This is a common myth about positive reinforcement training. One of the biggest criticisms circulated about positive reinforcement training (besides the misconception that dogs should work for praise instead of food or toys) is that clicker trainers are permissive.
This is patently untrue, and comes from a misunderstanding of positive reinforcement training. Here’s the thing: positive reinforcement trainers are no more likely to let their dog “get away with” naughty behavior than compulsive trainers. However, the way we go about handling misbehavior is very different.
As discussed before, in compulsive training the dog is set up to fail, then corrected for it. The dog learns avoidance behaviors that keep him from going out of line. This can be quite effective for some dogs, but as we discussed last week it can also be risky due to fallout.
In contrast, clicker trainers set the dog up for success. We do this through the clever use of management. Then, we teach the dog what we want him to do instead.
Consider this: if the dog is misbehaving, he either doesn’t understand what’s expected of him, hasn’t been adequetely trained, or has been put in a situation that’s too difficult for his current level of understanding. Whichever of these reasons has caused his misbehavior, it’s not his fault. If your dog is failing, it’s because you have failed him, not because he’s failing you. Regardlesss of the reason, correcting him shifts the blame from where it needs to rest: squarely on your shoulders. We as humans are the ones with the opposable thumbs and highly developed frontal cortexes. We should be able to figure out how to set our dog up for success.
That doesn’t mean I’m advocating letting your dog engage in misbehavior. Remember, practice makes perfect!
If you made a training mistake and your dog is engaging in unwanted or dangerous behavior, by all means interrupt! Stop the behavior using the most gentle and neutral technique possible (with the understanding that sometimes a truly dangerous behavior may need to be interrupted with something more aversive), then go back and evaluate your training and management plans so it doesn’t happen again. If your dog is bolting for the road, go ahead and tackle him. If your puppy’s about to grab a steak knife off the counter, make a loud noise. Just remember: Once is a mistake. Twice is a pattern. Three times is inexcusable. Your dog just told you that you made a mistake with your training plan. Don’t let it happen again.
Clicker training has been proven to be effective at training more reliable, more complex behaviors than compulsive training, all without the use of punishment. This doesn’t happen if the animal being trained is allowed to run amok though, and trainers who overface their dogs by putting them in situations where they fail will not ultimately be as successful as those who carefully manage their dog’s environment in the early stages of training to set them up for success. Skilled positive reinforcement trainers are fair, kind, and realistic. They know to help their dog win.
In future posts, we’ll explore other common myths about different training methods. What are some myths you’d like to see busted? Do you have questions about how to set your dog up for success? What situations have you found where you were too permissive with your dog, and how did that impact your training? Please comment below, we can’t wait to hear from you!