What is Possible?

Recently I heard an interview with a very well known competitor/trainer.  He said "positive training works with dolphins.....it is not possible to train a dog without physical contact; it's a lie…”.

Physical contact means pain compliance.

My first thought was, "How egotistical is THAT?  If you can't do it, no one can?"  Let's call that my irritable reaction.

My irritation was soon replaced by sadness, however, because if positive reinforcement training is "not possible", then what sane person would attempt it? If a "top trainer" ridicules the possibility, then the message to thousands of less experienced trainers is clear: do what is proven to work, regardless of the outcome for the dog, or the sport.  If a young trainer decides to attempt positive training anyway, the blatant ridicule, followed by subtle sabotage, will usually drive them away from the sport or into the hands of tradition soon enough.  It takes a strong and courageous person to do something that others say is impossible, and few individuals want to play the fool, especially if they are relative novices themselves.

If you want to be a successful competitor, the safest route is the known one.  Many of the most accomplished competitors have very little to offer outside of their method,  which often crams every dog into exactly the same hole they've been crammed into for thirty years.  Yes, these folks win.  If winning is the most important element for you, then it makes sense to go with what is proven to work.  But, when well regarded trainers or competitors state that a progressive method is "not possible", you discourage innovation and set dog sports in the wrong direction.

Wouldn't it be better to say, "In my experience, positive training does not work."? That phrase opens up a place for dialogue and the possibility that you may be confronted with evidence, which might, over time, allow you to change your perspective and try something new.

If the world of today had been described to me thirty years ago, I would have been unable to process what I was hearing. I would have had no way to reconcile such unbelievable information with what I now know to be real and true.  The possibility of video telephones, computers, internet - I would have laughed at you.  If you had told me that athletes were breaking records that were considered physically impossible, that science had taken us inside of cells and DNA and into the very heart of what makes us human - I could not have heard you.  Big Science was a test tube baby, not Dolly the cloned sheep.

If you had told me that I could use food to train a dog; that a plastic toy called a clicker could help me with my training, that I could wait for a behavior to occur and then name it rather than creating each behavior... I would have made fun of the waste of time and the "stupidness" of it all.  I was young and opinionated.  I knew it all, and if I wasn't doing it, then it wasn't worth doing.

While it's sad to see such a close minded attitude on a thirteen year old, it's relatively harmless since no one is listening anyway, but coming from a well known trainer with excellent skills and insight to offer... it's damaging and cause for great concern.

The world of today was NOT POSSIBLE just thirty years ago. Outside the realm of comprehension.  Yet it's here, not only possible, but now reality.    So if the not possible can become reality, isn't it better to try and stay away from absolutes in our thoughts and speech as much as we can? There are so many places to throw up barriers and argue that something is not possible.  Honestly, it makes me tired even thinking about it, which is why I have waited a while to broach this topic. The words that come out of our mouths frame the reality in our heads.  Close your mind to new possibilities and you are right, it will not happen for you.

I cannot predict where a changed mindset will take you, any more than I could have predicted that Dolly the Sheep was possible.  The possibilities suggest, however, that the dog/human relationship can be so much more than what tradition and prior experience may have led us to believe.

I made the change to positive training  techniques many years ago, but it was only two or three years ago,  when Cisu began failing in the ring,  that I made a complete change in philosophy to dog as partner rather than dog as subject.  I can't wait to see what I'm doing in five years, because really, I've just begun to explore the avenues of possibility that are appearing in front of me, and they seem endless.   There is so much to learn.

Training is a journey, not a destination.  If you think you've arrived, you've already missed out.


Laura Norie

I’m coming into this conversation later, but….yesterday I was at a fun match. I’m working an 8 yo dog in Open, we have two legs….the long sit is always our demise…sigh. But, she looks like she’s having a party during the individual exercises, tail up, ears up, laughing face, jumping and prancing…she’s pretty cool to watch. The judge said to me “If you worked to get tighter sits with her, she could be a 200 dog”….my answer was that I was perfectly fine with the happy performances she gives me and I didn’t care about doing the nitpicky work with her. She won’t win her class, but we look like we’re having the best time…at the end of the day, the scores we get for a title aren’t published, so if we’re having fun it doesn’t matter if we win the class or not.


Reblogged this on Denise Fenzi and commented:

This blog got some people up in arms, though I stand by my statements – it’s a wonderful journey to try and find ways to move through life which are kinder and gentler to others, including animals outside of humankind.

Lee Baragona

I totally agree with Curtis when he says that there have to be consequences for poor choices, otherwise why would the dog always choose the behavior we ask for over the one he would prefer to do. What is missing from this discussion is that those consequences do not have to be positive punishment (compulsion)…..it is equally effective if those consequences are NEGATIVE punishment. Someone said Susan Garrett uses strictly positive reinforcement. That is absolutely not true – and in fact, IMO, the key to her HUGE success is her incredibly wise use of negative punishment. When you have a drivey dog that wants something, you can manipulate his desire to earn it using positive reinforcement, but you can also punish wrong choices by causing him to lose the opportunity to earn it. And that’s what Susan does better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Her border collies are every bit as drivey as any Schutzhund or Mondio dog, but they learn at a very early age that she controls the reinforcers and the only way to get them is to go thru her. Failure to comply can mean you lose the chance to play, and that’s what they want more than anything, as do most of our sport dogs.

I had the opportunity to spend 4 days working with Tracy Sklenar, one of susan’s instructors, in a private seminar with a fabulously talented, drivey, world-team schutzhund dog. Those four days showed me that it was absolutely possible to make this dog believe that if he didn’t comply, he was going to lose the chance to play the game, to get the ball or to bite the helper. He learned to exercise self-control and to make the right choices because it simply was better for HIM – it got him to his beloved reinforcer faster when he complied with the handler than if he made poor choices. It was really amazing how quickly a very short timeout or withholding of the reinforcer changed this dog’s behavior, where prong and ecollars had failed. The consequences of poor choices do not have to be pain; they can be the loss of something the dog values. Both are punishment and both, if done well, will modify behavior.

One of Susan’s favorite phrases is “control the reinforcers”, and she doesn’t just mean the ball, or the sleeve. She means ALL the reinforcers in your dog’s world – the access to chase the squirrels, to play with other dogs, to sniff and mark, to even be allowed to WATCH the helper (that’s reinforcing to most dogs too). When the dog understands that access to all reinforcers are at YOUR discretion, he becomes highly motivated to comply because the outcome is so much better for HIM, and dogs are just like us, they do what is best for them.

We all need undesirable consequences for poor choices….it’s those punishers that keep society within acceptable norms. But the punishers are typically loss of something we value – our money, our freedom, social acceptance. I think dogs are no different – they have their own agenda and I simply cannot make myself more reinforcing than everything the world has to offer to them, especially if they’re hot, tired, etc. So yes, poor choices (after the dog knows what the right choice is) should have consequences. But I don’t have to physically hurt the dog to exert pressure on him to comply with my cues. If I manipulate his access to his favorite reinforcers, it puts just as much pressure on him to comply.

I am convinced that the lack of understanding in wisely utilizing negative punishment is the key that is missing in so-called “positive” trainers’ programs. Positive reinforcement alone does not have a good track record for success. But when trainers understand how to complement it with a sprinkling of negative punishment, then I think there will be real progress in dog training.

and for the record, 18 yrs in Schutzhund, 5 HOT dogs with an average score of 289, a perfect 100 in the FH2. 5 yrs in agility with the #2 ranked GSD in the country. 1 year in AKC obedience with HIT at our first trial. I’ve been around all of it :)

Lee Baragona


The various positions have been stated, and I’ve turned off all comments now. Thanks for your thoughts!

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