The Problem with Purely Positive/Force Free Training #3 – Motivation, what could go wrong?

The Problem with Purely Positive/Force Free Training #3 – Motivation, what could go wrong?

The fundamental basis behind all positive training systems is using motivators to teach and strengthen behaviors. A motivator is anything that your dog desires, usually food or a toy. The trainer offers the motivator to the dog after he performs the desired behavior thus making that behavior more likely. Seems simple enough, what could go wrong?

The trouble with relying exclusively on motivators to train your dog is that they change day to day, hour to hour and minute to minute. Your dog might love hot dogs more than anything most of the time but at some point he is going to temporarily prefer to satisfy a competing motivator. In addition, distractions that capture the focus of our dogs like a running squirrel for instance can cause your dog to lose the ability to perceive the motivation you have in the moment. At that point you will have already lost the dog to the distraction.

Sally and Bowser have been going to Positive Paws Training School for several months. Bowser just graduated from Grade 3 and Sally is very proud. Sally has taught Bowser to come to her when he hears the words “BOWSER HERE”, she then gives him a treat.

Bowser has got to the point where he always comes to Sally at the dog training school and also in her backyard where she practised with him every day.

Sally decides to take Bowser for a walk. They are walking when Bowser spots another dog being walked by neighbor across the street. Bowser barks excitedly and runs towards the other dog yanking the leash out of Sally’s hand.

Sally hastily yells “BOWSER HERE!!” Bowser ignores Sally and continues across the road to meet the neighbor’s dog thus endangering himself and any drivers using the road.

Why did this Happen? Bowser knows the HERE command. He has been taught the command motivationally and shown this by always coming to Sally in training and at home where they practiced. Sally even had treats on the walk which Bowser could smell in her pocket!

Here is what happened. Sally ran into what is called a competing motivator. Basically Bowser was more motivated by the prospect of greeting the neighbor’s dog then he was by the treat Sally would give him for returning. Thus he chose to satisfy his primary interest or motivation in that critical moment. Not only this, but Bowser also learned that he does not always have to heed Sally’s HERE command if he doesn’t feel like it.

At this juncture many Force Free / Purely Positive training advocates would say Sally should have trained Bowser in progressively more distracting environments, slowly escalating the level of distraction and rewarding his compliance. Presumably, Sally would use a long line to prevent Bowser from running away during this training. It should also be noted that this would require a heavy time investment from Sally to see any kind of consistency with this approach.

Here is where it all falls apart. Dogs are intelligent creatures. They know they get fed every day, most dogs get treats every day and none of our pets are anywhere close to the realm of starvation. Even a dog with a very high desire to eat treats is going to run into competing motivators that temporarily supplant his desire to eat said treats, like the neighbor dog or a squirrel.

Let’s face it, Bowser does not get to see that dog every day, he likes meeting dogs, he is not going to starve to death anytime soon and he probably even had a few treats earlier that day. Let’s even assume that Sally was very motivated and did a lot of training under varying levels of distraction with Bowser.

While this might make it more likely that he will come, it is still far from a surety. Every time Bowser gets away with ignoring Sally, he will become more likely to do it again. After all the Force Free / Purely Positive approach completely eschews any kind of correction.

In the end Bowser, like most dogs will come to Sally only when he feels like it. Even the most highly pack oriented dog won’t always feel like coming when called and we cannot blame them if we do not show them that there are consequences to ignoring known commands. Dogs trained like this can never be trusted 100%, especially off leash.

Remember, just because your dog has been taught a behavior does not mean he will always choose to preform that behavior when you ask it of him. Regardless of how motivational the teaching process was.

Now let’s revisit the same scenario but in this case Sally comes to train here at Shield K9.

Scenario 2:
Bowser is taught to come to Sally when he hears the words “Bowser HERE”. Bowser is rewarded with a treat every time he returns to Sally. Bowser also wears a 20 foot long line during his recall training. If for some reason Bowser ever makes the choice to not return immediately to Sally when she issues the command “HERE”, she pops the long line attached to his collar until he turns and heads towards her at which point she rewards him.

After a week, Sally and Bowser go outdoors around distractions and practice recalls. Once again, every time Sally gives the recall “Bowser HERE”, and he does not immediately turn and come back to Sally she pops the long line attached to his collar until he complies and returns to Sally.

Bowser is always rewarded when he recalls to Sally whether or not she uses the long line to ensure his compliance. Bowser quickly learns that whether or not he feels like a treat he must return to Sally every single time he hears the words “Bowser HERE”.

Sally decides that she wants full off leash control and reliability with Bowser and chooses to introduce the Remote Collar to her training. Over the next 2 weeks Bowser has been collar conditioned and also taught how to make the collar stimulation stop.

Now Sally and a Shield K9 trainer take Bowser to the local park which is full of smells and distractions. Bowser is off lead and is wearing his new remote collar. Bowser spots some geese on a nearby patch of field and runs off to investigate. Sally gives the command “BOWSER HERE”.

Bowser, who is one sharp doggy, knows he isn’t wearing his long line and that he wants to see the geese more then eat a treat. He decides that just this once he will ignore Sally and keeps running. Bowser receives a low level electronic stimulation which continues until he turns around and heads towards Sally.

At this point Sally praises and rewards him with a treat. Training continues for the next couple of weeks and Bowser quickly learns that while he is rewarded for coming to Stacey there is also a consequence for ignoring her.

Fast forward to the incident just before Bowser runs across the road in the first scenario. Sally is walking Bowser. He catches sight of the neighbor dog and since he really loves playing with that dog, decides to head for him at full speed yanking the leash out of Sally’s hand.

Sally quickly yells “Bowser HERE”. Bowser without even thinking about it does a 180 degree turn and returns to her side before getting out onto the street. He still wants to see the neighbor’s dog but he knows that there is only ONE choice. That is to comply with the recall command. After all. he has never learned any other way nor been allowed to ever ignore a command. Obedience to all commands is almost an involuntary reflex to Bowser.

I leave it up you, dear readers to determine which version of Bowser and Sally are ultimately better off. Feel free to view video examples of this work on our video page.

Head Trainer – Shield K9


Recent Post