Have you been thinking of expanding your family? Perhaps you are feeling that urge to raise a child of your own. Maybe your parents would just love a new grandchild to fawn and fuss over. Not to worry. Just pop on over to the “agency” and pick up a new child. They come in all sorts of shapes and colors, some older and some younger. You might have to pay more for one that comes from good genes but there are always the ones looking for new homes for one reason or another and those could come at a reduced rate. Sound ridiculous? Not if we were talking about dogs.
It’s funny how people will prepare themselves for months, even years before bringing a new child into their lives but can stop by the shelter on a random Saturday and pick up a new dog. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that caring for a dog is anywhere near as complex as raising a child. But owning and caring for a dog is not the same as picking up a new refrigerator either. Unfortunately, there are any number of sources that might lead you to believe that it is incredibly simple.
Your local book store is full of books on dogs and dog training. One popular seller is called “Dog Training for Dummies.“ It seems to me that if you consider yourself a “dummy” or stupid, you probably shouldn’t have a dog in the first place. If you do, hey, don’t let that deter you! Search the Internet. You will find a ton of resources from articles like “Dog Training for Idiots” to articles with words like “simple”, “easy”, and “basic” in the names. But more than 3 million dogs enter shelters by one means or another each year. Many are surrendered because the homes just couldn’t handle the dog. Dog training for dummies? Maybe this dog owning stuff isn’t as easy as it looks.
Doing the wrong thing for the right reasons
I remember when my wife and I got our first puppy many years ago. There were chewed railings and shredded wall paper and more than one shoe sacrificed to the “puppy gods.” It seemed that we spent the bulk of our time with our new dog just getting him to stop doing things we didn’t want him to do. There was a lot of grabbing, snatching, pushing, and yelling. In the end we got what we wanted. When it came to training, it shouldn’t be surprising that it went very much the same way. Want the dog to sit? Push his bum down. Want him to lie down? Pull his leash down or push between the shoulder blades. Want him to walk at heel? Give a yank on the leash to pull into the correct position.
Our dog learned, bless his heart, despite the fact that we were doing all the wrong things. We did them for the right reasons. We wanted to teach him to have “manners” and we eventually had a long and happy life together. He learned to work with us, but it couldn’t have been easy for him. A dog that doesn’t get yelled at or punished is a happier dog. The methods we used to teach our dog what we wanted were mostly unpleasant for him. He tolerated it well enough and even learned. But I believe he learned in an effort to avoid all of that unpleasantness. We got the right result but it wasn’t the best way to get there.
Getting results is what mattered to us most back then. And that’s the way we were instructed by our dog training professionals. We were taught the most expedient way to get our dog to do whatever behaviour we were looking for. If that meant pushing, pulling, yanking, or using prong collars, that was fine with us. It would all lead to getting our dog to do what we wanted quickly. In retrospect, I now know that expedient is not always the right way to go.
Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons
In this modern era of dog training, there is a lot more information out there on dogs and their behaviour. The science of animal behaviour has opened up whole new training techniques and philosophies. But even though we have more resources at our disposal, one thing remains from the old days – we try to make dog training simple. Just as the force trainers of my younger years looked for expedient methods to get my dog to do what I wanted, modern trainers are often guilty of getting dog owners do use positive training techniques without explaining why they are doing what they are doing.
Positive trainers offer classes to dog owners in hopes of getting them great results without force. Instructors frequently look for the latest “exercises” to help dog owners learn reinforce the desired behaviours. And they get a lot of success. The dogs learn quickly and they enjoy the exercises and learning process. Students repeat what they are told to do and the process just works.
Watching these classes, I am often left wondering if the students really understand why the things they are doing are actually work. I am not saying that these aren’t good teachers or that the lessons are poorly structured. They are just trying to make things simple so students can learn and use them quickly. But where is the easy explanation of why the technique works and how to apply it to their other training tasks?
Students are taught these methods as a matter of process. They are encouraged to reward the dog quickly or to use food lures to get the dog to do the desired behaviour. Other classes use props and guides to help students prompt the dog to perform the behaviour correctly. There are any number of “games” and “tricks” that are employed to get students to use the principles of behavioural science and canine learning theory. Sometimes even the instructors are at a loss to explain how and why some of these techniques work. But they do work. They are doing the right things but do they know why?
All of this effort to simplify, to dumb-down dog training is for a good cause – educating dog owners. But what exactly are we teaching? If we teach the “how” to get behaviour without also addressing “why” a particular technique works, what are we really teaching? It’s like that old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day – Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” When we teach dog owners to “get their dogs to behave”, are we just giving them the answers they need today or are we preparing them for every dog they will ever own?
However they came to be, there are expectations involved in dog training classes. Classes will be about an hour in length. You will bring your dog to every class. You will work with your dog and watch others work with their dogs for most of the time. And you will try to get some results by the end of class that you didn’t have at the beginning. There are others but you get the idea. What if these expectations get in the way of teaching dog owners what they need to know about training their dogs? Can we really expect a dog owner to manage their boisterous 6 month old puppy and listen to a trainer telling them about how to mark and reinforce behaviours properly?
So we have created shortcuts to get the owners to do the right things to get their dogs to do the right things. The problem with shortcuts is that sometimes there are so many shortcuts that we lose sight of the actual principles that make it all work. In dog training, so many methods have been developed to just get the dog to do a behaviour that we can lose sight of why they respond to it in the first place. If we aren’t careful, we can let the little “tricks” and shortcuts we develop replace our knowledge of how canine learning and behaviour works.
Many trainers are breaking the mold and talking to dog owners about behaviour and canine learning in new ways. They are using technology and the Internet to supplement weekly classes. They are teaching themwhy techniques work and helping them to develop their own applications of what they are learning.
And this, in my opinion, is how it should be. Modern dog owners operate smartphones, program video recorders for their favorite shows, and navigate the complex environments of Facebook and other social media. Maybe we shouldn’t be treating them like “dummies” when it comes to their dogs.
I’d like to leave you with a quote from physicist Dr. Steven Hawking that I think is appropriate.
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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“Dogs: As They Are”
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