Lions and Tigers and…Dogs? Oh my!

Among the professional community of reward-based trainers, there is a lot of speculation and discourse related to the semantics of describing our trade. "Positive trainers"...


Among the professional community of reward-based trainers, there is a lot of speculation and discourse related to the semantics of describing our trade. “Positive trainers” may be misleading, because it can technically apply to trainers who use both positive punishment and positive reinforcement. “Reward-based” training doesn’t fit as a description either, because technically, much traditional training can be considered a “reward” if reward is seen to be equated with reinforcement – after all, turning off the shock stimulus on an e-collar is technically a reward.

Others have postulated that “naked training” would be a good way to describe positive reinforcement training techniques, since we do not rely on physical coercion or correction tools to create new behaviors. Admittedly, naked training is a bit ambiguous, probably giving John Q. Petowner the wrong impression of what to expect at class (and wondering if the classroom environment is kid-friendly!).

I’ll be honest, I don’t know the answer. I usually call it “modern training” because the terminology reflects the fact that positive reinforcement training techniques are based on the most current, scientifically valid behavior modification techniques as proven through research. In my orientations, I also call it “exotic animal training” or “lion training.” This is because clicker training uses the same principles used by professionals who specialize in working with the most dangerous and aggressive animals on the planet.

A number of my colleagues work with exotic animals professionally. None of them would dream of placing a shock collar on a lion or forcing a bear to “get over” his discomfort with handling through dangerous, side effect-laden techniques like flooding.

The truth is that every dog, even the most even-tempered service dog on the planet, has the potential to become a dangerous animal and walks the earth with a mouthful of deadly weapons.

Whenever I work with my dogs or dogs belonging to my clients and a behavior problem rears its ugly head, I think to myself, “what would I do if this were a lion?” Assuming an animal is dangerous helps keep a handler safe and forces us to use our brains, rather than our muscles – the focus in training a dangerous animal is obtaining voluntary cooperation because you just can’t force them to do anything and trying to do so may be a fatal mistake.

Exotic animal trainers know that:

  • Good manners must be expected at all times – you don’t allow the lion to bite sometimes and correct him for biting in other situations. Consistency is critical for everyone’s safety.
  • Handlers must pay attention – bad habits can escalate into dangerous habits within a fraction of a second. You must know where your dog is and what he is doing at all times to keep him out of trouble. Observation is the key to preventing unwanted behavior and rewarding desirable behavior. Exotic animal trainers do not allow lions to run throughout the zoo while they sip Starbucks and text thoughts about last night’s episode of “Jersey Shore” on their iPhone with their best friends.
  • Kittens grow into cats – behaviors that are cute when animals are small can be obnoxious at best and lethal at worst in a fully grown animal. While it may be “cute” now if Cuba chews on someone’s nose, it will not be cute when he is 160+ pounds at maturity.
  • If you are aggressive, the animal will be as well – how do you think a lion would respond to being jerked around by his neck? Might he bite you? If he did, would it be because he was a “bad lion” or because the training method itself is unsuitable?
  • Reliability and relationship are a product of, not a substitute for, training – lions don’t inherently “want to please you,” but they will respond to cues for behaviors which have proven to be rewarding through training. Dogs are the same way.
  • Nip it in the bud – exotic animal trainers realize the value of being proactive. Preventing behavior problems is always easier than solving them. Additionally, “fixing” a behavior problem through training is much easier if you do so as soon as the behavior begins occurring than it is after an animal has days, weeks, months or years of reinforcement history for bad behavior.
  • Assume the animal will bite – as veterinary behaviorist Ian Dunbar says, “if you don’t want your dog to bite you, don’t be an ***hole.” Violence begets violence. Every dog on the planet will bite, including Lassie, if you push him hard enough. Exotic trainers also know that a stressed, sick, or injured animal presents a bite risk.
  • Even small animals can seriously hurt you – a chihuahua can put even a large man in the hospital under the right (wrong?) circumstances. Don’t take size for granted.
  • Don’t expect behaviors you haven’t trained – a lion trainer would never ask a lion to get into a crate without first training the behavior and then punish the lion for not responding. Exotic animals know that their charges do not understand English and that behaviors must be taught well before they are reliable.
  • Management is critical – because exotic animal trainers know their charges may bite strangers, they keep them safely contained. They do not throw them into a situation they can’t handle and “hope for the best.”
  • “The rat is always right” – exotic animal trainers know that if an animal fails to respond to a cue, it is not a “challenge to authority” but highlights deficiencies and loopholes in the training plan. They do not try to force compliance out of a need to be the leader but accept that more training is needed to obtain reliability on the behavior in question.

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