A question I hear VERY frequently when discussing how positive training works is "How long will I have to carry treats on me?" or "Will I always have to carry food around?" The short answer is no, you won't always have to carry treats with you, for many reasons. One, we can teach the dog how to find value in other life rewards and some secondary reinforcers such a verbal praise, physical attention, and life rewards such as going outside. Two, when we use primary reinforcers to train, the cues themselves can become reinforcing. And three, we use intermittent reinforcement once the dog understands the behavior so that we can ask them to work for longer and longer periods of time before they get paid. So no, you don't always have to carry food on you. But this post is about the flip side of that question...
Yesterday I was out for a walk with Regis in the forest preserve, and I was working on Regis' polite leash walking and leave it skills with squirrels. Out of the corner of my eye I saw another dog round the corner, and it was an absolutely gorgeous Rottweiler. Wearing both a shock and prong collar, in a straight heel. I made some space between us because the Rotty was staring pretty hard at Regis in a decidedly unfriendly way and I knew that would make him uncomfortable, and I watched as the owner and dog passed and the owner pressed the button for the shock collar repeatedly, with the dog flinching every time she pressed that button. Then the Rottweiler and owner went on their way around the bend and I went on with my day with sadness in my heart and the following thoughts:
When using a prong or shock collar do other trainers who use those methods hear the same thing? Do they get "when can I walk my dog on a flat collar?" or "when can I stop using the shock or prong collar?" Because the fact of the matter is that most dogs I see started on a prong or shock collar stay on the prong or shock collar because the dogs quickly learn that the punitive consequences only happen when they are wearing the equipment. In the dog training world they say that the dogs become "collar savvy", but in behavior terms we say that the dog has learned the "discriminative stimulus", and it's the EXACT same reason that some dogs only listen when you're wearing a treat pouch or have food in your hand. Can you train them off the collars? Sure, but it is a time intensive process just like fading treats is, and the learner is typically having a less enjoyable time.
So, no matter what method you use, you will always have to help the dog understand that you want the behavior to happen regardless of what's going on, regardless of what you're wearing, and regardless of what your dog is wearing. Either way, someone's gotta start out wearing something. For me, I'll choose wearing a treat pouch over having my dog wear an aversive collar every time.