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Friday, February 10, 2012

Bone of Contention

   I have an obscene amount of dog-related reference material. Not only have I read/watched it all at least twice, but I mentally sucked the info off the pages/off the screen with an obsessive voracity to rival any, well, obsessively voracious thing. While I'm super psyched that we've learned so much since the "Kholer" method, I've noticed things going WAY over in the other direction. Not only have I noticed it in print, but on the streets of my town and in dog-culture in general. Nobody believes in consequences any more, and it's not a good thing. I suspect there would be far fewer dogs in shelters and less euthanization if more trainers were willing to take a more balanced approach. All positive all the time doesn't work for all dogs. It doesn't mean the dogs are hopeless cases, not by a long-shot; but it does mean they need something more than an absence of a reward to make an impression.

   Before I go too far down this road, I want to make damn sure that I'm clear about something: I believe in TRAINING. With both my horses and my dogs, nothing has improved my relationships with my animals more, or brought me nearly as much satisfaction as watching them enjoy something that I was teaching them, and both of us learning something about the other in the process. My most clear memories, of course, are with Murphy. He's so incredibly beyond intelligent that it blows my mind sometimes. When I began to open the communication channels during puppyhood via clicker-training, I was astounded by how fast he progressed. If you've ever had the pleasure of shaping an intelligent dog you know how incredible the feeling is when you get to see how their mind works. I can't imagine doing things any other way. BUT....

   There is a big 'but' there for a reason (and it's not the one on the back of my front); what about the other side of a dog's education? I've read, so many times, that consequences are mean and horrible. Huh? Are any of these folks parents? Or have any of them had the "pleasure" of being around a child who's never had to deal with a consequence? I think (or hope) it is common knowledge that part of a child's induction into the world of adulthood is a solid upbringing primarily focused on unconditional love and positive reinforcement, but also includes consistent discipline and consequences for undesirable behaviors. Anyone disagree? And by 'consequences' I don't mean spanking. I'm not a spanker. But I DO mean whatever consequence is appropriate and meaningful to the specific child. So why can't dogs experience consequences? I guess I don't get it. I know there are trainers who feel that lack of a reward or a 'time-out' is appropriate for a dog, but dogs aren't children and they don't reason the way children do. My dog wouldn't consider a lack of a reward for a self-rewarding negative behavior (like squirrel chasing) any consequence at all, and as smart as he is a 'time out' would be meaningless to him. So, huh?

   I know the arguments: "Whales and dolphins are trained with positive-only training. You can't correct them so you have no choice". Yeah, I can see that. On the other hand, I've never had to walk a whale or a dolphin down a city street, or through security at the Orlando airport prior to subjecting them to the full TSA-treatment before boarding a plane where they are expected to lay quietly for the flight (whew...that sentence was long!). I also never had to share my home with a whale or dolphin, or get one to ride quietly in an elevator with children, wheelchairs, walkers, etc. Anyway, you get the point.

   The other argument that I've heard (and this one speaks to me more about inexperience than anything else) "If the dog knows what you want, they will do it." I don't know about you, but my dogs have all had their own opinions about things. Where are they finding all these compliant dogs? Don't get me wrong, I've known a few that really were saints, but they have been few and far between. I will concede that a dog that you have a good relationship with will want to work with you and want to learn from you. They will also respect you (this is two ways, in my opinion) but not fear you (if you have to bully your dog into minding you it's because you don't have their respect.). I also believe in clarity and minimizing my impact on the physicality of a dog. So, what the hell does that mean?

   It means that I prefer to use whatever has the least amount of negative effect (or force) on a dog's body. I'm going to pick on Victoria Stillwell for a minute, but I don't really mean to. I actually love the way she advocates for dogs and calls the owners on their (often lazy) s***, but I disagree with some of the things she says and I'll tell you why: On one show (Greatest American Dog maybe?) she gives a contestant crap for using a 'snarl band' and proclaims "I don't like anything that effects the physicality of a dog" (not verbatim), but then on HER show she puts one of those 'no pull' harnesses on a dog. The kind with the cords that dig into the dog's pits. I don't care if the cords are covered with fleece, they are still digging the dog's pits. She also like to say "The neck is a very sensitive area on a dog." Um, no, it's not. Dogs do things to each others necks just while playing that would send you or me to the emergency room in a heartbeat, but they don't seem too flummoxed about it. What IS sensitive though, is a dog's pits and certainly their faces. But that doesn't stop people from self-righteously tossing out their 'cruel' prong collar in favor of a pit-digging harness or a headcollar. To me, a headcollar is the very definition of 'interfering with a dog's physicality'. While it's true that these devices offer consequences of a sort, are the consequences anything that makes sense to the recipient? Well, they certainly appear to be uncomfortable, but in a constant way and not in a way that communicates anything meaningful.

   Isn't it better to teach the dog, very clearly and in an unmistakable and fun way, but let them know that misbehavior has a consequence? Example: Murphy knows how to walk on a leash. walking doesn't stress him or his body because he was taught what was expected of him in a clear, enjoyable manner. He also loves to go after squirrels. If he does, he will hit the end of his leash and be reminded (via his prong collar) in exactly the most appropriate instant, that it's not allowed. Crisis averted. While it's 100% true that the more training you do the less force you need, if you think you are going to train an 'incompatible behavior' to squirrel chasing and it's going to be enough, all on it's own, to stop it? Well, good luck with that. I have no doubt that some dogs would respond favorably, mine won't. If you want to try it with my dog and prove me wrong, I invite you to go for it;-) To me though, from a strictly structural perspective, isn't this the least forceful manner to walk the dog? I see people getting dragged down the sidewalk with dogs in harnesses all the time because they don't want to hurt the dogs body, but can you  imagine the amount of force on a dog in this situation?

   I don't understand how otherwise perfectly rational, reasonable folks who raise lovely, well-behaved children suddenly go over the edge at the very thought of their dog experiencing a real consequence (one that makes sense to the DOG). It certainly explains a lot of what I see every day though. Unfortunately, while an undisciplined child may spend time in prison, it may mean a death sentence for a dog. Unruly behavior certainly doesn't make dog-people more popular in the world either, or make the world a more accepting place. Balance is AWESOME.

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