Friday, September 30, 2016

The Crossover Dog Trainer

I am a late bloomer in certain areas, despite sometimes getting an early initial start. One of these areas pertains to dog training methodologies. A brief history, before I launch into my actual point:

I began training dogs (well, a dog; mine) when I was nine years old. I got the job as a result of the professional trainer my parents initially hired for the job quitting. He quit because I was relentless in my challenges to his punitive methods. He just wasn't capable of jerking and slapping my collie around, while simultaneously contending with behavior from me that he couldn't just punish away. I made him have a very hard time doing his job, so he bailed. Good job, little me.

I took up the task of training my dog with intention to teach, rather than brutalize, him. I read books about dog training critically, analyzing them for any inconsistencies, suggestions for the use of cruelty, and ridiculousness that seemed to go against a budding logic based upon observing various neighborhood dogs, and my own dog, doing the things dogs seem to generally do. I kept bits that made sense without being mean, and applied and then refined them.

I evolved, and I was pretty certain I was on the nice-trainer side of the 1970's spectrum. Still, I used the modern tools of the trade, impacted by the culture of my particular time and place. Choke chain? Check. "Pop" the collar? Check. Scold, shame, hit, reprimand? Nope. I was pretty certain if the unwanted consequence seemed (key word, there: seemed) to be coming directly through the environment, the dog would not feel compromised in his trust of me. If anything, after manufacturing an environmentally aversive event, I was quick to model heroics, removing the problem sock or tissue or whatever, and accepting the dog's view of me as protector and safe harbor. Little did I know, I was basically creating Stockholm syndrome for dogs!

I was adhering to a means/end-lite argument. After all, I was a strong advocate of NO PERSONAL PUNISHMENT. I advertised this; I later wrote about it, and lectured about it. I separated the cause-and-effect consequences I rigged, such as penny-can booby traps, as "remote" punishment. My big argument, back in the day was against PERSONAL punishment, directing what I termed as "bipolar" type dog training toward emotionally compromised, dependent, animal friends. I saw the poisoning of eye contact, petting, and spoken words paired with both affection and hostility during so-called training. I really saw myself on the cutting edge, and felt I was pushing for a higher level of human analysis, empathy, and self control in human-dog interactions.

So, more background, or perhaps full disclosure. I dropped out of high school at age 17, to pursue a path of self education in a not-yet-academically recognized field: dog behavior. I missed the opportunity to learn about animal behavior, learning theory, or psychology in general, because I was stuck on a narrow subject. I decided to go it alone. Needless to say, many wheels were reinvented. I came to conclusions I later learned existed, and had strong empirical (vs my anecdotal) evidence backing them. Oh well. Yes, Pavlov. Yes, Skinner. My research supported your findings without me having read yours until after the fact.

But still, I knew I didn't have the whole story, and once I knew I was missing important information, I went looking for it. At the age of 49, I got my GED. I enrolled in community college and did really well. I then got some large scholarships, including the illustrious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation undergraduate transfer scholarship. I transferred to a four-year college and earned my BA in anthrozoology, graduating summa cum laude. Next, grad school, through University of Edinburgh, clinical animal behavior (I'm currently pursuing my MSc). And, I'm still self educating, and peer-educating, as well. Conferences, clinics; check. My point is: I am still trying to figure things out.

Meanwhile, I make my living teaching people how to teach their dogs new ways of behaving. Like most people my age who trained dogs across a spectrum of years, I have moved with the times, dropping outdated methods as new research renders them inappropriate, incorrect, or obsolete. This creates a vacuum, in some cases, where the new methods, based upon science and strong, empirical data, wipe out a set of skills that have become automatic, embedded in my mind, and in some cases, body. I have retained outdated behavioral artifacts; ways of moving, that involved "remote" punishment. "I'm still the good guy but it sucks for you" sorts of things, where on the sliding punishment scale, I used personal judgement for how far I was willing to go. Penny bottle? Sure. Pull-outs (walking backward to allow a forging dog to "self correct")? Yes. Shock collar, also touted as a "remote correction"? NO. But the little bit of punishment, based upon my personal judgement, that I included in my tool box, and shared with students, was like serving some gateway drugs to people who may have different tolerances than me. I was still teaching people how to stop unwanted behaviors (and plainly, that is punishment), rather than exclusively focusing upon teaching dogs what TO DO while managing unwanted behaviors.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about all of this, and watch my students REALLY struggle to let punishment go, despite being intelligent people who truly love their dogs. And I think I have it figured out, because I have felt that struggle. Science shows that punishment rewards the punisher. There is a quick fix; the unwanted behavior stops, often abruptly. Phew! Relief! That barking stopped the second I sneakily dropped the penny bottle on the floor (it wasn't me!). Meanwhile, rewarding silence is a tricky concept. Instead, the dog needs to have energy that would have become barking, as a stress outlet, redirect into new, incompatible, reward-earning actions. Easy, in theory. Difficult when a busy person is struggling to get three things done at once and the dog barking is their inroad to awareness of the back-burnered dog. Stuff gets past even the best-intentioned people, who are truly trying to hold it all together and preempt or manage their dog's unwanted behavior.  People are not always in front of everything their dog does.

When unwanted behavior occurs in the presence of a person who used to use punishment (the "crossover" dog trainer), a collision of sorts may occur in that person's mind. There is a template, in their memory, for a "well behaved" dog that was built from a different set of tools, based on different rules. The expectations are for behaviors based in suppression, inhibition, subordinance, and submission. Their expectation of a "trained dog" looks and performs in ways that will never be replicated using modern methods! Dogs educated using methods that refrain from positive punishment applications are not the same end-result dogs, simply achieved using a different toolbox. They are absolutely different, and might feel foreign, or "off", in comparison with old expectations. The demeanor, intention, motivations, and subject status of dogs has evolved, along with training theories and methodologies. Dogs trained to perform wanted behavior in pursuit of desired (positive reinforcing) consequences feel more "out for number one" and less "seeking to please master" compared with dogs behaving out of caution.

But isn't it time to retire that old dog, and let a new, more self-actualized, confident dog step up? It may take some getting used to, and there may be feelings of vulnerability and frustration. That new dog may feel more like an animal, operating in his own best interest...but what is wrong with that?

Adhering to a plan to replace old habits and ways of viewing dogs and dog training requires patience and determined practice. Mistakes will happen, and that's okay; we are always learning, and our errors help us reconsider, calibrate, and improve. A desire for  a higher level of ethical, reciprocally humane connection with animal-Others remains the guiding light, and modern methods create a well-marked path to follow. It is an uphill climb, at times, but well worth the effort for all involved.