For as long as I can remember training dogs, and, at this point, that’s quite a few decades, the common wisdom has been ‘dogs are not people in fur suits’, that we mess up hugely when, rather than training them correctly, we just treat them like little people. In the late 1960’s the alternative was mostly correction based training, which required a great deal of finesse and skill to create reliable results and happy animals. By the late 1970’s most of the trainers I knew had switched to a more positive reinforcement approach, based on the study of behaviorism and operant conditioning, which morphed into what is now commonly called clicker training. This also required a good amount of skill and great timing to create good results and happy animals, but there was the benefit that if your timing was off, you didn’t hurt an animal.
As someone who has both a passion for training animals, and a love of research and science, I always tried to be at the forefront of all this, priding myself, in my early years, on knowing the most up to date ways to train. In college I was a wizard at training my rats in their Skinner boxes. I used conditioned reinforcers to teach my goldfish to swim through hoops, and my cat to play the piano. If you’re wondering, he learned to play ‘Three Blind Mice’, it seemed appropriate.
I clicker trained my dogs to do all variety of silly tricks. I worked hard to hone my skills, getting that click timed correctly, rewarding in a timely fashion, making sure to add the cue at the right time, when the animal’s skill was proficient. I was pretty confident of my ability to train.
I studied, read, watched experts at work. I trained dogs, cats, birds, turtles, rats, horses, goats, sheep and a a wide assortment of other beasts. I competed in a wide variety of dog sports successfully and fully supported myself teaching pet training classes, competition obedience, and training theatrical animals. I was, understandably, quite confident of my ability to train animals. Confidence is a good thing, and there’s nothing wrong with knowing one’s strengths, but I did have a couple of glitches that, initially, were easy to ignore. Over the years, however, they did give me pause for thought.
One glitch was really simple, I spent my formative years as a theatrical animal trainer working with old timers in the craft, trainers who had come from circus and carnival backgrounds, as well as trainers who had been training animal actors for decades without ever cracking open a book on training. I was smart enough to realize that, contrary to popular press impressions, the trainers who excelled at their craft did not beat and abuse their animals, but treated them with a great deal of love and respect. However, armed with my book knowledge, I also ‘knew’ exactly what they were doing wrong in their training, and how modern advances in the understanding of behavior could make their lives much simpler and their training even better.
The glitch, however, was that I was not entirely right. For example, I was working with an old timer discussing how we would teach a dog to happily slide down a banister. The old timer told me that he would just explain to the dog what he wanted, and show her how to do it. Literally, he meant that he would sit her down and talk to her, then he would slide down the banister while she watched, then he would put her on the banister and help her slide down and reward her. I could see all the holes in that idea, the possible problems, the lack of scientific basis for training that way, and devised a training plan that used a combination of free shaping and luring and would, in two or three days, have the dog sliding down the banister. He was polite and told me that he was jealous of how much book learning I had, and how that had not been available to him as a young trainer, and then he proceeded to show the dog how to slide down the banister and got the completed behavior from her in about ten minutes. Hm….
The other glitch was something that, as a dog sport coach, is still something I struggle with. I might have the skills to teach dogs complex behaviors, but as soon as those skills require impeccable timing, a great eye for detail, and an ability to throw the reward so that it lands in the right place at the right time, I am going to fail to impart those skills to a significant number of my students. What my students want, what most of us probably want, deep down, is that easy relationship that we dreamt of as kids, the ‘boy and his dog’ who just understood each other, the boy would show the dog what he wanted and the dog just figured it out easily. We want to share our lives with this family member the way we do with the rest of our family: with love and commitment, not with science and clickers.
My initial way of dealing with the first glitch was to basically hide my head in the text book. I ‘knew’ my way was better, so I just ignored when something else worked faster, or made excuses that my way was nicer, easier, kinder, better. I dealt with the second glitch by just banging my head against the wall, lamenting to other trainers about how difficult it was to teach the human members of the team, and mostly, I dealt with the second glitch by feeling superior because I had these skills that were so difficult for my students to learn.
Then, thirty years ago, I had a kid, the human kind of kid. Shortly thereafter, I had a second kid. Having raised a lot of animals prepared me quite well for the baby humans, I had confidence that raising any baby mammal should be fairly straightforward, after all, other mammals did it all the time. As I raised and home (un)schooled my kids, I realized how organically learning can take place when there is trust in the process, and trust between teacher and student. As I raised my kids, I changed the way I raised and trained all my students, be they four or two legged (or, for that matter, winged). Rather than look for formulas, I became organic and conversational. I did not teach my kids the meaning of words by free shaping behaviors then attaching a word when I knew the behavior was taught to my satisfaction, I exposed them to the concept and word in many ways, I conversed with them. Not surprisingly, they learned quite well.
There’s nothing special about it, that’s the way parents have raised infants for generations. It was easy, way easier than training a dog. The funny thing is, most of us talk to our dogs all the time. It’s only when we’re training that we fret about what we’re saying and when. I started to revamp the way I trained my animals, I became relaxed and conversational. For many words, I became more interested in having the animal understand the meaning of the word than obeying the command. Truth is, in a relationship built on friendship and trust, I found that when I ask for things, my animals are only too happy to comply. I don’t want to say that that’s how conversational training came into being, because nothing is really new and it irks me when people take credit for inventing something that they just named, but that’s when I started to really rethink and refine my training and teaching into what I have come to call Conversational Training.