The Myth of “Purely Positive”

One of my Facebook friends linked to a post I wrote on Karen Pryor’s site back in 2006. I reread it for the first time in a long time and thought it would be good to repost it here, because it’s just as true today as it was then. It is, perhaps, more true now, because there are are so many people drawing arbitrary lines in the sand over labels.

Earlier this month on the ClickerSolutions mailing list, a list member used the term “purely positive,” and another member asked what that meant. That began a lively discussion about the myths and misconceptions inherent in this term.

The meaning of “purely positive” tends to vary according to who is using it. Some clicker trainers use it as a sort of marketing tool, perhaps to indicate that they eschew corrections and attempt to stick with positive reinforcement as much as possible. Traditional trainers use the term as a slur, similarly to how clicker trainers use the terms “punishment trainers” or “pain trainers.”

How, you might ask, can “purely positive” be a slur? It sounds like a wonderful label! It would be, except for two minor complications: “Purely positive” does not exist, and the term is laden with mistaken, half-true, and untrue connotations.

First, the term implies that clicker trainers use no aversives. Extinction and negative punishment are both used by clicker trainers, and BOTH are aversive. Extinction is every bit as aversive as punishment, sometimes even more so. So even trainers who try to avoid negative punishment still have an aversive element to their training if they’re using extinction. All aversives are not created equal. Some are mild and some are severe. Whether the aversive is due to something being added, something being removed, or something just not paying off does not determine the severity of the consequence.

In the class Pax took in Nov/Dec, the instructor wanted to teach dogs to recall instantly, even if another person was playing with/distracting the dog. She taught this traditionally through collar corrections. She set the dogs up, and if they didn’t respond to the recall cue, the owner was to give the dogs a sharp correction. I taught it differently. I instructed people to pet my dog, and then one second after the recall cue… no matter what Pax did… to stand and turn away. We could even practice that without the dog!! There was no decision making there; they heard the cue, counted to one, and then turned away. If Pax chose to stay with the person when I called, he found that all the fun attention went away. No point in that! My solution was just as punishment-based as the instructor’s was, but there was no fear, pain or intimidation. Instead, the reinforcer the dog wanted (attention) was tied to his behavior.

Second, the term “purely positive” suggests that clicker trainers are permissive, that we just ignore unwanted behavior and pretend it doesn’t exist. That is blatantly untrue, at least with any trainer with any skill and knowledge. There are many, many ways to effect behavior. Clicker trainers eschew methods that rely on pain, fear, or intimidation. That still leaves a whole world of possibilities open to us.

Third, the term implies some black and white dichotomy that simply doesn’t exist. Training is a whole lot of gray. It’s incorrect to assume that because clicker trainers concentrate on positive solutions that all clicker trainers stick to only positive solutions. All clicker trainers are not of one mind. Each trainer has made his own decisions about what is and isn’t acceptable to him. Some use NRMs; some don’t. Some say “No” or make “buzzer” sounds; some don’t. Some use mild physical punishers like sprays of water or citronella or noise-related booby traps; some don’t. Some use negative reinforcement in various fashions; some don’t. Some use some of the above in real life but not in training.

As one list member eloquently noted, clicker trainers must stop using the term, because it is, due to these misconceptions, hurting our credibility. As she said, “No one trains by positive reinforcement alone. No one always, in all their dealings with a dog, avoids all possible aversive experiences. Minimizing them is one thing. Not directly employing them to instruct is one thing. But implying there is some kind of purity turns this into a religion, and a pissing contest, consciously or not.”

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3 Responses to The Myth of “Purely Positive”

  1. I really like this, especially the way you describe training as shades of gray. I try to be as positive as I can. It gets easier as my dog gets older and better understands what I want from her, but even so, there are times where I must dip into another quadrant. What I don’t do is purposely use pain, fear or intimidation.

    I agree with you that calling what we do “purely positive” discredits what we do. It only gives “the other side” ammo. For that matter, I hate that there has to be an “other side.” I’d rather be able to respectfully discuss training ideas and techniques without needing to resort to name-calling, belittling or demeaning phrases or verbal insults.

    Frankly, I’d rather see a dog-and-handler team have a good relationship and use the occasional collar correction than see a cookie-pusher and dog completely and chronically disengaged from one another. Of course, better yet are the cookie-pushers who have a great relationship with their dogs, but I think you know what I mean. 🙂

  2. Louise Kerr says:

    Great post Melissa it really clarified for me where I am coming from as a trainer and how my style fits into positive reward and my older fashioned style that parts of which still creap in from time to time.
    Regards Louise Kerr

  3. Pingback: All About Our Canine Companions » Doberman House Training Guide

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