Smart Choices:
Socialization, Play and Necessary Control - by Roger Hild
 

Part 1      Part 2.       Part 3.       Part 4.

Smart Choices: Socialization, Play and Necessary Control -  Part 1.

Warning: All too often truth and the freedom to express ones ideas have been sacrificed on the altar of political correctness.  It seems feelings are more important than facts.  This article therefore, is not concerned with trying to be politically correct or sparing someone’s feelings at the expense of the truth; anyone who is too sensitive or easily offended should keep this in mind.

Every day we read about dog attacks on other dogs and on innocent people.  Dogs out of control; dangerous, threatening, intimidating and sometimes attacking.  Is this just a juicy topic for the media to write stories about or are the incidents of attacks increasing?  From my perspective the incidents are increasing and are now occurring in places where they would have been virtually unheard of ten to fifteen years ago.  The dogs doing the attacking are almost always running loose and they are out of control.  

Not long ago, a friend waiting to enter the ring at a “Canadian Kennel Club” lisenced Obedience trial had her Lhasa Apso attacked by a Samoyed.  A couple days later another friend was at a local school soccer field where she had brought her daughter and their two-year-old Collie to watch a game.  A large black dog running loose attacked the Collie (who was on leash).  It is incidents such as these (usually unreported) along with the reported attacks on people that have led to an increasing intolerance towards dogs in many communities.  How are we to understand it?  What is going on?

As I began looking into these kinds of incidents, paying particular attention to the issue of dogs attacking other dogs, certain common themes would emerge with regularity.  Such themes almost always included some combination of training, socialization and play coupled with owner responsibility.  It was very rare to have any of these aggressive incidents occur without prior warning.  Often the warning would be in the form of others within the owners community (including friends, family and neighbors) complaining about the dogs behaviour and sometimes those complaints would include reports to the authorities.  There is often a history of incidents not adequately dealt with.  Sometimes owners would dismiss the behaviour with the excuse, “He was only playing.”  

However, some owners would express alarm at how their dogs were interacting prior to the outbreak of hostilities and were not so quick to dismiss the behaviour.  In these instances and even though they were not at all comfortable, one reason often given for allowing the dogs to continue with the activity (often unrestrained free “play”) was because they thought the dog needed it.  These people believed they were following the latest expert advice and were laboring under the impression the dog would somehow be psychologically damaged if he didn’t get socialized which was often falsely interpreted to mean “play with every dog possible.”  

To start with, experts don’t all agree on what purpose play has in the development of young animals.  Under the right conditions with adequate supervision and intervention, play can be rewarding and educational.  However, if care is not taken there can be very undesirable side effects.  Often I tell students that excitement and over-stimulation can become addictive.  This has become one of the unfortunate side effects caused by “crazed play” which began with the emergence of some popular but poorly run puppy classes and playgroups that featured unrestrained play and excitement for prolonged periods.

In numerous discussions with fellow trainers, a pattern has emerged that is not mere coincidence; the subject of play comes up far more frequently when the discussion moves to the subject of aggressive dogs.  This suggests to me that the two are somehow tightly connected.  I believe that play is sometimes an “establishing” behaviour.  Anytime there has been a “shake-up” or major change in a pack, some things need to be re-established.  “Play” is one important way in which some things get established within the group.  Other areas where establishing happens include eating, territory, sleeping space and grooming or petting behaviour.  

My friend with the Lhasa kindly agreed to help me dig into this problem.  She did some searching on the Internet and launched a few inquiries.  The response she got was as alarming as it was overwhelming.  She got literally hundreds of responses in two specific subject areas: 1. Should there be off leash unstructured ‘free play’ connected to dog training classes?  2. Is there a problem in keeping dogs safe at dog shows?  We also looked at the whole issue of “off leash dog parks,” which is closely related to the first two issues.

With respect to the first question (concerning should there be off leash free play in class) the overwhelming majority said, “NO.”  Many related they had encountered problems (some serious), from having put their dogs into an “off leash play” situation while in class.  There were a few that felt play sessions, with very young puppies that are very closely supervised and sorted according to age and size, MIGHT be OK.  Even here the overwhelming majority said that the instructors and participants must be prepared to intervene early and stop rough play and also prevent any shy puppies from becoming overwhelmed.  Class bullies cannot be allowed to continue playing with the others unless they learn to be much more careful and gentle.  

There was some general agreement that play groups can be a good idea where the groups are put together specifically for the purpose of play and carefully constructed taking into consideration size and temperament.  In these groups, owners are ever watchful and ready to intervene early at the first sign of any behaviour that could be an early signal of a brewing problem.  These owners also took full responsibility for their dog’s behaviour and viewed all behaviors from the perspective of the effect it has on others.  These owners objected strongly to the lame excuse, “He was only playing.”

Contrast this with what is taking place in “off leash dog parks.”  Recently there was an article in “Dogs in Canada” (May 2001), about Leash-Free Parks.  In this article, the author says there are 432 off-leash parks in Canada.  She goes through several pages describing the virtues of these parks, talking about all the wonderful things the dogs learn, all the social skills they gain and she denies almost any and all problems.  She says these parks are self-regulating and the owners do a very good job, through peer pressure, of controlling problems as they arise.  

While the article was well written, I am afraid it tells only part of the story.  There is a dark side that seldom gets mentioned in articles about off-leash parks.  Sometimes rude, aggressive, anti-social dogs are allowed to run in these parks.  There is a long list of problems that often don’t get adequately dealt with.  The list includes: occasional fights breaking out, dogs getting injured, intimidation of both dogs and people, owners fearful of returning to the park because the same ill-tempered beast continues to roam freely, and dogs at large whose owners have absolutely no control over them.

It may appear that I am opposed to leash-free parks but I am not.  I think there needs to be tighter control and licensing of dog owners using these parks; self-regulation does not always work.  I think there needs to be some minimum standards concerning off-leash obedience and necessary control.  If the leash is your only means of managing your dog, you should not be taking the leash off.  Off-leash should never mean “out of control.”  At the very least, owners should be able to exercise reliable control (such as an emergency sit or down) in the face of distraction.  You should always be able to get your dog to come when called: If you can’t get your dog to come back to you quickly, you have no business allowing it to run free.

Leash-free parks can be great places for playgroups to meet under the ever-watchful eye of their owners.  These parks should provide for the safety of all who wish to use them and any areas adjacent to them.  They should be fully enclosed and signs posted.  There must be some accountability within the system; therefore, they should have some level of supervision by civic officials and anyone or any dog found in violation of the rules of expected conduct should be banned.  Even as they now exist, I would rather have the parks than not have them because people, knowing the risks, can go there if they choose; and the rest of us can avoid going if we wish.
 
 

Dog Aggression at Dog Shows and Events

How serious is the problem of ‘dog to dog’ aggression at dog shows and other events?  This is one of the questions I wanted to explore and I found the problem is becoming so common as to become quite alarming.  In fact, with a bit of digging, the yield became a huge stack of paper documenting page after page of incidents that never should have happened.  Incidents that were unheard of (or very rare) 10-15 years ago are now becoming far too common.  What makes this even more incredible is that these are supposed to be trained dogs!  

When I discussed this particular concern with my friend who’s Lhasa had been attacked, her thoughts are that Kennel Clubs need to stop ducking their responsibility and start dealing with these issues.  She wrote me to say the following:
“There is no standard anywhere which says, "Your dog is ready to show." 
Novice owners are making these decisions and entering whether or not they or their dog is prepared. And I equally emphasize the owner’s preparedness. They may or may not have even taken any classes, and may be entirely self-taught.” 

“They may or may not be able to recognize warning signs that either their dog or another dog has started to cross the line in their behavior. They may or may not have any comprehension of canine behaviour.”  

“One of the judges made the point that until she owned small dogs she as a judge was not aware of the special needs and situations that small dogs face in their rings.  The same can be held true of many owners’ handlers and trainers of larger dogs… It should be something that the judges MUST be aware of however.” 

“That long sit /down is not necessarily the same exercise for the MinPin as it is for the GSD sitting right beside him. And, the dog that wanders in the Novice sit/stay...get him contained right away. Why wait till he interferes, or comes close to another dog before the handler/owner is asked to get their dog. That is stupid behaviour on the part of a judge. Novice = inexperience, dog/handler and often both.”  

“I guess that maybe what this boils down to is that the training of dogs is completely wide open. There is no regulating body and no real standards (of behavior) as they apply to trials/shows… perhaps better rules re; the conduct of all dogs while on the show grounds should be addressed by the CKC. As it stands the judges can only deal with what happens in the ring. Perhaps being held responsible for your dogs behaviour with consequences for aggressive behaviour would give owners pause to think.”  

Some incidents occur when inconsiderate owners knowingly bring aggressive dogs to the shows hoping they won’t get caught.  If these dogs then attack, the owners have been known to remove the dog before any disciplinary action takes place, only to show up again next week at another show.  As long as these people are paying their entry fees, there seems to be a reluctance to deal with them (i.e. preventing any further entries of the dangerous dog).  These inconsiderate jerks only account for a portion of the attacks at shows however, which still leaves us trying to piece together the rest of the puzzle.

Let’s look a little closer at the dogs doing the attacking.  These are dogs that, for the most part, have been in classes, have been “socialized” and are suppose to be responsive to their handler’s commands.  One would expect to be able to hold these dogs to a higher standard.  Personally, I am convinced that the reason for the increase in these types of problems is because so many “trained” dogs aren’t trained at all.  Along with the increase in attacks at shows, there has been a noticeable decline in reliability of performance.  Dogs simply are not performing to the same standard as they once did.  For every flashy, high scoring OTCh, there are thousands of handlers attempting to trial dogs that, quite frankly, barely know their name.  The new Novice handlers coming up may think they have trained their dog but, quite simply, they have not.

I don’t want to suggest that the various Kennel Clubs have not considered taking any action on this problem but rather, the action they seem to be proposing is not getting to the heart of the matter and is nothing more than a “band-aid” solution.  There have been proposals to change the “Group Exercises” so fewer dogs (eight rather than twelve) do “Long Sits and Downs” together.  The thinking is that with fewer dogs in the ring at the same time, there can be more distance between the dogs.  The thing is that changing the rules, lowering the standards and making excuses wouldn’t eliminate those aggressive dogs from the show precincts.  They also do not address the problem of ill prepared and poorly trained dogs showing up and exposing all around them to unnecessary risk.

I also note with interest, that the proposal (fewer dogs in the ring at the same time) is similar to what had to be done in many training class situations.  As people became more opposed to correcting their dog’s distractibility in class, the amount of room (space needed around each dog) had to be almost doubled.  Many people will allow their dog to continually interfere with the dogs next to them while voicing the words, “leave it,” BUT THEY WILL NOT CORRECT THEIR DOG’S RUDE BEHAVIOR.  Instead of openly confronting and correcting distractibility, they seem content to “lure the dog” in attempts to regain his attention.  This is a case of trying to distract the dog from a distraction using a more tasty distraction – no wonder we are seeing trouble in the ring and in groups!

Having competed in the sport of Obedience for over twenty years, I have made a number of friends who are obedience judges.  Some of these judges have been active in training and judging for well over thirty years.  Recently I was visiting with a group of dog obedience friends - including a couple judges – and we began discussing what we were seeing at various trials.  Most in this group commented on the sorry state of the performances they see in the ring.  There seemed to be general agreement that most of the dogs are poorly trained and performances often are unreliable.  Most judges in the group (looking at the time line) seemed to tie the drop in performance with the increased use of food based training methods.  One judge who has kept and compiled statistics for the past 30 years was able to go through and show the number of failures relative to the number of entries.

The above observations were born out in a more recent show I was at and, keeping the above in mind, I’ll now describe what I saw at the show.  There were a total of four obedience trials over a period of two days.  The venue was a border town and there were plenty of American entries among the many participants of these well-attended trials.  After watching many of the performances and noting the number of non-qualifiers from all classes, I’d have to say the whole thing was very disappointing.  The failure rate was excessively high - in some classes it exceeded seventy per cent!

Watching some of the dog and handler teams warming up, while waiting for their turns, I thought I saw some near 200's in the offing.  Once in the ring, many of these same dogs acted as if they had no concept of something as simple as “heel” - never mind sit or stay.  While watching this, it confirmed for me that many of these dogs simply are not trained.  For those dogs, geared only to reward, there was no work ethic in place.  The dog never learned the joy of “heel” but instead learned to follow a lure in an approximation of what looked like something it wasn’t.  Some dogs had the great “obedience” skill down pat of staring at the owner’s mouth while being spit at (this is supposed to create the illusion of square sits and straight fronts).  

When I first began training dogs, the pass rates at trials were much higher (often in the 60-80% range).  We used to look at some exercises (such as group exercises i.e. stays) as “given” and it was rare indeed to see a broken “stay.”  Judging by the number of “trained” dogs I see every day in our parks and on our city streets - trained dogs that must wear nose leashes and who treat a recall as a good enough reason to blow off their owner - I’d say the decline is general and not just limited to what we see in the competitive obedience ring.  When I read about more and more towns looking at banning certain breeds and when I see all the places where dogs are no longer welcome I wonder about the direction we are taking “man’s best friend.”  Why the decline in reliability?  What has happened over the past twenty plus years?

Is it coincidence that this decline fits within the same time frame as the increasing popularity of a movement that likes to label itself as “dog friendly?”  I listen to what many in that movement are touting as “the latest scientific knowledge and advances in dog training.”  Those same trainers see themselves as “the new wave” and are quick to point out the methods of yesteryear are “old fashioned” and some even suggest those old methods are less effective, unnecessary and even abusive.  They like to preach the doctrine of “conditioning” rather than training and they advise management over training for and obtaining compliance.

When I look around the dog world I see a very rich history indeed.  Literally hundreds of breeds have been developed to fill countless roles.  Dogs have been developed, trained and worked along side mankind for thousands of years.  No other relationship has survived or been as successful for so long.  This rich heritage is the product of “old fashioned ideas” and it has withstood every test thrown at it including the test of time.  It does not need to prove its merit and success any further.  This same heritage is what is now under attack.  Not only do they wish to reinvent the wheel, they want to convince the rest of us that the wheel doesn’t work!

The evolution of obedience trials within the last hundred years was but one small test of the dog and owner’s working relationship and yet it did help showcase what the working relationship could be like.  The trials of twenty years ago were a testament to the training methods in place at that time - what are the abysmal trial results of today saying about today’s training methods?  

During a break in presentations at a conference of the “Canadian Association of Pet Dog Trainers,” held a few years ago, several of us were discussing the drop in performance at obedience trials.  Several of the trainers were of the opinion that it doesn’t matter.  They tended to view Obedience trials as a part of the “old methods of training” and said, “it doesn’t prove anything.”  Ian Dunbar happened to be standing there and addressed our group.  He said that IT DOES MATTER.  He said that these trials were still the one consistent standard that could measure a dog’s reliability of performance to a single command.  He felt that just because training methods might differ, that is no excuse to lower the standards or for that matter eliminate them.  

It is not uncommon, when going to meet with new client, that I get comments like, “I trained my last dog 20 years ago and it was completely different.”  When asked how they felt about what they had accomplished in their training 20 years ago, they often felt positive and would comment on how well the dog behaved and how great a companion he had been to them.  Many who have trained using “old methods” on a former dog and “new methods” on a more recent family addition, have expressed some concerns that while the puppy seemed to have a little bit more fun (not always) they were not nearly as reliable.  In some cases they felt as if they would be scolded if they even said, “No!” to their dog.
 
I often heard comments like, “I trained my first dog this style (referring to “correction and praise,” no treats).... and she was the best trained and obedient dog ever, and still had her personality.”   They frequently also would comment that the dogs seemed more respectful.  Some of these “old-timers” also wondered aloud if maybe there were far fewer behaviour problems and certainly fewer serious dog-bite events.

If you think, like I do, that the problem lies with how dogs are “trained,” then let’s move to the heart of the matter.
 


The Politics of Dog Training

To treat or not to treat; to ‘click’ or to praise; to correct or not to correct and for that matter, is it OK to say, “No?”  These are the questions.  

Most folk, when they get a dog, simply think along the lines of, “Well, I don’t want him to pee on the floor, I’d like to be able to take him for walks and maybe have him come back when I call.”  These people probably didn’t have any idea of the political minefield surrounding something as seemingly simple as training their dog.  Because most people want to “do it right,” when it comes to their dog, sooner or later they run headlong into the conflicting ideas of what they should be doing.

The first time I became aware of strong differences of opinion, about the best method of training one’s dog, is when I first began training in 1982.  At that time I enrolled in a school that described it’s methods as based on “Praise and Correction.”  The first handout they gave everyone stressed the point, “Praise when he is right and correction when he is wrong.”  This school proudly proclaimed that they did not use food to train and believed it to be an inferior method because if training is based on “Bribery,” the dog will never be reliable.  Instead they stressed, as the most reliable approach, one where the owner must take charge.  The dogs did very well, the owners were happy and everyone seemed to clearly love their dog.  The dogs seemed to glow with the pride of accomplishment and the praise of their owners.

I remember being at a seminar where the speakers actually brought a small amount of food into a training exercise.  This was the first time I had seen how food could be used and it made me feel very uncomfortable at first.  I watched as they combined the use of the food (as a tool) with appropriately timed corrections, and were able to accomplish so much.  As the pendulum slowly swung, I witnessed the increasing use of food in training and at first the results seemed very impressive.  

There was a very seductive quality to seemingly accomplishing so much so quickly using a “food lure,” but as I was to gradually discover over time, it is a seduction without substance.  In one session we could get the dog to sit, lie down, stand, come and walk beside you – just by having him follow a treat with his nose.  I must confess, I also was convinced to include these “exciting new methods” into my repertoire of tools.  In a very short while, however, the pendulum had swung so far that many schools had begun to advertise “only positives” or “reward based systems” only.  Just as the schools a decade earlier had proclaimed they did not use food, these new schools proudly stated, “Nothing aversive is used.”  As the pendulum continued to swing in this direction, I began to get very uncomfortable.  

In their never-ending zeal to eliminate any and all ‘negative’ experiences (impossible I might add) these new wave trainers claimed all in the name of “science.”  Tolerance for the middle ground gradually seemed to vanish and instead of attempting to find new tools to compliment and add to those already available, the push became one of trying to eliminate those tools and methods that had already been proven, over time, to work.

Caught between the two camps was a very uncomfortable position to be in for many trainers but it has proven to be even worse for many new dog owners.  There is much conflicting and confusing information being presented and each camp has, at times, been less than truthful in the claims they each make about the other.  The basic difference seems to be about exactly what does the dog learn, how does he learn it and what is the best way to teach “it.”

While claiming all in the name of “science” has been the battle cry of the “Positive only” camp, a closer look reveals this claim to be mere deception.  Many of their assertions are nothing more than anthropomorphic claims dressed up in politically correct terms.  Phrases such as, “Dog friendly methods,” are often used to further their own cause in promoting the school of, “Give ’em anything they want,” where dogs are treated as little children in fur coats.  Simply stated, the Positive Only School, while claiming to be based on scientific fact, does not take into consideration all of the factors that come into play with respect to how dogs learn.

Those holding the presently popular position (that advocates positive reinforcement only) claim that they represent the “new wave” new school, fresh ideas etc.  This is simply a lie.  The use of food goes back a long way (probably all the way back to where mankind and canine first became friends).  In going back through some very early texts I have found the use of tid-bits discussed.  This ‘new wave’ of dog trainers has also adopted a politically correct vocabulary and attitude.  The use of words such as owner, master, leader etc. has become increasingly unpopular.  The idea of setting limits or saying “No!” is rapidly vanishing, and dogs are being over-indulged like spoiled children.  Instead of being their masters and owners, we have become their caretakers and servants and when problems arise, as they surely will under these circumstances, people are taught merely how to cope or avoid.

"Positive only" training is all about what the dog wants. There are rewards, bigger rewards and jackpots. We literally spend all “training” time teaching the dog it's all about him and what he wants (talk about spoiled!)  If the only path we walk is this, we are taking a dog and teaching him that the universe revolves around him and his every desire.  Any demand or insistence for his consideration or respect, any suggestion that we are going to limit his behavior and suddenly we are confronted with this angry snarling beast - quick grab a cookie - there now see how fast he makes nice!

Many of those who are opposed to strict enforcement of limits and are advocates of “Cookie Power only,” may indeed end up with a fairly reliable dog.  They are, however, far more likely to experience a dog motivated only by his own greed.  They are far less likely to experience the joy of a dog motivated out of respect for his leader and for that leaders approval, companionship and praise.   

Many clients (who I have gotten to know well and were willing to share their personal experience of dealing with a variety of “new-method” dog behaviorists and trainers) reported often feeling frustrated to some extent.  Often they get the impression that if their dog is behaving in an unacceptable manner, they are feeding it wrong.  When translated, the advice given inevitably involves using treats, in some fashion, to change a behavior pattern.  If their dog barks at someone they need to feed it different (use treats in some manner).  If their dog doesn’t sit – they need to feed it different, if he pulls on leash – they should change how they feed him, if their dog bites, growls, digs, pees in the house, jumps on people – all they need to do is change the way they feed their dog.

It is somehow pathetically humorous when, at a gathering of many dog owners, someone’s dog started running loose and wouldn’t come back.  Instantly a dozen hands went into a dozen pockets and a dozen cookies were produced.  The dog had his choice of a veritable smorgasbord at his disposal, all for the cost of a quick run about.

When the problem of aggression rears its head, do any of these new wave trainers shoulder any of the responsibility?  Are you likely to hear any of them say that maybe they need to reexamine a philosophy and approach that is producing less than satisfactory results?  NO.  What you are likely to hear is plenty of excuses and blame.  They will blame insufficient socialization, lack of exercise, not enough toys to work out frustration on, or they will blame “old style” techniques.  In discussions about the ever-increasing incidence of aggression, you will hear some ‘new wave trainers’ saying things like, “an aversive used in the presence of a neutral stimulus caused the emergence of aggression,” or “punishment caused the aggression.”  This flies in the face of what is known about learning and is simply not true. 
 


Learning: Training vs. Conditioning

Sometimes, because we are so ‘sophisticated and civilized,’ we loose contact with nature and we forget that we too are creatures of this earth.  One of the great things about being around dogs is their ability to help us reconnect to the natural world.  Indeed, human and canine have shared each other’s path almost since our history began.  

It has really only been in the last half of the twentieth century that man has decided that dog would be better off if he (man) helped dog become more like him.  Dog (with man’s help) would become more sophisticated.  His (dog’s) simple needs for: social order, rules, structure and discipline, would gradually be replaced with all the extravagance, pampering and over-indulgence that becomes a sophisticated and civilized canine.  In return for all this spoiling, dog had only to give up his dogginess and become a “pseudo-person.”  

While the preceding paragraph is somewhat sarcastic, it does highlight a serious problem area; if dogs are to continue to live with us in the world we have created, we will have to teach them the rules to survive.  Not only will we have to teach them the rules, we will also have to respect that they are, and have a right to be, dogs.  The drive to drag the dog out of his natural world and into the ‘created’ world of excess and opulence may be backed by good intentions, but it has had devastating effects on the dog.  

Instead of making the dog’s lot easier, dogs are being killed at an alarming rate.  Those that could not easily make the transition from their world to ours began to become a problem because of their behavior.  In his attempts to communicate, “civilized man” has tended to swing as a pendulum going from nothing but harsh punishment to permissive (positive) overindulgence.  Even while the pendulum swung, the bottom line was always there: if it’s not working, get rid of (kill) the dog and get another.

Enter the trainers.  It has been generally agreed that dogs could be helped to adapt to our world if we could teach them the rules.  Training would help restore the harmony and the relationship would flourish.  At first this seemed to be working, training was helping to restore communication and many dogs were behaving better as the result.  We might have gotten much further in solving the dilemma except for two small factors, food and our tendency to project our own feelings.  These two factors played a large part in the widening rift between the two main camps of dog trainers.

If we are to teach dogs anything, it becomes important to understand some of the ways in which they learn.  One such way is by being able to connect their behavior to the resulting consequence.  The consequence can be pleasant and desirable (to the dog) in which case the dog may choose the behaviour with increasing frequency, or the consequence can be unpleasant in which case the dog will choose to decrease or even stop the behavior.  Dogs have excellent memory, which comes into play, serving as the motivation and desire for future action.  It is a simple fact that dogs are among the huge multitude of intelligent creatures that learn quickly from both pleasure and pain.

It is the job of a good trainer to provide the appropriate consequence at the right time (keeping the consequence tied to the behavior).  In order to use any consequence effectively we must understand it’s relative strength (motivation).  Some will claim the term “Motivational Approach” means using only positive reinforcement (usually food).  This is an incorrect interpretation of the term and is based on the false premise that motivation is only the desire to move towards something or behave for a reward; the reality is that the desire to move away from or avoid something is also motivation.  Any training approach will be most effective if it is balanced i.e. includes both positives and negatives.

Let’s look at the approach of some of these so-called “positive only” trainers (I call these approaches to training “synthetic” because they have been synthesized in the laboratory).  Like anything else created in the laboratory, both the application of the technique and the outcome are not quite as certain in the real world.  Synthetic approaches are usually based on food treats timed to coincide with the behaviors we want to reinforce; some methods will use a clicker to mark the desired behavior before the treat is given.  This approach can be very effective for teaching a specific set of behaviors to happen on cue particularly if teaching exaggerated behavior patterns the dog would not normally engage in.  However, I do not think that training a dog to be able to perform like a circus animal necessarily does anything to improve our relationship and it does not teach it how to live in harmony with us outside some very narrow parameters.

The fact that a dog will work for his food should neither impress nor amaze anyone.  Whether the dog is “working” by following a bunny track through the forest or sitting pretty for a treat, his behavior might be described simply as “hunting.”  When we think we have taught a dog to “sit for a treat” what we have in fact taught him is a new way to hunt for food.  Instead of placing him in a physical maze where at the end there is food, we place him in a mental maze.  The thing to think about here is that his mind is only on the food.  Does the dog then see that the hunting behavior has any value outside the hunt?  Often (but not always) he can generalize enough to realize that the behavior has social value and is expected even in the absence of food.  However, by itself it never does convey the idea that we are the masters and our rules must be obeyed.

Personally, I like to view a dog’s education as having two parts.  “Life Skills” education - learning to live in harmony with his environment (in our home and community) is one part and the other part is equivalent to sending a child to school; it is the “academic” portion of his education.  

Generally, especially when working in the “Life Skills” area, we have to set limits, we must let the dog know what will not be permitted, we need to teach, “NO,” and we will have to sometimes use punishment.  It is in this area where the stakes are higher and it is in this area that trainers have consistently fallen short in their responsibilities.  More than ever before, many of today’s dogs are ill mannered and their life skills are inadequate.  While rude, disrespectful behavior in the home continues, training has produced a dog that, on cue, can dance on one foot and tail (while juggling three balls and an orange for good measure).  The “trick trainers” out there like to point out that all you need to train the largest marine animals is a sound-maker and a fish however, it is a significant fact that the trainers of these animals don’t live in the tank with the circus animals as our dogs live with us.  What is the animal supposed to do when not in performing mode? 

In front of me is a brochure just received in the mail.  This flyer is an advertisement for a career as a “Dog trainer/Behaviorist.”  In part it says: 
“…punishments are now a thing of the past as we train our dogs using ‘Dog Training of the Future!’…Studies offer 100% ‘Touch-Free Training,’ designed to create a reliable temperament from puppy-hood, and effectively solve problem behaviors in dogs of any age while maintaining the dog’s trust…” 

Aside from the sales hype, this is either very misleading or very foolish.  It is also very sad that you will be relegated to a “touch free” role.  Your relationship (such as it is) will take on a secondary role and you will now be designated as the bearer of the clicker and food dispenser.
 


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