To make this text easier to understand I will divide animal trainers into three categories: Traditional, Balanced and Modern. If we look at the picture below we can see that at the very left we have Traditional trainers, in the middle we have Balanced trainers and at the right end side we have Modern trainers. For each group I have added which operant conditioning quadrants they use, along with the main training motivation tool. This arrangement will result in an over-simplified version of the several training philosophies out there, so keep in mind that there are obviously people that will fall within different points of this spectrum.
Balanced trainers will typically provide rewards for correct behavior and aversive consequences for incorrect behavior. This group can be a little more difficult to spot because they do use rewards and, can quickly be confounded with the Modern trainers group to the untrained eye. If, apart from rewards, there is any type of physical correction or intimidation when the animal makes a mistake, the trainer is likely to belong to this category. Some trainers in this category will teach behaviors without force and then “perfect it” with corrections when it is assumed that the animal has already learnt the behavior.
Modern trainers or force free trainers are the ones that do not use force or aversive measures to teach animals. They typically motivate the animal to do what they want and offer rewards for it. They can also remove pleasant things from the environment if the animal is showing an undesired behavior. These trainers manage the environment so that the animal can succeed. For example: instead of correcting a dog for grabbing and chewing socks, these trainers make sure that the dog has no access to socks at all and offer an appropriate chew item when the dog is likely to want to chew. In this group, trainers also understand that many times the animals’ behavior is the result of an underlying emotional state that needs to be addressed first.
I consider myself a Modern trainer and like any other human on the planet I am biased towards my own perception on this topic. At the moment, it is crystal clear to me why being a Modern trainer is better than being a Traditional or Balanced one, but back when I started that was not the case. There are many psychological, behavioral and biological reasons as to why a Modern approach is more appropriate (my last blog post refers some of those reasons), but for purposes of this text I will use a different set of arguments which were the ones that made me choose this approach some years ago.
Argument 1: Going back to my grandparents’ dog, when I decided to start training him I followed a Youtube tutorial. According to this, you would train the dog offering a little bit of praise now and then and the dog would do the things you ask out of a desire to please the owner. Long story short, it was boring, uninteresting and neither I nor the dog enjoyed it. The dog would not look at me and I didn’t feel like it was working. I was a bit frustrated and did some additional research. Soon enough, I found a different video suggesting to train dogs with food. So, the next day that is what I did. What a difference! The dog had his tail up, a smile on his face and was looking at me the entire time. I got a few behaviors started and everything happened with a lot of “gusto”. I was hooked on animal training from this moment onwards. I was also pretty sure that using rewards was a good idea.
Argument 2: I started to read a lot of dog training books and I also bought several dog training DVDs. At this moment I was getting a lot of information from the three different approaches described above. I saw a lot of Modern trainers pointing out that the then famous TV show “Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan” was a terrible approach to training dogs. I remember wondering if his approach could be used in conjunction with a Modern one, depending on each specific case. Then, I stumbled upon a fact that is still to this day one of my main arguments for the Modern approach. I noticed that all the major international references in animal training with a strong academic background in relevant fields were Modern trainers. People with Masters, PhDs, Post-Docs and Peer Reviewed work in fields related to animal behavior that decided to become dog trainers were all Modern Trainers. I noticed that the Traditional and the Balanced group had a lot of trainers that were self-taught and with many years of experience. In the Modern approach group, trainers without a formal academic background usually have or are currently obtaining certifications and courses based on the latest scientific findings. So if all trainers who have extensive academic studies on this topic choose a Modern approach, instead of a Traditional or Balanced one, what does this tell you?
Let me give you a practical example to further substantiate my point of view. If one day I wake up with a very strange looking mole on my skin the first thing I would do would be to show it to a medical doctor. I would not go to a witchdoctor or anyone that is self-taught on this topic. I want someone with a formal education in the field of medicine to help me figure out what it is and what to do next. I will also not trust my friends’ opinions and diagnosis if they offer it to me.
Argument 3: Over the years I have seen a huge migration from trainers that used to be Traditional or Balanced to Modern trainers. Some of these trainers have actually published some amazing material on this topic with which I learned a lot. Many of them have shared the reasons for that change in approach so that they can influence other trainers to make the same decision. However, I do not commonly see Modern approach trainers wanting to use a Traditional or Balanced approach. So, if we see a lot of people changing from the left to the right side of the spectrum, but not the other way around, what is this telling you?
Argument 4: I worked as marine mammal trainer with several animals that easily weigh four or five times more than I do. With marine mammals the mainstream approach is a Modern one and I am very glad that this is the case. With these animals, if you use a Traditional or Balanced approach you will be in serious risk of getting injured. In that sense, dogs are much more forgiving than many other species. Does that make it right to use aversive methods on them? I don’t think so and I am sure that many of you reading this would agree with me. Sometimes during training questions may arise regarding the suitability of a particular approach. Some of those times I end up asking myself “Is this something that I could use on a fur seal or on a tiger?” If the answer is no, it probably means that there is a better way.
Argument 5: I have also realized that Modern trainers are extremely open about their approach. They have no problem saying that their approach relies on rewards, managing the environment and emotions, etc. Balanced and Traditional trainers are a little bit less comfortable to openly say that they use physical corrections in their trainers’ tool box. Most of the balanced trainers that I have spoken to have no problem telling me that they offer food rewards when the dog is learning something new, but they hesitate to openly refer to how and when they use corrections. Here is an interesting thing I have found: on Youtube you will quickly notice that the vast majority of videos from Modern trainers is open to comments, while the Traditional and Balanced ones usually do not allow comments. What is this telling you?
In sum, a modern approach seems to be the best option for both you and your dog, with long lasting positive effects and happy lives. When in doubt about which approach is best, pull a Temple Grandin approach and put yourself in the animal’s shoes. Would you like to do that behavior to avoid punishment or would you prefer to do it because you will get something that you like? I believe that there will come a time in which a choke chain will be a historical piece kept in museums, which will serve to remind us that back in the day we used to train dogs with those things. I am not sure if that moment will come in 10 or 50 years, but everything seems to suggest that it is coming. The amount of Modern trainers is growing at a pace that the two other approaches combined cannot catch. Personally, I think that the future is certainly a Modern force free approach.