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Dogs Are My Patronus

Veterinary Scientist blogging about dog training and ownership and general animal welfare. 

TERMINOLOGY, OR METHODOLOGY?

Natalia Alexandrov

“I’m a balanced trainer.” 
“I’m a force free trainer.” 
*insert explosive argument here* 

This is a discussion that has been regurgitated over and over across all sorts of dog training communities, and I myself have written a few blurbs on it here and there, most extensively in my post, “Operant Conditioning in Dog Training”. And, once again, it looks like I’m about to add to the pile. 

“But Alex!” you say. “If it’s been covered by so many different people already, and it’s a bit like beating a dead horse, then why make yet *another* post on it?” 

I guess after watching (and participating) in the argument/discussion for quite some time, I feel it’s time someone pointed out that one half is arguing terminology, and the other half is arguing methodology

The struggle of an animal behaviorism scholar is much like that of most scientists. We study textbooks and research papers and other scholarly works on a subject, and we take the terminology literally. We have to, because there’s a reason nomenclature and professional/vocational terminology exists: to create a standard of communication amongst our professional peers and to minimize miscommunication. When certain terminology becomes popular outside of that immediate circle, the meaning can become warped, which we find incredibly frustrating. 

And such is the case with dog training. The problem is that many mainstream trainers have adapted certain terminology and turned it into a training philosophy. TV personality trainers use phrases like, “purely positive!” or, “100% force free!” 

Here’s the thing, these trainers are not describing their methodology so much as their philosophy, and, my greatest critique of these trainers is that they have embraced one specific quadrant out of four (R+), but have wholly failed to explain or educate their clients and followers on the other three quadrants and how they intertwine. 

It would be far better, and far less problematic, if these trainers had decided to reject the quadrants completely and instead focused on a different systematic, rather than utilizing a behavioral modification system they do not completely agree with. 

In many discussions I have with self-proclaimed R+ trainers, they readily and openly admit that P- is a part of their training, as it is scientifically impossible to be an R+ only trainer. Anyone who understands all four quadrants knows this. In fact, in many “force free” training situations, you are still utilizing three of four quadrants. 

The argument they counter with is that the meaning is “implied” with the label of being an R+ trainer, and that “balanced trainers” are basically just being facetious and latching on to old terminology which has changed in definition based on mainstream usage. 

While I understand that argument, it is still incredibly frustrating to have your terminology appropriated and changed to fit popular trends, because while you as a trainer may understand the technical difference, most of your followers and clients do not, and they are the ones who most often end up picking fights over terminology they do not understand, because they have no concept of the quadrants and what they stand for and only know that aversives are bad, force is bad, and R+ is the only true way to train your dog. 

The other day when I told a lady that when she leaves the room when her puppy bites too hard, she is applying negative punishment, she was appalled. “What?! I do not punish my dog! How dare you?! I use force freetraining!” she shouted. Her trainer had never explained negative punishment to her, and instead demonized all forms of punishment, leading her to believe that punishment = pain. 

The reality is that most force-free trainers and balanced trainers aren’t actually arguing about quadrants; they’re arguing about which tools are acceptable to use in dog training. 

The reason these arguments never end is because no one is talking about what they really disagree on. The balanced trainer would like the force-free trainer to know that nothing is truly force-free and that food can be every bit the aversive as a prong collar, and the force-free trainer would like the balanced trainer to know that it’s safer and easier to teach a client to train a dog with treats and toys than how to utilize a prong collar correctly without it backfiring. 

And guess what? Both are right. Your head collar can be every bit as aversive to your dog as a prong collar, and there is no such thing as truly aversive-free training. And it is much safer and easier to teach someone how to train a dog with reward-based training, most commonly with treats or clicker marking, than to correctly and safely utilize a prong collar. 

The deal-breaker for the two sides is that balanced trainers find e-collars and prongs acceptable training tools, and force-free trainers don’t. 

Personally, I wish the R+ crowd had a different term to describe their philosophy. I wish “purely positive” and “100% force free!” weren’t phrases being used by professional trainers, in the same way that I wish people would stop advertising products as “chemical free!”, when we all know they mean “potentially-harmful toxin free!” 

But let’s not muddle two separate arguments into one messy pot. I find most balanced trainers are not criticizing R+ trainers’ methodology, but their terminology, whereas most R+ trainers are criticizing the balanced trainers’ methodology, which leads to a never-ending back and forth on two completely separate topics of conversation. 

If everyone wants to argue over the effectiveness and ethics of specific tools, then they are welcome to do so, but the discussion might get a lot further if people were clear about what it is they’re really debating.