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Ruff Translating is a balanced dog training company. But outside of the professional jargon, what does that mean? For us, it doesn’t just mean that we use prongs and e-collars.
There are many dog trainers who identify as either “force free” or “pro-positive”, which is meant to indicate that they only use 2 quadrants of the 4 quadrants of learning, as described by operant learning theory. Here are the four quadrants, for those of you new to the world of animal behavior, and/or dog training.
Skinner’s basic outline of the four quadrants of operant conditioning:
Now, let’s dive down a bit more so that everyone is sure of what we are talking about in specifics.
This term indicates that some kind of aversive is applied with consistency until a behavior stops or is completed. For example- A typical e-collar training technique (not used at Ruff Translating) is to apply a low level stimulus during a command (recall typically) until the animal completes an action.Then, the pressure on the stimulus is released- which allows the animal to be rewarded with the absence of punishment for completing the action.
A positive reinforcement is the simplest concept to understand- we add a reward to the desired behavior, ie- a treat or a toy (even praise!) as a reward for completing the desired action.
This is when you remove something of high value in order to curb an unwanted behavior or draw out a desired behavior. For example, you may withhold a treat if a dog who knows an action doesn’t complete it. Withholding food is a negative punishment.
This is when you add something to a situation to get a different, more desired learned behavior. For example, leash pressure in response to a lunge at another dog. See also- a verbal correction.
There is a widely known and highly public debate of which of the quadrants should be used in training dogs. It has become incredibly divisive and is something that Ruff Translating deals with everyday. Dog trainers who are highly in tune with only negative punishment (removal of food) and positive reinforcement (application of food) are portrayed as the “kinder, gentler” option for puppies, etc.
Unfortunately, this narrow scope just isn’t always effective long term, once the food disappears, often so does the taught commands. Most K-9 trainers (police dogs, etc) are as well versed in the four quadrants, but tend to lean (this is a big generalization) towards negative reinforcement as well as positive punishment. Again, this is sweeping, and my attempt at trying to give context to where Ruff Translating finds our footing.
Operant Conditioning is useful in understanding how to apply specific tools or actions based on creating an environment where we can better communicate with our dogs. But unlike a simple chart, there are no hard lines when it comes to understanding how these things play out in the course of training a dog. Things can get muddled very, very quickly.
When I work with a dog, one of the first behavior assessments that I tend to make is the response to human voice as well as simple body language. I often work with dogs who are incredibly shut down. Many of these dogs are rescues who have been shipped, shuffled from place to place, and though likely not experiencing direct violence in previous homes, not exactly familiar with how to be successful in a human home environment. Usually in these assessments I will be met with a highly vocal, defensive animal, snapping, and lunging in my general direction. Often, I will be met with a shuddering, growling, eye dodging, scared little dog gremlin incapable of making friends. My initial response is always the same- pass me the leash. Generally, if given enough time and space to work, I can slowly use the leash to settle a dog. Maybe not to the point of being friendly, or engaged, but calm enough for me to have a conversation with the owners and start unpacking a training plan. If I was to offer 9.5 of 10 dogs food in this state, I would escalate their behavior. Or, they will come take the food as a reward, and then go back to their gremlin like state. Instead, I use gentle leash pressure, very firm, unyielding body language, slow breathing, and engagement to settle dogs. It’s a quick dance of moving them towards me, and away from me, and setting boundaries using simple dog body language roughly translated into human actions. I do not immediately throw them on a tool like a prong. I also do not feed them immediately. But where would this fall under the operant conditioning chart? More or less, everywhere. I apply short bursts of pressure to a leash to keep the dog close to me, but not able to over engage with me or the environment, which would be negative reinforcement. At the same time, I get the dog moving in multiple directions, trying to get them to follow my actions and engage, which could easily be positive punishment as I move the dogs around with constant short busts of leash pressure. I reinforce calmness, or enthusiasm with only verbal praise, depending on how well a dog responds to my actions, which would positive reinforcement. The entire action is generally done without the use of negative punishment, unless the clients who own the dog are a high value reward, which can be the case. Leaving out one aspect of this routine would never produce nearly the same amount of results. They have to work in conjunction. It’s not a clear cut category, actions overlap.
The further that you dive into learning theory, the more muddled it becomes, and that's not a bad thing.
More over to an extensive degree, focusing just on the types of methods used (some methods SHOULD be off limits- looking at you, Jeff Gellman) really limits the agency of the dog in question. All of the recent scientific data shows that dogs are actually deeply emotional, and incredibly keen at discerning human intent, health, and even mood. They plan actions, they have memories. When we reduce complicated relationship building to simply understanding an operant conditioning chart, we are underestimating our dogs to an incredible degree. One of the reasons we don’t use front clip harnesses for leash training is that I believe the restriction of movement without the benefit of clear communication, is a form of constant positive punishment. Constantly restricting the movement of your dog, by physically overpowering them and controlling their shoulder movements, is not a gentler method of training. Nor is it likely to produce an actual understanding of walking on a leash. But if we think of it solely in human terms- it LOOKS like positive reinforcement more than a prong collar does. It is only until we unpack the physical action, that we see the actual effects.
Dog training has been in many ways, reduced to simply teaching a few key words, and feeding them as a reward for those positions- or forcing them into those positions for an undetermined amount of time. Sometimes a combination of those things.
Why on earth would this be the place that we start? I understand why we may have started in this place, just wanting to communicate some basics. But this is not where Ruff Translating feels the focus of dog training should start, now that we have a more collective broader understanding of dog cognition and processing, nor is it actually historically how dogs and humans have collaborated.
Instead, we need to be focusing on teaching our clients how to read dogs. Firstly, those teaching better be pretty good at reading dog body language. I’ve spent years, and countless hours, reading, studying and practicing understanding dog body language. We are going to get parts of it wrong- “dog” isn’t our first language but we should be making every attempt not to anthropomorphize but to instead really understand what’s going on. Dogs do not think or process the way we do. The structure of their brain defines evidence of this. But they are still highly emotional, and intelligent creatures. We often limit them by impressing our own feelings or assumptions on them. If a dog appears frightened, many people assume that fear is permanent (she’s always been skittish), rather than looking at ways that you can teach confidence rather than directly challenging a dog with their highest fear. We need to be teaching our clients how to form a different, stronger bond, with their dog first and foremost, so they can then fully understand how to train. Then we need to be teaching how to give your dog the skills to work through challenges, not just commands.
Establishing a working bond takes time. When someone walks into Ruff Translating, they are often super nervous, (just like their dog), and scared that because they have sought help from a balanced trainer, they are going to be met with hard lines, and forceful punishment. Unfortunately, aside from the use of operant conditioning, K-9 training also reproduces many of the same issues in a training environment as exist in the institutions where it was created, because it is reproducing that inherently biased system for pet dogs. Thus, often it is not a conducive environment for queers, BIPOC, non-veterans with PTSD, other folks with disabilities, and other civilians to connect with their dogs outside of a command/response frame work.
Those fears of violence or aggression are not realized when we apply balanced training, but we are capable of setting an appropriate boundary through the technical definition “punishment” if the case before us requires it. We bring out a wide variety of tools when there is a communication stutter- as an extension of allowing communication to move more freely. For example, we use prong collars because many dogs can’t feel pressure or understand what it means without those rounded, safely applied, mama-dog-mimicking little points of contact. Many of our handlers have substantial mobility issues, and can’t provide direction to their dogs without tools. We do not hold pressure on a prong to cause pain. We do not pop hard and mean. We don’t even sell prongs without a lesson on how to use them fairly, kindly, and to help your dog. It’s very similar to finding the right bit (the piece of a bridle that settles in a horse's mouth) for the right horse- tool selection can even change with each training situation you are in, to better affect what you are asking your dog to do. When I am trick training- it’s all lures and treats. When I am training for public access- and the stakes are very high for a service dog- I am not taking the food route, this requires a direct line of communication and a hair’s width of precision. I would like a bluetooth to my dog’s brain, which is leash pressure and body movement as well as engagement and verbal praise.
The very first thing we do at Ruff Translating is teach foundational eye contact. We now know that there is a bonding hormonal exchange through direct eye contact. That hormone (oxytocin)acts as a familial love potion, literally. You can tell so much by the way a dog engages or doesn’t with eye contact. That combined with head position, tail position, tension, movement, and micro-expressions gives our trainers a place to start. And the place to start is to get your dog to hone in on your goals, your shared goals, and your boundaries as a handler. We can’t do anything until we build the relationship. Sometimes this happens quickly, other times it can take months. It is always worth doing, and there are a myriad of training exercises to help it along. But the point is that we aren’t starting from a place of punishment, correction, or even command response with food reward. We are starting from the place of relationship counseling.
Just because your dog adores you, and is friendly, does not mean that they understand or trust your communication. Often friendly dogs are just a result of genetics, life experience and general temperament. A goofy, friendly, household pet is not necessarily trained in the slightest.
Ask yourself some questions about your dog...
Does your dog look to you over most distractions? Does your dog respond when you look in their direction without verbals? Can you get a tail wag with a smile their way? Can you communicate a “no” with a glance and body language and get results? Can they predict your actions based on how you move, and anticipate activities other than a walk or feeding time? Are they unsettled? Do they pace? Startle easily? Do they eat well? Do they have injuries? Is there pain that is limiting mobility and influencing behavior?
This is where we focus our training. The connection and understanding, and when we do the rest comes along much further.
There is no secret sauce in dog training, there is no magic. There is commitment, hard work, and a keen sense of observation. There is time and patience. There is persistence. You can take your dog to a group class and have it perform beautifully, including in dog sports, basic commands, competitions- you name it- but there is so much more out there. There is an ability to have the closeness you can see with a well tuned service dog handler and their dog, military dogs paired with a combat handler, and those experiencing homelessness with a pet. The connection is the actual magic. When you spend the time to learn how to communicate with your dog, and better read their communication, not only do problem behaviors improve but general stability, and frankly- tolerance for each other’s blind spots. The bond overrides the annoyances and allows you to work through them, or set a boundary that works for you both. This may sound humanizing, but it is not. It is very different to understand that a dog has desires and feelings then to believe those mimic ours. They are different, a dog’s sense of self is tied to a much different emotional understanding since they have evolved to engage with us as a method of survival.
If you want to work with trainers who are deeply committed to building a bond with your dog, that’s where we fall. If you want to learn how to build that bond with your dog, we are here for you. If you want to be sure that your communication is clear, we are constantly working to clarify those lines the best way we can- through tools, through food, through verbal clarity- through engagement like eye contact. That’s what balanced training is to us. It is understanding that working with any animal is not just about getting results or about whose method’s work better- it is about taking the time to start from a place of comprehension, however shoddy, and then work towards making it clearer. That is training at Ruff Translating. We are not former soldiers or police officers. We are not hard line trainers. We do not use constant pressure e-collar stimulation and we are not rough handlers. But we are direct and we do think your dogs can do better, with your help. That help needs to be balanced and respectful of the very highly intelligent species we work with. I do not believe based on our scientific research of dog cognition that dogs are cookie eating machines. It is simplistic to believe that a dog can be given a high value food offer or removal and they will do anything you want. They will work for food and you can use it to reinforce- but if that is your only tool, you will be quickly limited and carrying a cookie bag for the rest of your life. That cookie bag may or may not be effective given the environmental distractions. There has to be more. And there is. We just have to take the time to learn it.
“Are you force-free?” The caller on the end of the phone asks. “We are balanced.” I reply and everything is lost in translation. Somehow, years of connecting with dogs, years of study, courses, apprenticeships, field work are reduced to this simple interaction. I can feel the caller’s hackles go up. The internet struck again. I can feel visions of me blowing guns off to teach dogs not to be scared of loud sounds with no warning, prong collars with pointed ends, this is what’s summoned in reference to “balanced”... who wouldn’t be turned off? Instead we have visions of polo shirts with logos and treat bags, with dogs jumping all over each other and called “play” on the other end. Both extremes will harm dogs and why folks are confused. We are force-free, honestly. But we aren’t pressure free. We believe dogs are capable of experiencing an appropriate amount of pressure (not necessarily physical, it can be verbal encouragement) to work through their fears or reactivity and then be handsomely rewarded. But that’s not what the caller is asking. They are asking me to define a life’s work to a category, and the category they hear doesn’t even describe close to what we do here. I go on to explain more of how we work, and hope for the best. Based on our success, I know we are what folks are looking for. I am not sad to hang up the phone for lost business, fortunately, our results speak for themselves. But when I hang up the phone I am profoundly sad because in limiting our conversation to tools, we aren’t having the conversation we need to have. “Are you committed to changing the way my dog and I interact, and helping me learn how to do that safely, fairly, and with some fun?” Yes, yes we are. If you are too, we can help.