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Book Review
Purely Positive Training, by Sheila Booth
Review by: Kate Connick, Aug. 2002

Unfortunately, as with many books of its kind, Purely Positive Training undermines its usefulness by adopting a preachy, heavily value-laden attitude. The problem with this book is not necessarily in the content but in the tone.

The author identifies positive dog training as "a new religion and we admit to being converts." Positive dog training is, in effect, training which relies primarily upon food rewards and condemns the use of any type of correction for unwanted behavior. Iím not attempting to evaluate the training method, per se, in writing this review. Iím merely reviewing the authorís treatment of the topic.

Booth seems to equate ANY form of correction with abusiveness, making sweeping and unfair commentary in the process. "Positive training produces dogs who are happy and eager to learn. It produces willing dogs who are full of joy in their work... Punishment damages trust and blocks learning." Unfortunately, this is not particularly accurate. Although there are certainly dogs that have been abused in the name of training, there are many dogs that have been trained in "traditional" or quasi-traditional ways (i.e., employing corrections either with or without the adjunct of food rewards) that work in a manner that appears very happy and enthusiastic. The author undermines her believability by taking such a narrow-minded stance with respect to corrections.

The author relies heavily on learning theory, quoting Jean Donaldson, "Dogs are not obedient to commands; they are obedient to the laws of learning." Yet learning theory itself is not value laden. Learning theory defines punishment simply as that which causes a given behavior to occur less frequently when it is applied as a consequence. Learning theory includes both rewards and punishments, and it is inaccurate and dishonest to suggest that learning theory is tantamount to positive reinforcement training alone; it is not. Corrections are logically very much a part of learning theory.

Making broad, moralistic generalizations regarding corrections is oversimplified and insults the reader. Although she makes a distinction between the so-so motivational value of rewards like dry dog biscuits versus the "wow" quality of liver, she doesnít seem to take into consideration the huge continuum that also exists in the realm of corrections. Perhaps a verbal "uh-uh" or "no" doesnít have the same spirit-crushing quality as a random beating? Yet she makes black-and-white remarks like, "In simply getting your dog to adhere to your parameters and follow your rules, you are training your dog. You can do it positively, or you can do it negatively." One would think that there is some sort of balanced point somewhere in the middle. Yet the author heavy-handedly reiterates, "... be his salvation, not his persecution."

The author is so single-minded in trying to persuade the reader that she occasionally neglects to explore the "hands on" of her method in sufficient detail. For example, she acknowledges that reinforcement ends behavior (i.e., the dog will stop whatever he was doing when you say "good!" so that he can receive his cookie), and then she defines a bridge as a reinforcement that doesnít end behavior but acts as encouragement that the dog is on the right track. One very common training glitch involves the dog that doesnít grasp that the bridge means "keep going" and who thinks that the intended bridge is the terminal reinforcement. Here is a perfect opportunity for the author to troubleshoot the nitty-gritty details of getting a dog to grasp the concept of a bridge, yet she dismisses the topic with, "with more training... heíll get it."

Although this book is subtitled, "Companion to Competition," it is of limited value to a non-competition minded pet owner who simply wants a well-behaved companion. Much of what would be useful to a pet owner is glossed over in a superficial manner. Leash-walking, for example, can be one of the most frustrating exercises for a pet owner to master, yet the author barely discusses it. She explains "hitching" to introduce a dog to the futility of straining on a leash, and beyond that the owner is expected to stand still whenever a dog pulls and wait for the animal to redirect its attention back to the owner. This may be impractical and unrealistic for many pet owners. If a dog is too exuberant, distractible, or otherwise recalcitrant, the author off-handedly mentions using a head-halter, taking care not to rely on it as a crutch. She neglects to discuss any real details of how one should introduce, use, or graduate away from the halter, however.

Many of the exercises discussed are either specific to competition venues (e.g., a send away) or their usefulness to the pet owner is poo-pooíd by the author. One could argue that a stand command has value in a pet context, but the author dismissively comments, "If you have no plans to train your wonderful companion for competition, there is no reason to teach any sort of steadfast stand." Although an attempt is made to tailor the book to different audiences (pet owner, as well as competitor in obedience, agility or schutzhund), it doesnít entirely work; the flavor of the book is decidedly competition-focused.

Her treatment of self-rewarding behaviors is puzzling. Self-reinforcing behaviors include things like incessant barking and chasing squirrels - behaviors that a dog does out of intrinsic enjoyment. She suggests preventing bad behavior before it starts or "reinforcing an Alternative Incompatible Behavior" which sounds great but is not always easy to do. For barking, she expects the owner to anticipate when the dog will bark and slather peanut butter in his mouth beforehand to reward his silence and prevent barking. But what if an owner has trouble anticipating when the bark will occur? What if the dog has already begun to bark - does the owner stand by helplessly? In the real world it may require some degree of punishment to suppress behaviors like these, but the author will not entertain that possibility. If positive methods donít work, she states, "Self-reinforcing behaviors must be appreciated for what they are - part of the inherent nature of our wonderful dogs." Tell that to the next-door neighbor of the yappy sheltie or yowling beagle who wants the owner and dog evicted! Iím sorry, but saying, "learn to love it if you canít fix it" is simply a cop out. She can sing the praises of her method all she wants, but the acid test is that it must actually work.

Without intending to, she casts doubts about the effectiveness of her own training technique. She says that sometimes itís just plain not worth it to train a dog if it means resorting to corrections, essentially equating the latter to selling oneís soul. She also admits that positive training may be a slower process, "Maybe it takes a little longer for your dog to learn, but... The precious relationship isnít damaged." In effect, the message is, "even if you canít train the dog or do it quickly, you can still feel morally superior." Yet there are some situations where it is absolutely imperative that a dog learn and learn quickly. Many pets will be given up to shelters if they cannot learn decent deportment within a reasonable period of time, so the time it takes to train behaviors can be a relevant concern. And, as indicated above, it is not always realistic to accept oneís dog and all the behaviors he brings with him, especially if those are disruptive or destructive.

I admit that I donít entirely understand the fear of being honest with oneself and with the reader. The author asserts, for example, that a "light line is, like the leash, not an instrument of control. It is merely a tool to prevent the unwanted behavior of the puppy getting too far away." Call a spade a spade. If youíre preventing the puppy from getting too far away, are you not controlling the puppy? Whatís wrong with saying so?

In one amusing irony, the alert reader will find that the author hints that in spite of all of her protestations to the contrary, she does in fact allow for corrections. Ironically, this is buried in the section headed, "positive words." She says, "... be sure the reprimand fits the crime... Looking away during heeling is not nearly as serious a crime as stealing food or bolting out the door or growling at another dog..." The implication, of course, is that the latter "crimes" would be sufficiently offensive to warrant corrections, even from an otherwise "purely positive" trainer. What a shame that the author was not brave enough to openly admit that there may actually be an appropriate place for corrections and discuss what may constitute fair and effective corrections. If one is not attentive, it is easy to miss her reluctant acceptance of corrections, especially when the chapter titled "The Corrections," begins with the ominous quote, "Violence begins where knowledge ends." This scanty chapter tells the reader not to correct his dog but to, "Be his best friend" instead. I just donít believe that her either/or premise is convincing.

The author does write well and can, at times, demonstrate a delightful sense of humor (for example, she had to suspend using tortellini as a training treat, because she was gaining too much weight sneaking pieces for herself). I donít doubt her credentials; she has, in fact, achieved high honors by titling dogs in the sports she discusses. I assume that they are also well behaved and cherished pets. Her fondness for dogs is quite apparent.

Much of the bookís content is valid. Find out what your dog likes so that you can reward him most meaningfully. Focus on good behavior and reinforce it. Anticipate and prevent opportunities for undesirable behavior. Generalize behaviors by practicing in a variety of contexts. Donít use rewards as cues. Etc. She presents cogent arguments for the use of food in training. Had she not felt the need to lead the positive religion crusade, she may have written a useful training manual.

Nevertheless, the sermonizing tone detracts from what solid advice the book does contain. Is the book worth reading? Iím not so sure. I think that the competition focus makes it rather obscure for a pet owner to appreciate. The moralizing tone will turn off any seasoned trainer, as will the authorís infatuation with unnecessary vocabulary. It might be worth a look if you have nothing else to do, but this is not a must-read by any stretch.

Note: This book is a reference recommended by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers for trainers interested in preparing for the Certified Pet Dog Trainer examination. Additionally, it was voted, "Best Training Book of 1999" by the Dog Writersí Association of America.

bone bone bone
Purely Positive Training by Sheila Booth.
Published by Podium Publications, 1998. ISBN: 0966302001

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