wtorek, 28 lutego 2023

The podcast everybody is talking about

Okay, the discussion is actually ongoing for a while and tbh since I'm quite comfortable with where I am now as a trainer and with the methods I use at the moment, I haven't followed everything from the beginning, nevertheless when it comes to Ivan Balabanov interviewing Susan Garrett I think it's really worth listening to.

First of all, because both of them are awesome, accomplished dog trainers with lots of experience and self-awareness about what they are doing.

(although I do cringe a bit when Susan is referred to as multiple agility world champion... but that's because for me FCI AWC is THE agility world championship and she's never won that). 

Secondly, because both of them, but especially Ivan, are setting great example of how to have a great, argument based discussion, even when you are coming from different perspectives / methodology. He is a great listener, asks intelligent questions, keeps the conversation on track (and doesn't allow her to compare apples to oranges which she has a bit of tendency to do, frankly) and is able to disagree while clearly having and expressing a great respect for his opponent. That attitude alone is something worth learning from. 

Thirdly, I'm sure everybody will take something different from the conversation - because what we think filters what we hear ;) - and that again is a great starting point for another discussion and evaluating our values when it comes to dog training. 

I don't think that conversation is going to fundamentally change your approach to dog training if you have thought about the ethics of it before and you have defined for yourself what is acceptable / moral for you and what isn't. But if there is a chance you haven't, there is a lot of food for thought for you in it. 

Sadly, and not for the first time, I came to the conclusion that trainers who do use aversives or positive punishment now and then, usually have greater understanding of it, use it more consciously and in the long run, actually LESS than most people or even most trainers. At some point in the discussion for instance they talk about head halters and prong collars and Ivan argues that basically you can condition them in the same way and they work on the same principle - and I agree with him and Susan doesn't and honestly I think this is a point when she is a bit of a denial of what she is actually doing (but deep down she knows, because she repeats several times that when she uses it, it's in order not to have to use it again... well, that's the definition of punishment - you use it, so the behaviour never appears again). There is lots of false assumptions about both positive (reward based) training and about using positive punishment - for instance that reward based means only using food or that using aversive means you actually use it to teach behaviours, which I'm sure most good trainers don't. Another false assumption is that if you accept using things like e-collars, you would always use it instead of thinking of other solutions - and I think it's not true. Speaking from experience and listening to Ivan, I think most good trainers would always try to get the result they want in a reward-based manner and actually using aversives is always bought with lot of soul-searching and thinking whether it's justified in that case or not.

I also think that perhaps lots of those misconceptions are coming from old times - like how the aversives were used 30 or 40 years ago. Susan says for instance that when she was beginning to do agility in the '80, it would be totally normal to be told to punish the dog if they came out of the weave poles or knock a bar - and this is something that hardly anyone would advise now, regardless of whether they accept using punishment or not in general. I had a dog that was struggling with a startline and I remember being told by someone to actually grab him by the scruff of his neck, shake him and put him back and I was totally SHOCKED - like this was something that I wouldn't even think of doing even though I was coming from a trainer that was actually using aversives a lot (but not in agility and also not in such idiotic manner) - because when I started doing agility in 2003 that kind of punishment and training was already rare. I think the methods have evolved a lot when it comes to both reward-based training and using punishment - and actually understanding dog's emotions / behaviour. 

Last but not least - I think we too easily equal ethical with force free / reward based. 

The example that is mentioned in their conversation is the dog that would simply take off and run into the woods all of a sudden, even in the middle of reward-based, succesful training session. Susan admits she was considering using e-collar on that particular dog and she further admits that she didn't, even though "it might have been kinder to that dog, because he didn't enjoy that level of freedom (...) and in that sense he was a sacrificial lamb so I could learn more about those layers and layers of reinforcement". 

So what's it's actually telling us is that for one person the ethical choice would be to use an e-collar, condition it, teach the dog reliable recall with help of e-collar and allow the dog the freedom of off leash walks as quickly as possible. For another person it would be controlling the environment, keeping the dog on leash / long line while they figure out how to teach that dog equally reliable recall using only positive reinforcement. Both options can work. Both approaches can be effective. But there is always a bigger picture of what you consider better for the dog, what is possible in given set of circumstances, how much time, money and effort you or your student is able to invest in finding solution to this particular problem and so on. What is a right choice for you depends on your values and you have to answer that for yourself - never just blindly trust any kind of authority on that. You have to use the solution that you feel comfortable of using and that you feel is the best solution to your knowledge. I cannot stress this enough: I think we should be really self-aware of what we're doing and why and we should come back and reexamine our methods and our values periodically when it comes to training and our relationship with dogs in general. Interesting point could be how much the way we were raised ourselves (like did our parents even spank us? ground us? punish us?) influences what we find acceptable when it comes to animal training. 

Another interesting point in this conversation was whether you can tell if the dog was even subject to aversives - and Susan said only if it was a bad trainer. Because "what makes good trainers is not the tools, it's timing, criteria and reinforcement". I couldn't agree more. 

So anyway the awesome thing is that we can have those discussions, we can have all those great minds arguing about how to do things in a better, more effective way - and it's literally at your fingertips to listen to them and open your mind and develop and have all this food for thought. Enjoy :). 

Picture of Pucek because he is very cute. 

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