Guest post about reward-based training on pit bulls
By Lori Nanan, Mar 2013.
Lori got on my radar in Facebook, with her great pictures advocating force-free training. All pictures featured Pit Bulls carrying out all sorts of training feats. I approached Lori to ask her to write an article for Canis bonus. Enjoy!
The myth of the heavy hand
It may come as no surprise to anyone who follows Canis Bonus that pit bulls are dogs, just like poodles or pugs. It may also come as no surprise that pit bulls, or any other power breed, can be trained just like any other breed. What may be a surprise is just how many people are not aware of this or flat out disagree.
Myths about dogs in general abound and when it comes to pit bulls, it seems many people hold tight to those myths- about leadership, dominance and the need for a heavier hand.
These myths do no justice to any dog, who can be abused in the name of training while applying those principles. And, yes, I do believe that abuse is an appropriate way to describe what is done to dogs who are alpha-rolled (rolled onto their sides and pinned down in an attempt to “calm” them, resulting in the dog either shutting down or reacting aggressively), scruff shaken, leash corrected or physically intimidated.
I believe the use of fear or startle in training is abusive. I believe this because I have done my homework. I have worked hard to understand animal learning and behavior. I have spent hours training dog after dog without having to use force. I have developed skills and use scientifically-proven methods which allow me to do this. Even with pit bulls. Even with dogs who have had years to practice “bad” behavior. With puppies. With dogs who have zero training experience. With dogs who have previously been trained with force. Time and again, it is proven to me by dogs that it simply is unnecessary. Time and again, I am amazed at the power of reward-based training.
As someone who previously trained using aversives, I see the difference. From the pit bull who had been trained via shock collar to do a down-stay when people entered the house and cowered at the word “down” (we changed the cue and got a beautiful response), to the lunging, barking mixed breed who was taught a “watch me” as an alternate behavior, the power of positive reinforcement reveals itself to me daily.
As someone who has come to love pit bulls and the similar dogs, I have seen more abuse bestowed upon them dogs than any other type. I am aware that many other power breeds (Dobermanns, Rottweilers, German Shepherds) are subjected to more than their share of abusive techniques, but it seems to me that pit bulls inparticular are perceived as a breed needing a heavier hand. The media has certainly contributed to this and there is no shortage of people who love their dogs and still believe it.
This is problematic on a number of levels. The first being the assumptions about a dog’s behavior without a true understanding of why he is behaving the way he is. If we take a step back and think about things from a dog’s standpoint, it becomes much easier to assess certain things.
Let’s take a look at pit bulls and a certain irony that I often think about. Pit bulls are generally dogs who are human-friendly. Their ancestry lends itself to that exact trait. Dogs who were bred for fighting needed to be handle-able by humans. This made for dogs who were rather malleable in human hands, and many of today’s pit bulls seem to retain the trait.
In many cases, we have exuberantly affectionate dogs (who were also bred for athleticism) who are jumpy and enthusiastic. They like to say hello by giving kisses (like many dogs do) to people on the face. A positive reinforcement trainer will help the dog learn an alternate behavior, like sitting. A balanced or force-based trainer might advise kneeing the dog in the chest. Neither dog ends up jumping, but dog #1 sits to get kisses and still loves to see you; dog #2 sits to avoid being hurt (best case), is no longer as happy to see you (middle ground) or becomes distrustful, anxious or aggressive (worst case). I don’t know about you, but I’ll take dog #1: the one who doesn’t get punished for being friendly.
Another irony for pit bulls is that the very thing people fear about them – aggression – is reinforced by these heavy handed techniques. Dogs – any dog – may become aggressive if exposed to abuse and force and discomfort or pain. So, here we have a strong dog who is trained via force, coercion, startle or shock and he reacts aggressively. Now what? In some cases the public’s perception is strengthened. Simply because a trainer gave out outdated and potentially dangerous advice, one less person may want a pit bull in their home.
And, again – this goes for any dog – dogs have teeth, and likes/dislikes. They have tolerance levels and thresholds. They feel stress. They feel anxiety. They feel threatened and therefore fear. The dog who uses his teeth in those situations is not bad or wrong: all beings should have the right to protect themselves.
It is our responsibility to help dogs feel that they never have to use their teeth to defend themselves. We can do this by setting our dogs up for success. We can do this by being proactive, rather than reactive. We make sure we have the right information and tools, and we are willing to learn the techniques or hire someone who can help. Sometimes keeping our dogs out of trouble can be something as simple as providing more mental stimulation (eating out of puzzle feeders instead of a dish).
Being reactive means that we hope our dogs won’t screw up and then punish them when they do. Like catching a dog chewing a chair leg and punishing him by hitting, yelling or grabbing him by the scruff. We can often head off those types of issues by providing appropriate chew toys. Jean Donaldson has said: “Dogs get into good chew toys the way we get into a good book.” Dogs don’t know the difference between the chair leg and the Nylabone until we teach them.
In terms of training, we can do this by meeting a dog at the level he is currently at, working and training from there and putting management in place as necessary. So we adjust our expectations. We try to see things from the dog’s point of view and start with teaching behaviors that are do-able today and build from there.
One of the primary goals of Your Pit Bull and You is to dispel myths. Conventional folk wisdom about dogs has not done our canine friends any favors. Science has come a long way since towards helping us understand our dogs. We love them. We owe it to them to meet their needs in a way that doesn’t diminish their capabilities or mythologize their intentions.
The myth that says that pit bulls need a heavier hand is one that is particularly close to our heart. Our tagline is “Animal Learning is not Breed Specific” because we know that all animals learn in the same way. By advocating for a maligned breed that we happen to love, we hope to help shape the public’s perception in a more positive direction. A direction in which more and more dogs are trained without pain.
Your Pit Bull and You Facebook Page: for great posters promoting force-free training
Your Pit Bull and You website: Well-researched source of information on force-free dog training and education.
Force-free training resources in The Hague
OhMyDog!: Force-free, fun-packed and science-based dog training school in The Hague.
Canis bonus: Behaviour therapy and private training: to help you resolve behaviour problems