I’ve been away from this blog, not because I didn’t have things to share, I took a break because I feared I was becoming a grump. Every day the dog community, retailers, trainers and other professionals put out information and products that at best are just a waste of our time and money, and at worst contributors to the failure of an owner to find a solution to the problems impacting their willingness to continue living with a dog. I’ve been called close-minded because I refuse to suggest and endorse products and training methods that have provided no evidence, other than anecdotal, that they work. Some have even been tested and found not to work, yet remain in the mainstream of dog medical and behavioral health.
I understand how hard it is to know what the right thing is to do, the right path to be on. We put our trust into the supposed professionals and experts in the training and medical fields to guide us. Unfortunately this has turned out to be, in too many cases, like trusting the banking industry to do what’s best for your bottom-line. It’s not easy to live life as a skeptic, to be constantly questioning and trying to follow the logic of those who are content to keep repeating their misinformed ideas, and supporting it with bad arguments.
The goal of this blog has always been to provide information to help us work with the most vulnerable dogs among us, the fearful, the anxious, the shy, the abused, the neglected. Along the way I’ve made missteps. I bought into the arguments made by nice (and some not so nice) people, for products and techniques that did not provide what they said they did. I learned and continue to learn more about how behavior works and know that we have the information we need to help our dogs, we just need to get really good at doing what we need to do. That is my goal, not to just complain and vent about the daily nonsense the dog blogging community tweets and posts on Facebook (though some is so spectacularly silly it’s hard to resist). I am not arrogant, I am tired. I am angry at the years I wasted filling my head with incorrect information and making rubbish make sense. I am embarrassed by what I fell for.
What I am proud to do is offer seminars, workshops, consultations and webinars to help further the use of evidence-based training methods for all dogs. Join me in New Orleans at the Louisiana SPCA on October 15, 2016 to learn more about how fear impacts behavior and the most humane and effective ways to help dogs.
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.