Is Your Toolbox Balanced?

"But I like to keep a balanced toolbox!"

I’m not sure how many times I’ve heard or read that one. It’s undoubtedly a big number. It’s usually the end or near the end of a trainer discussion on tools or techniques, and is intended to indicate that while a trainer (at least claims) to be primarily using tools and techniques that employ positive reinforcement, they also still like to use tools and techniques that rely on positive punishment/negative reinforcement. And they make this claim to open-mindedness with a brilliant rhetorical flourish! Or at least it probably seemed brilliant the first time it was used. I’m guessing around 1986.

But hey, what’s more open than reserving the right to use a leash pop or some electrical current when the going gets tough?

But really, we shouldn’t find this shocking (heh) when we still treat each other like this:

If pointless and gratuitous physical coercion to a kid is routine family TV (he really needed to sit in that chair NOW!) than how much sympathy do you think we can get for any non-human animal?

The fact is that human society is chock full of coercion and retribution. Last week I didn’t want to veer too far off into politics and I don’t want to go off on a philosophical tangent here, but consider how we treat each other. Coercion, whether it’s physical (most often with children) or not, is a big part of our society. Rewards are for frequent customers, credit cards, and bounty hunters. So it’s quite natural that our handling of non-human animals is even worse.

I’m currently enrolled in Dr. Susan Friedman’s Living and Learning with Animals course and just two weeks in I can see how this course is going to have a tremendous impact on how I work with both humans and dogs, and with how I solve problems. From the course description:

The philosophy of behavior underlying this course is that captive and companion animals, like all learners, must have power to operate effectively on their environment, in order to live behaviorally healthy lives.

Having the science of Applied Behavior Analysis carefully explained and also seeing it applied to a variety of different species has made it clear: it works.

But let’s look at more visceral example of how much someone can get done with a "closed toolbox:"

The elephant in this video is hanging out at the edge of the pen, happily responding to cues to move into different positions. (The electronic "beep" seems to be an event marker similar to a clicker.) If you watch the whole video you’ll see him lift his leg, allow the trainer to examine his ears, and respond to a variety of different cues. These are behaviors they use to care for the elephant with some fun stuff mixed in. Let’s review the zoo’s options for handling elephants.

  1. Restrain the elephant and force him to submit to handling. This is often where we end up with our children and our pets. Of course it’s easier to physically restrain a child or a dog than it is an elephant. (In Asia people do restrain elephants and treat them quite badly. They generally start out when the elephant is very small.)
  2. Sedate the elephant. This is risky, for both the elephant and the vet staff. It’s also of limited usefulness, since moving a sedated elephant is still a, pun intended, big problem. An awake cooperative elephant is a lot easier to work with.
  3. Don’t provide care for the elephant that requires cooperation. There are undoubtedly zoos that still choose this option.
  4. Do what we see here – convince the elephant that working with the trainer is a good thing.

Some would say that comparing this activity to working with a dog isn’t fair. The elephant is in a pen with steel columns protecting the trainer! I would tend to agree. Many people restrain their dogs so they can’t flee. This elephant has a choice the entire time – he could walk away from the bars any time he wants. But he stays. The trainer gave him a reason to.

This dog doesn’t have that choice:

I see two collars and some kind of head harness. And in case you missed the irony: one of the first steps in "teaching" a dog named a "Retriever" to "retrieve" is by forcing his mouth open by pinching the ear. Poke around Youtube some more and you’ll see video of a "well-respected" trainer needing to use a shock collar for the same procedure.

Yes, we need to shock dogs to get them to hold things in their mouth. I’m sure they’d say it’s complicated and we wouldn’t understand since we’re not professionals.

How did we get here? Where does the idea that when a dog (or child, or employee, etc.) doesn’t behave the way we want that meeting it with coercion and punishment (in the colloquial sense) isn’t just correct but virtuous?

Dr. Friedman refers to this phenomenon as "cultural fog.", based on a oft-cited quote from Gunnar Myrdal. The idea that rewards are "bribes" and the dogs and people should already be motivated to do the "right thing" as we define it is embedded in our culture. Dogs should work for praise. An employee’s reward for good work is more responsibility — which is corporate-speak for more work. And of course any popular artist seen taking money is a "sell-out."

So it’s not surprising that a "balanced toolbox" is seen not just as a necessity but as a badge of honor.

But I don’t accept that. If someone can convince a 15,000 pound elephant to cooperate with a physical examination without restraint or sedation, than there really is no excuse for needing coercion to get a dog to walk nicely on leash….let alone retrieve a bird.

I’ll take the smaller toolbox. Every time.

Is Your Toolbox Balanced? is a post written by . You can see the actual post at Dog Training in Bergen County New Jersey

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