Finding Trainers Part 2- Questions for Transparency

by Zoe Van Craen

In the first part of this series, we looked at common questions and criteria that one can ask to find a good dog trainer, and the pros and cons of each of those. 

Some of the dog trainer criteria mentioned in the last blog was to: 

  • Avoid trainers who make any reference to packs, alphas, and dominance 
  • Pick trainers that mention positive reinforcement, science-based training, and force-free methods 
  • Avoid trainers that do NOT mention positive reinforcement or other key words 

These are great for weeding out traditional trainers, but the problem comes when you are faced with a balanced trainer. 

Since balanced trainers use all four quadrants of Learning Theory, which is a scientific concept, they can truthfully say that they are science-based and use positive reinforcement. Not only that, but most balanced trainers also know better than to write that they use punishment as a training technique. 

So how can we identify the “good” trainers from the “bad”? 

The Three Golden Questions 

We ended the last blog by saying that some better questions to ask a trainer were the ones that Jean Donaldson (from The Academy for Dog Trainers) proposed: 

  1. What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right? 
  2. What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it wrong? 
  3. Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose? 

Although these questions may look simple in nature, they actually do an excellent job cutting straight through any smoke and mirrors that a balanced trainer may have around them. They’re so effective, in fact, that they sparked an online challenge called: “World Dog Trainers Motivation Transparency Challenge,” started by John McGuigan

But why are these simple-looking questions the key to finding a good trainer? 

First, a quick look at Learning Theor

In essence, every behavior produced and learned (aside from purely biological ones like breathing or sneezing) by every living being on the planet is motivated by one of two things: 

  • “How do I get something that I want?” 
  • “How do I avoid something that I hate?” 

And I really do mean every single behavior. In fact, I’m so confident of this that I challenge you to find a behavior that YOU do that isn’t motivated either by seeking a reward, or avoiding a consequence. For instance, you may not like your job, but you do it because you seek money (reward) to live and survive, and are maybe afraid of getting fired (consequence) if you don’t do it. 

Learning theory is centered on this. You can reinforce (encourage) a behavior by either adding a pleasant reward or removing an aversive or obnoxious stimulus when the behavior is done (the relief from the stimulus is the reward). Or you can punish (discourage) a behavior by either adding an aversive (like pain, fear, or discomfort) or withhold something good until they stop. 

So, knowing the basics, let’s look at these three questions. 

1) What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right? 

For most trainers, Force-Free or balanced, this is a very easy question to answer. When a dog does a correct behavior, we want to reward it! We want to encourage it! We want to reinforce it so that it happens again! 

This should be done by looking at what the dog wants, and giving it to them when they perform the correct behavior. Usually, this is food, but it can also be toys, play, getting to go outside, or super good ear or back scratches. It will vary from dog to dog. 

Some trainers might get more specific and say that they “mark” the behavior first, like using a clicker, before they reward. This is a great addition to the answer, but the core should remain the same: reinforcement. 

Where trainers can go “wrong” with this question is with what kind of rewards they use. 

Not all rewards are created equal, and with that in mind, if your trainer insists that the only reward, no matter the dog, should only ever be praise or pets, then I would personally avoid that trainer. 

Praise and pets can be wonderful, but they are ultimately not “powerful” enough of a reward to train most dogs consistently. Imagine if your boss at work told you, “You’re doing a great job! Keep up the good work!” and never gave you a paycheck, would you consider that enough of a motivator to keep working there? That is what we are doing when we refuse to use powerful rewards like foods. 

And unfortunately, when the reward is not powerful enough, the dog gets demotivated, which can lead balanced trainers to turn towards the next motivator: punishment. 
Pictured: Atlas, one of our dog walking dogs, can sometimes be motivated by tasty food, but toys seem to be his favorite!

2) What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it wrong? 

When we talked about learning theory, we mentioned that behaviors were either rewarded to increase them or punished to decrease them. 

So when your dog messes up and gets something wrong (whether that’s bark at another dog, jump on the counter, not sit when asked, etc), you have two options. You either: 

  1. “Do nothing” to the dog, and instead reevaluate the situation. You will need to set up the problem in such a way that the dog can succeed and be rewarded on the next try. This means possibly needing to  change environments, trying again with an easier step, or setting up your management tools differently. 
  2. Or you punish the dog to reduce the behavior so that he doesn’t make the mistake again 

When asking a trainer this question, no matter what terminology they use, if they say anything other than “we say oops, don’t give a reward just yet, and try again”, then chances are that they use aversive punishment in their training. 

I find it unfortunate that we have to pry and pick apart a trainer’s wording to figure out their true intentions, but it’s often the case. And because trainers avoid words like “punishment,” knowing that it will drive away clients, they tend to use synonyms and euphemisms to hide their techniques. 

In the last part of this series, we will look more closely at what some of that wording is, and how to spot alternative phrasing for aversive training. 

3) Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose? 

For this question, I can only guess at what a balance trainer would write, since to me, my answer is clear: No, there are not less invasive alternatives. 

Of course, when I actually answer this, I like to stipulate that it is only to my current knowledge that there are no less invasive methods, but if I ever learn of a newer, better way of doing things, that I would change my ways as fast as I could. 

This goes a bit with something I wrote in part 1: trainers should constantly be updating their knowledge base and making sure they are up-to-date on all of the latest research in the animal behavior field. 

I figure that a balanced trainer could answer one of three ways: either lie, ignore the question, or say “Yes, but…” 

  • “Yes, but the less invasive methods don’t work as well/aren’t as fast/are not effective/etc.” 
  • “Yes, but that’s because I look at the individual dog and make a training plan according to their needs.” 
  • “Yes, but this is the best method out there.” 
  • Etc...

The other possibility would be that they answered your question wrong, or misinterprets it, but it’s hard to tell, then, if that is purposeful or accidental. 


Now, having read this blog, I ask the same questions that I asked in part 1: how you would answer Jean Donaldson’s questions? How you would like your future trainer to answer? And possibly, are there any better answers to these questions? 

Have your answers changed since the last time?

 

Part 1 | Part 3

19 comments

  • Nic
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    cool stuff , I wish I had these questions fory last trainer...

    cool stuff , I wish I had these questions fory last trainer...

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    I love the fact you give three basic questions to ask trainers. It's pragmatic, makes sense and goes straight to the core of the problem. Training can get expensive and I want to find the right trainer. Thank you for this straightforward analysis.

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