ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Defining Common Ground

The following article was originally printed in Teaching Dogs magazine.

What does “positive training” mean? If I polled fifty professional trainers, I would get fifty different answers. That’s fifty active members of the dog training community—and very likely most, if not all, would profess to practice it.

So what? As long as each has his own definition, does it matter if it’s not exactly like someone else’s? Yes. It matters because without a standard, agreed-upon definition, trainers can’t communicate with each other, and it matters because we’ve given clients no clear way to define or ask for what they want.

Simple Communication

Words must have meaning. Precise denotations. Words are not ideas. Words are concrete building blocks used to express ideas. Even when words have multiple meanings, the use of the word to convey a particular meaning is very specific and limited.

The definition of a word cannot vary on the whim of the user. Without clear definitions, communication is hindered at best. At worst, there are misunderstandings and confusion.

Researchers have determined that roughly 85% of face-to-face communication is accomplished through nonverbal elements such as gestures, expressions, and tone of voice. Miscommunication resulting from imprecise use of language can be mediated through those nonverbal elements, minimizing confusion.

In the Internet age, however, more and more communication is done in writing. Without nonverbal elements, we are left with just the words themselves to communicate ideas, meaning, and emotion. It’s a difficult job, even for a skilled writer. It’s an almost impossible job, if the reader and the writer have different definitions for the words used.

How many times on a mailing list have trainers debated vociferously back and forth only to wind up saying, “Oh. I see what you mean. I just don’t use the term that way.” And how many times have you seen a discussion end with the trainers believing they were poles apart in philosophy when you could see they were really arguing very similar positions?

The list members have come together to learn about dog training techniques. But how can there be education without communication? The first step in communication is a common language.

Fear of Jargon

Many trainers purposely avoid using particular terms in an attempt to avoid jargon. Jargon, they complain, scares pet owners away, and it’s too technical for the average trainer to use correctly every time.

Every field of study has its own lexicon. If you take a beginning computer class, an investment class, or even a class in carpentry, the first thing you learn is the vocabulary for that field. They define their terms simply, but specifically, and then they use them accordingly. “Close the window,” likely means something different in a carpentry class than it does in a computer class, but neither apologizes for their use of the term, nor worries about finding another, less confusing—but potentially less precise—way of explaining what they want.

Lack of precision leads to confusion. For example, many trainers substitute “treat” in place of the more technical (and precise) term “reinforcement.” Is a treat a food treat? You can hardly blame a client for making that assumption. What about times when a food treat isn’t reinforcing to the dog? That leads to statements like, “When we’re on a walk, my dog couldn’t care less about food. This method doesn’t work in the face of real distractions!” Reinforcement, on the other hand, encompasses far more than food treats and by definition “works” to cause an increase in a behavior. If a particular treat doesn’t cause that increase, it wasn’t reinforcement. The trainer’s attempt to avoid jargon was, then, not only imprecise, but ultimately incorrect.

There is an unfounded fear that if dog trainers adopt the terms used by psychologists and behaviorists, they will get lost in an overwhelming sea of complex scientific explanations. A particular industry, however, defines terms according to its own needs. If the dog training industry needs an incredibly precise, complex definition for a term, it can choose to define it that way. If not, it can choose a simpler definition, regardless of how the term is used in other fields.

At this point, confusion reigns because there are no standard training-industry definitions. Individual trainers, then, are on their own to choose the definition that suits their purposes. Some choose a simple definition. Some choose a complex one. Some choose one based in common vernacular, as opposed to a particular scientific field. Everyone is right, and everyone is wrong, and miscommunication and misunderstandings are the norm.

Creating a Lexicon

The first step in creating an industry-specific vocabulary is to identify the terms used within that industry. The second step is to create precise, complete, objective definitions for each term. This task can be considerably more difficult than it sounds.

“Clicker training” is a good example. What is clicker training? Any use of the clicker or just as an event marker? What if the trainer combines the clicker and corrections? When you define a term, you’re not only defining what it is, but also what it isn’t. You may find at that point that there’s a need to create additional terms, new terms, to fill the void that is left when you tighten up another word’s definition.

Consider, for example, the following definition: “Clicker training is a term coined by Karen Pryor and defined by her as a subset of operant conditioning using positive reinforcement, extinction, negative punishment, and an event marker to modify behavior.” What about people, then who use both the clicker and corrections? A new term, may be created: “Combined training is a type of training using all five principles of operant conditioning and a marker signal (clicker) to modify behavior.”

At this point, clicker training is whatever an individual wants it to be. Unfortunately, that not only creates friction between trainers, but it also makes it extremely confusing to clients who want to find a particular service. A client who trains with a “clicker trainer” in one city may be completely confounded to find that the clicker trainer in her new town used a completely different method.

Sticks and Stones

One potential outcome of creating a dog training lexicon is to establish common ground through a common language. Words, however, are not always neutral.

“Jerk and pull trainer.”

“Clicker Nazi.”

Those terms were created intentionally to hurt. Other terms, like “aversive,” may describe something intrinsically unpleasant, and still others, like “traditional training,” may have a negative connotation to some people.

It may not be possible to choose terms that are completely neutral, and certainly we cannot discard a term solely because it describes something we don’t like. We can’t leave out “punishment” just because some trainers eschew it.

But as we create and define our vocabulary, we can—we must—choose neutral, non-judgmental definitions. There is a world of difference between “a consequence to a behavior in which something is added to or removed from the situation to make the behavior less likely to occur in the future” and “suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution.”

Communication begins with a common language. A common language begins with respect.


An industry’s vocabulary may be defined by individuals, but if it isn’t endorsed by a respected organization within the industry, the definitions are essentially worthless.

When I wrote my book Click for Joy, I included an extensive glossary of dog training terms defined consistently with the way I used them throughout the book. Similar glossaries can be found in most training books. However, the definitions are bound to vary because each author had to reinvent the wheel for himself.

It’s ludicrous that a reader would have to turn to the glossary of every book he reads just to see how this author uses a term. Without industry-standard definitions, though, that’s exactly what is required.

Words have power. Like sticks and stones, they can be used to build walls or to break them down. Developing industry-standard definitions for the common terms we bandy about will bring dog trainers of differing philosophies one step closer to communication and, hopefully, understanding.

Melissa Alexander
mca @
copyright 2003 Melissa C. Alexander


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