Eric Brad discovers that when it comes to talking about dogs and training, sometimes a shortcut isn’t really a short cut at all.
Lately, it seems to me that some of the terms we use to describe dogs and our relationship with them can do more harm than good. While they can bring people to agreement on some level, do they keep us from discussing the real issues that these terms can mask?
After more than 15 years of living with dogs, I came to a crisis point. All of my “expertise” on dogs and dog training, carefully gleaned from many books and obedience classes, had not only failed, but was turning our dog against us. I was forced to reconsider what I thought I knew about dogs. I started a process of re-education that would take me through several books and lead to some important new insights.
Trapped in the Lexicon
One of the first things I discovered in my reading was a new language to describe and understand the behaviour of dogs. The new terms I was finding were forcing me to be more pr ecis e and less emotional in my descriptions and definitions. This caused its own difficulty for me. How was I supposed to map these new terms to words and phrases I used to use when talking about dogs and the ir behaviour?
I could no longer legitimately talk about myself in terms of being the “alpha” in the household since dogs are not pack animals and don’t live by an absolute social hierarchy. I now knew that tugging on my dog’s leash was an aversive stimulus that my dog would work to avoid and not a “correction” which never really “corrected” anything at all. I could no longer blame my dog for being “dominan t” just because he was trying to push past me to get out the door first in his enthusiasm. That was on me for allowing that behaviour and not due to any sort of plot to grab power from me.
This made it increasingly difficult to talk with friends about the new things I was learning about dogs and training. Suddenly, we were no longer on the same page. I couldn’t “unknow” what I now knew. So to hear a friend telling me about “correcting” her dog from pulling on a leash and hearing how he still does it after two years was just frustrating. How do you tell someone that if the behaviour hasn’t changed, it can’t have been corrected? It’s as if they weren’t correcting the behaviour, they were punishing the dog with something called a correction! I just can’t make sense of that.
Out With the Old, In With the New
I began to explore the Internet and found discussion forums for dog trainers who had similarly crossed-over to positive, behavioural science based training. I could carry on conversations there using the new terms I had learned from books and articles on behaviour and psychology. I even attended classes and weekend workshops by top trainers in the field to get a better handle on the latest concepts and techniques.
And the deeper I got into it all, the more I found that my old lexicon of terms and phrases was being replaced by new ones. And these new terms, for all their beginnings in science, attempted to generalize things just as much as those old terms did. We didn’t have “corrections” anymore, we work with “positive or negative punishment” to stop unwanted behaviour. We didn’t have “alphas” anymore, we have “leaders” who benevolently manage the group. We no longer worried about dogs being “dominant” but we now had to find ways to “set boundaries.”
I found that among this new group of like-minded trainers, even the new terms were getting sufficiently general that they didn’t mean the same thing to one trainer as they did to another. Terms for training behaviours like “shaping”, “free-shaping”, and “capturing” could all mean the same thing to one trainer. Another trainer might have very different definitions for each of these terms. As we sought a common language, it seemed that things could remain as foggy as they were using the old terms. Using these new terms to discuss our dogs and their behaviour didn’t necessarily make the issues any clearer.
A Lesson From a Clicker Trainer
One of the concepts I learned early on has stuck with me. Bob Bailey is one of the best animal trainers I know about. Bob is famous for saying, “Be a splitter, not a lumper.” What he meant was that if you are not getting the behaviour you want, try to break it down into smaller behaviours that will make up the larger behaviour eventually. Expecting too much all at once, “lumping” too many components together, can get in the way of good training and confuse the animal you are trying to teach.
It seems the same can be true of the language we use in the dog world. Sometimes we work so hard to “lump” ideas into convenient terms that it gets in the way of our ability to communicate our ideas. We spend our time on explanations of terms and re-definition. Sometimes whole discussions can revolve around agreeing on a common term to describe several others. But is that necessary?
One hot topic in the dog world these days is “pack leadership.” This is what we used to call being the “alpha” in the house for your dogs. You can find essays and discussions all over the web these days on whether we are the “alpha” or the “leader” or if we have the “dominant” role in relation to our dogs or if we employ enough “calm assertive energy” in dealing with them. But what are we really talking about?
Getting Down to Basic Issues
I think what we are talking about is, in part, simply taking responsibility for the animals we have brought into our homes. And what does that mean? Providing for their physical welfare. Looking after their mental and emotional well being. Providing for their safety. Does a good “pack leader” make time to provide good training? In my view, yes. Does a good “pack leader” take the time to learn about the needs and behaviour of the domestic dog? Again, in my view the answer is yes.
We could have a spirited discussion about “pack leadership” or some other linguistic equivalent that covers all of the things we believe goes into that. It might be fun and even interesting. But wouldn’t it be better to just cut to the chase? Why not discuss what we think should be done to address a dog’s physical welfare, their safety, their training, and what we should know about dogs as their owners?
Maybe we should be “splitters” and not “lumpers” when it comes to discussing our dogs. Maybe we should not get so hung up on terms that attempt to generalize too many concepts into a kind of shorthand. Perhaps it would be better to take the time and make the effort to discuss the individual concepts. Maybe picking things apart at a more basic level would get us farther.
If there is one thing my radical change as a dog trainer has taught me it’s that labels can obscure as much as they illuminate. In the past, the more answers I thought I had, the fewer questions I tended to ask. These days, I’ve found that questioning everything until I get to the foundation of things has given me a clearer perspective on how and why behaviour works. In turn, this has given me a much greater respect and admiration for dogs. I think we owe it to them to talk plainly about what they need and how we can best provide for them.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs! (And have fun talking about them, too.)
All photos ©Petra Wingate, 2011