By Leia Minch CPBT-KA, Raptor Curator
My freshman year I wrote a review for my college newspaper on a flashy infomercial product that claimed my dog would be the perfect, house broken, well-mannered and ultimate companion in 30 days. The product was an instructional video, a pinch collar and a paracord rope that attached to the collar. The dog was an eight month old Alaskan Malamute.
The first seven days included my 110 pound body learning to adapt to being drug around by an animal with a boundless amount of energy and a never ending smile when she looked back and saw me flying behind her through the tumbleweeds. The following week included learning how to effectively use the pinch collar so that I did not end a “training” session with stickers, thorns and bush pieces in every part of my hair and clothing. And, by the end of the thirty days, I had the dog trained to stay with me… but only if I had the collar and the leash attached to her. When walking the dog off the collar and leash, she would not stay my by side and refused to come when I called her.
I can argue the many problems with the training methodology of physically forcing the animal to comply, however for the purpose of this blog we’re going to focus on the lack of control the animal (or myself, really) had. To put it simply, when I used the pinch collar I was effectively taking away all of her control. Subsequently, she only learned how to avoid the pain of the pinch collar. She was never given information that said “if you stay by my side there will be a reward for you.” Therefore, when the collar was off, she did not know what behaviors were acceptable.
I began to think about my early days as a “trainer” one afternoon this winter while our resident lanner-saker falcon was voluntarily weighing herself in front of me. This behavior is something she, and the rest of our ambassadors do on a daily basis through choice and empowerment. When I first began as an animal trainer, I tried to use force and coercion because as a novice, being the “alpha” inhabits the language of our relationships we have with animals. We often build our relationships by threatening “if you don’t do X, you’ll face Y punishment.” When we threaten animals, we are not telling them what they should be doing, merely what they should not do. To a life form that does not speak our language, you can see how this gets confusing.
But there is hope in giving the animal choice and control over their actions. As pet owners and animal lovers, we should begin to think of behavior from a “what’s in it for them” perspective. Let’s go back to the Alaskan malamute. When I called her back to me without the leash and collar, she had no incentive for listening to me. Our relationship had been built on negative stimulus and she was better off checking out the enriching sights and smells that the grassy hills had to offer. But, let’s pretend I began to train the dog by allowing her choice. One way I might do this is by building a relationship where when I called her back, she received a bit of meat or a chance to play with her pull-rope. Soon, she would learn that the incentive of a play session or a high-value treat would trump wandering through the hills, and she would choose to come when I asked. She’s in control of her actions, and, as a trainer I feel more in control because my request was fulfilled.
Here at the American Bald Eagle Foundation, we do the exact same thing with raptors. When I ask the lanner-saker falcon to the scale, she chooses to come because she knows that a tid-bit of quail is waiting for her upon completion of the behavior. And, if she chooses not to come, as trainers we respect that decision (although this rarely happens due to the enriching and reinforcing nature of our relationship).
The world of animal training has made tremendous strides the last 50 years and trainers working with animals ranging from goldfish to giraffes have began to use positive reinforcement and choice-based training to build rewarding and fulfilling relationships with the animals they share their lives with. I encourage anyone trying to train their dog, cat, horse, etc. to seek out positive reinforcement techniques and get the most fulfilling and rewarding relationships with our animals.