaviors with precision, enhancing communication between handlers and their dogs. I use voice markers with most clients, but clickers have been the right tool for some clients who have difficult being consistent in their voice marking of behaviors. It enhanced the communication between those handlers and dogs. This not only helps provide a better trained dog, but the clear communication and rewards that follow enriches their relationship. However, positive training would continue to exist without clickers. Clickers as a tool do not define positive dog training. As dog training professionals, it is important to focus on the ethical training practices we want to promote and the individual needs of each team, instead of focusing on the equipment being used. There are trainers who have clickers in one hand but an air gun or shock collar in the other. Is this a positive trainer?

Most recently I saw a photo of a child-reactive dog in a crate in the middle of a playground. The dog was put there by someone who attended KPA who is a vocal proponent of positive training. I would never consider putting a dog into a state of distress by flooding to be a positive training practice. Similarly, I have seen clicker trainers take free-shaping to the extreme and put dogs into a state of intense stress and frustration by giving the dog no information to make the desired choice that will earn them the reward, so the dog shuts down. I have also seen trainers who use prong collars without any handler-initiated corrections. They mark and reward desired behavior but do not jerk the prong collar for any corrections. The collar is there in case the large dog lunges to go after a stray cat or other prey, so the owner won't be injured. Which trainer is positive and which is not? The world of dog training is not so black and white, and it is not necessarily defined by our equipment.

The problem that bothers me is that since so many trainers define themselves by their equipment, new pet parents looking for group classes for their dogs often find themselves faced with the choice of choosing between the equipment they are more comfortable using. Many are faced with the choice between classes requiring the use of aversive equipment (prong, choke, e-collars), or classes requiring the use of a clicker. Many do not want to use either one and either don't take classes or drop out of classes because they are uncomfortable with the equipment. Rather than focusing on methods they use --such as positive reinforcement, differential reinforcement, or management -- many positive trainers are like their aversives counterparts in that they define themselves by the tools that they use. Unfortunately, this does a disservice to the dogs and their guardians who walk through the door looking for quality training.

Clickers are actually aversive to more dogs than some clicker trainers would like to admit. For some dogs, it would take significant time and patience to desensitize them to the noise of even a soft clicker. If they attended a clicker training class, it would not matter if this dog used a soft clicker. The room would be flooded with clicker noise. So is a clicker actually right for that dog? I would say that it is not. The right choice of equipment is what works best for that individual team, and in this case, whatever works best for that team is what enables the person to clearly mark desired behaviors at the precise moment they occur.

I have worked with countless people who were using clickers they obtained from group clicker training classes they quit. However, they were not using them in the intended way. They were using them as a mild aversive to startle a dog out of their fixation in public, similar to how some people use an e-collar on a low setting or a dog whistle. I work with these people on getting their dogs to actually focus and work through distractions. But again, the clicker is a neutral stimulus for most dogs, while being aversive to others with noise sensitivities. It can be conditioned to be a positive sign that a treat is coming, but a neutral stimulus could just as easily be conditioned that something negative is about to happen. It is neutral. It is not inherently positive. Whether equipment is aversive depends to a degree on how it is used and how the dog perceives it. A collar on a dog's neck is standard practice for most dog owners and neutral to most dogs. A collar can be conditioned as positive if it is only put on the dog before going on a walk. A collar can be highly aversive if it is used for sharp, repeated corrections on leash, or harsh collar grabs.

I write this to hopefully get more professionals to think about the methods they are using and how they affect the dogs as individuals and dog-handler teams, instead of defining themselves by their equipment. I am sad when I hear from clients that they skipped early training because they could not find a class with equipment they were comfortable using. I am particularly sad when I hear that they skipped or dropped out of clicker classes because they have a noise sensitive dog. Typically, the people discussed their concerns with the instructors who told them that group classes were not right for them. Are group classes the issue, or is it that the required tool is not right for them?

The world of dog training is already highly divided, but we need to focus more on discussing which methods or tools are most appropriate for the specific team in front of us. I have heard too many remarks like, "OMG, did you see that he had a prong collar on that dog? I feel so sorry for that dog". I have seen plenty of dogs excited to wiggle into their prong or choke collars for a walk, and conversely, plenty of dogs that are not happy for their clicker training sessions. I have also seen it the other way, too, of course. Choke/prong/e-collars are most definitely NOT my tools of choice, but I point this out because I regularly see dogs who do not act as though the collars are aversive. What is aversive is in the eye of the beholder.

Just because someone is in the clicker camp does not make them positive, and just because someone used a prong collar does not make them a punishment-based trainer. We do not know what methods were used and did not work before they decided to put a prong collar on that individual dog. Each dog-handler team that walks through the door is unique and should be treated as such instead of having a clicker or other required tool shoved into their hand. Let's put our focus back to helping individual teams develop good communication and trust so they can enjoy the best relationship possible.

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