Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Clash of the Training Theories

When's the last time you told your dog:

It's okay that you're letting me know how you feel by behaving that that way (i.e. being "naughty").  Can I help you in some concrete way to feel better, or do you know how to handle feeling this way on your own?  Do you know how to calm yourself down & get back to "normal"?  If not, let me try to help you learn a new behavior that's much more productive.

Oh, man.

When it comes to argument and debate, I love it all.  My "life plan" was to head to California (from Nebraska) so that I could get my PhD in philosophy from a school out here.  Moved to Mammoth so I'd have at least a year's residency... and then ended up loving here and staying.  Hey, teaching is always something I could go back and pursue, it's just on the backburner while I follow my current passion with Après Pooch.

Back to the point.  I love debate.  But when the other person doesn't seem to realize that their point of view may have an alternative - when that person happily and enthusiastically goes on and on about their "expertise" utilizing dominance techniques as if it couldn't possibly make me uncomfortable - I have to step back and consider whether it's even worth it to offer that alternate view on dog training & handling theories.

*** This is someone I was interviewing to possibly work for me helping to walk the dogs.  Hmm ***

I mean, will this person "get it"?  She appears to be so proud of what she's accomplished and how "well" she can handle the dogs.  I hardly know her, but from what I've seen of her and her three dogs, I don't think these pups are suffering from being raised this way.  Her pups seem pretty well-adjusted.

But I'm bursting to let her know that there's another option out there for her, a method where she doesn't have to feel that her dogs are "out to steal her status as 'Leader'".  It may be extreme to say, but this type of thinking is analogous to the civil war happening over in Libya.  The people want to oust their leader, and the paranoid, nutso and cruel Ghadaffi doesn't want to lose his "Leader" title.  This power struggle dynamic leads to Me vs. Them.  How is that a happy family when the foundation of the relationship rests upon conflict and constant threat of being "overtaken"?

I did jump into the fray.

Trying to avoid any negative comments against the Dominance method so she wouldn't become defensive (which in a debate leads to illogical arguments & gets us nowhere), I said that when I work with my clients' dogs, I don't like to think of myself as the only one who sets the rules.  After all, with dominance theories, the human sets the rules and the dog must obey or else. 

I prefer to think of our relationship as one where the dog and I both come to the table with our own set of Rules.  Our own unique histories, "knowledge" (in whatever sense dogs know about the world), personalities and lifestyle preferences.  I'm not sure exactly what to call this theory, but Natural Dog Training sure comes close, so I'll call it that for now.  It's not Positive Reinforcement, since even then the objective is to teach what the owner wants utilizing tools (treats, usually) that are supposed to be more tempting than the object towards which the dog is directing its energy.

Taking the example of a dog that pulls on the leash when it sees another dog while on a walk.

Dominance would punish the dog for doing the pulling.  In theory, the dog stops pulling because it wants to avoid that punishment.
R+ would add something to the dog's experience so that the act of NotPulling is rewarded.  In theory, the dog stops pulling because it would much prefer the reward.

Here's my problem with both.  Neither is addressing what the dog feels.  What its Rule is.  I believe that in this case, the dog's rule is, "Pulling towards that dog releases fantastic endorphins and it makes me feel great!"  Dominance just seems to teach that the dog is supposed to completely suppress feelings of "Fantastic" (Or Else).  R+ seems to say to the dog, "Sure, it feels Fantastic, but you should feel More Fantastic about a belly rub or a treat or my praise."

Think about this.  What would a child psychologist say if we applied these two methods to raising kids?  Punishing a kid for expressing his emotions?  Definitely frowned upon in our culture.  Telling a kid that "You shouldn't feel like that, you should feel how I prefer you to feel"?  Or "You should prefer This over That.  This should make you feel happier than That."  Not really condemned, but you're going to screw up a kid that way.  That kid becomes an adult and has some issues with how he or she "should" act.  Yep, I'm describing myself here.  :)

My life experiences, my "Rules", are probably the reason why I dislike even the "kinder" R+ method.  I wish that I'd been validated a bit more often as a kid.  Wish I'd been told, "It's okay that you feel that way.  Can I help you in some concrete way to feel better, or do you know how to handle this on your own?" 

**Okay, perhaps I'm being too hard on positive reinforcement and conditioning methods.  Those rewards are great.  And as the handler works with the dog to reduce its stress level over time, this is helping to teach the dog a technique to deal with that stress.  I don't really want to argue against R+.  But I do feel that it's missing the point when you assume that the dog is making an intellectual decision that it's better to receive the food than it is to express itself.  Or maybe I'm missing some point?

I need to also say this about R+: it has done wonders to help some dogs.  To really help them in a way that's gentle, which for anxious, stressed dogs is a blessing compared to dominance methods.
If I do work with the lady from above, trust me, I'll be keeping a close eye on her.  And I'm going to offer classes to my Sitters to offer them a new perspective.  I don't expect my Sitters to come with a similar set of Rules that I have.  After all, the world of dog training is dominated by the two theories with barely a murmur of Natural Dog Training.  But I'm going to keep at it.

Since I love a good debate!


  1. As someone else who believes there is an alternative to dominance-based training, I tend to try and relay my preferences when talking to others. If they brush me off or flat-out ignore me, it's cool, but I won't be working with them anytime soon :)

  2. And at the same time, I don't want to immediately write people off as employees if they only understand dominance methods, since I was in that camp as of a few years ago. It's what I grew up understanding, and it's how I learned to compete in obedience trials with the german shepherds we raised when I was a kid.

    My boyfriend sort of idolizes the dog "whisperer", and yet he doesn't do anything mean or harsh towards our dogs... I trust him to take care of my clients' pups if I were ever in a bind and needed help. He's great with dogs, even though he does look ridiculous to me when he walks into the daycare and says, "No touch, no eye contact, no ..." however else that phrase goes... and stands there looking off in the distance ignoring the dogs. Oh, please, I think. Just act normal. You're not establishing yourself as a "leader," the dogs just think you're silly. :)

    and he also has ZERO interest in learning about other methods, and thinks that critiques of pack theories just aren't true. Even when I point out how captive wolf studies have been disproven, he shows no interest, since dominance makes the most sense to him. I think it plays to our culture's belief that we humans have some sort of "right" to control everything around us. The media tells the story about how popular dominance is... and we believe it.

    It's the story that's out there, so I don't blame people for believing it. But the dominance dogma really needs to go!!!


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