Canine Nation - Articles About Dog Training
Eric Brad inspires readers to change the way we relate to our dogs through modern training methods based on behavioural science and rewards, not punishment.
Watching the recent Summer Olympics was one of those guilty pleasures for me. Sneaking off to catch a look at kayaking or track and field is something I only get a chance to do once every four years. It’s inspiring to see the best athletes in the world competing in their chosen sports, win or lose. To develop skills to a high enough level to compete at the Olympic Games is more than most of us can hope to achieve. But strip away the human drama and the athlete’s story and what you have left is learned behaviour whether it is sprinting, paddling a kayak, or performing the high jump.
It was, perhaps, the longest 10 minutes I can remember. Certainly my older dog Tiramisu didn’t seem to mind. But I had to seriously consider what was going on in the head of my 14 month old Belgian Shepherd Rizzo. After asking him to “Sit!”, there I stood, a full 10 minutes later, still waiting for his butt to hit the ground.
Behavioural Science has been around for a long time. Studies of behaviour and learning in animals date back to Edward Thorndike in the late 1800′s. And yet, even with a tremendous body of research behind it, there is still fierce criticism of both Classical and Operant Conditioning. The major criticism of the Behaviourist approach is that it seems to remove “free will” from the equation. The suggestion that behaviour can be manipulated through reinforcement and punishment seems to upset many people.
Let’s say you have a killer whale in your backyard. You would need a big tank for sure. Actually, you would probably need more than one. After all, how are you going to clean the tank with a killer whale in it? Ok, so you have your two big tanks and your pet killer whale and it’s time to clean one of his tanks. How are you going to get a 9 ton sea mammal out of one tank and into another? If this sounds like a ridiculous problem, it’s not. Zoos and marine animal parks deal with problems like this every day.
On a whim, we pulled into a parking lot on a Thursday evening. The sign out front said that dog training classes were being offered. As a dog lover and self-described training geek, I’m always curious to see how people run their classes. We slipped in quietly at the back, interested to see how dog owners were being taught to work with their dogs. I was disappointed but not surprised to see that on instructor’s table next to the flat and Martingale collars were also a choke chain and a prong collar. It looked like this wasn’t one of the more progressive training groups. Then the insistent barking off to one side caught my attention.
I had the pleasure of spending a bit of time at my sister’s home recently. Like me, she is a dog lover. She has two boisterous boys named Harley and Rocky. Rocky is a small, Jack Russell sized mixed breed and is just the most social dog ever. When we arrived, we were greeted with the customary excited barking and Harley quickly retired to his toys and his dog bed. Rocky, on the other hand, wanted my attention. He wanted it now, now, NOW! He let me know this by jumping up toward me with his tail wagging so hard that he could barely keep his feet on the floor.
“There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Or so the saying goes. But is it possible that some dogs get a “free lunch”? Is there really a something-for-nothing deal out there for dogs? When we were making our change over to positive, science based training, we were directed to a program called “Nothing In Life Is Free” (NILIF) on the Internet. On the face of it, the program looks like an excellent method of teaching dog owners about the value of being consistent in their criteria and to provide clear contingencies for their dogs’ behaviour. But is it really?
Having arrived in 2012, an era projected in science fiction movies decades ago, I find myself both amazed and shocked by turns at what has actually come to pass. In an era where managing my diabetes no longer means an early death and the Internet puts with worlds knowledge at my fingertips, people still believe that aggressive behaviour in dogs is breed specific and that electronic shock collars are a good idea to manage a dog’s behaviour.
Is your dog smart? I know both my dogs are. I think if you ask any dog owner, they would have dozens of stories to show how clever their canine companions can be. Our dogs seem to have some pretty amazing abilities from being able to work out how to steal an appetizer from the table while we’re not looking to knowing when it’s time to for dinner even before we do. And that’s just the stuff they pick up on their own.
After making our change to positive training, my wife and I decided on a new motto for ourselves. “Each dog better than the last.” Before we moved to training our dogs with behavioural science and positive methods, our approach consisted mostly of trying to keep unwanted behaviours in check and get a standard set of behaviours in place. We didn’t really have much more of a goal that just a dog that didn’t disrupt things too much and provided us good companionship.