There is a real science behind behavior and learning. Most folks don’t think that teaching their dog a trick or how to stay out of the trash is hard science, but it really is. That’s what I love about this profession – you can tell which trainer knows his (or her) stuff if you know even a little bit about the science. And it’s not complicated – although some trainers like you to think that it’s all about energy and all kinds of "squishy" stuff that isn’t even related to learning and training.
Some trainers swear that you must resort to corrections (that’s a squishy word for punishment) if you’re going to have reliable behavior. That you use positive reinforcement training to teach the initial behavior, but that you then need to move to corrections to proof the behavior and make it solid. Wrong again. These people don’t really understand the science of behavior. Behavior doesn’t have to be "proofed" to be reliable or solid.
We train service dogs to work with physically disabled people. These dogs are doing an important job and need to be on their game all the time. There isn’t much room for error. We reliably train service dogs to work beautifully together with their person without punishment.
When trainers say that correction is necessary, what they are really doing is shortchanging the dog — the truth is that they (the trainer) haven’t trained the behavior to fluency. The dog can do the behavior in one situation, but not another. That’s not the dog’s fault — the trainer is to blame.
Think of it this way: you’re an automobile driving instructor and I’m your 16 year old student. You teach me to drive in the local neighborhoods, getting me used to turn signals, traffic lights, rules of the road. Once I’m pretty good at the neighborhoods, you take me out on a local two-lane highway. I get the hang of going 55 mph. So I know how to operate the vehicle, I know the traffic rules, and I can go at speed on the highway. I’m ready to go, right? I can drive anywhere under any circumstances, right? Tell me to drive into downtown D.C. at rush hour and watch me melt into a puddle in the drivers seat.
So what happened? I know how to drive, I know the rules, and I can go the speed limit. Do you think that tapping me on my forehead and telling me to pull it together will help me drive better? That raising your voice will that help me get through D.C.’s traffic circles and gridlock? Of course not. You, my driving instructor, didn’t prepare me for this type of situation. Yes, I had all the pieces separately: operating the car, knowing the laws, and driving at speed. But I couldn’t put them all together at rush hour! That’s way too much for me at this point.
It’s not my fault — I need experience. You need to ease me into distracting situations. You need to give me practice in a suburban traffic circle at off-peak traffic times so I can get the hang of it. You need to get me into rush-hour in my hometown, not downtown D.C.
Placing the responsibility on the dog "because he knows better," is the same thing. He may know how to sit at home in a quiet room, but guests coming through the door is a completely different picture. If your dog can’t sit when guests come in, that’s a training problem. And it’s your responsibility to teach your dog how to work in those distracting environments, not assume that he knows what to do and start punishing him when he can’t do it.
Think about me in rush-hour traffic in D.C. – punishing me won’t get me out of that situation. You’ll stress me even more and I’ll leave that interaction with a less than pleasant feeling for you. I probably won’t look forward to our future interactions. Our relationship will suffer because you let me down – you were my teacher and you put me in a situation that I wasn’t ready for.
You owe it to your dog to teach him what he needs to know. And then make sure he really knows it by easing him into those more difficult, more distracting situations. Remember, training error is almost always human error.