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Is it Really All or Nothing?

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Another day, another clicker consult

If I shared my travel schedule with people, most would be horrified at how much time I spend on the road! My public seminar schedule counts toward only a fraction of the numerous commitments that I have. Many of these obligations are not posted on my public schedule, because I do a great deal of private consultation. A good amount of the consulting is with professional trainers and programs looking for a way to transition to the use of positive reinforcement methods. I have been working with many of these organizations for more than 10 years now, and a great deal of that work I have carried with me into my new role with Karen Pryor Clicker Training.


When we make breakthroughs and I see trainers use new tools and be successful with those new tools, it is very rewarding and reinforcing for me!

It has long been my mission to help more traditionally based trainers find useful solutions to the various training challenges they face by introducing them to positive reinforcement methodologies. Assisting people with a background in coercion-based training can be very difficult, time-consuming, and filled with obstacles and road blocks. But, when we make breakthroughs and I see trainers use new tools and be successful with those new tools, it is very rewarding and reinforcing for me! This is an area where I feel I can make a significant difference; my work over the past decade has convinced me it is worth the effort.

Over the past month, in a span of just a few weeks, I worked with five different groups that included several law enforcement agencies, a service dog organization, a guide dog organization, and a group of serious dog sports enthusiasts. As usual, each group had its own unique challenges and obstacles—and each stretched my training abilities in new ways. These varying needs and issues can be frustrating and exciting at the same time.

I wanted to share an obstacle that I faced on three separate occasions, an obstacle that came from an unexpected place. While each of the three conversations I had were very different, there was an obstacle they each presented to me that was eerily similar. All three encounters took place within two weeks of each other, yet each sprung from completely different sources. All of the encounters were private conversations that I had with individuals during the time I was working with their organization or group. I will detail one specific conversation for the purposes of this discussion, but all three conversations had a similar theme.

Client: I appreciate the knowledge you bring to us, Ken, but I can’t drink the Kool-Aid! I can’t really become a positive reinforcement trainer!
Ken: Why not? I am not trying to make you drink some artificial potion! (I feel myself getting defensive, so I pull back my intensity and continue in a more calming voice.) In fact, there is nothing hidden in what I am sharing with you. I am simply teaching various scientific principles and practical tools that will help you become a better trainer and improve your program. I want to give you new options for dealing with problem behavior so that you get better results!

Client: But some of the tools don’t make sense for my needs! (He says in a rather snippy tone.)

Ken:s I know! That’s why I am giving you lots of options, so that you can use the tools that are most appropriate for you and your style of training. Choose the tool or application that you understand and that makes sense for whatever particular challenge you face. I will help you apply the techniques effectively, over time.

Client: But I was told that if I don’t embrace the entire philosophy, then it is pointless to use just a few of the techniques. Mixing and matching coercion with positive reinforcement dilutes the effectiveness of both tools! And I am not ready to completely throwing out my 25 years of training experience for a new fad!

Ken: Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold on a minute! Let me figure out what you’re trying to say. Where did you hear this? I think you have some misconceptions about positive reinforcement. What I am hoping to teach you is certainly not a fad nor is it new. Can you explain why you feel this way?

Client: I thought I would try to get a head start on understanding positive reinforcement by taking classes from a private trainer and using the techniques with my dogs at home. So, I signed up for a class and was told by the instructor that she would not work with me. If I wanted to learn about positive reinforcement, it was all or nothing. I could not use any corrections, or it would negate all the work that we would accomplish using positive reinforcement. The instructor was pretty snooty about it and copped a serious attitude with me. So, I said “forget that!” (Actually he used far more colorful language that I choose not to use in this article.) I have well-behaved dogs already; I don’t really need her class.

Ken: Do me a favor. Give me a chance this week and if you don’t see a way that I can help you, we can say goodbye and you don’t have to ever talk to me about positive reinforcement again! I think you may have misunderstood the instructor or caught her on a bad day, but let me clear up a few things for you…

…I think not

I won’t go further with this particular dialogue, but will simply say that this individual changed his point of view by the end of the week. He is looking forward to having me back to work with his organization again later in the year! If the conversation above had been my only conversation of that type, I probably would not be sharing this story. But I am sharing it because I had three similar conversations. Each conversation had slightly different specifics, but the people I spoke with all told me that they had reached out to or talked to another positive reinforcement trainer and were turned off to the use of positive reinforcement because of that conversation.

Are we sabotaging our own cause without realizing it?

I had been on the road traveling for a few weeks in a row, but instead of being excited by the progress I had made at each organization and feeling happy to be headed home, I was troubled the entire flight home. All I could think about was that my biggest obstacle at each location had been conversations my clients had with other positive reinforcement trainers. Are we sabotaging our own cause without realizing it?

My must-solve issues

I am hopeful that these three incidents were just isolated and unique coincidences. I know many colleagues who share my philosophy and hope, so I find comfort in that fact. However, I also felt it was important to share this experience with readers, to share my initial thoughts on the topics that this experience raised for me. Here are the key issues for me, some of which I will address in a future letter or article simply in the interest of time and space:

  1. Working with traditional trainers and determining how best to help them transition to the use of positive reinforcement (to be discussed in this letter)
  2. Talking with trainers whose approach differs from our own, using positive reinforcement ourselves (I will touch on this topic in this letter)
  3. Defining what it really means to be a positive-reinforcement-based trainer (a topic I will save for a future letter/article)
  4. Misunderstanding the terms “punishment” and “reinforcement” and how our effort to teach science-based concepts collides with the general public’s understanding of these terms (also to be saved for a future letter/article)
  5. The challenges of teaching broad, general concepts and applying rules to the use of concepts that apply to all scenarios (another topic that I will tackle in the future).

As you can see, this experience opened up a wide spectrum of thoughts that I want to share and discuss in detail.

Positive options in a real world

The “all or nothing” philosophy comes from a well-intentioned place, but it is unrealistic to maintain...

Today I will focus only on the first two issues in my list above, since both apply to working with trainers who use coercive techniques regularly. These were the type of clients I worked with during my recent weeks of travel. I think the “all or nothing” philosophy comes from a well-intentioned place, but it is unrealistic to maintain that philosophy dealing with trainers who already have a history of using aversive control and correction-based tools.

  • Mixing reinforcers and punishers in the same learning environment
  • The real world is filled with reinforcers and punishers; they are around us all the time. We, along with our animals, learn from these experiences every day. The existence of both in our world does not by their very presence negate their effectiveness. We can recognize that a stovetop allowed us to cook a delicious and very reinforcing meal, while also learning that touching the stovetop’s hot surface with our bare hand is very painful. Our long-term lessons about being around a stove will depend on the context and history of our collective experiences around that kitchen appliance. If every time we try to cook that delicious meal we always end up touching the stove and burning a hand, that experience (due to our clumsiness, ineptness, or inappropriate tool use) may teach us that the meal we crave simply is not worth it.

    But if taught to cook properly, with the right tools, we may avoid getting burned again, or at least rarely. Our comfort level using a stove and cooking our favorite meal will become more powerful than the rare times we are burned—thus, we are still eager to cook that meal. My point is that both punishers and reinforcers work in our environment side by side all the time. However, as positive reinforcement trainers, we recognize that the use of punishers, or any aversive, can break down the trust and relationship we have worked so hard to develop with our animals. This is one of the reasons we don’t recommend mixing the two. Working with young or new trainers, we can teach them how to use positive reinforcement in a way that eliminates the need to introduce any corrections at all. But that is not the case if we are trying to help a traditionally trained trainer transition to the use of positive reinforcement (more on that later).

  • Using aversive control around animals that have never experienced it, or haven’t experienced it in many years.
  • It is understandable that some trainers may want to prevent other learners in the classroom (animals and people) from being exposed to corrections if those learners have not seen or experienced corrections before. That exposure can be a very upsetting and uncomfortable experience. This may be a valid reason for not wanting someone who uses corrections instinctively to be in a classroom setting. However, there are several options available besides simply denying the person access to classroom instruction. One option is to explain why you would like him or her to avoid using those tools in your classroom. Many trainers and owners are more than willing to try—as long as you set clear expectations and help them through the challenges they will face for the first class or two.

    Another option is to offer a separate class (or a private class) to a handler who has a history of using correction techniques. This alternative prevents other students from being impacted by the use of aversive tools. You may find, as I have, that it only takes one or two classes for a handler to gain enough discipline to avoid using old standby tools in a classroom setting. After initial classes are handled privately, the handler can join a larger class. If we want to see coercion-based trainers make the transition, we need to find a way to work with them.

Step by step

We have to help these learners by setting them up for success.

My experiences over the years have helped me recognize that it takes time for someone who has used a skill or technique for many years to change to a new method or to use new tools. Just as we teach behavior to our animals in small steps, successive approximations, I have found that teaching trainers to move away from the use of corrections requires the appropriate steps and an adequate amount of time. We have to help these learners by setting them up for success. Give them steps and goals that are achievable and reachable, and move them toward our goal of using positive reinforcement in small increments.

If we are successful trainers, this is a process we have already used hundreds of times with our animals. Why not use it with our human learners as well? Successive approximation is the only method that I have used successfully as a consultant. There will be no change or progress if I come in and suggest that the client must stop doing everything that has worked for the past 30 years! I cannot, and do not, expect coercion-based trainers to leave all the tools they know behind and switch to a new set of tools all at once. Instead, I need to assess their needs and make the transition slowly one or two tools at a time.

This training process has to be executed thoughtfully so that the client can be successful in the transition. Seeing success will be the most reinforcing event, and will lead the client to want to use more tools. If the transition is introduced correctly, the client will often be eager to move more quickly than even I will allow. As much as I want clients to use the new tools, sometimes I am forced to slow down the pace. Why? Because if these learners move too quickly, they will not be set up for success. I follow the same principles that have served me well as a trainer of animals—build a solid foundation before adding more layers. Our human learners are transitioning to using many tools they have never used before. Eager as we may be to get them to transition, we have to break down the learning into easily achievable and reinforceable steps. If we expect a client who wants to learn to use positive reinforcement to make the transition all at once, we are making the task far too difficult.

Positive reinforcement: offered to all!

A concern that has plagued me for years is that some positive reinforcement trainers fail to use the techniques they use so well with their animals when they are working with their human clients. I appreciate the passion with which we hold to our conviction that positive reinforcement is an effective and more humane approach to use when training animals. But sometimes that heartfelt emotion clouds our approach to talking about the science logically. More often than not, that approach makes our passion seem like harsh criticism of anyone who doesn’t train the same way we do. I fear that some who profess to embrace positive reinforcement forget that unless they are grounded in the science and use positive reinforcement with the people around them, they will fail to make an effective case and fail to convert anyone.

Until we can all move in that direction, we will fail to convince those considering new tools to make the switch!

In each training environment that I worked in, the people with whom I worked reported that they were turned away from positive reinforcement not because of the science or practical elements of its application, but because of the attitude of the trainer who tried to convert them initially. This is not the first report of this news, but it alarmed me to face that obstacle three times in the span of just a few weeks. I know many positive reinforcement trainers who are equally good at the application of reinforcement with the animals they train and the people they teach. Until we can all move in that direction, we will fail to convince those considering new tools to make the switch!

More to come

Obviously this is an issue that is important to me. I desperately want to spread the science and application of positive reinforcement techniques to more people. We owe it the animals that we care for to teach scientifically sound, practically effective, and humanely appropriate techniques to those who want to improve their training. But we need to make sure that we are not the very impediments that keep this from happening.

Periodically throughout the year I will share my thoughts about this topic by exploring other obstacles that get in the way of our efforts to convince people of the merits of a positive reinforcement approach to training. I look forward to sharing more and to moving the conversation along.

Happy Training,

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