Just over 1 week ago, following a conversation between Jamie Penrith and Danny Wells, Danny (and shortly afterwards, Jamie) posted a live video in social media containing a straightforward offer, an offer that has been interpreted as a ‘challenge’ to the ‘force free’ ‘PURELY positive reinforcement’, ‘anti-aversive’ dog training community. The video has caused a huge stir within the dog training and behaviour modification industry, with multiple trainers from around the world recording their own videos pledging substantial sums of money and sharing their support, or alternatively posting their condemnation and contempt for what is seen as divisive, destructive and ‘childish’. Somewhat disappointingly, several trainers and behaviour modification professionals have responded by sharing their personal views which have included ad hominem attacks without seeking further clarification to ensure the factually accuracy of their interpretation beforehand.
Consequently, as we said would happen, to provide clarity and dispel some of the outlandish misrepresentations and misquotes that have been posted, we have produced a more detailed breakdown of the offer, namely:
1] The offer itself – What exactly IS the proposal?
2] The motivations behind it – What prompted the proposal?
3] The training conditions – How will the proposal take form?
4] Permitted and prohibited procedures – What is expected of the trainer?
5] Legal and welfare details – How will we ensure that the procedure is legally and ethically
6] Full transparency and monitoring – How will the integrity of the proposal be assured?
8] Going forward – What can we learn and how might we proceed?
What IS the proposal?
The proposal itself is unambiguous and straightforward:
“Using positive reinforcement methods ONLY or ‘force-free training’ ONLY, we will provide the opportunity for a professional dog trainer, behaviourist or academic who strictly practices and promotes this purposefully restrictive methodology to the public, relevant industry stakeholders and/or government officials as a proven, safe and effective resolution to dealing with innate, self-rewarding behaviours in dogs – in this instance chasing and attacking livestock animals – to come forward and demonstrate the claims in practise”.
We will source and provide dogs with a proven history of chasing, attacking and causing the death of a livestock animal species. We will also facilitate access to suitable venues and livestock animals. We will provide a 6-week training period for the applicant/s to work with the dog and all training sessions will be recorded and streamed live to social media platforms for transparency and international observation. At the end of the 6 week period the dog will be tested and observed in a novel context containing that livestock animal but the absence of the trainer or access to alternative reinforcement opportunities (rewards) to determine whether the training process has successfully instilled an alternative, trained response to approach and attack and whether that alternative generalises across contexts and/or is dependent on trainer presence.
4 weeks later, following prohibited access to that livestock animal or any further training input since last testing, the dog will again be placed in the presence of the livestock animal but the absence of the trainer or access to alternative reinforcement (rewards). This will be conducted in a different location to both training and prior testing to assess generalisation of learned responding. At no point during the training or testing process will the welfare of any animal be placed at risk.
A significant financial incentive for the successful applicant/s has been pledged by industry professionals and those with an interest in observing and ensuring the integrity of the procedure. Presently, this figure sits around £40,000 – £45,000.
What prompted the proposal?
This is the area that appears to have generated the greatest amount of speculation, inaccurate assumption and misrepresentation within the dog training and behaviour modification industry [DTBMI]. Contrary to several social media posts, discussions and video’s, the motivation behind this proposal [hereafter referred to as ‘the challenge’] it is not to pitch one training methodology against another! If that were the case, then this would be a comparative proposal involving two chosen methodologies/training approaches with a control group as per Lincoln’s flawed Defra-funded research project AW1402A. This is not an attempt to create or widen fractures and animosity within the DTBMI, quite the opposite. It is instead, a publicly observable platform to confirm or deny the widespread claims that positive reinforcement training in isolation is sufficient to successfully and safely overcome pre-rehearsed domestic dog predation [DDP] and that this reliability is sufficiently robust to hold up to testing when the trainer and opportunity for rewards are unavailable, but access to the prey animal presented. So this is the first point of clarification – the challenge is aimed at an unproven, yet what we believe to be dangerous theory, not an individual. It is not possible to deliberately cause offence to a theory, therefore no individual has grounds to feel offended.
Danny Wells first posted the challenge as a direct response to the English government being content to lie to the public. In a supposed democracy, the English government is prepared to accept and promote this ‘positive reinforcement panacea’ narrative, even to the point that the very same research project it previously referred to (for 10 years) as ‘insufficient evidence’ has suddenly morphed into “robust research” (Zac Goldsmith correspondence, June 2021) without a shred of explanation as to how and why this metamorphosis happened. The fact that this research was conducted by researchers with a known and stated prior bias AGAINST the training aid it was ‘independently’ studying, and that the fact that only the e-collar trainers carried transmitters (which they could clearly be seen operating), thereby destroying any scientific ‘blinding protocol’ to guard against bias, has NEVER been publicly declared or explained. Danny stated words along the lines of “If the government are prepared to lie to us over something as minor as e-collars and dog training – if they are prepared to pay for poor science (pseudoscience) for this and use that as justification to ban electronic training collars claiming that positive reinforcement training is the route to resolving life-threatening behaviours, what lies are they prepared to tell us over bigger, more important issues?” The challenge is against the ‘theory’ used as ‘evidence’ by the English government to support their proposal to ‘blanket ban’ rather than regulate the quality and use of electronic training collars. The challenge is a challenge against false evidence and poor science. Evidence and poor science are concepts, they have no ‘feelings’ and so cannot be offended.
The challenge is also borne out of frustration caused by widespread, intense feelings of injustice and welfare threatening wrongdoing for political and financial gain within the DTBMI – certainly at applied level. Healthy dogs are killed in their thousands in the UK and throughout the world for ‘undesirable behaviours’[UB]. Their death comes not necessarily as a result of the fact that the behaviour cannot be successfully resolved, but because the route to successful resolution involves negative consequences for negative behaviours, and this necessity falls outside of the ideological framework to which those in charge of the dogs weld themselves. Whether a negative consequence for a negative behaviour (or UB) is justified, proportionate and necessary to protect and promote the interests of the dog, other animals, the family unit or society at large is irrelevant. All that is relevant is whether the consequence aligns with the personal or organisational ‘code of conduct’. “For the greater good” and “Ends justifying means” have become meaningless. All that is deemed important is whether the intended, necessary experiences of the dog adhere to preference or policy. Then there are the millions of dogs destined to live miserable lives of restraint, restriction and confinement because their owners have been told by ‘force free’ or ‘anti-aversive’ professionals that their dogs ‘can never be trusted or trained to run freely off-lead’ unless inside a sterile, secure compound. In a civilised human society, this would be considered ‘life imprisonment with restricted access to socially confined exercise opportunities’ – a prison sentence if you like. Breed stereotypes or unsupported individual labels are used to justify insufficient experience or staunch unwillingness to look beyond preferences or prohibited practices, despite the fact that thousands upon thousands of examples of video evidence and owner testimonials confirming that such justifications for confinement are simply untrue.
Danny, Jamie, Jonas, Larry, and many, many other professionals consider this current state of play to be ethically wrong, since it is proven in many instances to be utterly unnecessary and therefore inhumane.
“Use a higher value reward” is a term almost any dog owner who has attended a dog training class will have heard, whether that is a ‘force free’ class or any other and it is a term with sound scientific support and therefore it is sound advice and very often the right answer. But the advice and answer has individual and contextual limitations and these limitations MUST be acknowledged where safety or legal compliance are at stake. Jamie Penrith said of handler-rewards versus the opportunity for a predatory dog to chase prey animals, “A jack doesn’t trump an ace. Aces trump jacks and when the environment holds the aces and all you have are jacks, you lose”. The challenge is a challenge to the knowingly-false claim put before dog owners and governments by influential stakeholders, that positive reinforcement alone is sufficient to beat the environment; that jacks do trump aces where the player is skilled enough. Any rational person can see how flawed this thinking is, and video evidence has been posted showing dogs running straight past ‘high value rewards’ such as whole lamb shoulder and entire roast chicken to for the opportunity to chase sheep. The challenge is a challenge to demonstrate in practise what is repeatedly stated in theory, that positive reinforcement without any form of aversive intervention using only handler-controlled rewards, will succeed in ‘trumping’ the reinforcer of chasing and attacking a prey animal where the dog has a strong reinforcement history of doing so. That it is possible to condition an alternative response to predation in the presence of prey but the absence of the trainer or access to the conditioned reinforcer. The challenge is a challenge against the dangerous failure and refusal to acknowledge the limitations of positive reinforcement.
How will the proposal take form?
How will the candidate/s be chosen?
As you might expect, with in excess of £40,000 ($55,000) available for the winning, there has been substantial interest in the challenge. Understandably, offers to ‘take it on’ have been received from multiple people with a ‘what’s to lose?’ attitude. This needs further detail for clarification.
The challenge is ONLY open to professionals within the DTBMI who strictly adhere to the tenet that the intentional inclusion of unpleasant experiences for an animal undergoing training to instil or inhibit behaviour cannot ever be ethically reconciled, and that reinforcement need only ever needs to be ‘positive’. Professionals who claim that any failure is only ever that of the practitioner, never the procedure. That the procedure (positive reinforcement alone) will never fail when conducted by someone as skilled as themselves.
These professionals must be able to prove that they run a viable DTBMI business, being proficient and fluent in both knowledge and application of behaviour modification procedures minus the deliberate inclusion of any aversive intervention or experiences for the dog.
Ideally, the candidate/s will be involved in the higher education of other professionals within the DTBMI, either personally, or as a representative/member of a larger organisation or educational institution.
Candidates satisfying this criteria will then be required to outline and present their proposed behaviour modification process in writing, with supporting evidence to demonstrate that the proposal has a high probability of succeeding using case studies or video evidence, together with scientific examples of prior success.
Several individuals including representatives of the ‘force free’ ‘anti-aversive’ DTBMI (tbc) will be invited to observe to ensure the fairness and integrity of the selection process.
A maximum of 3 candidates will be selected, and these candidates will then be announced on social media.
What is expected form the trainer? What is permitted and prohibited?
It is important that potential candidates understand that this is not an all expenses paid opportunity to take part in a ‘nothing to lose’ challenge. With considerable sums of money involved, candidates will be expected to raise funding for their own travel, accommodation and personal costs incurred. These costs are not reclaimable and the organisers cannot and will not be held liable for any costs whatsoever.
Whilst a venue has yet to be fixed, it is likely that the training and testing will take place in South West England.
The candidates are expected to sign a legally-binding declaration, confirming that they do not use any form of aversive interventions in conducting their professional business within the DTBMI.
The candidates must also agree to the full, legally-binding terms and conditions of the challenge* and agree that:
In line with the widely held claims that provided the practitioner is knowledgeable, skilled and patient enough, positive reinforcement training alone is sufficient to safely and reliably resolve innate, intrinsically rewarding established/rehearsed behaviours in the domestic dog without the requirement for any aversive intervention, the inclusion of any aversive intervention whatsoever shall not be permitted during the training process. Inclusion of such would result in an immediate disqualification and the candidate will be withdrawn.
The term ‘aversive intervention’ is given its standard everyday understanding to mean ‘that which is deliberately included as a being a thing that the dog considers unpleasant and/or as a result of which, adjusts it’s behaviour in order seek escape from or avoidance of it in order to minimise its future occurrence’.
The use of negative reinforcement**, positive and negative punishment are prohibited. These are given their recognised operant conditioning definitions and would not constitute positive reinforcement ‘only’, ‘force-free’ or ‘aversive-free’, as per the terms of the challenge.
The use of equipment designed or intended to physically prevent, interrupt or re-direct the dog from advances towards the prey animals is prohibited. Leashes and longe lines may be used as a safety measure throughout, but any firm, sudden or consistent directional pressure that is deliberately applied by the candidates will result in an immediate disqualification and the candidate will be withdrawn.
Any verbal, social/spatial or physical pressure intended to physically prevent, interrupt or re-direct the dog from advances towards the prey animals is prohibited, since this would fail to satisfy positive reinforcement training criteria. Inclusion of such would result in an immediate disqualification and the candidate will be withdrawn.
The use of positive reinforcement is given its everyday operant conditioning understanding, namely ‘the addition of a thing (a reinforcer) resulting in an increase in a given response by the dog in order to gain access to that thing’. This is permitted and the choice of reinforcer is down to the candidate.
Food, exercise or social deprivation to increase value in the reinforcer is prohibited, since this seeks to deliberately develop a state of ‘need’ in the dog through deliberate omission and would not satisfy positive reinforcement criteria. Inclusion of such would result in an immediate disqualification and the candidate will be withdrawn.
The candidate must agree to being included in live recordings taken throughout the training trials and for that video to be ‘live streamed’ to social media platforms. The candidate must also agree to wearing a live microphone throughout trials to ensure that no verbal punishers are aimed at the dog.
*To be put before a legal professional for approval.
**It is acknowledged that technically, negative and positive reinforcement are inseparable opposites (ie the [positive] acquisition of food reduces a [negative] state of need) however it is only the deliberate use of negative reinforcement that is prohibited.
A maximum of three dogs will be selected from members of the public or (where permitted) an animal re-homing centre with a proven history of having caused the death/s of a livestock animal due to predation. The dog will undergo pre-training observation to ensure that it still holds a strong desire to depredate towards prey animals. In order to replicate real life situations, the candidate will have no prior knowledge of or access to the dog before the challenge begins.
The prey animals
Relevant prey animals will be sourced for use throughout the challenge with the full, written consent of their legal owner/s. At no point will the welfare of any animal be compromised throughout the entirety of the challenge. The welfare of the animals is paramount and a suitable member of the veterinary profession will be invited to observe and ensure ethical compliance throughout.
Training and testing
All training and testing will take place on enclosed, agricultural land with trials being kept to a maximum of 30 minutes each, followed by a suitable resting period for the animals.
The training environments can change at the request go the candidate to facilitate generalisation of the training.
The challenge will take place in Spring 2022.
The maximum permitted timescale for the challenge is 6 weeks [SIX WEEKS].
At the conclusion of the six week period – or when the candidate consider the dog to be ready for testing – the dog will be placed in a context where access to the prey animal is readily available, but both the candidate and the opportunity to access alternative reinforcers (rewards) will be withdrawn.
To limit context-specific learning associations, testing will take place in a different location from the training contexts. The dog will be observed and behaviours recorded for a period of 15 minutes, during which time the dog must not demonstrate any predatory intention towards the prey animal, characterised by widely acknowledged and accepted behaviours indicative of predation such as fixation, stalking, lunging, chasing or pointing.
Four weeks later, following a period of no further training input and no access to the prey animal in-between, the dog will once again be tested in a novel context and observed/recorded as per the previous testing criteria to evaluate lasting-effect of the training received.
How will we ensure legal and ethical compliance?
All terms and conditions will be legally underwritten, agreed and signed. No animal will ever be placed ‘at risk’, with proven safety precautions being in place throughout.
How will the integrity of the proposal be assured?
The criteria relating to the challenge will be made available to the public beforehand.
The successful candidate’s submitted and approved training proposal will be made available to the public beforehand.
The challenge itself will be recorded and live-streamed to an international audience.
Access to the dog/s by the candidates will be strictly limited to training periods only.
Independent observers will be permitted to attend and observe in person following receipt and approval of written requests to do so.
Candidates will be given opportunity during training periods to ask questions or raise concerns, and these will also be live-streamed for transparency purposes.
What can we learn and how might we proceed?
The intended purpose of the challenge is not to provide answers, but to raise valuable questions.
Whatever the outcome, we ought to be left with evidence-based results that can be used to shape and influence advice and practices in relation to the successful modification of predation by domestic dogs for the future.
For all questions or enquires in relation to the information above, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the heading “The Challenge”.
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