When I was in high school, I had a friend who would frequently say “Be careful what you wish for.” Usually we were brainstorming silly teenage activities without care or concern for the possible outcomes. My friend was generally regarded more as a “party pooper” than a voice of reason. But she would just smile and usually decline to join us in some of our reckless adventures. When I got into dog training and dog agility many years ago, I was suddenly reminded of that high school friend. “Be careful what you wish for” indeed!
We have had dogs for the past 30 years or so. In the last dozen or so years we have participated in agility and other dog performance sports. Shortly after we started agility, we had a change of heart regarding dogs and how to work with them. We discovered behavioural science and animal learning theory. I don’t think we were quite prepared for the cognitive dissonance that would cause as we watched some owners work with their dogs and reflected on our history with our own dogs.
Just DO it!
“Just Do It” is a clever marketing slogan used by Nike. It also seems to be an attitude that is common with dog owners when it comes to their dogs. Whether it is competition obedience or just greeting a guest at home, some owners want their dog to “just do it” their way when they demand it. It seems that there is a “by any means necessary” approach to getting a dog to comply with what the owner wants.
Twenty five years ago when I took our collie to our first dog manners class I was taught that classic move of yanking-on-the-leash-in-order-to-get-my-dog-to-comply-with-my-requests. I was to continue my incessant yanking until my dog did what I asked. Remarkably, this was considered “teaching” my dog. That seems rather like poking an 8 year old until he gets the answer to a math problem correct. It may produce the correct result but is it really “teaching” in the proper sense?
By yanking on the leash, I was using coercion. I was applying pressure on my dog to find the correct behaviour in order to stop the annoying yanking on his neck. And you know what? It worked! My dog eventually learned how to avoid what he surely thought was one of my most annoying habits; yanking on his neck. That’s what compulsion training is – being unpleasant to my dog until they do what I want them to do.
A hunting analogy
Yes, for years the “leash yank” technique served us well and we taught all kinds of things to our dog with it. Mostly things NOT to do. What we were not quite clear on is all the additional things that approach also taught our dog. The best way I can explain these “extras” is by suggesting that you could go squirrel hunting with a cannon. You are guaranteed to hit the squirrel but your garden will be a bit of a mess when it’s over.
You see, one of the first things my dogs learned from all that yanking is that trying ANYTHING had a statistically high chance of getting yanked. The best default behaviour was nothing at all. Only act when you know you won’t get yanked. Unfortunately it’s just a fact that there are more incorrect answers to any problem than there are correct answers. In the end, we were left with “good dogs” who didn’t do things they weren’t supposed to do. They didn’t do much else either.
To return to the squirrel hunting analogy, we had fired enough cannon balls that there wasn’t much left of that garden. There wasn’t that much dog there either after we had yanked enough. We were left with what most people would call a pretty good dog. They didn’t get into much trouble and they were docile and compliant companions. We might have been better off with stuffed animals that didn’t need to be fed, walked, and taken to the veterinarian. It would have been cheaper.
Looking back on it, it isn’t hard to see why we would train our dogs that way. It was easy. We only had to pay attention and make the effort when they were doing something we didn’t want. There was no planning for what behaviours we wanted them to have. There was no time set aside to practice the things we wanted to teach them. All we had to do was just “correct” them when they didn’t do things our way. In hindsight, that was a pretty lazy way to train.
There are hundreds of excuses that all lead back to this kind of lazy training. There always seems to be something more important than taking the time to teach our dogs. Especially since the “lazy” method produces what people generally consider a “good dog” anyway. It would be bad enough if it stopped there but we got even more clever.
So I learned that yanking on the collar was unpleasant enough to produce the results we wanted. But if there were a way to make the yanking more unpleasant, would the training go faster? And then we purchased the prong collar. More discomfort per yank and you have to yank less to get the desired result. Thanks to the advancements of 20th century technology we no longer even needed to bother yanking on the leash. We went out and purchased a remote electronic collar capable of delivering everything from a mildly unpleasant “buzz” to a painful electric shock in response to unwanted behaviour. Just push the button.
Compliance versus Performance
Yes, we owned and used both prong and electronic (“shock”) collars on our dogs. At the time we were pretty happy with the results. We got the behaviours we wanted, mostly. Our dogs never attacked us or freaked out. They were good to guests in our home. They were generally “good dogs” by the most common definitions of the term. It wasn’t until we turned to science based training that we learned the full extent of all that compulsion training.
There is a difference between a dog complying with your wishes and a dog that performs for you. You can see the difference. By using coercion, by yanking and jolting our dogs, they were doing what we asked to avoid something unpleasant. They wouldn’t necessarily do it if they didn’t have to and we made sure they did. Performance is a different thing. There is an excitement and an enthusiasm that shows that the dog wants to do this thing for you.
When we started agility years ago, our dog Vince had been trained for almost 2 years using compulsion before we changed how we train. He did pretty well in agility but always seemed tentative and not fully at ease. It wasn’t until we trained our dog Tira using behavioural science from a puppy that we saw what was missing in Vince. Compulsion and coercion training didn’t necessarily create any problems for us in our previous dogs so much as it took away many of the wonderful aspects of dogs that we were seeing in Tira.
Be careful what you wish for
We had good dogs. No question there. But it’s remarkable what we came to accept for the sake of getting our dogs to comply. We got what we wanted all right. But we missed out on so much without ever knowing. All we wanted was a good dog. Be careful what you wish for.
It’s not the tools. The slip collars, the prong collars, the electronic collars are still in a box somewhere. It’s how we chose to use them. Lazy training. The one tool it took us too long to learn how to use was the 3 pounds of wet, grey matter between our ears. There’s a difference between enforcing compliance and teaching performance. There are lots of ways and lots of tools to do either one but it’s a choice we have to make.
Do we work to get compliance and accept whatever is left in our dogs or do we teach them and give them a reason to perform? I can spot compliant dogs. You can see it in their eyes. Looking back at old photos, I know that I raised more than one. I won’t make that mistake again.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
NOTE: All of the photos in this article are actual box covers of electronic collars currently sold in stores. I’m stunned they actually used these dogs on their covers.
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All photos copyright Eric Brad 2015