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Dinosaurs and Dog Training

I was struck by a message I recently received from someone who told me that they had seen many shelter dogs put to sleep for what were essentially minor issues that could have been resolved by a skillful trainer.  I was certainly with him that far.  But, in the next sentence, I was a bit stunned.  He said the only time he had seen such dogs really be rehabilitated was when they were sent off to a doggy boot camp.  The dreaded “we had to use punishment, it was to save their lives” argument was being made again.  And, yes, “boot camp” is often still a place where dogs endure prong collar corrections and shock collars. (The prong, or pinch, collar, in spite of my abhorrence for it, was never designed for a trainer to make a correction with it, it was designed to just sit there until the dog pulled, whereupon he would “self correct” when he encountered the painful stimulus of the prongs digging in to his neck, and at the level at which he found them painful, not the level the trainer decided to perpetrate on him, but that’s another blog post…)

I agree that some dogs have been punished so harshly that unwanted behavior does seem to disappear.  They seem “cured.”  But, mostly that’s due to global suppression of behavior, not learning.  In fact, the dog just gives up, realizing that he cannot avoid the unpleasantness.  A condition of “learned helplessness” arises.  The downside to it is that the dog becomes less trainable in general, because he’s unwilling to offer new behaviors lest they be met with the same result – pain, so he just sits there.  Ever wonder why so many force trainers use platforms where dogs just sit there to demonstrate how “obedient” they are???  Shut down doesn’t have to LOOK shut down, the dog just IS shut down.  But, I digress.

Trainers have been using harsh punishment for decades, eons even.  They’ve become quite good at it, and we know that timing is oh so important in training, which is, honest-and-truly, a mechanical skill.  So, when a shelter or rescue sends a dog into training with one of these people, they perceive a successful result when the dog returns.  They mark it a success, even if, several months or years down the road, the dog bites someone.  Longitudinal studies of how well shelter dogs are rehabilitated are nearly non-existent.  But, it’s safe to say that behavior (or lack thereof) must somehow be maintained by either punishment or reinforcement and the new adopters may or may not have the skills to do either.  

The fact is that our modern dog training movement, which is more reliant on clicker training or progressive reinforcement training, is in its virtual infancy compared to the more punitive styles of the past.  The “crossover” trainers, who adopted “positive training” (which, incidentally does involve consequences, and is not permissive) in the past few decades, are now the leaders of the movement (which, sadly, was set back about 50 years by the magic of television and a few unqualified people posing as dog gurus of one sort or another).  People like Karen Pryor, Bob Bailey, Keller and Marion Breland, proved that any animal, even chickens and goldfish, can be trained using non-violent positive reinforcement techniques.  Entities such as The Academy for Dog Trainers, Karen Pryor Academy, and Companion Animal Sciences Institute, are now educating trainers comprehensively in this science.  The drawback is that many of these are NEW trainers, relatively speaking.  They don’t yet have the “chops” that will come from just handling hundreds of dogs.  But, when they do, they will almost certainly replace the “dinosaurs” who could not adjust and adopt the modern techniques and technology.  Just as people who refused to accept computers became irrelevant in the workplace, trainers who remain stuck in the past will become the collateral damage of the learning curve, as well as the desire most owners have NOT to hurt their dogs.  As science and ethics-based trainers become more skillful, word of mouth will be as good advertising for them as it once was for the trainers whose work looked adequate, but didn’t give full measure to the ability for “the thinking dog” to partner with humans in miraculous ways.

Certainly, we realize that there are four quadrants of operant conditioning, but it’s rarely, if ever, necessary to use all four to get the result you want.  The way that people cling to the aversive end of the spectrum is not because it doesn’t work, it’s because they simply haven’t taken the time to become equally skilled at the non-aversive side of things.  If non-aversive works, too, why not couple skill with ethics?  Because you are a dinosaur?  Hope not, because you know what happened to them.



About pawsforpraise

I own and operate Paws for Praise. We offer group dog training classes and behavior consultations in a dog and human friendly environment. We think training should be fun for you and your dog. Go ahead - make a tail wag!

12 responses »

  1. Any good articles on working with dogs that are shut down after graduating from BootnCamp?

    • Roger, if you are on Facebook, join the page that I highlighted in this blog post. Jean Donaldson has posted a nice document there on working with shelter dogs. I would say that the main thing is to use respondent learning (desensitization and counter-conditioning) to work with dogs that are upset by a certain stimulus. And, just train behaviors with marker training. After a while, as the dog realizes that he can make “wrong” choices and they simply won’t be reinforced, versus the corrections he might have received before, he will gradually build more confidence in his handler. But, be prepared – if it takes two years to walk into the woods, it won’t be a ten minute walk out of the woods;-)

  2. In my Basic Manners classes, I can always tell if a dog has been trained with force methods. They may come eagerly into the classroom, but as soon as they are given a simple cue, like “sit,” I see a change come over them – like they are thinking, “uh oh, we’re training.” And since my methods are based on capturing and shaping, I have to first spend time assuring them that offering behaviors will not result in a correction.. It breaks my heart. Training should be fun and exciting, for both the dog and the handler.

  3. Fear of the unknown is scary…even for dog trainers. When their business has flourished for years using these archaic, dominiant based methods, which has been their income…why should they change? It works (it bad way). To them “if it aint’ broke, why fix it?”

    But it is broke and they don’t know it (or don’t want to know). Alas, as progressive reinforcment gains popularity with your family pet owner, many chose to find a trainer that will not hurt their dog emotionally or physcially.

    The more people that are educated about Force-Free training, I am hoping it will force change because the pocket book of dominant trainers will be affected.

  4. I was a force trainer for many years – it was all that was taught when I was starting and I was a child when I started working with dogs. More positive methods were in their bare infancy. Over the years I have been lucky to find mentors who helped and continue to help guide me into the world of positive. Every morning I wake and apologize to the dogs of my early days. I work with a lot of rescue dogs that were often placed with undesired behavioral issues in place and new owners told he needs a little love and a good alpha owner OR they had been worked with in harsher fashions to “fix” the issues and after adoption, the old behaviors flood back. Recently I was evaluating a dog for a group and as soon as we took the choke chain off him, he visibly relaxed. Many in the rescue were trying to evolve and fully understood what I was saying, they just were in their transition phases to more positively based work. I even recommended if they determine the dog is to be rehabilitated that I would work him on a body harness so there is no pressure at all on his neck and outline a program for the dog.

    Another issue is people wanting immediate results. At what costs? I can fast teach a dog to suppress outward behaviors indicating a reaction is pending. Am I really helping the dog overcome his apprehensions and fears when I use pain, nagging and stress? No.

    If I can evolve, so can others. It is in the best interest of the dogs.

  5. My GSD Panzer is a rescue who was used as a bait dog. He has some pretty serious behavioral issues, and the rescue was unwilling to adopt him out to “just anyone” which I admire. He came to us only because my references were ALL +R based trainers I had used in the past to help rehabilitate my other rescue who sadly passed away in August. My boy Panzer has more fear than any dog I think I have ever seen, including other bait dogs. The THOUGHT of putting a prong collar or a choke chain or a shock collar on him revolts me. He urinates on the floor when my fiance and I bicker (not even YELL, which actually has come as a blessing in disguise because in an effort not to upset the dog, we bicker less, lol), I cannot even imagine what his reaction would be if we punished him. I applaud you for writing this, shelter dogs especially, deserve better, in my humble opinion.

  6. As one of the ‘newbies’ to dog training, I’m proud to say I’ve never been taught to use harsh methods (my upbringing excepted -sadly).
    Perhaps it’s because I work best with facts, or perhaps it’s because I saw the results of positive reinforcement long before I saw the effects of positive punishment (they were/are evident for me, but I had to realise it first!), but I’m proud to say I’ve trained all my dogs with positive reinforcement, and of course I continue to use it, not to mention I find it spreading into other parts of my life too.

  7. Very good article however your definition of the prong collar is incorrect.
    The prong or “pinz” collar was originally designed in Germany for working dogs (police, army, rotation etc) to stimulate arousal in what working people call “flat dogs”. If you jab each side of your neck behind your ear with your fingers quite hard, your neck will get bigger and you’ll start to feel aggitated. These collars were not designed to correct you’re right but they are in fact an aggression or arousal stimulant so where people think they’re ideal on aggressive dogs is just very scary!!

    • Apparently, then, what has devolved into the current usage actually had a prior basis in agitation. Fascinating, and I can see how you could indeed be correct in your interpretation. If you have evidence of that in any old texts that could be cited, they would be much appreciated. I saw an old Idstone in the library once, but don’t remember if this information was within. In any case, so true about their inappropriateness for aggressive dogs. Thanks for your comment.

    • I agree that the original use was probably as an agitation tool, and re-reading my post I realize that I could have been clearer with my language. However, the design of the collar is such that it releases when a dog ceases to pull, so its practical application in modern usage as a correction device using negative reinforcement is still as I described, despite the original application that you cite. Regardless of its origin, though, still a nasty tool that is completely unnecessary in modern dog training. And, sad that so many people use them on aggressive dogs, not realizing that they may be escalating the problem.

  8. Pingback: Know more About Traditional (Outdated) Methods | The Dog Coach Francis

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