“Basic Obedience”

Let’s have a little “come to Jesus” conversation about dog training.  What?  Does training a little dog require such a significant exchange?  Follow along and you will discover where I am coming from.

I just visited a dog breeder/trainer website that offers dogs trained in scent detection, including the specific areas of explosive detection and disaster search.  In both disciplines they touted the following regarding their methods:

“Basic obedience is taught through operant conditioning with positive reinforcement.”   Most people would just pass right over that statement because it has become such a common phrase on dog trainer’s websites.  For me, it is a serious trigger.

First, let’s all get on the same page regarding the specific situation.  These folks train dog to detect bombs.  Bombs.  That’s dangerous work for the dogs and their handlers.  Obviously, they need to be well trained (the dogs and the handlers.)  

In 1984 I first learned how to teach a dog to detect a specific scent.  That was way back in the day when I was a young punk living in Chicago.  The club I belonged to had classes from Beginners Obedience up to the Utility class.  In the American Kennel Club world at the time, the Utility class was the highest level of Obedience, sans the Obedience Championship that one could attain after earning the Utility title.  One of the exercises every dog had to accomplish in Utility was scent discrimination.  Anyone who entered the Utilize level became successful in that discipline.

To train scent work, nearly everyone I knew used a positive reinforcement method.  Yes, even back in the 80’s when it’s often argued that dog trainers were overly harsh, we knew the value of positive reinforcement.  We understood that some behaviors were best taught using a reward-based system.  Scent discrimination was one of those exercises.

Let’s get something straight.  In B. F. Skinner’s definition of learning theory, “positive” doesn’t mean good or better or happy.  It simply means “additive.”  If you add a reinforcer (like a food treat) when a dog presents a behavior, the dog is more likely to repeat the behavior.   Skinner’s term “negative” doesn’t mean bad, worse or unhappy, either.  It just means that a reinforcer is removed from the equation to influence the dog’s behavior.   Operant conditioning (a term that is misused more than it is accurately described) includes all four quadrants of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment (add a punisher/ correction) and negative punishment (take away a punisher / correction.)

When teaching scent discrimination it is a fairly common strategy to add a morsel of food along with the scent you hope the dog will begin to recognize to speed along his understanding.  There are non-food based methods to teach scent work, too.  But, there’s no harm in using a positive reinforcement method.  I happen to believe it’s the best method for that sort of training.

All that is fine and dandy, and if you think that this article is about the concept of training scent dogs, I have taken you there through my ramblings. The intent of this post is to deliberate the notion of using the term “obedience” in the same sentence as “positive reinforcement” when explaining training techniques.  

You cannot teach obedience with positive reinforcement.

What?  Did that just blow your mind?  If so, you have probably been deceived by the thousands of individuals who pair those two concepts together as if it is logical or reasonable to do it.   It is neither rational nor sensible to say, “Basic Obedience is trained with Positive Reinforcement.”  It also defies common sense.

Let’s get a second concept straight.  Obedience implies that there’s a higher ranking individual that sets the standards for others in the “society” (home, workplace, classroom etc…)  If the lower ranking individual heeds the standards, he is displaying obedience to the higher one’s authority.  Obedience requires a relationship. 

Positive Reinforcement does not require any sort of rapport with another member of the society.  It requires a delivery device that reliably offers the reward in a timely manner when the subject presents the desired behavior.  It’s possible to demonstrate the results of positive reinforcement without human input (although a human may need to charge the system.)  Take the vending machine example.  Clearly, someone has to fill the machine.  But, once that is accomplished, the hungry human gets her reward as long as she meets her end of the bargain by putting coins into the slot.  She owns the negotiation by choosing to cough up the cash, or not.  A “relationship”between the vending machine and the customer doesn’t exist.

As upsetting to some as it may be, obedience demands rank order.  Some might refer to that as a dominant and subordinate association.  Parent – child, boss – worker are also examples of such an arrangement.  As long as the parties agree to the affiliation, it’s a successful connection that serves both entities.  It offers the subordinate a sense of security, a feeling of existing in a reliable world and the opportunity to become a valued member of the society.

This past weekend we held a T.E.A.C.H. class.  That stands for Train & Educate A Canine Helper.  It’s a professionally guided, owner-trained Service Dog course.  We teach the handlers, and the handlers teach their dogs to meet the requirements for Service Dog work.  That includes both public access street-worthy behavior and the tasks that a dog can perform to mitigate his person’s disability. 

There are times when folks don’t read (or choose to ignore) the requirements and show up with a dog that has serious anti-social issues, including aggression towards humans.  When a dog has no regard for his human’s position in the relationship, his obstinate behavior typically shows up as soon as the student walks into the door.  The dog drags her on the leash or balks, refusing to follow her to the classroom section of the building.   

To resolve that problem, the dog must learn to be obedient to his authority figure.  That requires building a health relationship of higher ranking and lower ranking.  Lower isn’t worse or less valuable or a sad condition.  It is just lower on the “organizational chart.”  Much like a human will quit a job with a tyrannical manager, a dog isn’t going to respect and honor an oppressive, overbearing handler.  Dog leadership is calm, confident and effective.  A dog that is content with his leadership may appear to adore the higher ranking dogs in his pack.  It is as if he recognizes the value of having such exceptional administration.   If humans emulate the methods that dogs use to exist in a hierarchical society, their dogs will also revere them.  Their dogs will become quieted and relaxed because exceptional leadership provides a reliable and predictable environment.  The outcome of providing reliability and predictability is trust.  Once the dog can trust, he can respect.  If he respects, he will obey.

If it’s still unclear why “obedience” cannot be achieved using a positive reinforcement method, let me add more paint to the picture.  In order to “do your job” you need to know the rules.  The only way a dog can please his human (which is – good or bad – part of his genetic disposition) is to know the boundaries in which he can behave unrestrained and with free-will.   He also needs to have a clear understanding of the boundaries which he must not cross, and what failure to respect those limits will entail.  It’s the leader’s job to communicate those standards.  Establishing obedience requires the higher ranking one to institute and convey the rules.  It’s also her job to deliver a ticket / punishment if the rules are not obeyed.  Otherwise, a warning becomes chatter and trust is broken.

The level of responsibility (of both higher and lower ranking individuals) and connectedness necessary to create obedience is missing in an exclusively positive reinforcement.   The process of positive reinforcement does produce obedience to authority.  That’s the issue.   Folks who choose to train exclusively with positive reinforcement have every right to do that.  I don’t think it’s the best method, but I’m not the dog training police.  However, it is deceptive to tell a potential client that you provide “obedience” when you don’t use a method that accomplishes that goal.

If we want to create good behavior, we use positive reinforcement.  If we want to stop unwanted behavior, we use a method that emulates the way that higher ranking dogs correct a wayward pup.  The part about stopping unwanted behavior requires obedience.  Obedience implies “because I said so.”  The vending machine never forces a customer to buy the product.  Obedience forces a subordinate to comply, or to endure the punishment.  If that sounds yucky, just consider the contrary.  

A dog like the one our T.E.A.C.H. client brought to class, that thinks he can get out of a situation by biting his owner, has a limited existence.   Essentially, his owner had been hoodwinked by folks who claimed that they teach “obedience using positive reinforcement.”  Hundreds of dog training websites post the same unwarranted claim.  In order to proceed with the class over this past weekend, we had to teach our client’s dog to be respectful and subordinate to his owner.  Since it is what he had hoped for his whole, young life, the turnaround seemed miraculous.  Dogs do not want to live in a leaderless world.  They want to know their position in the society.  They are happy being the lower ranking one.  They are not genetically equipped to hold more critical positions of authority.  They don’t even know how to turn on the water faucet.

You can’t teach obedience with positive reinforcement.  Let that not be forgotten.  It is the point of this post.

Still, obedience is just one part of living with a dog.   It’s critical, but once established, it’s a small part of existing with a dog at your side and in your home.  Teaching a dog requires learning how to dance on the fulcrum of art and science.  It’s not all zeros and ones.  It’s not all click-treat.  There is no other animal on the planet that comes close to dog.  It is a one-of-a-kind species.  You can’t just communicate with a dog the way you might want to influence a wild tiger in a zoo or a dolphin in an aquatic mammal show.  We cohabitate with dogs the way that we live with our relatives.  But, dogs aren’t human.  We must recognize that and neither sell the dog short, nor expect it to act like a child.  That means using every teaching option, common sense, imagination, compassion and love.

Expect your dog to obey. Just don’t use treats to teach him that lesson.

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