My dog Lila is a great fan of the clicker. We use it for shaping, and make much more rapid progress eliciting precise, unusual movements. I stay silent during clicker work, and a minimal amount of eliciting the correct answer. I think, for her, the clicks provide a certain sense of independence, compared to the Lila-patter I use for encouraging her. (I anthropomorphize shamelessly, I know, but it is my belief that the affinity of the two species hinges on the similarity of our social hierarchy, value system, and affective responses.) I would describe myself as pro-clicker training, and even one step further, pro-marker training.
Did clicker training fail Tilikum?
As I understand it, the equivalent of the clicker (the whistle) is the tool of choice for training marine mammals, such as orca. I expect that the recent death of the SeaWorld trainer will be cited as the ineffectiveness of such training. And, I partly agree with the idea. Training, of ANY sort, including traditional, e-collar, and other training does not make play, randomly volunteered behaviors, predation, or aggression inevitable. Given that this animal has killed two other individuals, I suspect a strong case could be made for this being predatory aggressive behavior.
Brains undergo natural selection for the specific behaviors in which they will engage
Eliciting predatory, aggressive, or just random acts resulting from boredom, frustration, anxiety, or psychological breakdown caused by prolonged exposure to the brain chemicals such affective states release is a simple matter of lifestyle.
Although the killer whales & other marine life are touted as being trained by "force-free" methods, I take issue with this description. These animals do not willingly arrive each morning to participate in this training program. They have no choice or control over their living conditions. Physical force keeps these wild animals trapped in tiny pools.
While the practice of keeping dogs and other domesticated animals has resulted in a kind of natural selection for brains that can tolerate to some degree the type of (or, compared to wild life, lack of) stimulation associated with confinement, the brains of creatures that Nature alone selects for must not only tolerate but crave long periods of travel, seeking, stalking, chasing, killing, and consuming prey. Occasionally, the brain demands reproductive-related behaviors. I don't know enough about orcas to know if they have pods or territories, social interactions, play, defense of social ingroup or territory..., but if they do, those concepts demand certain behaviors from a killer whale.
While I am no expert, I do know that whatever they do in the wild, whatever capacities Nature has selected killer whales to perform: those behaviors does not strongly resemble swimming around a tank for 20 years, taking fish from a human hand, leaping through hoops, carrying humans on their snouts, or any of the other show business they are being "asked" to do. "Do you want to jump through a hoop and eat fish? Or would you rather starve?" Force-free? I do use force in training dogs, and I call it what it is.
But it generates interest and raises funds!
Our society as a whole has become disconnected from the natural world. Could it be a result of believing that the "cute" are valuable, and the "scary" are not? Killer whale. Shark. Koala. Crocodile. Could these ideas result from exposing children, not to the reality, but to an artificiality? Can humans not be encouraged to be come connoisseurs of wild creatures being, behaving, exactly as they are designed by Nature to do?
Could these animals not be confined and displayed for human education and enjoyment for only a short period of time and re-released?
Could their willing cooperation in a seaside training program not be obtained if they were permitted to come and go as they pleased? Can a reliable recall from freedom, of the type that most dog owners face as part of life, simply not be taught using reinforcers alone?
The Rejected Affective
Beyond behaviorism, there is a messy, difficult to observe, and all too real affective (emotional) domain, which no amount of whistles and fish, clicks and treats, can change. We cannot train the feelings out of an animal -- including humans. We can teach management, we can provide outlets, but we are powerless to force, "reinforce", encourage, discourage, or "punish" feelings, as if they are deliberate, occurring at the beckoning of the feeler.
We failed Tilikum, but we don't have to fail our dogs
Beyond training sessions, wild things and even "domesticated" ones, like dogs and humans, need a "life". They crave the behaviors and experiences their brains are genetically "wired" to find chemically rewarding ("it just feels so right to gulp a seal") and often stumble upon other behaviors and experiences that feel just as good as a part of their exposure to environment. The sensations that arise as a result of the release of these chemicals are "intrinsic motivators".
Knowing that the vast majority of canine genetics were selected to do work, not for entertainment purposes, it is important to recognize that providing the right tasks means releasing "feel-good" brain chemicals in your dog. Happy, contented dogs are least likely to engage in the behaviors we humans dislike.
But, to dog trainers, who sometimes tend to see training interactions as a dog's only need, I remind you of what you already know: apart from tasks, dogs can need social interaction, exploration of new physical environments, and, yes, freedom. As trainers who enjoy working with animals, there is a tendency to assume that what we enjoy, the animal enjoys, too. Trainers would be happy to train all day, morning to night! The trainees, however, may or may not share those sentiments.
- Be sensitive to your dog's interest level during training sessions
- Manage your own interest level and emotions -- Quit while you both want more!
- Break or change up training sessions at least every 15 minutes Some may need more frequent changes
- Allow at least some sniffing on walks (but don't force it!)
- Provide sufficient freedom -- off-leash exploratory opportunities (amount varies by dog)
- Provide social opportunities -- even if you have to use a muzzle
- Provide access to tasks or sports the dog enjoys
- Address behaviors caused by anxiety or frustration: barking (more than 3 barks or continuous barking), pacing, circling, digging, lunging, leaping, destruction, etc.