Our training histories and the type of dog we live with affect our choices. I find and applaud some sympathetically sensitive methods of teaching dogs and then go around the corner and trip over the methods that seem to regard the dog as an enemy to do battle with. Possibly the originators of those methods lived with type the dogs that encouraged those beliefs, which when applied, were successful and reinforced the employer in application. Some dogs are extremely gentle and sensitive methods of teaching are very effective, but at the other end of the scale some are extremely insensitive, compulsive, energetic and walk over the sensitive approach, often viewing everything that stands between them and their goals as an irritant. Some dogs can be both, in different environmental situations. On the hillside with the sheep my collies would continue to work with a broken leg, horizontally driving rain and freezing conditions. But in the kitchen following my wasp killings dramas they will be under the table shaking with anxiety. Physically insensitive, when in adrenaline driven work mode, and mentally sensitive when not working, taking on the guilt of nature for devising such an abomination known as The Wasp. (Read here: a history here of trauma-by-multi-wasps).
Back in my early training history my passion, hobby and social life was dependant on dog sports. Success also stimulated my need for intellectual exercise and I kept copious records of training solutions shared by the various masters of the day. The seventeen different ways to stop a dog pouncing on the retrieve object, five solutions for a tight about turn. These were collections of different strategies, protocols and mechanical solutions that left me with an extensive range of options. I made a living dosing out options!
Fate, or a dog named Abacab, pushed me into a need to discover more about why certain solutions worked, and when and why they didn’t. How was one dog able to learn from method A, but the next dog seemed to founder? Was it the teacher? Or was it the right method for the wrong reason? We learn to swim through many different methods, some more gentle than others. I was hauled along the side of a Victorian swimming baths with a canvas strap under my armpits. Hmm, it worked for me but not for my brother. It didn’t make the method right and my brother a failure, it just did not take into account our individuality, ambitions or fears.
In dog training the methods seem to rule, making all round-hole dogs successful and square-peg dogs failures. By exploring the science underneath this apparent failure, we can begin to understand how the method is failing the learner, not the other way around. A technique that works for a Gordon Setter may not work for a Border Collie.
The science underlying the method is true, the desired behaviour is cued and reinforced, the undesired is ignored. But the underlying nature of the different dogs is affecting the outcome. My collies will run around with joy when I get home, my Gordons need to physically reconnect, usually at face height.
- Protocol for greeting Collies: let them into the garden to zoom around with many toys
- Protocol for greeting Gordons: hold onto their collar, let them nuzzle your face and talk silly nonsense for sixty seconds.
If I took the approach using the same method for all dogs the Gordons would be deeply distraught: door punching, barking distress, at being put into the garden, and the Collies would be deeply embarrassed and frustrated of having to stay still, proximity to my face and listening to silly nonsense. Neither would be happy with a “sit for greeting and ignore all other behaviours” protocol, or the “cross your arms and turn your back” protocol. We need to do better and try to avoid the “one shoe fits all” philosophies, our dogs deserve a much better understanding.
This is my view of the decision-making process:
Back in my sports obsessed days I was stuck in the top of the pyramid only seeing the different methods. But by living with dogs on a closer basis and viewing them as part of nature I began my journey through the bottom layer. I went back to school to learn about the science. This bottom layer is fixed in fact, we don’t get dogs to behave like camels, you don’t get to unlearn anything and my brother would never choose a scuba diving holiday.
Our decisions are made in the middle layer and shaped by our ethics and beliefs. This is plastic, this can change and grow and dictate which mechanics and protocols we select. In this middle layer I choose to block some of the harsh realities of science and nature from my selection, I choose not to use physically harmful techniques that do exist and do work, but ethically I find uncomfortable. I do not believe that dogs are seeking to take over the world and make us slaves. I believe they make great partners and good friends and should be treated with that respect.
This middle layer is developed through consideration, exploration and understanding. It should be continually evolving, and if your choices are made at this level you will be comfortable with the protocols and solutions that you use. I study many different mechanical solutions, choose the ones that sit in conjunction with my ethical layer and employ them with an understanding of the science and nature behind them.
Back in the dark history of dog training there was a standard technique of getting the dog to lie down by stepping on the short lead forcing pressure on the back on the dog’s next, lowering the head to the floor. This was accompanied by pressure on the shoulders to cause the dog to collapse down to the floor – see how successful we were? Youch. Ethically this is, and always was, way beyond my consideration of how to get my much-loved friend to lie down. But there is a nubbin of an idea there that I still use and recommend today – “parking”.
Parking is one of your best management tools. With the dog standing at your left side, place your left hand on their collar to maintain them in position, hold your lead by the handle with your right hand and drop the slack to the floor as if you were intending to start skipping, you will need at least 5 foot lead. Place the ball of both feet on the lead, release the collar, hold the handle securely. Breathe. Talk to friends, drink coffee, text the family, listen to the teacher. Dog is safe and “parked”, you can divert your attention to other demands. Dog can take a break, watch the pretty girls. The lead is slack enough for them to move around a small amount, they can choose to sit, lie down, indulge in some mutual grooming. What they can’t do is jump at you, your companions, visitors or knock the coffee flying. Do not worry about giving them treats or praise in this position, it is about taking a break. The only interaction is for health or safety reasons. When you are ready to move off, step off the lead, raise it to your hands, by which time the dog will be alert to the next activity. No release cue, just resuming togetherness.
So the mechanics of stomping on the lead to get the dog down works, ethically it gives off a very bad smell and would seriously taint my relationship with my dog. By adapting it scientifically (a longer lead), it opens up a management protocol that is safe and comfortable for both parties, neither paying any cost.
Even the distasteful techniques that can be successful deserve examination to understand how they work, measuring against your ethics and beliefs, and perhaps adapting for your personal choice. Which ever choice you make you should always be comfortable with, if you feel slightly uneasy, stop, rethink, explore, learn and adjust or set off back to the shops for more choices … we always have more choices.