Sunday, May 08, 2011

What's The Big Idea?

Early this past Friday evening I’d worked with a young Lhasa-poo that while good natured and sweet had his owner’s nerves severely frayed by his compulsive behavior of eating every bit of road debris he could get his mouth on. This little guy has some manic energy to burn and was terrible on leash to boot. We’d had great success initially with a Newtrix head halter but after three days it was apparent that the classical conditioning routine I employ to introduce dogs to head halters hadn’t stuck, we needed a Plan B that would address both issues effectively. I pulled a ThunderShirt out of the car, paired it with a Premier harness and within a few minutes we were doing greets in a ‘sit’ followed by a walk free of trail mix, get it? Trail mix? Rocks, twigs…things you’d see on a trail…moving on. The lesson ended on a high note and as I sat later that evening with the owners of a pair of Welsh Cardigan Corgis it struck me what a great time it was to be a dog trainer.” Twenty years ago the tools I was using to work with the Lhasa-poo weren’t around and while it’s not my first instinct to wax “Q” like, festooning dog owners with high tech gadgetry it’s great to have them at my disposal when a leash and martingale aren’t getting it done alone, add to this the collective wisdom of generations of animal trainers evident in an exhaustive and ever growing library of training books, internet message boards not to mention living in a part of the world where interest in the subject appears to be peeking with everyday dog owners. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
Also this past Friday, I received an e-mail sent in error by someone who’d mistaken me for another trainer. She said she’d attended his recent “seminar”. Why the quotation marks? The Webster Dictionary defines a seminar as follows: A group of advanced students studying under a professor with each doing original research and all exchanging results through reports and discussions. I don’t doubt that it was described as a seminar, in full disclosure I haven’t attended one of them but I feel comfortable speculating that it no more qualifies as a seminar than it would a Bris. It could however be described as a sermon, defined as A religious discourse delivered in public usually by a clergyman as part of a worship service. I’m agnostic by nature so a sermon would require I suspend disbelief to enjoy and appreciate the spectacle dujour. The e-mail in question inquired what the best method was for fitting a pinch collar to a 6 month old Labrador puppy. I’ve worked with former clients of this trainer; no quotation marks there, technically there is training going on; there is however, nothing professorial about it. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that small minds talk about individuals and great minds talk about ideas. I’m no great mind, no delusions of grandeur here, but I’ll take a stab at the sentiment by sticking to the idea. With that, another quote from the recent IAABC conference, “I believe in science”, simple, easy to remember and with profound implications. Bob Bailey, a patriarch in the field of animal training said this in the second of two presentations. I believe in science as well. Science is evolving, it’s subjective and it requires those qualities in its practitioners, even we lowly dog trainers. For some time I relied on pinch collars to address a myriad of training issues. I had quite a bit of success with them as well but most of the dog owners needed a sort of indoctrination before they’d subject their dogs to something so draconian. Some of them wept openly they felt so badly about it and the dog owners who welcomed the notion weren’t ones I was connecting with in any meaningful way. I didn’t understand it very well at the time, pinch collars are a tool after all, like a chest splitter, an auger or a sledgehammer, I shouldn’t be all that difficult to remain dispassionate about them; but there were dogs whose response to them was so poisonous it would take weeks just to regain their trust. This was an aggressive measure for a problem that rarely required one. They’ve since been relegated to the bottom of my training toolbox, a tool of last resort and certainly not for any six month old Labrador or any other puppy I’ve worked with for that matter.
There were so many great ideas I came away from the conference feeling much more strongly about but the one that stands on top was the importance of free will in training and counter conditioning. Delivered with great poignance by Dr. Frank McMillan of the Best Friends Society, the merits of free will were contrasted with the horrors of forced confinement, and myriad other forms of animal abuse from around the world. Dr. McMillan outlined the kinds of permanent damage visited on animals forced to endure cruelty, both physical and emotional at the hands of humans. This subject was examined again later in the conference by Katenna Jones and alluded to by a number of other speakers.
A scenario I come across commonly involves a dog learning that it’s more rewarding to go to a designated place when they hear their doorbell as opposed to charging the door, barking and jumping on the guest(s). Less common is helping a dog crippled by fear learning to reevaluate the things in their environment that trigger fear responses from hiding to biting. Deconstructing these triggers requires patience and creativity and no small measure of cooperation with the dog’s owner. Coaching dog owners and their dogs so they can navigate slowly through these emotional mine fields is an awesome experience and it feels good, it feels really good. The big idea behind these experiences is education vs. subjugation. I’ve done both of these things and can tell you there is nothing special about controlling a dog through domination, been there, done that. Watching the wheels turn as a dog problem solves and/or learns to reevaluate scary situations is in contrast endlessly fascinating and satisfying.
As with most things there are exceptions. It is not alright for a dog to react aggressively towards another dog, person etc. Biting is not a reasonable choice. To that end there are tried and true methods that are not punitive in nature for modifying aggressive behavior. Counter Conditioning and Desensitizing (CC&D), Behavioral Adjustment Training (BAT) and Constructive Aggression Training (CAT) are three methods I’ve employed with great success. There is some discourse on both BAT and CAT as technically they fall under the umbrella of positive punishment, negative reinforcement. Both involve exposing a dog to a negative trigger, removing either the trigger or the dog when the desired response is given (calming signal). I take issue with the idea that these approaches can be associated with choke chains, pinch collars etc. for the simple reason that within the course of a normal day some dogs will encounter a negative trigger, i.e. another dog, cat, person etc. It’s not a decision, but a naturally occurring part of their environment. Add to this that the dogs I’ve worked with using CAT and BAT are clearly coping with these triggers with measurably more confidence and it’s hard to ignore their respective merits. In the end, both approaches afford reactive dogs the option of reacting to these triggers as they typically do or with relative composure.
Bob Bailey discussed how in his early years he spent a lot of time observing how animals behaved without thrusting himself into the equation. What were animals doing? Why were they doing it? It formed the basis for a career that’s stretched from the 1950’s to the present. Aversion methods turn a blind eye to this kind of inquiry. If the goal is to control through domination then it hardly matters much why an animal is doing something. They need to stop doing “that”, whatever “that” happens to be. Ethology based training assumes our pet dogs are, as Brenda Aloff mused, “trying to conquer the world”. Imagine Charlton Heston in “Planet of the Dogs”,…”Get your paws off of me you damned dirty mutt!”