Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The telegraphic leash

Keep a float in your line...
One of the Clicker Expo presentations that I found most interesting and valuable was given by Michele Pouliot on "The Right Touch." Michele is determined (hooray!) to reclaim the leash as a tool for training and communication rather than simply for management, and she's demonstrating more generally that there are ways to employ contact artfully, informatively, and positively. As I told her after her talk, I'd been quite literally feeling some of this stuff out for myself over the last six months or so, inspired in the main by Buck Brannaman's work with horses, by his emphasis on finding a "soft feel" and leaving a "float" in the rein, and by his further emphasis on the importance of developing sensitivity in the horse and the rider so as to make the rein a conduit of information in both directions. I thought there was no reason that a leash couldn't function similarly, and I'd found through trial and error that it very much could. (Of course, the idea that collar pressure -- like bit pressure -- can be communicative is hardly a new one, but the messages people have sent by leash have typically been blunt and unpleasant. The idea that light pressure might be converted from an aversive to a conditioned reinforcer is, I think, novel.)

Michele has been much less clumsy in her efforts, and she gave all of us at her talk a simple, clear, and efficient method for flipping our dogs' conception of pressure (and our own), from oppositional force to welcome invitation.** As she mentioned, there had been some trepidation on the part of the Expo organizers around her presentation of her process, given that it relies on negative reinforcement to get rolling, but I can say with absolute conviction that her method could have saved my dogs a great deal of annoyance if I'd been acquainted with it earlier. And even having muddled my way to a rough approximation of what she's doing with the leash, I am better able now to refine my techniques intelligently (and to expand them into similar work with hand to body contact). I can more easily move forward thanks not only to the clarity of her approach but also to the intellectual and moral affirmation I took from noting its overlap with my own nascent ideas. Out of respect for her care in presenting the specifics of her method, I'll wait to describe them here until I've had a chance to review her notes, but I think they should be disseminated widely, as I'm convinced that they have the potential to reduce the use of negative reinforcement significantly. As long as we use leashes primarily to contain rather than to communicate, and as long as we labor under the misconception that the signals we send each other across the line must necessarily be aversive, we miss a great opportunity to get in better touch with our dogs.

** It's probably no coincidence that Michele is a champion "freestyler," i.e., she dances (beautifully) with her dogs. Anyone who's done much partnered dancing can readily understand how this mode of training is analogous to "giving good weight," and can also guess how seamlessly it might integrate with other vital forms of kinesthetic awareness and communication.

Photo by George Grall.

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