Q&A with Helene Lawler: Beyond the Click with R+ 2.0

​For today's post we posed a few questions on the concept of R+ 2.0 to FDSA Instructor Helene Lawler. Below are our questions, along with her response! 

During your time as a trainer, how has positive training evolved?

I brought home my first puppy just shy of 30 years ago. I remember calling around for trainers and being told to wait until the puppy was six months old, or even older. Finally I found someone who said something that made sense to me: "Your puppy is 9 weeks old? You've already missed two critical weeks of training. Get over here right now!"

I was lucky to find this guy because he was an out-of-the-box thinker, and that set the path for me. He had me play fun games with my new puppy that I still do to this day. He was also what today we would call a "balance trainer", mixing punishment and reinforcement into our training. And so, I started my dog training career using a mix of rewards and intimidation.

Back then, using punishment was the norm. I used treats and toys from the start, but collar pops and alpha rolls were also part of my repertoire. I trained using mostly my intuition, and the science of behavior wasn't even on my radar. 

I was introduced to the idea of using strictly positive reinforcement in training about 15 years ago, when I started getting involved in rescue. The group I volunteered for (Border Collie Rescue Ontario) is headed by Cindy Boht, a very skilled +R trainer. She guided me, and had me take classes with my foster dogs. It was through this experience that I got involved in agility, and the use of clickers among other +R techniques.

Back then, the concept of +R could be boiled down to: "reinforce what you want, and prevent what you don't want" coupled with the mantra "positive is not permissive." I think overall it was an improvement over collar pops and alpha rolls, but, looking back, a lot of what we did I now see as still being quite punishing. At the time I didn't think so, but when I reflect on how my dogs responded to what we were doing, it was. 

For example, we made them "earn" their privileges, employing philosophies such as NILIF (Nothing In Life is Free); everything is a toy (whoever came up with that one clearly didn't live with eight border collies); and you will take the reinforcement I give you, and like it. We crated them extensively, made them wear head-halters 24/7, and otherwise controlled everything they did. And many of us built our training around techniques such as "it's yer choice," which is really a misnomer because the dog actually has no choice; it's our way, or the highway. 

In short, while we were changing our techniques and strategies, our mindset was still stuck in "control and dominate the dog" mode.

Can you share your thoughts on the state of positive training today?

Today, some of this has shifted for the better. We are improving our clicker skills, doing a better job of splitting, and taking on some of the responsibility for our dogs' behavior. 

But we still inadvertently use a lot of intimidation and deprivation in the name of +R: Train a hungry dog. Control all resources. Teach them to tolerate frustration! Don't let your dog play with other dogs, just have them focus on you. And advice like "make sure your dog tugs so that you can control the reinforcement." Don't use a ball because that reinforces away from the handler and, oh dear, we can't have that!

And we've added some layers that I think are deeply problematic. In particular, arousal. We use so much arousal in sport training! We jack our dogs up to the Nth degree, whooping and hollering and playing tug and "smack-da-baby" and otherwise doing our best to be "more interesting than grass" in order to coerce them into engaging with us. Because if our dogs don't want to engage, there's something wrong with us.

All that arousal is not necessary folks! And, in fact, it's quite counterproductive, both to our relationship with our dogs and to their actual performance. The result is dogs who can't think, can't perform. Who are constantly trigger-stacked and reacting to their environment. Who can't settle. Who are horrible to live with. And handlers who feel like total failures.

Looking forward, Amy Cook mentioned this concept of R+ 2.0 - what do you see as the future of positive training? Where would you like to see it go or where do you think it's heading?

Thankfully, we're starting to see yet another shift in dog training. Specifically, this paradigm shift that Amy Cook has coined "+R2.0." I think it's going to change everything. And FDSA is spearheading the way. 

While the idea of +R(1.0) has become quite pervasive, in the development of much of mainstream practice, one major element of the training equation is still missing: the dog. Let me explain.

Back in my university teaching days, I came across The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire. In his book, Freire critiques our current educational system for employing what he calls the "banking model" of education: teachers are perceived as having all the knowledge and students are considered empty vessels into which teachers "deposit" this knowledge. 

We have been taking a similar approach to teaching our dogs: treating them like empty vessels for us to fill up with training. We even use the metaphor of the bank account with respect to reinforcement.

In contrast, Freire proposes a "liberation model" of teaching, in which students are treated as active, equal participants in the learning process. And, through this paradigm shift, Freire launched a revolution.

In my perspective, +R2.0 is the animal training equivalent of liberation education. And it's going to launch a revolution as well. Like Freire, we no longer assume that we have all the knowledge and are just depositing it into empty vessels. We now recognize that our dogs have emotions, intelligence, skills, and preferences. And ideas. Lots and lots of ideas. 

The +R2.0 trend, which places a strong emphasis on the science of learning, involves including our dogs as partners in training rather than the objects thereof. It's about letting our dogs choose when they want to engage, what they want to do, how they want to do it. It moves us away from simply applying a set of techniques and toward a holistic philosophy. 

In practice, +R2.0 involves a combination of improving our technical skills through better understanding the science of learning, and improving our relationship with our dogs by incorporating emotions (theirs and ours), asking better questions, learning to listen, and respecting our dogs' answers.

A few examples include: taking an "errorless learning" approach to communication, through techniques such as "loopy training;" being clearer with reinforcement through marker systems; carefully strategizing our training; avoiding poisoned cues; and, perhaps most importantly, giving our dogs control through offering them choice whenever safely possible. 

Perhaps most critically, to me, the +R2.0 shift starts with identifying the practices that are so familiar, so entrenched, so common, and questioning them. Turning them on their heads. And then asking our dogs what they think. This has been my journey for the past couple of years.

The answers, so far, have been humbling. And inspiring. And exciting. 

So, so much more is possible when we approach our dogs as partners! When we take into account emotions. Choice. Movement. To me, this next evolution in training is very exciting. It's also challenging and a little intimidating at times, as I am having to (re)learn a whole lot of things, and recognize where and how I need to change the way I work with my animals. 

The improved relationship, heightened communication, and increased joy is totally worth it. Yes, it's at times terrifying. Yes, they might say no! But, more importantly, when we include our dogs in the process, they teach us more than we could ever learn otherwise. And that's freaking amazing.

E105: Sue Yanoff - "What's RIGHT with Your Dog?"
E104: Laura Waudby - From Pivots to The Ring