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Can we agree that language matters?  We can argue which language that is later.

“A common language is a first step towards communication across cultural boundaries.”

-Ethan Zuckerman



Let’s be honest, the language of dog training doesn’t make a bit of difference to the actual dog itself.  The dogs couldn’t care less whether we call our approach “Reinforcement” or “Punishment” nor do they care whether we are adding or subtracting something to make it “Positive” or “Negative.”  Naming the consistent repetitions as “classical conditioning” means nothing to them outside of certain behaviors becoming something they simply just do as part of their routine.  So if the dog doesn't actually care what we call it, why do we?


The purpose of playing with theories and attempting to label the process in which we develop behaviors within our dogs is truly more about us.  The owners and handlers.  Think about it, in the time spent training dogs be it “professional” or “amateur”, how many times have you reached out needing help or guidance?  How often have you been the one on the phone attempting to help teach?  Imagine trying to have those conversations without common terminology and lingo.  The actual labeling goes beyond just giving some us a mental pat on the back. It provides us the language so that we can communicate which is what enables us to teach, learn, and improve.


There are endless preferences, opinions, methods, terminologies, and emotions throughout the dog training community.  It truly doesn’t matter the type of dog or field of discipline.  At the end of the day, the one true common thread throughout is we all share a vested interest and desire to develop our dog’s skills and behaviors.  If we take the axiom “every dog is different” to the extreme (and by extension, "every trainer is different") we end up in a place where we must start from scratch, regarding how to train, with every single dog. To the other extreme, we hear claims that a given method works on EVERY dog. However, we’ve all heard enough stories of the “washed out” dogs to know that isn’t true either. Those dogs’ success when in the hands of other trainers demonstrate it isn’t for insufficient genetics and that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.


The concepts and theories behind B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning quadrants and Pavlov’s classical conditioning has impacted so much of my own thinking lately because it truly helps define certain aspects within all of the methods and training philosophies from the hundreds of guests I've had the fortune of speaking with on the podcast.  I’ve been honest in the fact these theories didn't make much sense to me at first but eventually that changed. Now I enjoy going into a session with a clear goal in mind to improve a single behavior.  I enjoy removing the emotion from the equation and I’m not only training with conflict or, on the other end, I'm not always having to bounce around over exaggerating or even faking a level of enthusiasm just trying to build my dog up enough to perform a task.


Going into a training session with a clear goal that removes me from having to rely so heavily on emotions is honestly refreshing.  The process of adding or taking away stimuli at the appropriate time to either reinforce a behavior or punish a behavior makes a lot of sense to me and contributes to keeping an appropriate level of enthusiasm or drive in your dog while working. First we teach or build a dog that actually wants to perform a behavior.  Then they are taught they have to perform the behavior in which they already want to do.  After they realize they have to do it whether they want to in that instance or not, they understand there are consequences for not doing the task. With enough repetition, the task becomes conditioned and then you're essentially just “playing” with your dog rather than “training” because you've built a dog that actually wants to do the behavior.  The dogs are not only performing because of the reward at the end.  They aren't only performing the task because they know you’ll get in their butt if they don't.  Sure, all of that was used during development but the end destination is to get to where the work itself is the actual reinforcement to them and successively performing the task conditions them to do it even better the next time. You've created the neural pathways in the dog now to where it is effectively addicted to the behavior, or at least the possible outcome of the behavior.


These principles transcending all methods just make sense to me and it helps to now have the language or terminology to try and better explain or help other folks trying to train their own dogs. It affords me and my fellow “dog nerd” friends to spend an almost embarrassing amount of time in discussions and debates that ultimately boils down to how best we all give the most to our dogs while taking the least from them as possible.  But rather than arguing about how to do one single thing such as introduce a puppy to birds without letting them catch it, we are debating on how to get the puppy to be an absolute monster that loves birds more than anything in this world.  And believe it or not, sometimes, that means letting a young puppy catch a bird or two.  Perhaps we will cover that soon in a post on building drive….


This philosophy or outlook seems to speak to me and I actually hope the dog training community can eventually land on a common language.  Whether it's the behavioral/learning theory or another language that has yet to be written. I'm confident we could all agree that the “how to” preferences will never be in common but I would think we can at least make some headway into agreeing upon certain terminology?  Perhaps this is wishful or even naive thinking but I truly believe it would help bridge the gap within a community that, lets face it, can rarely agree on anything and oftentimes ends up arguing over preferences and perceptions rather than actually helping improve our dogs.

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