I am not one to write pages upon pages bashing any single one person, because frankly, I have better things to do with my life. But, after seeing article upon article about Cesar Milan lately, I can’t help but respond. I don’t like him, nor do I agree with really anything he does. The only thing I can appreciate him for really is his pitbull advocacy. In case you haven’t seen it, Cesar’s claim to fame lately is this lovely pig killer clip that has once again put him back in the spotlight; although, at least for once, he effortlessly and obviously made a fool of himself.
Now, let me tell you two things in a very matter-of-fact way that you may not know that might change how you read the rest of what I write:
- I work a full-time job (7:30am-3:30pm) exclusively with explosive detection dogs (bomb dogs). While I can’t go into too much detail for security purposes, I will say that these are highly trained canines who are working hours on end for months at a time (obviously with proper breaks) when serving; these are not bomb dogs who were trained but work for various departments (police departments, fire departments, other private agencies, etc.) that get to search for bombs only once every few months.
- On weekday evenings and on weekends, I work essentially as an independent contractor with another trainer under her training company’s name; I create programs and instruct classes, and I also instruct private lessons. We are entirely R+ trainers.
So, now that I’ve laid those two things out for you point blank, do you get where I’m going with this? I see both sides of the training coin, so to speak, every single day. If you know anything about working breeds or bomb dogs or even police canines, you’ll know that while it can be based in positive reinforcement (finding item = getting Kong), you’ll also know that it is still by and large a predominantly old-school manly man kind of boy’s club. They still don’t stray far from the techniques that were originally instituted.
To give you a tiny bit of scientific background: dog training is all about psychology. B.F. Skinner coined the term operant conditioning. Operant conditioning simply means changing behavior by means of a reinforcement which is given after the desired response. Skinner created the four Operant Conditioning Quadrants:
- Positive Punishment – add an aversive stimulus to decrease the frequency of behavior
- Positive Reinforcement – add a desirable stimulus to increase the frequency of behavior
- Negative Punishment – remove a desirable stimulus to decrease the frequency of behavior
- Negative Reinforcement – remove an aversive stimulus to increase the frequency of behavior
*(Positive = adding something. Negative = subtracting something.)
When I train on my own in the evening or on the weekend, I exclusively use positive reinforcement and negative punishment (don’t get all crazy now, this is simply ignoring and turning your back when a dog jumps on you). At work, it is a combination of all of the above, although primarily positive punishment, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement. Now there is way more to it than this that goes into training, especially for a bomb dog, but I am trying to get underneath all of the complex learning theory and just lay out the very fundamental basics for you.
But the point is, I see both kinds of training day in and day out. The thing is, dogs are tough, resilient creatures. You can absolutely train them pretty much any way you choose to, and dogs being the smart, resilient creatures they are, they’ll get it. But is there a problem with that? Yeah, I think so. That’s why I have a preferred way of training. That’s why I have numerous clickers, so many treats that I forget where I stash them, and a treat bag I practically have a panic attack over if I can’t find it right away. Slowly but surely, all sorts of studies showing the fall out from aggressive and punishment based training methods are beginning to surface. Unfortunately, R+ training isn’t still what I would consider the norm, but hopefully with science to back it up, that will quickly change. The anecdotal funny thing? In all the dogs I’ve instructed or observed, I haven’t seen any negative side effects from my methods of training (besides easy to fix things, like a dog preemptively jumping for a treat). In fact, I’ve seen dogs easily overcome serious behavioral problems. But at work? I’ve lost count of the number of dogs who have bitten (except for the one I’ll never forget – the one who bit me for a simple collar grab out of his kennel, which these dogs are trained to tolerate). It’s an even larger number that I’ve lost count of for the dogs who have attempted to redirect and bite after releasing a toy, but at least there’s one good thing to the majority of the big, burly man handling them – they’re quick to not get bitten.
So, Cesar Milan is ruining MY classes because for now, he is THE big name out there for the general public to stumble upon. By the way, did you read about the time he decided to hang a misbehaving Husky? This is what lost and confused owners with dogs driving them crazy for one reason or another are stumbling upon. As I said, dogs are smart and resilient creatures, so I’m not arguing that his training can’t work at all – it absolutely can. Heck, I’ve seen that kind of training work numerous times at my day job. But there is a calmer, safer, gentler, and I’ll even go so far as to say – easier – way out there. I wish for every 1 article or TV show that someone stumbles upon Cesar that they also stumbled upon a better trainer, but we’re just not there yet. (Unless we take Cesar off the air, which I think we should, but I digress.)
Don’t even get me started on addressing any kind of aggression or reactivity with anything resembling methods that Cesar uses. How on earth do you think you can get an angry, over threshold, or fearful dog to learn and cooperate by instilling fear in him or by inflicting pain or by flooding him with all of his triggers at once? How can that even begin to make sense to anyone?
I can’t tell you how many people I hear in my class “TSCH!” their dog or say, “I saw Cesar did this one episode on TV, and it seems to work. I’ve been doing it, and I think it’s working okay on my dog too.” These poor, uneducated people are trying to teach their dog something, but unfortunately, the big name in front of their face is the one who uses bad and outdated methodology. They don’t realize they could get bit. They don’t realize they could be emotionally damaging their dog. They don’t realize there could be an easier way with a few treats. I wish these people could see how wrong he is, but when they don’t have the time or resources (or passion) to research further, they’ll never know. Quite honestly, I hate competing with Cesar and having to explain my methods and why they work versus his when someone signs up for MY class. I wish R+ training was the norm, but I just don’t think we’re there yet. I wish there was another big R+ trainer name out there that people stumbled upon just as easily as Cesar (Victoria Stillwell… I’m looking at you!)
Hopefully, one day soon, this won’t be such an issue. Hopefully, the R+ way of training will make more sense to people. Maybe one day we’ll be able to go into pet stores and see more clickers and treats and hear “YES!” than seeing prong or choke chains and hear stern voices and the oh so annoying “TSCH!”
Hopefully, that will be soon, for the sake of our dogs.