Monday, March 30, 2009

Clicker Con 2009!!

ClickerExpo was this past weekend. Imagine a Star Trek convention sans costumes and theme music. Instead of light sabers, we were armed with clickers. It's so embarrasingly wonderful to be a geek!

But seriously.

While going to a conference full of people who share your same beliefs, ideals and interests is amazing enough, ClickerExpo 2009 blew my mind and positive training continues to wow me daily. So, I will continue to discuss positive vs. negative because it's a worthy battle. I was once blind but now I see and it's only appropriate for me to help others see as well.

Positive vs. negative
The scariest thing about punishment-based training is that it works. However, its successes are its very downfall. To be good at punishing (just typing that makes my skin crawl) you have to have impeccable timing and enough force to correct the behavior the first time but not so much that you traumatize the animal. Go ahead – read that line again, you know you have to. It’s like a complicated math equation – it makes you think too much (that’s assuming you’re like me and horrible at math)! So here, I’ll say it again:

"To be good at punishing … you have to have impeccable timing and enough force to correct the behavior the first time but not so much that you traumatize the animal."

Well, great, now that we’ve been warned and we understand the rules, let the punishing commence...right!? Uh, no, it’s not that simple. I’m going to explain this using my own spin on an example from L (

Imagine you want a diet Pepsi from the vending machine. This is the same machine you get a diet Pepsi from every single day and you’ve been doing this for the last year. Every single day, you insert a dollar and out comes your diet Pepsi. One day, for no known reason, one of those boxing gloves pops out of the front and punches you right in the face when you reach to grab your soda. What the @*#@!!??

“wow. That was weird…” you say, and you duck this time before reaching for the soda again.

BAM! Another glove pops out and punches you in the face. This is when good ol' animal instinct steps in. You will perform several actions in the next few minutes. You will:
a) Try to get faster and predict when the glove comes out – but you’re still willing to try again because diet Pepsi is soooooo good!

b) Give up entirely – that Pepsi isn’t worth another punch to the face. In fact, NO Pepsi is worth getting punched in the face. Is this going to happen every time!?!? Should I choose another soda!? Did I not put in enough money?? Should I try another machine?? Is it the Pepsi or the machine that caused that??

c) Punch the machine right back - that stupid thing can't and won't stop you!

Let's use the same scenario: you are getting a soda from the vending machine just as you do every day. Except today, unlike every other day, no soda comes out. Perplexed and mildly irritated, you press the button a million times (just to make sure the machine understood) and *sigh* insert another dollar. This time, you’re hoping you get that soda you want so much. Alas, no soda comes out again. The third time around, you will:

a) Put in yet another dollar, hoping 3rd time’s a charm. You might even make that corny joke aloud, “welp, let’s hope third time’s a charm, right Bill? *chuckle, chuckle*”


b) Give up entirely.

What you won’t do is stand there all day, putting your hard-earned dollar bills into the machine and still expect a soda. At some point, you are done with this game. You learned (hopefully quickly) that this behavior isn’t paying off. In fact, it’s costing you big time! That doesn’t mean you will forever give up on vending machines. You might even try again tomorrow. If tomorrow, you get the same results (the machine is providing consistency, in other words) you will begin to give up on that particular machine. You’re a little perturbed you lost so much cash, but no one had to shock you, yell at you or hit you to convince you that this isn’t going to work.

That, my friends, is one of the differences between training with positive reinforcement vs. negative reinforcement. Both may eventually yield the same results but one comes with much more baggage than the other, not to mention how deadly accurate (tee hee...a pun) you have to be with negative reinforcement.

Most people I talk to say that they don’t really like using harsh punishment/corrections anyway. If you’re one of those people, liberate yourself and your dog. With negative training, the worst that can happen is actually pretty bad! You can end up with an aggressive, emotionally-damaged dog! I'd say that's pretty serious! With positive training, however, the worst that can happen is your dog is happy from receiving positive reinforcement and interacting with you. It may require that you get a little creative with training, but your dog still respects you at the end of the day. That's not so horrible, now is it?


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