In Ireland, as I write this, a dog is being put to death. The dog’s crime? He resembles a pit bull terrier, a breed declared illegial by the Dangerous Dog Act in Belfast City, Northern Ireland. I’m sure many of my regular readers followed the tragic story of Lennox to it’s bitter conclusion. What troubles me is not so much the death of one dog in a city thousands of miles from my home, but the reality that it is just one of hundreds of similar stories that go on every day in our “civilized” society.
It is the year 2012. As a child, I was starry-eyed in wonder at the predictions of what the “future” would bring. Movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey showed me the wonders the future might bring; flying cars, tours to the moon, an end to disease, and more. And now, having arrived at the era projected in those science fiction movies, 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 the world’s 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.
We need to think
It is simply stunning to me that in the 21st century, there is still so much disgreement about the biology and behaviour of dogs. The past 100 years has seen incredible progress in our knowledge of physics, chemistry, medicine, psychology, and more across a wide spectrum. Our society has benefitted in astonishing ways. And yet we still believe our dogs misbehave because they have some agenda, some would call it “dominance”, to prove they are in control of the household.
It’s not that we don’t have information about dogs and their behaviour. We do. In fact, that body of knowledge increases almost daily as more and more researchers are publishing their findings about dogs. They are the most prevalent of all domesticated animals and it is in our best interests to know as much about them as we can to provide for their welfare and well-being. But how does one explain some of the popular opinions about dogs that are just plain wrong. How do we come to terms with the fact that so many believe things of which dogs have been proven incapable?
Dogs are a part of our everyday lives. They are our closest animal companions and work closely with us in so many ways from herding to search and rescue to work with the disabled as assistance dogs. And yet, with all of the willingness they have shown to work with us, when things go wrong it always seem to be the dog’s fault. It is never the humans that worked with that dog that could be at fault. There is no more stark example of the strangeness of that than the case of Lennox. Lennox was put to death because he looked like a breed that humans decided needed to be destroyed. Not because he had done anything to harm his family, the general public, or disturb the peace in any way. He was put down because he looked like a dog who might have, at one time or another, under the right circumstances, might have been capable of inflicting damage on another person or dog. Or not. Better safe than sorry.
It is almost as if there are those in our society that want to remain ignorant of the facts we are learning about dogs and their behaviour. It has been decades since studies have shown that dogs are not pack hunters like their ancestor the wolf. There is no struggle for status in a hierarchy to determine who will have first access to a fresh kill. And yet so many dog owners and dog training professionals will talk at length about the need to be the “alpha” or the “pack leader” for your dog. It is a paradigm that has been proven false and yet it persists by word of mouth. This is just one of many examples of dog professionals ignoring scientific facts about dogs and dog training.
This past weekend a friend sent me a link to a dog training blog article that openly states “Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are obsolete theories of behavior.” The author may wish to inform the many universities and psychology professionals continuing work based on those theories. The author, of course, cites no source other than his own opinion that this is a fact. Clearly a dog trainer in Arizona would know more about current trends in psychology and behaviour than those who have studied and practiced it for much of their lives.
Also this week, I received a comment on one of my past articles. In it, the author asks me to cite empirical studies on positive reinforcement and clicker training for dogs. Not a particularly unreasonable request but for two simple facts. First, a read through just a few of my past articles would provide links to such sources on particular topics. Second, such references are as available to the commenter as they are to me by using Internet search engines like Scholar.Google.Com. In addition to that, libraries and online bookstores are full of excellent books on positive reinforcement training for dogs. These books offer a wealth of information and many cite scientific research that supports the book’s content.
I know what I like and I like what I know
It appears to be a part of human nature to be resistant to change. The familiar is comfortable and when what you know works, there seems to be no reason to change. The effort required to make changes can seem like a risk. There is no guarantee that the change will be for the better and it’s almost a guarantee that you will not be good at it at first. So it’s easy to understand why those who ignore the new information about dogs and new techniques for training them are resistant to it.
What do we do about those who not only resist new information and techniques but seek to discredit them for their own comfort? Why do force trainers write articles about how positive training can “ruin” a dog? Believe it or not, I have seen some blogs that claim that using treats to train your dog can make them “food aggressive” and a danger to children. While the reasoning to support such a ridiculous claim is interesting enough, there is never any credible evidence provided to support it. Oh sure, there is always a story of some trainer who met some client with an aggressive dog that used a clicker and the dog was unruly or didn’t like the new trainer. So clearly clicker training creates vicious dogs. Not exactly the best example of “Critical Thinking” is it?
Try both sides of the fence
I am a cross-over trainer. That means that just over 10 years ago, I believed in “alpha dominance”, discipline, being a “pack leader”, prong collars, choke chains, and ecollars (yes, I still have one stuck in a drawer someplace). But I made a change to see if all of this new, positive reinforcement based training was actually different or better than what I was doing. And I wasn’t very good at it in the beginning. But I kept at it. I read more, I learned more, I got more instruction, and I got better at it. Now, 10 years later, I can talk with some authority about both force training and training based on positive reinforcement and behavioural science.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of many of my colleagues who champion force-based training techniques. Many of them go to great lengths to write about the dangers of being “too soft” on dogs with all that “food bribery” but the fact remains that I have yet to find a force trainer who has actually learned to use positive training properly and can speak from any experience about it. It’s all biased reasoning and speculation about how they think it works rather than any actual experience.
So I would challenge any trainer who tells me that positive, behavioural science training doesn’t work as it claims. Come to my side of the fence. Come over and have someone show you how to use a clicker, operant conditioning theory, prompting and fading, reinforcement ratios and schedules, and the mechanics of proper reinforcement training. Spend a couple of months or years with it. If it doesn’t work, find out if you could be doing it better. And then, after you’ve trained a few dogs with it, come and tell me about all of your bad experiences with it. I suspect it will be a very short conversation, if such a conversation would happen at all.
You just can’t stand at a distance and say “Look at those foolish positive trainers, they are ruining their dogs” without actually trying it. I’ve been in the force training world. I trained dogs that way for more than 15 years. I got acceptable results too. It can work, after a fashion. But I much prefer what I am able to accomplish with dogs using reinforcement and behavioural training now. Why not see for yourself instead of wasting time writing about something you haven’t done.
By the way, clickers are about $1.00 and you can get a beginner book for $10. Cheaper than an eCollar. Happy training.
We call this the “Information Age.” But to me, it is ignorance that lead to the unnecessary death of Lennox, a dog who only looked like a banned breed. It is ignorance that keeps people buying electronic collars capable of inflicting injury on their dogs. It is ignorance that causes people to work with dogs using harsh and confrontational methods that often lead to dog bites or worse aggression problems. It is ignorance that kills dogs by the millions each year. We are into the second decade of the 21st century. Can we not use our laptops and smartphones and, pardon my bluntness, our brains to do a better job? Or is that just too much effort to expend on our dogs? I hope not.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
Photo credits –
Eric Brad – Copyright Petra Wingate 2012
Banner – cobalt123 2012 from Flickr