The use of a clicker or other bridging stimulus is a wonderful tool for training an animal with whom you have no social relationship. You can train a killer whale to pee in a cup. You can train a chicken to play tic-tac-toe. You can train a homicidal elephant to put his foot through a hole in his fence to have his foot trimmed by an elephant farrier.
While the behavior of these animals had changed and made them more convenient to care for or exploit, the social relationship remained unchanged. The homicidal elephant would still kill anyone who entered his enclosure. The killer whale didn’t show any particular affection for the person holding the cup. And God only knows what the chickens thought of the trainers who conditioned them to play tic-tac-toe. (In case you’re wondering, the chickens always went first.)
None of these animals live in our homes. They are not our companions. When their trainers go home at the end of the day, the animals are on their own, doing whatever they get to do when left to themselves in captivity.
We expect much more from our dogs, and our clients expect much more from their dogs. Fortunately, we are blessed with an animal whose ancestors picked us out and figured out how to get along with us. If you haven’t already, please read THE COVENANT OF THE WILD by Stephen Budiansky on how some animals evolved from wild and suspicious to domestic and trusting.
Consider this: You can’t herd dolphins. If you want to move dolphins from one tank to another, you can’t just drop a net in there and shove them along. They’ll panic and drown themselves before they’ll yield to that net. You have to take the time to train them with positive reinforcement to move themselves from one tank to the next, or you’ll drown some dolphins.
If you want to move sheep from one pen to the next, you send a Border Collie in there to act as a canine shove net, and he’ll get them shoved in no time. Sheep are domestic animals, and dolphins are not.
When domestic animals evolved, one of the adaptations they made was a tolerance for informative aversive stimuli. They can learn from negative reinforcement. They learn quickly, and the lesson learned becomes self-reinforcing. When the animal beats the R-, he wins every time. Negatively reinforced behaviors are very sturdy and need very few reminders. Positively reinforced behaviors need lots of reminders. This is why they’re harder to maintain and why everybody has so much trouble weaning dogs off food rewards for behaviors that don’t come naturally to dogs. Stimulus control is often difficult to achieve.
Sue Cone, NADOI # 329, and I put on the first seminar Karen Pryor ever gave for dog trainers. Back then, Karen was totally up front about not being a dog trainer. We didn’t care. Sue and I felt that dog trainers had a lot to learn from wild animal trainers at that time.
We had no idea then that the field of dog training would be taken over by people who thought dogs should be trained as if they were wild animals.
I don’t think dogs want to be wild animals. They want to share our homes and our lives, and they’ve been programmed by domestication to learn how to do that–even if their training includes some informative aversives. They want all the information they can get just to stay in our homes and share our lives.
I once attended a seminar featuring Ted Turner, the famous dolphin trainer. He was asked why dog trainers use aversives and he replied, “Because they can.”
Later he said, “Good trainers give more information than bad trainers.”
To sum up: Dogs can tolerate and use more kinds of information than wild animals can. Dogs thrive on all the information they can get. Let’s not short change them by offering them less information than they need to stay safe in our homes or perform whatever job we assign them.