Fake Dog News

sheep falling off cliffDog trainers are no strangers to fake news and the wealth of misinformation and mythology available to us via the variety of sources for information. It’s been years since we mourned our loss of respect for National Geographic with its enabling of Cesar Millan and his dangerous dog whispering. Regardless and despite the warnings from veterinary behaviorists and other professionals in the field of canine behavior, NatGeo continued with its lucrative programming presenting lies about dogs and how they should be trained and handled. Professional trainers today (those who bless their hearts actually got an education in behavior and training) are routinely presented with behavior challenges that either could have been avoided or easily addressed, had the owner not fallen for the BS they saw on television.

If that was the only source of nonsense, maybe, just maybe we might have managed to get a leg up on helping owners learn how to get what they needed from their dogs without resorting to force, fear or pain. But the dog training industry continues to fill lecture halls, sell DVDs, books and webinars, by marketing half-truths, misrepresentations and fiction to those of us interested in learning a thing or two about training dogs.

Years ago when becoming a dog trainer was still only a twinkle in my mind’s eye, I attended a 3 day seminar on aggressive behavior is dogs. Aggressive behavior in dogs is something to take seriously since it’s more likely to lead to a dog being re-homed, relinquished or euthanized, compared to routine ‘doesn’t come when called’ or ‘steals food off the counter’ annoying behaviors. This is of course in addition to the harm they can cause other dogs or people. The seminar was being hosted by a company that promotes educational opportunities for dog trainers who don’t rely on shock, prong or choke collars. I trusted it would be worth my time and money and by the looks of the diligent note taking going on in the room by other attendees, I assume they did as well.

Among the red flags that started waving was one that was planted when I dared question a statement the presenter made. I had learned that the application of a consequence for a dog’s behavior should follow as closely to the behavior as possible, but this trainer claimed that dogs could learn that they did something wrong when the punishment followed after a longer duration. I’m not talking about the difference between 3 seconds and 4.8, he was claiming over a minute. Even as a neophyte this seemed like it made room for a lot of additional behaviors besides the one being punished. After rehearsing the question in my head, I screwed up the courage and asked where I could access the information that lead to his conclusion? “I just gave it to you,” was his straight-faced and somewhat stern reply.

Among the strategies presented for dealing with aggressive behavior in dogs (which included a variety of creative ways to scare the sh*t out of dogs sans shock collars) was this gem of reasoning: Some dogs who are aggressive toward people who come into your home are so because they see these intruders consuming household resources, they get cups of tea and cookies. The solution was to hand guests something to bring into the house, the dogs seeing this, would then be more inclined to feel kindly toward them. And not because they brought something for the dog, a can of soda would do. By the time this pearl of nonsense was presented I had learned my lesson and my notes consisted mainly of the equivalent of “WTF?”

The insidious thing about fake news is that it sounds real and often confirms something you think is true or would like to think is true. A few examples include; functional reinforcers are always better than alternates available to us, you must first bond with a dog in order to train them, choice is a reasonable reinforcer to consider using in training, toys and play are a superior form of reinforcement, dogs need markers (clicker or verbal) to be trained.

If there is a lesson in any of this it’s not that we can’t believe anything we hear, read or watch, it’s that we should be willing to think our way to conclusions and support each other in doing so. Friends don’t let friends believe fake dog news.


19 comments so far

  1. The Dog Guy on

    Reblogged this on The Dog Guy and commented:
    Debbie Jacobs is the author of “Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog,” and “Does My Dog Need Prozac?” She is a stalwart proponent of the understanding, and application, of science in dog training. Whether you live with a fearful dog, work with fearful dogs, or have any interest in dogs and their behavior, I recommend her books, and webinars! If you get the chance to see and hear her speak live, make the drive, buy the ticket, whatever it takes.

  2. Kate on

    Whilst I agree with your criticism of NatGeo promoting Cesar Millan, I think you are missing something by discounting the significance of dog social learning abilities referenced in some of the other examples you give. The concept of “strangers bearing gifts” is highly significant in reducing some forms of aggression which is why many astute drive-through tellers give a dog biscuit to the driver if a dog is present in the vehicle. Even if the item is not edible, but the owner-recipient expresses pleasure, the dog – being a highly social animal – will recognise this. The research that backs this up is model-rival learning which has been shown to be as effective as operant conditioning. New research also suggests that dogs do in fact possess episodic memory, a form of memory previously thought to be uniquely human, which allows dogs to “mentally travel in time” to remember the past and plan for the future. I hope that you too are willing to “think your way to new conclusions” and reconsider what you are calling “fake”

    • fearfuldogs on

      I would be more than willing to rethink my conclusions, but would ask you to provide me with the research that model-rival learning has actually been shown to be as effective as operant conditioning, or that it is in fact distinct from operant conditioning. And what is the relationship between episodic memory and model-rival learning, or what I’ve mentioned?

      • Kate on

        Well that’s what Google is for so I suggest you do your own research but since you asked – The efficacy of the model–rival method when compared with operant conditioning for training domestic dogs to perform a retrieval–selection task. McKinley, Sue et al.
        Applied Animal Behaviour Science , Volume 81 , Issue 4 , 357 – 365
        “In this experiment we compared the learning ability of nine pet dogs to solve the same retrieval–selection task having been previously trained using operant conditioning or model–rival techniques. The results show no difference in the speeds with which the dogs solved the test—demonstrating the efficacy of the model–rival method. This is the first time that the effectiveness of the model–rival technique has been experimentally demonstrated with dogs. Furthermore, we believe that the methodology reported in this paper has applications in dog training and in experiments into dog cognition.” My point is that dog’s can learn by copying human actions (shown in this study) so if I happily accept your kind gift of a can of soda, then my dog is capable of learning from that.
        The possession of episodic memory indicates that dog’s can remember events in the past and have a sense of self-awareness and if that’s the case then this suggests that slightly delayed punishment (1 minute) may well be effective (and remember that punishment doesn’t have to be painful or scary so I am definitely not advocating that, but short time-outs can be very effective punishers)
        Recall of Others’ Actions after Incidental Encoding Reveals Episodic-like Memory in Dogs. Fugazza, Claudia et al.
        Current Biology , Volume 26 , Issue 23 , 3209 – 3213
        “Dogs were tested with a short (1 min) and a long (1 hr) retention interval. They were able to recall the demonstrated actions after both intervals; however, their performance declined more with time compared to conditions in which imitation was expected. These findings show that dogs recall past events as complex as human actions even if they do not expect the memory test, providing evidence for episodic-like memory.”

    • fearfuldogs on

      I am familiar with the study you have listed (and thanks for the reminder that all I too need do is is a google search to find a study to make my point), but I have yet to find it replicated. And are there not identifiable antecedents, behaviors and consequences when observing model-rival conditioning?

      • Randi Rossman on

        I am also unsure of the connection between episodic memory (that a dog can remember something an hour before) and a contingency (that the consequence is contingent on the behavior). Those are two different things.
        How would you expect the dog to know which of the many behaviors that could happen within an hour they are getting punished for? Where is the research that connects this episodic memory with the mechanisms of operant learning?

        The model-rival study has some experimental design issues, and their own discussion in the study points out the need for additional study. Since there were no other studies replicating that study or furthering that research, it hardly is conclusive. As you must know, one study does not make a fact or theory. And the fact that no one else has expanded on that hypothesis since 2007 is fairly telling.

        As for the snitty remark about what Google is for, in conversation about scientific information, when someone makes a statement declaring someone else is wrong, it is not beholden to the person criticized to do the research to support the contradictory point of view, it is up to the person who is making the argument to substantiate their view with evidence. Which so far, I don’t see.

        I look forward to Kate providing the research:
        — showing the connection between episodic learning and mechanisms of operant learning
        — any research I may have missed since 2007 surrounding the comparison of modal-rival learning with operant conditioning (I did a lit search and came up with nothing, but may very well have missed something).
        — that indicates that operant learning is not taking place during modal-rival learning.


      • Kate on

        My point is that there is increasing evidence that dogs can learn from observations of human behaviour (which is common sense anyway) so why is it not reasonable to demonstrate to dogs that visitors bring nice things? (your “can of soda” example). And that there is increasing evidence that dogs have good memories and so why would they not (in certain situations) be able to recall what they did 1 minute ago and correlate it with a consequence? as in “Hmmm – a minute ago I was barking/chewing/digging – THAT must be why my people came home – must try that again”.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        In the former case it sounds like you are assuming a classical contingency, people predict good stuff, which is fair enough, and if you want to assert that a dog has made the connection that soda makes people happy, and they like when people are happy enough to see a change in their behavior, that’s another classical contingency. But why would we take such a circuitous route to create that kind of conditioning? Why risk a dog not having made the connection between soda and human happiness? Do we first condition to the owner and the soda? Then add the stranger? Why not just go with classically conditioning to the appearance of the stranger? (or a DRI) It’s straightforward and doesn’t rely on making leaps about what a dog knows about an owner’s feelings about house gifts.

        And in the latter- imagine while I was typing this someone wanted me to stop typing capital ‘I’. And a full minute followed before a shock was applied. How effective is it likely to be to help me realize that the behavior being punished is that of typing a capital ‘I’? How many repetitions of being punished would it take for me to figure out it was the ‘I’ and not one of the many other letters typed in that minute that caused the shock? And if the shock is bad enough and I stop typing altogether and this includes the ‘I’ along with all the other letters, is this considered successful training? It’s not that I forgot what I typed but the behavioral contingency becomes harder for me to make. The same is true with reinforcement. This is how superstitious behavior is born, make the contingency between the behavior and the consequence harder to identify.

  3. Gallivan Burwell, CTC, CPDT-KA on

    Ha! I know exactly who you are talking about. Why, he’s the world’s greatest dog trainer! How do I access that information? He just told me so!

  4. yahdevi on

    I’m so happy to see you back and posting. Hope everything’s been ok. I just wrote a tome of a reply that got lost because I forgot my password. Suffice it to say, your sensitivity, knowledge, and ability to communicate came as a life saver years ago when I discovered what a basket case I had brought home from a rescue org who, shall we say, over stated her readiness for a normal home environment. Now she performs for the rangers and the visitors to the park we walk in twice a day her repetoire including reading commands like the big ham she has become. We owe it all to your skill at communicating the guidance we needed to build her self confidence and love of life rather than fear of it. Thank you, again.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment and concern. I had taken an extended break from blogging. Felt a bit of writer’s block actually. Felt like I’d said all I needed to say. But apparently not 🙂

  5. Kathleen on

    I am NOT a dog trainer. I have, however, owned dogs AND I am a parent of a (now) adult child who has Autism. This is important in terms of my understanding of behavior modification techniques that were taught to me by the UCLA Autism Project many years ago.

    My unprofessional response to this statement, “Some dogs who are aggressive toward people who come into your home are so because they see these intruders consuming household resources…” I’m sorry folks but how does the dog “know” what a resource is? Does the dog know feel threatned when a guest grabs towel to dry their hands? Helps out by emptying the trash? Does the dog “know” that box of kleenex is the last one, and OMG what will happen to the kleenex resouces if the guest reaches for that box? Common’ people!

    Regarding the solution to this ridiculous statement …” was to hand guests something to bring into the house, the dogs seeing this, would then be more inclined to feel kindly toward them.” Really? These are not goodies for the dog, things to help guests connect with the dog, these are things to help the dog understand the guest is not a threat to the household “resources”. Can someone explain to me, AGAIN, how the dog “knows” that “can of coke” is a resource and not trash? How the dog would feel less threatened carrying in the laundry? How it “knows” this is a resource? OMG!

    Ok, the delayed punishment. I will make this short. Just think of a two year old child that tries to cross the street by him/herself. You quickly grab them and redirect/correct etc.and you do so IMMEDIATELY. Let’s say you decide to wait to correct/train in a few minutes because you got a call on your cell phone. You keep the child from crossing the street but say nothing, and redirect back to the park. At the park the child starts playing in the mud, eating a bug, and throws a rock at a passing child. Ok, now correct for not crossing the street. Just sayin’.

    Just MHO folks. What do I know.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The science of behavior is the same for both humans and animals so you are not off base at all. Behavior is lawful. When we understand those laws we can more efficiently change behavior in dogs, something which professionals should feel an obligation to doing. IMO

  6. Jenny H on

    I think everybody is missing the point here Dogs tend to show aggression to those their person is either fearful of or angry towards.
    Now we (should) all know that dogs are acutely reactive to our own emotions.
    So I we are worried about our dog’s reaction to visitors then the dog is very likely to be either aggressive towards that person or fearful of him/her.
    Now having gone to a seminar (by someone we fully believed he/she known what they are talking about) and we are advised to hand the visitor something to hand to the dog, and we fully believe this should work, then our own reaction to the entry of the guest will be calmer, we won’t be giving off fear signals (either behaviourally or ‘pheromonely’, then the dog is likely to cue off us, and accept the person calmly.
    Ta-Da! Problem solved 🙂
    (refs. Patricia McConnell (The Other End of the Leash); Paul Owens (The Dog Whisperer).

    • fearfuldogs on

      But that is NOT the example that was presented. The presenter made no mention of the owner’s behavior other than handing out a house gift. And the downside of the “dogs respond to our emotions” is not that it’s not true, I don’t really know, but that it’s not fair to put the blame on owners for a dog’s behavior when it is not the cause. It sounds like it makes sense, but a dog who is afraid of something may not give one whit about whether or not their owner is also afraid of it or not. I don’t care how much fun someone makes bunjy jumping off bridges to be, I’d still likely scream and pee my pants on the way down.

  7. Frances on

    When I read about these odd training methods, and especially when people tell me how well they worked for them (eating before your dog and always going through doors first spring to mind), I always wonder about superstitious correlation… An owner who is applying rules like these is paying attention to the dog, and what the dog is doing, and very probably tossing in a “Good dog!” etc along the way. The dog is learning the rudiments of self control, albeit in a round about way. Any improvement in manners is ascribed to the method, of course, although the same result could probably have been achieved in a fraction of the time with a more effective approach!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes, the fundamentals of how dogs learn don’t change just because someone isn’t aware of them.

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