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The electric collar and Positive Reinforcement - Lesson 1

Bill Hillmann

9.21 New video available "CONDITIONING TO THE ELECTRIC COLLAR for all Breeds w Bill Hillmann" on website

 Your accomplishments are a testament to the success of your training methods, among them: the most highpoint derby dogs in history, and more than 50 Field Champions!
I’m writing because, in my experience, your methods are fundamentally different from traditional approaches to field training and represent a paradigm shift – a new approach to training our hunting companions.  Your emphasis on building the relationship with the dog and consistent use of positive reinforcement are taking dog training in a new direction. 
My limited field experience includes training 2 Master Hunter golden retrievers and taking my female golden retriever to the Master National in 2 consecutive years (she was one of only 15 female golden retrievers in the country to qualify last year), and titling 2 Senior Hunters at under 18 months of age  – a far cry from 50+ FCs.  I’m also an AKC hunt test judge at all levels.
As you know, I studied behavior analysis and operant conditioning at Columbia University earning related MA, EdM, and EdD degrees there.  I applied these methods in teaching children with severe handicapping conditions, and preparing teachers to work with children with special needs.  It is through the lens of applied behavior analysis that I see the notsosubtle differences in your approach and the approaches I have learned over the past decade and a half training field dogs. 
An understanding of the language used to describe behavior is a helpful place to start.  Two concepts are necessary at the beginning: 1) direction of the behavior change – increasing (reinforced) or decreasing (punished) and, 2) nature of the consequence – something added to the environment (positive), or removed (negative).  Note that the words, “punishment” and “negative,” are simply descriptive here, without qualitative nuance – nothing qualitatively bad is implied. 
Traditional field training methods use the ecollar to mark unwanted or incorrect behavior.  The collar is used to reduce or eliminate the “wrong” response. 
Your method uses the collar very differently.  The stimulation used is the lowest that will be perceived or acknowledged by the dog.  In your training, the collar is used to mark desired behavior in conjunction with verbal and tactile praise, making it a learned reinforcement. 
Worlds Apart Collar Conditioning “Sit”
Using the collar to teach sit is done quite differently in the two schools, but to the untrained eye, it can look very nearly the same.  The traditional approach uses the collar to initiate the behavior; the dog is not sitting – the command stimulation sequence is: “sitnicksit.” The “nick” occurs as a positive punishment for not sitting – something added to the environment causing the undesired behavior (e.g. standing/moving) to decrease following the “sit” command.  The level of stimulation used is higher than would be used in your method.
Your approach begins with the dog sitting (and assumes the dog has already demonstrated knowledge of the “sit” command).  While the dog is sitting, the command – stimulation sequence is, “sitnicksit.”  The purpose here is to reinforce a behavior once it has happened.  In this case, the stimulation (low collar nick) is paired with praise (verbal and/or tactile) causing the behavior to increase; by definition positive (added) reinforcement (the behavior increases).
These approaches may look similar, but they are worlds apart from a behavioral perspective, one is punishment (in the technical sense) and the other reinforcement. 
I remain grateful for your work.
Kindest regards,
Marsha A. Wilcox, EdD, ScD

posted by aspics57