But Every Dog is Different!

Cookie cutter in the shape of a dog. The dog is seated.But every dog is different!

This is another common argument against trainers who train without force. It usually goes like this:

  • But every dog is different! You can’t just use a cookie cutter!
  • But every dog is different! Why limit yourself to only one method?
  • But every dog is different! Some tools just don’t work with some dogs!

The implication is clear: Trainers who use primarily positive reinforcement are slaves to one method, which we apply to all dogs. We deliberately limit ourselves, despite the wealth of methods available to us. We ignore some of the tools in the toolbox. We are close-minded.

In addition, we just don’t seem to recognize, in the opinion of the person defending corrections, force, or “discipline,” that there are entire classes of dogs that can’t be trained to fluency without aversives.

We can’t classify the initial claim as a rhetorical fallacy. It’s true. Every dog is different. (We can say, “Duh!” though.)

So what’s really wrong with this picture?

This argument is usually put forth by “balanced trainers,” who believe in using both positive reinforcement and corrections. Typical of the latter would be collar pops, with some trainers performing those while the dog is wearing an aversive collar such as a prong or choke collar. Also corrections can certainly include shocks with a shock collar.

Balanced can sound good on paper. Show the animal both what’s right and what’s wrong and you’ll get there twice as fast! Many other writers have addressed this fallacy. (Deb Jones has a great post about it.). I will merely say here that this view ignores the scientific literature about the fallout from aversive methods, and also ignores what you lose (and the dog loses!) by combining the two. This article by Karen Pryor explains it.

Implying that trainers who use primarily positive reinforcement are “limiting” themselves by avoiding aversive methods is like criticizing a doctor who rules out treatments with dangerous side effects when safer and equally or more effective alternatives exist.

Whose Tools Are Limited Anyway?

Hurting, scaring, or annoying an animal is dead easy. You could bring me any vertebrate in the world and I would know how to do it. Let’s say a marmoset. I won’t get graphic, but it doesn’t demand any creativity or even much thought for me to know how to hurt it. It takes no finesse.

Likewise, startling any creature doesn’t require expertise. If I have the ability to change the temperature or environment,  add sounds, light, movement, or physical pressure, I could easily scare or bother it.

But if you asked me what marmosets really enjoy, I would have no clue. They are primates and I kind of think they live in trees. I don’t know what they eat. I would have to learn about the creature and observe it in order to know how to motivate it through positive reinforcement. Whereas hurt is universal.

The head and upper torso of a silvery marmoset, a monkey like primate. It has a white head and ruff, and ears that stick out.

Silvery Marmoset

And even though most of us are vastly more familiar with dogs than we are with marmosets, that’s exactly what we do. Force-free trainers study the heck out of any dog we train. How are dogs really different? As individuals. If we rule out deliberate use of aversives during training, we must treat each dog as an individual and learn what turns them on.

Treating each dog differently is built into the system of training with positive reinforcement. It can’t succeed without that.

I vastly improved my dog Summer’s agility weave performance by letting her play in the water hose after successfully performing the obstacle. However, if I were to turn the hose on my dog Zani after she did the weaves I would very shortly have a dog who would not weave at all. Clara and Zani love the flirt pole; Summer walks away from it. Although I can certainly condition them to like certain activities, it gives me real joy to discover the quirky things that they innately enjoy.

A black and tan hound mix dog chases a red toy attached to a flirt pole, a whip-like stick that you can attach a toy to and whirl it around

Zani and Clara love the flirt pole but Summer doesn’t

A light tan dog with a black tail and muzzle is ripping cardboard out of the hands of a person as a game

Clara and Summer love to rip cardboard but Zani doesn’t care to

A sable dog plays in a stream of water from a hose

Summer and Clara love to play in water but Zani hates it

Training with punishment doesn’t require a lot of study of the individual animal. And anyone who did put the amount of study into punishment methods that positive reinforcement trainers put into reinforcement would likely be called a sadist. The fact is that it is much easier to figure out how to hurt or stress a creature than it is to figure out the palette of things it loves best in the world, not to mention how to use them.

So who is it again who’s using a cookie cutter method?

How Badly it Hurts

It would have been fun to end the post on that zinger, but I have more to say. One of the things that triggered this post is a comment I read by a balanced trainer. She said emphatically that people who were talking about trainers hurting dogs had obviously never seen a dog in pain. She said dogs in pain acted panicked and lost their wits.

I hope I misunderstood her. If that is what she must see before she agrees that a dog is in pain, I feel really badly for her dogs. But it brings up a really important point. Not only do dogs likely have different pain thresholds, but breed and personality differences create differences in how much pain they show.

I believe that my 12 pound rat terrier Cricket is the physically toughest of all my dogs. I mean in literal ways. She flinches less for shots.  The pads of her feet are tough and her toenails aren’t sensitive. Both times she was badly injured by a big dog, she never let out a peep, during or after. But I may be wrong. It may be that she is more stoic. She may feel as much pain, but not show it.

We can’t know how much pain dogs are experiencing when they are physically punished. People who use punishment have to guess from the results they get. It only stands to reason that in some cases the dogs are probably more hurt than the trainer is aware.

With reinforcement, we also have to guess from the results we get. Some dogs may not be as obvious as others when something delights them. But if my dog is happier than I know because of something I have given her, there is no harm done.

What the Claim Usually Means

In my experience, when someone says, “But every dog is different,” what they are actually claiming is, “There are some classes of dogs that can’t be trained to fluency without aversives.” I say this because of what always follows the “different” claim: a discussion of types of dogs who are supposedly exceptions.

Who are these dogs? Here are some of the classes of dogs that supposedly require “different” methods that I saw mentioned recently:

  • hounds
  • bird dogs
  • “high drive” dogs
  • dogs with a high interest in chasing prey
  • bully breeds
  • really really big dogs
  • and always at least one dog belonging to the person defending aversives

When a force-free trainer gives examples of highly successful training with any of these types of dogs, they are met either with circular reasoning (“well it wasn’t really a high drive dog,” or “it wasn’t from working lines”), quibbling about the details, or silence.

What I honestly think the claim boils down to: it’s OK to use aversives on particular dogs or particular behaviors that are hard for that particular person to train to the degree of reliability or precision they want. And that most of the people who say “all dogs are different” believe that since they don’t know how to get the results they want without aversives, it can’t be done. And because punishment comes so naturally to all of us.

Results of Our Actions

Back to the marmoset. I said I could easily bother, startle, or hurt it. But one problem is that I don’t know enough to be sure which of these would actually happen. I might set out to bother it with a temperature change, and if it’s more sensitive than I guessed, I could injure or even kill it.

We think we are experts on dogs because they live with us. However, the same problem is present. A person could apply corrections as a part of training the dog to what felt like a reasonable degree and cause permanent damage. We read about extreme cases of this since they make the news or in this case, a peer-reviewed article. But injuries from aversive collars and even from the pressure of dogs pulling on flat collars are increasingly well documented.

I believe that balanced trainers are not trying to cause permanent injury to their dogs.  The handwriting is on the wall though, that they could be risking their dogs’ physical health if they use aversive methods, especially on the dogs’ necks. And the even more likely deleterious effects to their dog’s emotional health are well described in any Psych 101 textbook.

I think defending the use of aversives for “some dogs” is about our human susceptibility to the seduction of punishment, and not about treating dogs as individuals at all.

Thanks to April and Margery for their help with the ideas in this post, and Sonya for the cool cookie cutter photo.

Thanks to Clara for making me smile.

Link to the video of Clara and me ripping up cardboard together for email subscribers.

Thanks for reading! Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+
This entry was posted in Operant conditioning, Punishment, Reinforcement, Terminology, Training philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

51 Responses to But Every Dog is Different!

  1. I think what a lot of people don’t understand about us (R+ trainers or clicker trainers, etc.), is that we’re not using a method as much as a principle. We’re using the principles of operant conditioning, which work on any organism with a brain stem. The methods can vary as you’ve described (hose is a positive reinforcer to one dog and an aversive to another).

    The “some dogs need force” is an argument I’ve heard about Bouviers, which is what all three of my service dogs have been. Bouvs are big, powerful dogs with a working/protection breed history, and they tend to be stoic and more reserved than most breeds. All of which can lead people to say they need “discipline” (punishment) to be trained.

    My three all have had very different personalities, and I had to learn to work differently with each of them, but the principles were always the same, since they all have a brain stem and eat. 😉

  2. Tena Parker says:

    What a fantastic article! I really do feel like positive trainers are some of the most creative and some of the BEST at catering to the individual dog. We use so many tools, so many training methods, and are willing to create a method for a specific dog that just screams the anti-cookie cutter.

    • Yes, Tena! I told somebody that I think balanced trainers have no idea how wrong, or how insulting it is, frankly, to name us the cookie cutter trainers. It really seems to indicate ignorance of the methods and principles of what we do.

  3. Colleen says:

    Another great article Eileen, thanks. And thanks for the link to the peer-reviewed article on collar injuries. I recently challenged myself to only walk my dog with a harness. She pulls like a fiend if it’s windy or she wants to go home and I was worried about neck/throat injuries, despite using a wide-band martingale. Now I worry she’s going to have sore under-arms (under-legs?) but at least she can breathe. Nice leash walking is still hit and miss with us but we are making progress. Love the shredding video. Vita loves to shred as well, but I hadn’t thought to make it a game with impulse control rules. Will give that a try with our next empty cardboard egg carton.

    • Hi Colleen, yes, it’s hard to figure out what is most comfortable and humane sometimes. Good for you for working on it and continuing to train loose leash walking. There are two more pertinent articles that I know of and I will post them here in the comments later.

      I gave my dogs cardboard to shred for years and only recently realized we could have a game!

  4. Marjorie says:

    Great post Eileen! I cringe when I hear that “yea, but…” I have found that there are those people who are addicted to drama and the more the better. Many of these people tend to revel in their dogs bad behaviour and truth be told, they ‘d find a well behaved dog boring. Their dog’s bad behaviour is their way of being different and drawing attention to themselves. Positive trainers can creatively deal with any dog given the opportunity.

    • Thanks, Marjorie! I hadn’t thought about the drama aspect but you are so right. Compare the TV personality trainer jerking around fearful dogs with what actually works: boring counter conditioning. And there are definitely people who prefer drama in real life, too.

  5. Fabulous article, Eileen! Thanks for writing this. Sometimes it can be challenging to figure out what will work for THIS dog, but it’s always a variation on positive reinforcement, negative punishment, management, and manipulating thresholds.

  6. Great article. It just baffles my mind that “balanced” trainers don’t get it. If you have to use force to ‘train’ your dog there is something wrong. Training is teaching. Force and discomfort has no place in a teaching environment. A dog will still love and cuddle with you if you have caused him pain. That doesn’t mean using pain was ok. It doesn’t mean the dog was ok with it. I consider it absolutely unethical to use force to train a dog. I told someone once that the more aggressive a dog appeared to be, the more gentle you should treat it – and they looked at me like I was crazy! We humans are just so conditioned to use force, not just with dogs, but particularly with dogs. It is such a puzzle to me.

    • Thank you Genevieve. Yes, dogs are so forgiving, to their detriment at times. As a crossover trainer, I think I lingered in the “well, you need to use force with those aggressive dogs” for a little while–but not for long! When I learned about changing a dog’s emotional state, it fell into place for me. Now it is so obvious.

  7. Lobo is a GREAT example of a stoic dog. He’s run around in a field of stickers(the painful ones, not the fun ones) before, and came out acting like nothing happened. I spent about an hour plucking them from his paw pads. Every once in a while, he’d flinch and look at his paw, but otherwise didn’t even act like he noticed. It was actually pretty unnerving for me.

    • Yup. Dogs are amazing that way. I once took Cricket on a very long walk, a few miles over rough terrain. I was ignorant enough at the time to think that since she was still hustling along, out of her mind with the fun, that she was fine. The next day I saw what her paw pads looked like…. Part of that is endorphins I guess, her not feeling (or reacting to) the pain during the walk. But even with bloody pads she thought she was fine the next day too.

  8. ksammie3 says:

    One thing that has confounded me for quite a while is hearing the “balanced” folks claim that not all can be accomplished through “the positive training method”. As if there is one, and only one “positive training method”. I’ve been at this +R based training for 10 years and I am still learning new ways to train through +R. I doubt I will ever run out of techniques and variations on techniques to learn. Maybe if we keep repeating over and over that there is not just one single “positive training method”, but a whole host of +R based approaches, techniques, and methods, it will start to sink in . . .

  9. fearfuldogs says:

    Another nice contribution to the cause Eileen! All dogs may be different, but they all learn the same way, by interacting with their environment and experiencing the consequences.

  10. Sonya says:

    A compassionate and reasoned argument for providing effective alternatives to punishment when teaching dogs. Off I go to share it 🙂

  11. Danielle says:

    I could probably succesfully justify using aversives on one of my dogs to many people if I tried. His behaviour was dangerous to both himself and others (highly reactive to bikes, skateboards, kids, and certain other animals; and he’s strong enough to pull towards them), he responds to a limited number of reinforcers, he is very strongly instict-driven (“high-drive”, a working-breed that is still bred for its original job), and he will shut down quickly under correction so it probably would have suppresed the behaviour, at least in the short-term. Still didn’t need to though – counter-conditioning, self-control training and a bit of Control Unleashed and he’s now doing better than I could ever have hoped!

    • Kudos! There in a nutshell are most of the reasons people justify using a prong collar (for instance), all in one dog. Yet, you don’t have to use one. Way to go, and thanks for telling us.

  12. Love what you’re doing for humane and relationship building training. It goes further than that though. I may not agree with everything Ian Dunbar says (heck I don’t agree with everything I say) but he’s right when he says that it’s not just what we do with our dogs, it’s what we’re doing with our families and the examples we are setting for our kids.

    Thanks for all you’re doing for us and our dogs!

  13. Minna Yrjana says:

    Good article. We have 4 very high drive working line malinois. So you guess it- I’m told to use prong collars and e-collars because they are “that kind of dogs”.
    But we use clicker and lots of play instead. Even in protection dog training. But to be honest we also use correction; time-out is the most efficient correction for my 4-year old bitch. And not getting the reward is also a correction.
    So I think it would be a nice idea to write about different kinds of corrections, because most people just think about beating the dog, kicking the dog, shouting and jerking on the leash when they should tell the dog she’s doing something not allowed. And I think it is very important that when teaching a dog new behavior there should not be any kind of corrections!

    • Thanks for posting, Minna, and it’s great to hear from a protection trainer. Very good point about time-outs. They can be potent when applied correctly, as I’m sure you do. I’ll put “corrections” on my topic list. In the meantime, I have a short post about the dog learning from lack of a click and treat, which is rather pertinent here: But How Do I Tell My Dog She’s Wrong? Also in my movie about the processes of operant learning I have three examples of negative punishment that are absolutely aimed at reducing (punishing) a behavior. The movie is embedded in this post.

  14. The marmoset example goes to the heart of the matter. Well said, thank you!

  15. titch990 says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more about different dogs having different pain thresholds and also showing it in different ways.

    Saxon, our first Norwegian Buhund, was a tough and independent dog although very loyal and affectionate, (oh, how I wish I knew then, 30 years ago, what I know now about dog training). But if he wanted to do something, or didn’t want to do something, you soon knew about it. One of the things he hated was being out in hot midday sun in the summer (even in the UK), probably because he had a dense, double snow- and ice-proof coat, resistant to about -40 degrees. He would find somewhere cooler, and lie down, and was clearly quite distressed, and quite likely would have got heatstroke had we continued to make him walk in the hot sun. Apart from physically refusing as far as possible, you could see in every fibre of his body that he actually was extremely uncomfortable. We soon learned not to plan any walks in the heat of the day in the summer.

    When we got our next Buhund, Pepsi, a sweet, gentle and slightly timid girl, at first, we thought that although she had the same coat as Saxon, she wasn’t bothered by being out in the heat of the sun. How wrong we were. As we got to know her better, we realised that she was so keen to please us in every way that she was walking uncomplainingly in the sun, because we wanted her to. As far as she was concerned, if we wanted her to walk, walk she would, even if it quite literally killed her. Just by chance one day, I happened to spot the look of resignation and determination in her eyes, and get some sense of the extreme distress she was trying to hide from us, because she so wanted to please us. Poor, poor girl.

    It is amazing what some dogs will put up with from us, and still want to please us more, even when they are suffering, and even when that suffering has been orcestrated by us.

    Thank you so much for being such a public presence for force-free training.

    • Thank you for telling about your Buhunds, Titch. Toughness crops up in the most unexpected places, doesn’t it? I’m so glad Pepsi was your dog and you noticed what was going on. (And Saxon too, of course!) That stoicism can sure work to the detriment of our dogs sometimes. Thanks for your kind words as well!

  16. lorac says:

    some negatives of force-free training (tongue in cheek):
    – a messier house or yard (a la your video example)
    – a dog or other pet that pesters us for play and training

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  21. MaryA says:

    I just had to comment that I think this post is brilliant and I will be sharing it with my fellow R+ trainers as well as my rescue/advocacy group’s FB page.

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  23. “Balanced” trainers justify the use of punitive methods with the argument that every dog is different, so no one method works for every dog – but the outcome they expect for every dog is the same – a perfect recall, a dog who will obey in every situation under every kind of distraction. So, dogs are different, so different methods are needed to achieve the same result for every dog? But if dogs are all different, doesn’t that also mean they will have different talents, abilities and temperaments? What you can expect from one dog, you shouldn’t expect from them all?

  24. Susan Mann says:

    Another point is that the type of training is generally dependent on the trainer, not the dog. People who have been successful with balanced training, or shock collars, or positive reinforcement with one dog, are likely to use those same methods with the next dog. You don’t generally see someone train one dog with the shock collar, and a different dog with +R. However, some people who have been successful using aversives, end up finding that their next dog does not respond well to it, and some of them will end up trying +R. Others will give up on training the dog, and in some circles, blame the dog for not having a good enough temperament for handling the training. I don’t know of anyone personally who has used +R methods as their primary method, and been successful with it, who has then not been successful with it with subsequent dogs, even of other breeds and temperaments.

    • Wow. So many great points in there. “The type of training is generally dependent on the trainer…” That cuts through a lot of murk right there. Thanks for commenting, Susan.

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  27. Muriel Nally says:

    So many excellent points here & so much more for me to read & watch! I’m not a trainer (well, I try with varying degrees of success to teach my dogs what I want from them) but I do believe in using positive methods with my dogs. I feel so sad when I think back to my first dog, Molly a very gentle golden retriever. We went to “dog school” & as a novice dog owner wanting to do the right thing by my dog, I used leash pops, pushed her bottom down & so on, as taught by the people running the classes. Over time Molly & I got up to reasonably advanced classes, working off-lead for most of the time but eventually I stopped taking her because she never seemed to really enjoy the classes. Fast forward to the 2 dogs I have now; 4yo Willow & 15mo Astro, again golden retrievers. They LOVE the classes they go to & the people running the classes are amongst their favourite people in all the world. A while back we had 1 on 1 session at home to help me work out some issues Willow was having with going out in the car & I swear if Willow had been a human child she’d have been dragging her off to see her bedroom – she was literally so happy that “Miss” was visiting her at home! I so wish I knew what I know now back when Molly was a puppy as I know she would have responded so well to force free training.

    I had someone a while ago tell me that positive reinforcement was all well & good if you wanted to teach your dog tricks – who knew that potty training, loose lead walking, sit, drop & all the other things we teach our dogs to do were “tricks”?

    • Hi Muriel! Thanks so much and I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. I’ve sure been there, about the old style training. My dog Summer got to cross over with me, but she still has some “leftover” anxieties from the old times.

      I love your store about Willow being excited to see her “teacher” at home.

      I have a friend, a great trainer, who says it’s all tricks. And it’s true. To the dog it makes no difference it you are teaching them to cross their paws or call 911. It’s just that with the more important behaviors we work harder on reliability. But that part is fun for the dog, too!

      Thanks so much for commenting.

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