I just got back from Clicker Expo. I go to this conference every year and attend lectures from animal trainers, behavior analysts, and some of the best applied animal behaviorists in the world. It is truly remarkable. I walked away, as I always do, with some important tweaks to make to my training plans, some answers, and of course more questions. Interesting as all of that is, that’s not what I am inspired to write today, fresh off my experience at Expo.
Everyone is welcome at Clicker Expo. Never held a clicker in your life? There’s plenty of sessions for you.
Been clicker training for decades? Don’t worry, plenty of new information for you, too. The best part is that if you walk your dog on a prong collar at home, or your dog wears an electronic bark collar, you’ll not meet judgment at Expo, at least not from faculty and presenters. You’ll not meet judgement because there is no room for it in science, and Clicker Expo is a science-based conference. I can’t speak for all attendees; I am certain judgement abounds in some circles. However the example set by the speakers tends to spread out into the attendees, and I didn’t catch one conversation with a flavor of “they’re doing it wrong.” Not once.
The Science Side
This is so important, and so refreshing, because dog trainers like to argue with each other. A lot. Because our industry is not regulated, methods, tools, and techniques abound. We label ourselves with words and phrases like “balanced” or “force-free” and the problem with labels is they’re up for interpretation. I sort of like the word “balanced” but it seems to indicate any tool is up for grabs and in my personal ethics, that’s not the case. “Force-free” is quite problematic because a simple leash, even when clipped to the most innocuous harness, is a type of force. Rather than arguing about tools and techniques, why don’t we all get on the same side; the science side? The side that says good animal training is not about a clicker or a metal collar. It’s about good understanding of learning principles. It’s about skill, timing, and strategy. It’s about staying current on the research in our field. It’s about seeing that we are never only operating in one quadrant of operant conditioning, and that we are always working within the shared walls of both Skinner and Pavlov. When we know our science and we see the interplay between emotions and behavior (for aren’t they actually one and the same?) we will do good work. We can stop fighting. We do all actually have the same goal in mind: helping dogs.
How do you spend your time?
Where are dog trainers having these knock-down-drag-outs? Online. I have a rule. It’s more important now than ever, and it goes like this: DO NOT GET INTO ARGUMENTS ON THE INTERNET. Any time I feel the need to correct someone online, or engage in a heated discussion in social media, I consciously refrain. Not because my opinion shouldn’t be heard; I think I have a lot of good information to give. But because there are better uses of my time, my most precious currency. If I feel strongly enough, I’ll write about it here. If I don’t, I will get back to whatever work I was supposed to be doing when I diverted over to Facebook. In the new year, my goal is to get up and go train my own dogs whenever I feel the urge to write a response in a forum that is absolutely not deserving of my energy. It is working out really nicely for my dogs and I so far.
I do not mean to say that I never speak out when I see things going on in my industry that shouldn’t be. I am indeed pretty vocal about what I don’t think is acceptable in dog training. That’s because I have personal ethics, and we all ought to. If a dog trainer never draws a line in the sand they have forgotten (or are not aware of) the piece of the science I mentioned above; the one about emotions and behavior not being separate entities. Like I said in another blog, we are always training a feeling. However, judgement and fighting do not abolish these practices–the ones that disregard the dog’s emotional state–that run rampant in our field.
The proof is in the pudding as they say and only the skilled application of science-based training will turn our industry around. We should all take it upon ourselves to learn from someone better than we are, and to get outside of the species we are comfortable training once in a while. Never trained a chicken, a dolphin, a rat, or a cat? Might be time. Never trained a complex task or a long behavior chain? Get started the next time your fingers itch at the keyboard, just dying to respond to that training video going viral. Never been to a training conference, or only attended that dog training organization’s event? Clicker Expo has two more dates this year, I recommend it.