Don’t expect to hear any of these comments from a professional animal trainer.
“I don’t feed the dolphins fish when they jump through the hoop, they should do it because they respect me.”
“We never use food to train our lions to stand for injections, that would only make them think they’ll get food every time they did it for us.”
“The seals at our facility do what we train them to do because they love us.”
“If we gave the pelicans food for letting us handle them they’d think they were dominant.”
“Using food to train elephants only spoils them.”
“We can’t be bothered always having food available for training.”
“I’d rather hurt or scare an animal to get them to do what I want instead of using food.”
You don’t have to look hard to find animals being trained to perform all kinds of useful and fun behaviors, using food. You can train your dog like a professional animal trainer. Use food.
This blog post is part of the #Train4Rewards blog party. Enjoy other interesting blogs at the Companion Animal Psychology Blog.
The dog training industry may be among the few professions in which people with a lack of understanding and limited or no education are glorified, even given their own TV shows, while those who have chosen to become educated are held up for ridicule. Heaven forbid you know a few big words and have the temerity (temerity: excessive confidence or boldness; audacity) to use them. Chefs probably have a deeper and broader understanding of the science of cooking than many dog trainers have of learning.
Imagine sitting around with a group of pilots and one saying with a sneer, “I don’t know what all this wind sheer and lift is you’re all going on about, I just fly the damn plane,” and the other pilots raising their glasses in a toast and high fiving. Or a physician boasting that they’re not even sure what blood pressure is, they just take out the damn appendix. How about hiring an electrician who admits to not fully comprehending (comprehending: understanding) what amps and voltage refer to and just wires the damn house.
Over a decade ago when I first began my search in earnest to try to find out how to train an extremely fearful dog I was discouraged to find how limited, and too often wrong, the information was. The discovery that dog training is based on a science, with principles and laws that are supported by mathematical formulas, and decades of research, came as a relief. Finally I could quit mucking around and could get down to the business of helping a vulnerable dog learn to navigate the world he was living in.
Dogs who do not do what someone wants them to do are called disobedient, stubborn, or even stupid. They are labeled as “lacking in impulse control.” Instead of trainers looking at what they are doing and realizing that they are not making it clear to the dog what they should do, when they should do it, how long they should do it and why they should do it, trainers blame the animal. They don’t know there is a big picture and that the laws of behavior and principles of learning, when applied properly, can make it more likely the dog will be successful, along with feeling less fear, stress or anxiety. I assume these trainers don’t know there is a big picture, a science to refer to, because what professional would turn their nose up at learning more about what they do or would go out of their way to criticize those who do? Apparently that would be some dog training professionals, who revert to the tactics of the cool kids in high school finding ways to disparage (disparage: regard or represent as being of little worth) the kids who read, knowing that the rest of the herd will look on, nod their head and snicker.
Ignorance is only useful when it compels us to seek more information. Otherwise it’s just stupidity, and there’s nothing admirable about that. Dogs deserve better. All animals deserve better from us. The next time someone boasts of their ignorance and their proud refusal to do anything to change it, don’t turn them into heroes, and you don’t have to give them your damn money.
Somehow last week, while walking between the kitchen and living room I managed to misplace my wallet. After spending hours looking, clearly not everyplace, I gave up and cancelled the credit cars and headed off this morning to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a new license. It was during this early morning drive that I passed a couple walking a young cattle dog. As I am prone to do when I see children and dogs off leash, I slowed to a crawl and watched as the couple stepped to the side of the road, called their dog and proceeded to feed her treats while she sat as I passed. Along with the big grin I found on my face, I noticed that I was also getting a bit misty-eyed.
I don’t know how they knew to handle their dog this way. Maybe a trainer showed them. Perhaps a friend read something on the internet and told them. Somehow they knew the right thing to do. Before anyone goes off on the dog being off leash to begin with, I live on a single lane, dirt road, cars are few and far between, there’s plenty of warning when they’re coming, and most drivers are prepared to stop and talk to strollers about the weather or how many gallons of sap they brought in this spring. Dogs where I live belong off leash if you ask me.
Years ago after traveling to New Zealand for a job that fell through, and being disinclined to return home, I took a position selling timeshares. Despite getting spitting distance to actually making a sale, I didn’t last long. The original plan was to work as a river guide and timeshare sales was not suiting me, but I stayed long enough to participate in mandatory morning sales meetings, conducted by a fellow American (not that it matters other than you should have the accent right in your head).
“What would you do,” he asked us with a degree of seriousness that barely hid the fact that the question was rhetorical, “If you were at a party and someone started to throw up on you?”
“MOVE!” responded someone versed in the morning meeting ritual that resembled both a tent revival and rallying of the troops.
“Damn right you would! You wouldn’t sit there and let someone puke all over you, so why will you sit there when someone starts pissing and moaning and complaining about how bad things are, how everything sucks?” the head of sales asked incredulously.
Though I remember little else about my few days selling timeshares, I have never forgotten the message the head of sales was trying to get across to us, don’t let other people get you down. Extricate yourself as quickly and politely as you can, but don’t let them chip away at your resolve to do something you think is worth doing. I didn’t think that selling timeshares was worth doing, but I do think that helping people learn about the most humane and effective ways to train dogs, especially the most vulnerable among them, is.
It’s easy in the dog care industry, whether we’re into training, grooming, vetting or rescue, to be convinced that people suck, that things are horrible, and that nothing is going to ever improve. We need to be on the look out for the spew, or the chisel that many wield, it’s selfish purpose, intentional or otherwise, contributing to our losing heart in our work, and being part of the change that IS happening all around us. Something someone said or did made it possible for that young, active, herding dog to run and sniff to their heart’s and nose’s delight, and learn without being hurt, scared or intimidated.
It was a good start to the day. Now I am fully prepared for it to continue and though am not inclined to superstition, will be happy to find my wallet since I’ve gone to the trouble of replacing everything in it.
Don’t get sucked in by the supposed “truism” that dog trainers can’t agree on how dogs should be trained. The educated among us agree on the fundamentals. Check out “Don’t Be The Third Trainer.”
I grew up in the northeast of the United States, in an urban area with neither parents nor neighbors who gardened. The majority of the fruits and vegetables I ate were store bought, with the summer time exception of sweet corn, a staple delight of childhood, food you were suppose to eat with your hands and that usually tasted a lot like butter and salt.
I’m not that much of a history buff, but I am aware that a significant portion of the people who first came from Europe to live in my neck of the woods didn’t survive very long. Contributing to their demise was the lack of food. Thanksgiving itself could be considered to be fundamentally about calories. No doubt in mid-March, Miles Standish and his friends would have greeted a crate of oddly squarish, weird orange, and somewhat mealy tomatoes, with relief. I remember my first taste of a tomato straight from the garden. Prior to that I was not a fan of tomatoes, however once I discovered how tomatoes could taste I became one, a fan of tomatoes right out of the garden.
Dog trainers are like tomatoes in that I think many people have never seen a really good one. I’m guessing this is the reason people read my blog posts, like this one published on Victoria Stillwell’s Postively Dogs site, and come to the defense of trainers who are whisperers, pack leaders or dominance seekers. They don’t know that in the world of professional animal training the trend is toward understanding the fundamentals of animal behavior and how we can modify it using techniques that take advantage of the power of positive reinforcement. This being true of all dogs, but especially those with extreme behavior challenges that frequently are provided as examples for the excuse of not knowing how to train using primarily positive reinforcement.
Some of us don’t have much of a choice when it comes to what kinds of fruits and vegetables we have access to, but dog trainers have a choice regarding how they train dogs, and pet owners should understand that they have a choice in who they pay to work with their dog. The use of force, fear, pain and intimidation in training comes with risks much greater than eating tomatoes grown thousands of miles away & months ago. If you’re put off of eating tomatoes your life will not likely suffer, but if a dog is put off of training, they may end up dead. Good trainers are fabulous to work with. Dogs enthusiastically anticipate sessions with them, and owners can trust that their dog is being trained in the most effective and humane ways possible. Training without fear, pain and intimidation saves lives.
Food is a primary reinforcer. Looking at it feels good, thinking about it feels good. Mmmm..hand churned ice cream with fresh peaches, sweet corn on the grill, garden fresh salsa with just picked cilantro. That’s why you keep watching, mum.
In the world of dog training food is still being given a bad rap by some. The misuse of food as a bribe is often cited as reason to avoid using it. The argument that dogs become dependent on food would almost be funny if folks weren’t serious when they made it. I have yet to sort out how to break my dogs’ dependency on eating.
Different dog trainer camps each have their own set of premises as to why they prefer not to use food in training. And ironically enough on the spectrum of trainers understanding how behavior works (from haven’t a clue to enough understanding to make stuff up and sound like they know what they’re talking about), and developing a method or style, both the dominance and force-free advocates have adopted other supposedly more natural alternatives.
Years ago I ran into a neighbor who had purchased two chocolate lab sister pups. I asked if she was planning on breeding them. “No,” she answered. How about spaying them? “No,” again. “Why not?” I queried. “Because it’s not natural,” she claimed. Had I been drinking coffee there’s a good chance it would have come out of my nose. Natural!? As IF there is anything natural about a chocolate lab (no offense to them or any other breed of dog). The pressures of artificial selection have created very different animals than the pressures natural selection would have created.
This hasn’t stopped trainers from jumping on board the it’s natural bandwagon (I have yet to understand how food has been relegated unnatural, and am not going to spend much time on trying). There are the trainers who seem to be taking their lead from dogs from another planet, those mother dogs who use bites to the neck and muzzle holds to teach their puppies how to walk more slowly on leash, come when called, or poop outside and not in the house (that those mums start out by eating their puppies’ poop is natural enough but few recommend owners go that route). And the trainers who extoll natural, organic, functional rewards (other than food) for training behaviors such as stop running away from me and turn and come to me, or stay in a crate for hours, a behavior which I daresay might be as unnatural as it gets as far as a dog is concerned. Some leap of logic has been made that even though we are going to train behaviors that go against what is likely very much in a dog’s nature; chase stuff, chew stuff, eat stuff, shred stuff, guard stuff, pee on stuff, we are obliged to do so by someone’s random definition of what constitutes natural.
Most troubling are the trainers who just flat out do not understand how counterconditioning works and avoid using food to create positive associations with triggers. Or fail to see how the use of food in operant conditioning can impact the dog’s emotional response to where the food is being given, what’s around, and probably most importantly the handler who’s supplying it, right along with performing the behavior itself. Those who assert that the dog’s good feelings when food is used only applies to the food, and not the handler providing it, are identifying themselves as lacking an understanding in classical conditioning, and it’s value to us.
Before anyone feels the need to comment and remind me that there are other things besides food that dogs can find positively reinforcing and motivating, I get it. I’m not arguing against the use of whatever a dog finds positively reinforcing in training, but those dogs who needed help yesterday and those dogs today who remain wary and fearful or are facing being returned to a rescue or shelter, or euthanized because they didn’t get the memo that they should be able to be trained or counter conditioned without the use of food, are the victims of the very bad advice to avoid using or minimize the use of food in training.
A friend recently shared an article with me in which this blog gets a mention. They say that any PR is good PR but all this article does is make me sad, and to be lumped in with other “quick fixes” for what is a tragic issue, makes me even sadder. The conclusion the author comes to that some dogs just can’t be helped is instead for a me a story about the dog training industry failing another dog and their struggling owner. I am not sad for myself.
The dog training industry is unregulated so anyone can label themselves a trainer or as what apparently happened in the author’s case, a behaviorist. In practically any other profession anyone who charges for a service and not only fails to deliver that service, but makes the problem worse would be liable to be sued, disbarred, lose their license, be Yelped out of existence, or we’d at least expect to get our money back. But not hack dog trainers. Nope. They just move on to screw up or under serve another dog.
I know the feeling of being a pet owner trying to live with a dog who is too terrified to move, and being given many of the same recommendations as the author. There is no guarantee that anyone can “fix” Willie or any other dog and he’s lucky to be with someone who is willing to accommodate him. The problem is not, as I see it, that we think that everything can be made whole, especially something that might have never been whole to begin with, it’s the fundamental inadequacy of the support and guidance the author (and others like us) received from the industry built to help her and her dog.
Among the reasons people resort to the use of punishment (P+) and tools like prong and shock collars is that they often provide immediate results when it comes to getting a dog to stop performing inappropriate behaviors. The users of these pieces of equipment will justify it because they work and point to how successful they proved to be, and in some cases we cannot argue with their success. The dog has stopped lunging, barking, pulling, etc., and from the handler’s perspective it was quick, easy and required a minimum of skill on their part.
Educated trainers do not advocate the use of these pieces of equipment because of the very real risk of a dog becoming more fearful, more reactive, more aggression, because of them. We cannot forget that this risk exists, it’s been studied and documented. That we are using pain to control a dog should not be left out of the argument against them either. But as advocates against these types of collars we should not lose the opportunity to learn a lesson from the value others put on them. Ending unwanted behaviors is important. We cannot continue to let our dogs repeat behaviors we ultimately want to see end. It’s bad training.
We have this big brain that provides us with the ability to think about how we can prevent, interrupt or end unwanted behavior without resorting to pain, or threats of it. We can and should use it. Many of our dogs cannot tolerate even the subtle reprimands we may use to end a non-fearful dog’s behavior (Don’t even think about going for that cheese on the coffee table!). Our body language, direct eye contact, tone of voice is enough to worry or startle them. We need to get good at training, and we don’t have to wander around in the dark feeling our way, or modeling mediocre or flat out bad trainers who get dogs to behave how they want through force, fear and pain or month after month of sloppy technique. Training a dog isn’t about looking for the right method or protocol. It’s about being able to get or identify the behaviors you want to see repeated and positively reinforce them, and then give the dog the opportunity to practice the heck out of them.
Any trainer who offers a solution that is conspicuously missing the clear and specific identification of a behavior to train and positive reinforcement as a main component of their method, technique or protocol, should be suspect. We need trainers who can demonstrate how to use positive reinforcement to get a recall, a down stay, a wait at the door, walking on a loose leash happily around other dogs, using good positive reinforcement training mechanics. Much of the other talk trainers use is either delusional or part of their marketing plan. Our dogs don’t need pack leaders and talking about empowering or fixing a dog is too nebulous to be useful.
Note the clearly defined objectives and behaviors stated by the lead trainer in this video and the high rate of reinforcement dogs are being given for performing a down stay on a mat. Whether you’re in a class or working with a trainer one on one you are looking for this kind of guidance- a clear definition of the behavior, how to get it and positively reinforce it and gradually provide more challenging conditions in which the dog can perform it. There is nothing unnatural about a dog performing a behavior in order to get food and dogs will likely develop confidence, learn to trust their handlers and become empowered in the process. This is the kind of training worth spending money on, it’s out there, don’t settle for less.
Frank Swanton was driving down Route 53 when the car he’d had for a year started making a loud clanking noise and was pulling hard to the right whenever he stepped on the brake. He had noticed that there were some problems early on after he bought the car but they didn’t seem too bad so he didn’t bother to have them checked. But today they were bad and there was a brake or transmission smell and he wasn’t sure he’d make it home. He remembered there was an auto repair shop about 2 miles up the road. He’d never been there before but he decided to stop.
Melissa Brandon picked up a rag and was wiping the grease off her hands as she hurried away from the car she was working on when she heard the bell announcing someone had entered the shop. Ever since she was a kid she loved cars. When she was small she played surgical scrub nurse to her father who slid around under the old Buick he drove, barking out, “3/4” socket wrench!” “Vice grip, the big one!” He took pride in his young daughter who had learned the names of tools the way his friend Ralph’s kid could name dinosaurs. “Stegosaurus, smegosaurus,” he’d wink at her, “that kid doesn’t know the difference between a crescent wrench and an allen key,” and she flushed with pride because she knew that by the time she was five! If she did get it wrong it was only once. After placing the tool in her father’s outstretched hand it would disappear under the car, reappearing in seconds accompanied by a single word, “Nope,” he’d say and she’d hand him her second choice. “That’s better,” he’d mumble. She had worked nights to pay for two years at technical college and busted her knuckles at the Audi dealership for 3 years in their service department before deciding to open her own shop.
“What can I do for you?” she asked the obviously distressed fellow who had called out, “Can someone help me please?” as soon as the door close behind him.
“There’s something wrong with my car,” he replied. “It’s making this clanking sound as though there’s someone in the engine with a hammer. There’s a bad smell, I’m not sure if it’s coming from the engine or the exhaust, and it’s hard to turn the steering wheel to the left if I put on the brake.”
“Did you want to leave it and have me get one of the mechanics to check to it out, or did you want to schedule an appointment and bring it back?” she queried.
“I need it fixed, he insisted. “Can you tell me what to do to fix it? Can’t you just give some suggestions? Or what about a book or a website?” he was practically pleading.
Melissa looked at the car, a late model sedan, similar to the cars she’d worked on during the course she had recently attended to learn about the new electronic systems being installed. She’d spent three, eight hour days studying the schematics of the computer boards, and had invested several thousand dollars in equipment for the shop to help perform diagnostics in situations like this. She knew where to start to teach someone to fix a car, but she also knew that a few tips and some random advice were not likely to solve this car’s problem.
“It would make more sense to leave it or bring it back so one of the mechanics can look it over and make the necessary repairs,” she politely replied.
This was when Frank threw the first verbal punch. “Oh I get it,” he snorted, “I thought you loved cars, but I can see you’re only in it for the money.”
Mrs. Brown, who had dropped her car off this morning as pre-arranged and agreed to pay for parts and labor, would be coming in at 5pm to pick it up. Melissa had left it up on the lift when she heard Frank come in the door. Mrs. Brown worked two jobs and had found someone to give her a ride after her first shift to return for her Camry that needed new brake pads, a job Melissa was only half-way through. If she was going to get paid for that job she’d need to get it finished. Last week she had discounted the work they’d done on the van for the kid’s club, the senior center’s mini-bus and Roger Ferris’s old VW. She had been friends with Roger’s wife who was dying of cancer, Roger had taken leave from his job at the soda packing plant to take care of her.
The monthly nut for the mortgage on the shop, including taxes and insurance meant Melissa had to work 5 days, sometimes 6, to cover it. Then there were the weekly salaries of the 2 other mechanics she hired, along with withholding and insurance, and she couldn’t forget that someone had been heavy handed with the sink in the men’s bathroom and the threads in the handle of the hot water faucet were stripped and she needed to replace the entire unit, and she was still not sure what happened to the wrench set she had to special order to work on a foreign car one of her customers had recently bought.
“If I can get it home can I give you a call tonight to talk about what I should do to fix it?” he suggested, seeming to forget his previous insult.
Two days a week she volunteers at the high school, an after school program to teach kids how to work on cars. She has to leave the shop early, but Buddy the part-time mechanic is happy to pick up more hours. She thought about Ellie Barton who had been giving her mother so much trouble, and how she had turned into a wiz kid with hybrid engines, and was able to explain some of the tougher information to other kids who were willing to pay attention. Billy Frankel, the kid who’d been suspended 3 times last semester had a knack for body repair. When he was done with a fender or hood even a professional had to look twice to notice a repair had been made at all. He’d even asked Melissa to help him pick out an old car from the salvage yard to fix up, and they’d left towing an old Impala that if he followed through on would be worth a pretty penny.
“I’m sorry I won’t be available,” she apologized, “my son has a recital tonight.”
“If I leave it how much is all this going to cost me?” he asked, his brow furrowed. “I bought this car at a fundraiser for the community food kitchen, I can’t afford to spend a lot of money on it.”
Two weeks ago a woman had brought her car in, convinced that the problem was the same one she had heard described on a call-in radio show. Two clever and funny mechanics diagnosed car problems on the air every Saturday morning. When the mechanic had a look at the car she discovered the problem was entirely different, a large part of the exhaust system had rusted out and would need to be replaced. When Melissa explained this to the car’s owner the woman wailed, “It’s even the same make and model as the one they talked about on the radio and they said it only required a $25 part to fix!” grabbed her keys and drove off. There were shops in town where they would happily take the woman’s money, replace the $25 part and send her home with a car no better, and maybe worse off than when she’d brought it in. But Melissa would never even consider it, though it meant that she lost a potential customer.
“First I’d have to have someone take a look at it to know what needs to be done, then if we need parts I’ll have to put in an order for those.”
She did some quick calculating, knowing that she couldn’t guarantee anything without having even looked under the hood but he was insistent. The range of how much time it might take to work on the car was wide, and the lowest cost possibility was still high enough to make him visibly cringe when he heard it. “Nevermind,” he huffed as he turned to walk out the door, “I thought you could help me.”
She stood for a moment as he got into his car and worked hard to turn the steering wheel as he pulled out of the lot. The sinking feeling in her stomach would pass, this wasn’t the first time someone had complained about the cost of repairs or expected her to take the time to explain, step by step, how to replace a fan belt, or figure out whether it was a fuse that needed to be replaced or something else in the electrical system. She did what she could, suggesting the easiest things that could be checked, repaired or replaced by an owner, and it felt bad to be accused of being mercenary.
As the car faded into the distance, smoke billowing from the tail pipe, Melissa turned and headed back to Mrs. Brown’s car. If she hustled she should be able to have it ready by five.