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The Myth of Passivity in Force Free Training

One of the huge myths to force free or positive reinforcement training is that we want you to let your dog do whatever it wants and hope it eventually does something you can throw a cookie at along the way. Not only is this inaccurate, but extremely harmful to believe because it closes off opportunities to utilize the most humane and effective methods of training.

Much like in child rearing, animals cannot be given free-reign everywhere they go and with everything they do, as that would be wearing on a human’s sanity and likely unsafe for the companion. This is why force free is actually hardly passive. In fact, it requires time, effort, and patience instead of relying on quick fixes that most likely don't effectively get to the root of why the behavior is happening in the first place. Truly passive training would require much less thoughtfulness or planning. But the issue is that the fear of this myth can prevent people from trying minimally intrusive training, or diving deeper into how it works and can lead people down the path of aversive training.

Using aversive methods to train an animal into behaving a certain way carries a lot of well-documented risks, and we talk about it in one of our earlier blogs. People gravitate towards it because on the surface, it stands to reason for many that, in order to teach an animal they're doing something wrong, we need to correct the behavior as it happens so they know what not to do in the future. It seems to make perfect sense until you understand what learning may be actually occurring in that moment. On top of the risks of behavior fallout from these tactics, the problem lies in that waiting for the animal to perform the behavior means that we're waiting until it's too late, because the behavior will already have been practiced. Plus their take-away from our correction isn't always relaying what we think it is.

When a toddler becomes mobile, we don’t sit them down and explain why going near the stairs is dangerous, why opening and shutting cabinet doors could wreak havoc for their tiny fingers, why running into the street is a disaster, or why they shouldn’t stick objects in light sockets. Why? Because they’re toddlers. They don’t yet have the cognitive capabilities to process consequences in the same way that we do or to the same extent. Besides, if they fall down the stairs, it’s too late. They’ve already fallen down the stairs and probably gotten hurt or been frightened. It’s cruel to risk injury or stress in hopes they learn the stairs are a no-no, especially when we have much kinder ways of getting what we want.

Of course what we actually do is put up baby gates, child-proof locking mechanisms, install outlet covers, and make sure we supervise them. Prevention is our responsibility in order to keep our children safe and from practicing undesirable behaviors. In our profession, we call this management and it's key when caring for those who may not make the best decisions if left to their own devices. I think we can all agree that it's a heck of a lot easier to give a small child a coloring book and supervision than it would be to watch them approach the freshly painted wall with markers and wait until they outlet their artistic creativity on that wall so we can tell them not to do what they've already done.

Despite genuinely good intentions and the fact that we don't actually enjoy being frustrated with our pets, humans tend to be a bit of a reactive species. This means that in some areas we often gravitate towards waiting for a problem to arise (or simply not thinking about it ahead of time) and then expend even more energy reacting to the problem afterwards instead of anticipating and avoiding. Being proactive is a useful skill we need to learn, like defensive driving. Truth be told, this frequently just boils down to realistic expectations and we have to stop hyper-fixating on our desire for instant gratification in order to obtain them. With children we tend to pay significantly more attention to prevention because we do better to acknowledge that tiny humans aren’t great decision makers through no fault of their own. We also give them a much longer grace period to learn life skills.

With animals, we almost subconsciously expect them to know immediately what we want and if you really think about that, it hardly makes much sense considering we're cohabitating with an entirely different species from us and their instincts and what feels good to do aren't always well aligned with ours. Just because they do something we don't want, and just because we correct them for it, doesn't mean they understand why it's wrong or that their take away will be to suddenly realize why it's wrong. This is why a very large piece of the puzzle is getting ahead of issues. We focus on telling our animals what we want them to do instead (a much more effective means of learning for any sentient being) and we can do that with much more ease, and the animal can be in a better place for learning when we aren't playing correction whack-a-mole.

Simply put, I’m not going to wait for an animal to do something that I likely know it’s going to do, just to tell it not to do it. I’m going to set up the animal’s environment so that it can’t perform the problem behavior in the first place and then not only do I have nothing to correct, I also don’t have a reason to get frustrated. More importantly, I am able to stop the animal from rehearsing this behavior for the sake of interrupting habits from forming and the potential for reinforcement that may fuel it. This is a big deal because, as we’ve all heard, practice makes perfect….which is perfect if you like what’s being practiced. And just because we don't see how they could be getting reinforced for a problem behavior, doesn't mean they aren't. Some behaviors are self-reinforcing or a product of stress and frustration and need no help from us to fuel or keep them going.

If I tell you no, swat you on the face or scold you when I see you training ineffectively (or in a more realistic situation, calmly tell you to stop doing it) but don't tell you what to do instead, you're not likely going to feel very good about my directions. This is understandable and when you think about it, it's because it's much easier to be taught what to do than purely focusing on what not to do.....just like it is for your pets. Learning how to apply the concept of management to many different scenarios is going to be much more fruitful of an experience. One that will leave you feeling more confident and prepared and much less frustrated. It may take a bit more initial planning and effort (which makes it anything but passive) but will get you longer-term peace and cohesiveness.

While you consider what management might look like for your specific situation, think about how you can arrange your environment so that you, and your animal, can avoid the pitfalls of reactionary learning. This may include things like:

  • Redirection ("Let's find a better activity for you to engage in instead of what you're doing now.")

  • Rearrangement ("You can't chew my stuff if it's kept up.")

  • Baby gates or leashes ("You can't jump on the counters or guests if you can't reach them.")

  • Activity toys ("I know you need an outlet for your energy and boredom so let's set you up with a 'coloring book' of sorts.")

  • Alternate routes ("Let's walk this way to avoid the stressful thing you can't yet handle.")

  • Window film ("Let's decrease the amount of stimuli you take in when you get stressed at sounds from outside.")

It's important to realize that management, as we're taking the time to teach the learner in front of us what we do want them to do or how to cope, can often be lightened over time or unnecessary later (depending on the situation) when your companion has the skills they need to make better decisions. How long management is necessary is entirely dependent on quite a few factors (because behavior is complex) such as what you're having to manage, the emotional motivation behind the unwanted behavior, and the individual learner in front of you.

If you have any questions about how to come up with a management plan for your pet, feel free to set up an initial consultation so we can get you on your way to better behavior.

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