There is a way to teach and modify behavior that doesn’t involve any forms of intentional physical or psychological intimidation. This non-violent way of teaching has in the past gone under many names: “Clicker Training,” “Positive Training,” “Positive Reinforcement Training,” and “Reward Training,” among others. There was a need for a more specific, more accurate, more inspirational term that is carefully defined to prevent misuse. The above terms have been used so loosely in the last decade that they have lost their original meanings. How has this happened? Trainers who use compulsion methods may incorporate a clicker (a noise maker to mark desirable behavior) and refer to themselves as “Clicker Trainers.” Trainers who use painful or intimidating methods may include food or toys in their training and refer to themselves as “Reward Trainers” or “Positive Trainers.” A member of the general public may seek out the guidance of a trainer who refers to themselves as “Positive”, only to find out that this trainer’s business promotes the use of equipment that is designed to create discomfort, pain or startle. To prevent the misuse of the term Progressive Reinforcement Training I created this manifesto. In no way does it discredit any other methods of training. Instead it provides a detailed description of a very distinct way of training to prevent confusion and the misuse of the term.
9 years ago I proposed this new term Progressive Reinforcement Training for trainers and members of the general public to use to refer to this specific type of training. The word Progressive was chosen to be in the term because the method is based on compassion for the learner and is evolving over time with the latest and most reliable scientific findings. The word Reinforcement was chosen because the main focus of the method is concerned with reinforcing desirable behavior.
This way of teaching furthers an evolutionary progress toward a more compassionate relationship between humans and animals. I also believe through learning the skills to train animals with compassion, we can in turn learn to be more compassionate towards other human beings.
Progressive Reinforcement Training essentially means teaching by reinforcing and training desired behaviors, interrupting and preventing undesirable behaviors without the intentional use of physical or psychological intimidation and taking into consideration the learner’s physical health and emotional state. Educating oneself with the goal of employing humane, effective training based on the latest scientific evidence.
Progressive Reinforcement Training means:
1) Teaching and reinforcing desirable behaviors so they will be more likely to occur in the future.
Teaching new behaviors:
A teacher can train the learner new behaviors and skills in training sessions using reinforcement. Training can be broken up into small achievable steps so that the learner is successful nearly every step of the way. If an error were to occur the teacher can create a plan to get the learner back on track, for example by lowering criteria or changing the training plan so that it is easier to understand for that specific learner.
Reinforcing existing behaviors and the absence of undesirable behaviors:
It is also possible to reinforce desirable behaviors that the animal already offers in his daily life so they will be more likely to happen again in the future. For example, when a puppy is on leash looking at a pond full of ducks for the first time, the teacher can reinforce the puppy for looking at the ducks calmly when he first notices them. By doing this the puppy will be more likely to do this again in the future.
Training an alternate desirable behavior to replace an unwanted behavior:
It is believed by some that it is impossible to stop a learner from rehearsing an unwanted behavior without the use of physical or psychological intimidation, but this is simply not true. Behavior is behavior irrespective of if it is desired or not by the teacher and behavior is changeable by using reinforcement. To replace an unwanted behavior with a desirable one, you will need to condition the desired behavior in multiple training sessions to be stronger than the unwanted behavior before expecting the learner to be able to perform it reliably in the situation the undesirable behavior occurred in. During the training process the environment can be set up so the learner does not rehearse the unwanted behavior in between training sessions until the training is complete.
When training using reinforcement, the teacher can use a marker signal to let the learner know a reinforcer will soon be following. Nearly anything can be conditioned as a marker, a clicker (a noise making device that produces a clicking sound), a whistle, one’s voice, touch or a visual cue.
An example: If a dog sits the trainer can make a clicking sound with a clicker as the dog is getting into the position and then feed the dog a treat. Or the trainer can say “Yes!” in a positive tone of voice as the dog sits and then feed a treat or release him to get a toy or go out the door.
Reinforcing behavior is also possible without using an intentionally trained marker. For example, you could reinforce your dog for calmly lying at your feet at a cafe by slowly placing a treat between his paws while he is not expecting it to make him more likely to repeat the behavior in the future.
Some examples of reinforcers:
- Social interactions with people or other animals
- Access to the environment
- The opportunity to do behaviors such as running, sniffing, swimming, etc
Keep in mind it is the learner that determines what is reinforcing, not the teacher. This means that if you give your dog a treat for sitting and then ask him to sit again and he doesn’t sit, it’s very likely, unless he was distracted or didn’t understand what you wanted, that the dog does not find that treat reinforcing in that situation. Reinforcers are subjective and can change over time or if the animal is full, tired, in pain, sick or stressed. Because of this it is important to create a training plan for the learner when working on situations where he could potentially get over-aroused or stressed to make sure the reinforcers will be effective. For example, when working on the issue of a dog lunging and barking at other dogs, one could set up the environment so that another dog is at a distance the learner is comfortable with in a controlled environment to begin with, rather than beginning the training in an uncontrolled environment where the learner might be too stressed by dogs suddenly appearing out of nowhere for the reinforcers and training to be effective. In some cases a reinforcer can actually turn into a punisher. For example, if a trainer only fed their dog treats when he was extremely stressed on a walk and not feeling like eating, over time the dog could start to find the gesture of being fed a treat punishing.
2) Preventing and interrupting undesirable behaviors without the intentional use of physical or psychological intimidation.
When addressing a behavior problem, the focus of the training is always on teaching and reinforcing the behavior you do want the learner to do in place of the undesired one. For optimal training, it is important that the learner is not put into the same situation where he will be likely to rehearse the undesired behavior by using management and prevention between training sessions until the training is complete. Management and prevention are not always possible and at times it will be necessary to interrupt the learner from doing an undesirable behavior to prevent the learner rehearsing it and possibly creating a reinforcement history.
It is possible to interrupt an animal’s undesirable behavior without having to resort to using physical or psychological intimidation. To do this, you can teach the learner to respond to a cue, a signal that tells him what to do instead and use it to interrupt undesirable behavior. You could also use something that naturally gets the learners attention that he has a positive response to, for example saying “Pup,pup,pup!” in a high-pitched voice to a puppy who has had no prior training to get his attention. There are many ways to interrupt behavior without having to use intimidation. A few ways are using an attention noise, a recall, a leave it cue or a cue to go to a specific location like a dog bed.
An example: If you want to train a dog not to lie on your couch, you can train him to do what you want him to do first, to lie on his dog bed. Then if he were to try to go on the couch you could interrupt him and redirect him to the appropriate location, his dog bed, so that climbing onto the couch does not get reinforced. During the training process you could also use management and prevention while you are away from the house by blocking the dog’s access to the couch as he might likely choose to lie there in your absence and be reinforced for it.
Another example: A puppy starts to open his mouth over the wood of the coffee table and the trainer says “Pup, pup, pup!” in a high-pitched voice. When the puppy looks at the trainer, the trainer then shows the puppy the toys that are on the floor and entices the puppy to chew on them.
A very basic training plan for training an attention noise to interrupt behavior:
First make the noise that you want the animal to respond to (a whistle or a kissy noise) and then feed a treat. Repeat this until the animal is expectant of a treat after the noise. Next make the noise while the animal is looking away from you and as the animal turns to look at you in expectation of reinforcement, mark that behavior by clicking a clicker or by saying “Yes”.
Once the learner is responding reliably to the noise you can then add distractions and generalize the behavior to different situations by raising criteria in achievable steps so that the noise will be reliable when you want to use it to interrupt unwanted behavior. Here is an example of teaching an animal to respond to the cue even when he is interested in something else in the environment. Have the animal on leash or behind a barrier so he cannot reach the distraction, perhaps it is a low value piece of food on the ground. Then make the previously trained attention noise and click or say Yes” when the animal turns towards you after hearing the noise. If the animal does not turn towards you, simply make the training scenario easier by either creating distance from the distraction, using a lower value distraction or using a higher value reinforcer. You can then increase the difficulty as the learner succeeds.
Through the conditioning process the attention noise can turn into what looks like a knee jerk reaction similar to the way a driver responds to a green light. The green light means go! Once you have conditioned the noise in multiple training sessions and created many different scenarios where your animal can disengage in what he is interested in to look at you, you can start using the sound to interrupt behaviors that you find undesirable. Instead of reinforcing the animal immediately after he looks at you, you could ask him for an alternate behavior and then if you wanted to reinforce that you could.
Keep in mind that if you ignore the animal and only pay attention to him when he is doing undesirable behavior and your animal finds your attention reinforcing, you will be training him to do exactly that which you do not want by providing your attention whenever the behavior occurs. So the main focus of training when dealing with a behavior problem is always on reinforcing the behavior you do want the animal to do.
An example: If your dog picks up your underwear and runs around the house with them to get your attention, in conjunction with interrupting the behavior and managing the environment by not leaving your clothes strewn over the floor during the training process, you have got to reinforce your dog with your attention when he is doing what you do want him to do. When your dog is lying at your feet quietly, that is when you will reinforce him with more attention than when he runs off with your underwear. You can also teach your dog to leave certain items alone in training sessions.
It’s important to understand that it is the learner who interprets something as intimidating and this is subjective and can change due to circumstance. There is no way to avoid an animal suddenly finding our actions or a situation intimidating or threatening but if this were to happen, as the teacher, one can make a plan to avoid doing it again or to condition the animal to find it a neutral or pleasant experience. It is extremely important to learn how to read the body language of the learner to be able to assess when he is feeling uncomfortable or intimidated.
3) Taking the learner’s physical and emotional wellbeing into account.
Teachers should learn how to read their animal’s body language and stress signals to the best of their ability so they are able to notice signs of stress, discomfort, pain or arousal and adjust the environment or their training approach accordingly to prevent undue stress or discomfort. Opinions may differ on what is undue stress based on the teacher’s experiences and education, but the importance is to educate oneself rather than train carelessly with no regard to how the animal is feeling.
A example: Removing a dog that is offering stress signals from a situation where a child is chasing or pestering the dog.
It is important to socialize and teach an animal to cope with his environment through positive experiences with the goal of creating a well-adjusted resilient animal.
We as teachers can prepare our learners for as much as we can, however there will be times in the their life that they will experience undue stress, pain, discomfort, startle, fear and anxiety. That is a normal part of life. But with this training method the teacher is not intentionally trying to cause undue stress, pain, discomfort, startle, fear and anxiety to modify behavior. The goal is to teach the learners to cope and be resilient when faced with these unexpected situations, such as an emergency vet visit.
An example: Perhaps after visiting a vet an animal starts showing signs of fear when being picked up or restrained. The teacher can then prepare the animal to the best of their ability for the next vet visit by teaching the animal to be relaxed and calm while being handled, picked up and restrained.
4) Continuing to educate oneself with the goal of employing humane, effective training based on the latest scientific evidence.
As stated before, reinforcement and punishment are subjective. Just by making food or toys contingent on behavior, does not necessarily mean the learner finds this reinforcing or that the training is in any way effective. If the teacher does not know how to break up the training steps appropriately, raise criteria effectively or read and interpret the learner’s body language and adjust training accordingly the animal could be feeling overly stressed or even punished by the training. It is important for us as teachers to continue to educate ourselves and learn techniques to continually better our teaching skills. When a training plan is not working often times it is the learner that is blamed for the errors. By instead assuming responsibility as the teacher one can then modify the training in order for the learner to be successful rather than punish the learner.
A commitment to Progressive Reinforcement Training means strictly following all of the above principles not just in training sessions but during 100% of the time spent with an animal.
Progressive Reinforcement Training does not mean:
1) The intentional use of physical or psychological intimidation.
Intentionally using your voice, touch, body posture, a device or the environment to intimidate the learner.
Examples: Staring at an animal, leaning over him, poking, jerking, shocking, using your voice in an intimidating way or startling him with the intention to intimidate.
Everybody can feel annoyed, frustrated and even angry when teaching or living with animals or other people for that matter. It’s important to not let one’s emotions get in the way of training. Training oneself to act rationally rather than just react emotionally and the acquisition of new skills to cope with difficult situations takes time. Often teachers will take the time to plan to set their learners up for success but sometimes do not do the same for themselves.
2) Intentionally disregarding the learner’s physical and emotional wellbeing.
Intentionally putting the learner in overly stressful situations in which he cannot cope or subjecting him to undue discomfort or pain.
An example: Dragging the learner across a surface he is terrified of causing undue stress and suffering in the name of training. Instead one could teach him to feel confident and calm crossing the surface by breaking the training up into steps where he is being reinforced for choosing to cross confidently on his own.
Subjecting an animal to undue pain and discomfort that the animal does not necessarily find intimidating or punishing.
Some animals when aroused or after conditioning actually will not find pain or discomfort intimidating or even punishing. For example, an animal with an injury to his wrists might continue to jump extremely high when asked to and land on the wrists causing extreme pain and further injury but continue to do it, as well as a dog might also pull on his collar gagging himself and damaging his neck but continue to do it. When aroused, stressed or after conditioning a learner might not find being kicked, choking, being electrocuted, being stabbed or hit with objects intimidating or even punishing. But the physical stress to the learner’s body should be taken into account for ethical reasons. With this training it is important to take into account the physical well-being as well as the emotional well being. Of course animals will be subjected to discomfort and pain in their every day life, for example when getting a thorn removed from their foot, but the concept is to not create undue pain and discomfort to modify behavior.
3) Holding uncompassionate goals for your training.
Intentionally putting an animal at known risk for physical or emotional damage to satisfy ones own interests.
Examples: Unnecessarily asking for a behavior that has a high risk of causing injury to the animal if something were to go wrong. Asking the animal unnecessarily to perform on a very slippery surface where it’s very likely he could slip and hurt himself.
A commitment to Progressive Reinforcement Training means never intentionally using the intimidatory tactics above – never in training sessions, and never during any other time spent with an animal.