So, you are looking for a reward-based trainer to work with who is going to treat you and your dog well, BUT there are so many in the local area, how can you choose?
Well, the truth is, it’s incredibly difficult to identify the ACTUAL reward-based trainers from the many trainers who mislead dog owners by using “positive reinforcement” and “reward-based methods” as nothing more than buzz words.
Let me give you an example of two different “reward-based” approaches to help you understand different ends of the scale that could fall under the “reward-based” umbrella…
Setting the scene:
You have a human in your life, they are the most special human in the world to you, BUT you are unable to communicate verbally because you both speak different languages. This person is all you have, and you depend on them entirely to get the food shopping, make your dinner, give you a roof over your head, and to give you the love and affection you need to feel safe and secure.
Your favourite human has invited some guests to the house, and you LOVE guests. Where you are from, guests are greeted with hugs and kisses.
Your favourite human knows you greet guests with hugs and kisses. The guests enter the room and of course, as expected, you greet them with big hugs and kisses. Your human shouts “NO!” and pushes you away.
You are a bit stunned, so pause for a second and your human then gives you a biscuit and says “good!”. Feeling a bit confused, you go back to greeting the guests with hugs and kisses, then the same thing happens again. “NO!”, followed by a biscuit when you pause.
And again, and again.
Feeling confused, you decide to stop greeting the guests, or doing anything at all for that matter. You just go and sit down because everyone is being a bit weird, and you don’t understand why.
This pattern happens every time guests come to the house, so you just don’t bother with them anymore because you don’t know how to greet them without your human being weird.
You just sit quietly in your bed when guests visit now. Apparently, this means you are “well trained”.
The guests enter the room, and because your human knows that you will choose to give them hugs and kisses, they hold your hand whilst feeding you tasty biscuits for sitting next to them. After some time of sitting quietly and calmly, your human gestures you towards the guests who also start giving you biscuits as you approach.
You don’t hug and kiss them because you are busy eating their biscuits. Then they shake your hand, say “good!” and feed you a biscuit.
And again, and again.
Next time when guests come to the house, you remember what happened last time and you are happy to sit with your human for a while then approach the guests for a handshake and a biscuit.
You love guests coming to visit. You understand that they love handshakes. You start to enjoy shaking hands too even though it feels a little weird and isn’t what you would normally do.
Both approaches are reward-BASED.
Both approaches stopped you hugging and kissing guests.
Neither approach hurt you, or scared you.
One approach caused confusion, taught you nothing, and you were left feeling a little uncomfortable with guests being in the house because you have no idea how you are supposed to greet them.
The other approach showed you how to greet guests in a new way, so you can interact and join in when guests are there, whilst feeling comfortable and confident in their presence.
Results are important, but so is the learning experience.
There are “dog trainers” popping up all the time and sadly, dog owners cannot depend on a trainer to accurately and honestly describe their methods on their website or social media channels.
As the two scenarios demonstrate, the umbrella of "reward-based training" gives very little information as to what methods a trainer would teach.
Looking at videos and photos of their training will give a much more accurate picture and with all the magical training transformations being aired on TV and plastered all over social media, it’s important to know how to see past the BS, and how to see what's really going on.
Don’t focus on the perfect lead walking, the perfect down stay, the perfect calm greeting, or even the fact that treats are being used.
Look at the whole picture…
- What equipment is the dog wearing?
If it’s a thin slip lead sitting just behind the dog’s jaw, there’s the “magic”. Positive reinforcement doesn’t come into it.
- What is the dog telling you?
Do they look like they are enjoying the experience with a relaxed open mouth, a loose wide wagging tail, and perky ears?
Or can you see them lowering their body, turning their head away, pinning their ears back, licking their nose, blinking with a tight closed mouth whilst they get their “rewarding” praise, or whilst they are doing that perfect down stay around other dogs instead of barking and lunging?
- Is there any evidence of the dog being taught an alternative behaviour?
Is the dog being reinforced for an alternative behaviour before the problem context / distraction is being introduced?
Or are they just being put into those situations with the intention of dishing out a punishment when the dog does the inevitable, well-practised behaviour that comes naturally to them?
Dog training is an unregulated industry. Your Nan could set up next week and start charging dog owners for her training services!
As professionals, we have no right to wake up one day and think “I’m good at that, so I’m going to start teaching it”.
We have a duty of care to the humans and dogs we are teaching to have our skills and knowledge assessed by reputable experts and governing bodies and accredit us with that title. It should never be self-certified or gained from an online certification.
We have a duty of care to continue developing our knowledge and skills so that we are giving dog owners the most recent, up-to-date information as science continues to give us more insight into these incredible animals that we share our lives with.
Don't be blind to smoke and mirrors.
Do your research and choose cautiously.