When Standard Positive Reinforcement Fails

By Yvette Van Veen

My mood, my happiness, my sense of success was tied to whether I had keener students who would work through any obstacle.  Those students made me happy.  They got results because they muscled up and keep hammering away at things.  They got there eventually. © Yvette Van Veen

I remember one conversation very clearly.  She could not get her dog to like nail trims.  We broke down the problem.  We talked about technique.  We Googled.  It lead to the sentence some of us have said and most of us have heard.  She said:

“I’m at the point where I have tried every standard positive reinforcement option.  I am considering using something else.”

Most of us can empathize how we might have come to this place.  Teaching a dog to have their nails trimmed, and failing, is not an easy ethical question.  Nail trims are a question of ethics versus ethics.  The struggle is whether we use force to fix the bad welfare of long, painful nails.  Or whether we choose to let the dog’s nails grow so as not to compromise training ethics.  Each option sucks.  Even if we get creative with nail boards, the dew claws need addressing.

I think that in the heart of every good dog trainer is the desire to help others –  to fix problems – to succeed.  Helping others fills our soul.  We are driven to follow this path.

When we fail to succeed, it crushes us.  I think if we are at honest while we self analyze in the privacy of our home, failing to succeed triggers ugly emotions deep.  A dog trainer’s ego despises the nagging feeling that we have failed.  Hitting a training wall, failing to get results with standard means puts us into a position where we must wrestle with both our ego and our desire to help.

Such situations draw us towards anything that promises that we can help more dogs.  We are searching for that something – something.  I think the start of every new protocol is a trainer who hit a wall and did not know how to get around it.  So they start creating behavioural acrobatics to try to help more dogs.  Most dog trainers have pretty noble intentions.

Which is why, several years after the nail conversation, I was at a conference featuring a well known, highly regarded, “force free”, PhD.  During that presentation, she went into empowerment and choice and negative reinforcement.  She was honest about this fact.  What my brain actually heard was that I could help more dogs.  And it was sanctioned, nay, ENCOURAGED, by this guru with the positive reputation.  And so, I went there with my clients.

I can’t speak for why others might do what I did.  I know why I did.  Part of it was that an expert normalized negative reinforcement.  An expert said that, sometimes, when positive reinforcement fails, we go there.  An expert used pretty words that sounded positive and pleasant and darn near inspiring.

Let’s really cut through the noise.  What an expert actually did was make it sound like it wasn’t me or my technique. I didn’t have to look for gaping holes in my knowledge.  Positive reinforcement failed her.  Or course it would also fail me.  If she used negative reinforcement, if she was right and ethical, then so was I.

My choice came from good intentions.  I had a nagging and realistic feeling that some of my clients and dogs were falling through the cracks.  I felt like crap when they did.  I wanted to help more people and more dogs.

My mood, my happiness, my sense of success was tied to whether I had keener students who would work through any obstacle.  Those students made me happy.  They got results because they muscled up and keep hammering away at things.  They got there eventually.

Average people who didn’t muscle through were frustrated.  They would sometimes come to me, raising concerns, when “standard positive reinforcement” didn’t deliver the results as promised.  Others would quit because the training journey took far too long.

My toolkit was overflowing.  If option A didn’t work, we had option B.  If that didn’t work we had C, D, E and a whole alphabet of protocols to try.  I promoted them.  Oh yes I did.

Did my success rates go up?  No.  They went down.  Once I stepped into the negative reinforcement plane, they plummeted.  Worst decision ever.

Damn that feeling sucks.  I know that I am not the only one to have had those feelings.  I know this because I have received dozens of messages from trainers who feel like they should quit dog training.  They don’t understand why standard positive reinforcement isn’t working for them the way it seems to work for others.  People complaining that adding more to their toolkit isn’t helping.

Coming back to the opening nail dilemma.  In hindsight, I now know that it was never a two part ethical dilemma.  It was two parts ethics and one part reality check.

  • Either standard positive reinforcement failed and we needed to step into force.
  • Positive reinforcement failed, but we might refuse to use force, allowing the dog to suffer with painfully long nails.
  • The third option is that we were wrong to think we had “tried it all.”  We did in fact have gaping holes in our knowledge.  What we had done, the standard positive reinforcement, was working exactly how it should have worked.  In other words, it didn’t work as well as the edited material claimed it did.

I know why “standard positive reinforcement” failed.  I now know how to work around the issues we were discussing while remaining firmly in the land of positive reinforcement.

It became apparent that standard positive reinforcement doesn’t fail because there is no standard positive reinforcement.  “Standard positive reinforcement” is cookie cutter.  Positive reinforcement, in the hands of an experienced trainer encompasses a thoughtful plan and considers the individual dog.  Well executed positive reinforcement doesn’t fail.  It doesn’t fail because it accounts for other factors – extinction, resurgence, classical conditioning and more.  It also accounts for how these elements play off each other.

Once you see these things, you stop having so many bad days.  You stop curling into a ball with a tub of chocolate chip cookie dough wondering why all clients can’t be “good clients”.  You realize that most clients already are good.

My recent nail video is very much a video I would want my younger self to see.  I would have wanted to see it earlier in my career.  Ah-ha moments change you forever.  I always knew when I found one of these because they worked.  I could bank on them.  Dog after dog after dog after dog….it worked.

We have a choice to seek the ah-ha moments or to commiserate with others who are lamenting that standard positive reinforcement fails them too.  Therein lies the danger.  It feels reassuring to feel like other people can’t get something either.  It takes a fighter to doggedly pursue the answer.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t learn such things earlier.  If I am to be completely honest, I am not better than other trainers.  I have simply been doing this for so long that I have screwed up more than others.  My ego is bashed, bruised, scarred.  Over the years, I have come to the realization that hitting a wall is a pretty clear indication that I have something to learn,  I will likely have to fight hard to find it.

It doesn’t matter if a thousand, “standard positive reinforcement” books, videos, tutorials or seminars say the same thing.  Somewhere out there is an epiphany.

The ego bruising reality is that after decades of dog training, I know that every time I thought that standard positive reinforcement was failing – there was someone with more experience who knew how to work around it.  I only had to find it.

 Watch the NAIL VIDEO here. 

About the Author

Yvette Van Veen PCT-A is dog behavior consultant and owner of Awesome Dogs, in Dorchester, Ontario, Canada.  She is also a long-time columnist and multiple Dog Writers Association of America award nominee, and currently writes a regular column for The Toronto Star.  She has worked with rescue dogs for more than 14 years, focusing mainly on rural, roaming and feral rescue dogs from communities throughout Ontario and Quebec, Canada.  She is also the creator of Awesome Dogs Shareables, an educational meme site providing resources and training tips in small, shareable formats.

 

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