Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Theory, Practice, and Emotion, Dog Training Version

In theory, I love R+, or "Positive Reinforcement" dog training. For example: I think that knowing dogs, and your dog or the dog that you're working with is key to training. Even though I can never keep the four quadrants straight, I get them, and think trainers, and really, owners, should get the basics of learning theory. I love Suzanne Clothier's concept of relationship based training. This stuff applies when I talk to people who really DO dog stuff (I was talking to a man who does French Ring the other day), to people who are just adopting their first dog. Another example: I think it's totally possible, and great, to potty train a dog without ever rubbing their nose in their pee or whacking them with a newspaper. In theory, it's also totally possible to teach a dog to walk on a leash, on a flat collar, from the beginning, without correction, so that if they're not on a leash, it would be the same.

The first thing- potty training- I'm pretty sure I could follow through on. It's been a LONG time since I potty trained Mac. He hasn't had an accident in a long time, but potty training is something that, for me, seems like common sense- owner error leads to dogs doing their thing inside. He goes through my trash occasionally, when I leave something good in it, but that's my fault. I come home, see it strewn around, and think, "Bad themacinator." I pick it up, shrug, and move on. Same concept as potty training without punishment.

The second example- loose leash walking- I failed. I could give a million excuses- like, I was just a baby dog person then, which is true. I could explain that the first trainer I went to was sort of a mixed bag- use a clicker, but you can also use a prong, and the private trainer I went to put a prong on Mac to have more control, though she was very good with the prong. (I know, REAL R+ people will say that "good with the prong" is like saying an "effective spanker.") I could say that I was heavily influenced by a group of pit bull advocates that rely, to this day, on the prong as a tool (crutch) for pit bulls, and think that steering is the proper use for the prong collar. I could tell you that I transitioned Mac to a front clip harness for awhile, which worked like a charm, and that I tried him on a Gentle Leader, but his made his princess chin bleed without him even touching it. Pobrecito. All of these things would be true. I could also tell you the same thing that most trainers who use positive punishment (the introduction of something negative in order to decrease a behavior) would tell you: Mac doesn't seem to mind the prong collar, and it is effective with him. My theory of training went out the window with practice. In this case, it was probably because of how I learned, ignorance, and then laziness. What will I do with my next dog? Who knows.

But the example I really wanted to share was more emotionally related, and not about me and Mac. There have been examples on some internet forums that I read and that I've seen with friends lately of people getting REALLY frustrated with their dogs and lashing out, verbally or physically. These are not bad dogs (obviously) or bad, abusive people (less obviously). This is emotion getting in the way of their theory of ownership. Their theory of dog training may not include world-famous trainers or learning theory, but they're kind people. I'm pretty sure if you sat them down- at least my friends, not the internet posters- they would answer a multiple choice question with the "I would never physically or verbally threaten my dog to get the desired result" response. But sometimes it happens. Sometimes dogs are Really Fucking Annoying. They are mouthy, jumpy, bratty creatures that do things that make us forget why we share our homes with them. They eat the trash, they get in our faces when we're not in the mood, and they annoy our visitors. They seem to do this stuff at the worst possible times, as if they know that we are not at our Most Kindest Gentlest Moments.

At this times, I've seen some of my favorite people respond in ways that I don't think they would recommend to others, or even recognize if played back to them. They've yelled at their dogs or pushed their dogs more roughly than they've meant to. (Of course I've yelled at my dog, and in a way that he would understand, a few times too. In fact, to really YELL at a dog in order for it to be effective positive punishment, rather than "blah blah blah," the yelling I'm talking about is probably what you would need to do.) And the behavior that the people do works: it makes the behavior that the dog is presenting stop. This is effective positive punishment: the addition of something bad- yelling or physical punishment- causes the unwanted behavior- jumping/mouthing/trash eating- to stop. It works. Emotions such as anger, irritation, frustration, etc take over, cause actions that are irrational and unplanned, but turn out to be effective.

I'm making observations here, not advocating for this. But when I see it, it's clear to me how more "force based" training can be persuasive. These emotional responses tend to be loud and forceful as anger and aggravation tend to erupt that way, and also startling. Someone reaches the tipping point of tolerating all they can of naughty dog and lashes out: "Shut the bleep up" or shoves the dog out of the way. Rather than the "nagging" of "stop that, Mac, no, really, stop," like I do, avoiding the sudden yell that might actually be effective, or the ignoring of bad behavior until good behavior is presented and rewarded that would require lots of patience, emotional responses tend to be effective: they stop the dog from what they're doing because they're Loud and Scary and therefore more Interesting or plain old more Powerful than whatever was happening before. Basically, it works, at least for the human. It may not feel good, either for the human or the dog, or be long lasting, but it works, and when you're in a state of frustration for the human, getting results is important.

As someone who has done some dog training, I know that it doesn't take many times (the rule is 3) to lure a dog into a sit before you can fade the lure and start onto hand signals and cues. I actually have never trained a dog to sit by pushing his ass onto the ground (it physically doesn't even make sense), but I can see that it would be faster. You say "sit" and you shove his butt down. It's done. Two seconds. Fast results. It may not work by the third time, but the cue to position time is much faster. Humans, even well meaning humans, are impatient. They are not bad for being impatient. We expect a lot of dogs, and of ourselves. Sometimes it's good to step back and analyze why we do, and not be so hard on ourselves for our failures. Then we can move forward. And stop hitting the dog.