Is training easy?

I’ve logged back on to some key clicker lists to reacquaint myself with clicker techniques and theory before River comes home. (One week!) I quickly found myself in a situation that reminded me why I took a break from the lists in the first place. A trainer — a good one, I might add — had a dog who had a problem with his recall in the field and mentioned instinctive drift. I said the problem wasn’t instinctive drift, and explained why. This trainer locked on to the idea that I was saying training a highly reliable recall in the field is easy. I never said nor implied that.

Getting behavior is relatively easy. Depends on the behavior and the animal and the skill of the trainer, of course. But in general, getting behavior is relatively easy. Let me be specific: Getting a dog to recall, on cue, between me and my husband in my house is easy. Getting a dog to recall, reliably, from a distance of 400 yards, in a field with all sorts of distractions, while carrying a freshly shot bird that the dog REALLY wants to keep is HARD. Incredibly hard.

(But the difficulty level still has nothing to do with instinctive drift. Just sayin’.)

Training is based on the principle that reinforcing operant behavior makes it more likely to be repeated. Simple example:

Getting a dog to sit for his food bowl is easy. Every time you feed the dog a meal, you’ll be reinforcing that behavior. That means that every successful rep will make it more likely that the dog will sit next time you put down the food bowl.

Does that mean that you could take the dog into Disneyland and expect him to plop his butt down for his food bowl? Nope. When you go to Disneyland, you’ve added a whole new element: competing reinforcers (and punishers).

In a lab (or a home!), it’s pretty easy for a trainer to control the reinforcers and punishers because they control the environment. In the “real world,” trainers have a LOT less control over what’s happening, which means there are other factors influencing the dog’s behavior.

If you took that dog to Disneyland, he would be influenced by the adrenaline coursing through his system, by the strange scents, by children running and yelling, and by the unusual sights — like someone dressed up as a giant mouse! Unless the dog is starving, he won’t give a flip about his food bowl, nor about your sit cue. Frankly, he probably won’t even HEAR your sit cue.

So does that mean you can’t get a dog to sit for his food bowl in Disneyland? Of course not. It means you have to break down the problem, and address the factors systematically and gradually. It is HARD WORK to do this, particularly when you can’t control all of the factors during training and can’t predict all of the factors.

Training isn’t easy. Getting competition-quality behaviors, consistently and reliably, in a competition venue is VERY hard. Getting those same behaviors at great distance is harder still. I am impressed to no end by trainers who do accomplish this — but there are trainers out there proving every day that it CAN be done. I’m even more impressed when they do it without relying on aversives.

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