Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cruelty-Free Dog Training

By Peggy Moran

(Forewarning and apology: this is a REALLY long post!)

Old Dog Trainer, New Tricks

     In my ongoing, life-long quest to become a better dog trainer, and in turn a better people trainer, I am always researching other ways of achieving "dog improvement." You might actually notice, if you are one of my students, that I frequently change things up. I am proud of, and comfortable with, the methods and techniques I have under my belt, especially those bits of understanding I have come to hold as theories, or even laws, specific to inter-species communication and connection with my canine companions (you are welcome for that poetic stream of consonance!) But as much as I've come to a place where I am certain about many aspects of learning theory, canine ethology, and the pet-people bond, I still feel I can improve. I love trying out new techniques, and as I evolve, my goal has increasingly moved toward removing anything that causes discomfort or unhappiness for the living beings I work with and care about--both pets and people.
     Part of my continuing self-education, as of late, involves tapping into the Net--the Internet. It is chock full of dog training nuts--as in crazies!--as well as nugget of genius and inspiration; the trick is determining which is which. (I am going to come back to this, and even share some of what I've found, but bear with me as I lead up to it.) In some cases there are combos--a given pet expert offers some truly inspired advice paired with bits I disagree with, and therefore dismiss.
     As an aside, I have reevaluated my own methods over the years, and frequently clean house, dumping aspects I held as truths, for a time, as I evolve and become progressively "enlightened." I am not proud to say, in my earliest years of dog training I was a bit heavy handed. While I have always adhered to a system free from personal punishment--no scolding, shaming, spanking, striking, or in anyway displaying disapproval or anger, I did buy into aspects of the dominance-hierarchy school of thought that was purported by those dog trainers who came before, and initially influenced, me.

Child Dog Trainer, Old Tricks

     I started training dogs as a child, and was training professionally by the age of fifteen. I always used eclectic methods which I pieced together from a combination of reading, arguing with what I read, and studying my own pets as well as many other dogs around La Grange, Illinois, where I grew up. Intuitively I did not want to force myself upon an animal I loved and respected, so "might-makes-right" methods always seemed wrong to me. The overarching focus of my training was not to get the dog to reduce a given action, but rather to increase the frequency of its opposite.
     I invented the "red-light, yellow light, green-light" approach of reinforcement with my collies when I was 13 years old. I would only pet them when the light was "green"--they were sitting or lying down, and speak to them but never touch when it was "yellow"--they were standing. "Red" was any rude (in my opinion) behavior, and my goal was to inspire dogs to take responsibility, discovering an unpleasant result I'd pretend to have had no part in generating (even though of course I did.) This is how the penny-can (or penny-plastic-bottle, later,) came about. My dogs were given choices, to be petted, or not; to encounter a remote correction, or not. I always respected they might prefer not to be petted in a given context, and recognized the "yellow light" allowed them a polite mode for declining an overenthusiastic human's touchy-feely advance. This also did--and continues--to make me seem like a buzz-kill to blindered pet lovers who don't pay heed to whether their intended affection recipient is actually in the mood before they begin to lay on the love. Not every dog wants to be touched by everyone who is attracted to her.
     Despite my areas of methodological brilliance (in my not at all humble opinion,) the equipment I employed, back in the day, was the choke chain. Consider the name and you can see what blinders I was wearing. Delivering "remote" corrections--sharp jerks the dog was set up to believe the environment delivered as a consequence of a specific action, paired with the "penny bomb"--a can with pennies in it--seemed to make sense. Used in sequence, the secondary noise was immediately followed by the primary "remote" (impersonal) punishment, helping inhibit dog impulses while not causing the dog to blame his bad luck on me. I could reduce actions without endangering my relationship with the dog. This approach, skillfully delivered by my for-hire-teenage-self, caused many a sensitive soul to worry for their dog, but I argued it was better than the alternative--scolding and responding to done-deeds of the misdeed variety. I was not screaming "OUT!" or "Leave it!" while spinning a choking dog on the end of a leash one moment, then trying to pretend he should trust me the next. Removing myself--and my clients, when they began following my instruction--from any "personal corrections" did work wonders to reduce inappropriate impulses. 

The Perils of Punishment

     One of my early feature articles for Dog World Magazine was entitled "Punishment: Correction or Abuse?" In it, I was on the "it is abuse" side of the fence, if so called corrections involved any aspect of social interaction between people and their pets. The whole idea was to let the dog figure things out through cause--their action--and seemingly natural "effect"--our manipulation of the environment to create an aversive result. My manipulations, on retrospective examination, resulted in some dogs feeling more afraid of the kitchen wastebasket than was necessary to generate the desirable behavioral change. This isn't because I am wrong about the theory of training aversion; it is because training aversion at all may be unnecessary. It is also because there is a required level of finesse in delivering the so-called impersonal correction that few of my most competent students can consistently and correctly deliver, unfettered by the pervasive inappropriate emotional reaction. Setting a dog up to trigger a booby-trap--a penny can balanced above, attached by fishing line to the receptacle's lid--only once she has developed a solid confidence in every other aspect of visiting the friendly, food-producing kitchen, was intended to serve a "smart-bomb:" a minimally traumatic (sound based,) pain-free correction. The intention was to up the costs, in contrasts with benefits, for dogs perusing the fast food delivery device we call a garbage can. But might some sensitive dog souls have suffered unnecessarily? Is any moment of fear, triggered deliberately by me, even if it generates an overall greater good--safety--for the dog, justified? (So many questions, but they are important!)
     If I endorse any form of punitive correction, even so-called remote corrections, where do I draw the line? More importantly, can my students see and toe this same line? Might the overly emotional, training-enthusiastic pet owner fling the "bomb" at the misbehaving dog they happened to "catch in the act?" Would they be caught looking as they meted out a so-called "remote" correction, making a detrimental association between their eye contact and scary punishment? Might they be exuding anger, disapproval and their own pheromones of emotional arousal, and will this influence the efficacy of their training or undermine their dog's trust in other relationship areas? Do people in general have the ability to eliminate all emotion from their so-called corrections? And, if I endorse the use of lesser remote corrections, why not more dramatic-seeming ones? Might struggling pet owners amp up their training to include electronic collar--the Jetson's version of my Fintstone's training technology--when my approach sometimes failed to deter their pet's impulses?  As you can see, I ask a lot of questions, and test my own ideas--a lot.
     When I was younger, I would sometimes wonder about my training system with that "something still doesn't feel exactly right" kind of feeling. It kept me on the alert, always looking for better questions, which might--hopefully--turn up better answers. Some of my questions included: 

  1. What right, as one sort of animal, do I have to assert any, especially slavery-like, control over another?
  2. What sort of pain and fear does the dog experience when "corrected," and is it fair, necessary and worth it? 
  3. Might there be a better way to achieve the same results? 
  4. Might my students, whose timing and emotional discipline may not match mine, be better able to effect behavioral changes in their dogs using different, more humane, techniques which allow more room for human error?

I'm Improving!

     These questions, along with many others, persist to this day, and while I am happy for the parts I get right--no personal punishment!--I still strive for a "better" way. I experiment with more positive reinforcement, leaning toward progressive reinforcement, adding (or facilitating dogs in finding) desirable rewards for the desired actions ("good behaviors,") through cooperation with people. I also seek ways to harness, rather than reduce, the value or attraction of competing rewards--the intrinsic reinforcers dogs find within their other actions, those behaviors trainers typically seek to extinguish or control (not the same thing, by the way!)
     These days I lean toward avoiding creating any sort of state of arousal in a dog, and especially avoiding creating behavioral suppression. If fear leads a dog to inhibit an expression of energy that would have been channeled through a particular action, where will that energy go instead? Pent-up, suppressed, frustrated, agitated dogs will act out in new manners. It may be through inhibition, shutting down, self-harming, and fading into a mobile corner they bring with them wherever they go, or it may be through acting out in new, equally undesirable (by people) ways. Either way, the cost is too high. Why correct at all, if instead we can easily direct the dog's energy into alternate, reward-earning actions that are the antithesis of the undesirable ones? 
     Are there appropriate ways we can interrupt a dog's run-away-train-of-thought, interjecting a sound the dog has been conditioned to alert to as a helpful warning rather than as a threat? Yes! Proper, controlled, limited, guided use of a secondary warning mark, such as vocal sound or even the penny-bottle sound, can help sway a dog toward a new, reward delivering course of action in less time, increasing the dog's momentum and the frequency of that action. Interventions and corrections that bring a dog to a reward earning behavior help grease the training wheel, but they must be used with care and an understanding of progressive reinforcement. Most importantly, they are never used to suppress the dog's learning. Dogs must be allowed to make mistakes as many times as it takes to discover those actions fail to garner any rewards, while alternative actions are discovered to work way better.
     This all requires just one thing, and it isn't easy: retraining ourselves. Successful, cruelty-free dog training depends upon a modification in human thinking and responding, through increased self-discipline and the asking of--and seeking the best answers to--lots of questions! 

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