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Category Archives: Behavior Change Protocols

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.