Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Everyone is a dog trainer

Everyone is a dog trainer

The information we receive about dogs comes from every imaginable source. I was even told once that “Joe the hot dog guy has some great advice” It seems no matter where you look or who you ask, everyone is a dog trainer. Just ask someone with a dog about something behavior related and more often than not, they’ll have the reason and the why and the how all set go and many times without hesitation recommend their approach to you for your dog. This is not always a bad idea, and it’s not always a good idea either. However considering the layers of variables that exist within dogs and their human counter parts, it would be best to steer clear of advice that comes from sources without any legitimate credentials, and furthermore ask yourself if the advice makes sense. Dogs and their owners are individuals despite the generalizations that we all share, what is usually the best advice is advice paid for and received from someone doing an individual assessment of the dog and the dogs daily dynamic, as well as taking into consideration the dogs reward and consequence history.

If you have a dog or are with a dog you are training the dog. Dogs are influenced by everyone they meet, and especially learning from their owners, whether the owners realize it or not, even if it’s just one time for a few second the dog has learned something. Dogs are masters at discrimination, figure out sequences very well and they only generalize fear well. This is something far too few people understand. The broad based generalizations that people place on dog behavior is one of the many reasons dogs do not receive the proper training they should.

This notion of dogs dominating us, or labeling a dog aggressive when they have no bite history and may just be poor at greetings or leash reactive, has led far too many dogs to death or to lead a life of unsocialized isolation, or perhaps receive the harsh end of the training spectrum. Sadly many too many dogs are euthanized or pain trained into submission.

There are roughly 74 million owned dogs in the USA and at any given time around 5 million dogs in shelters. I’d say the vast majority of dog owners and shelter staff care deeply for dogs and would only want the best for them but would like to see the dogs flourish in their new home. Yet I meet countless dog owners and shelter staff & volunteers that despite their love for dogs have no clue about how to train, what to train or have any legitimate behavior knowledge that could help them decrease most of the dogs unwanted behaviors. It’s all some form of fingers crossed and a magic conversion in the stars. It ain’t magic kids, and if it appears that way, I can bet that there are contextual influences and some intrinsic human mechanics and timing that are leading you to the success you are having or seeing people have with the dogs.

I like the analogy of cars. There is not a legal driver on the road that has not passed a test for driving a vehicle. The driving test does not make you a better driver, but it does set you up for success, and other drivers and pedestrians are made safer by the rules of the road. Yet with dogs, anyone can get a dog and within the span of a few years, in some cases a few minutes many people feel they “know” about dogs.

It may be due to their upbringing and having a dog as a child. How much did you really learn as a kid while your mom and dad took care of the dog?

Aside from tossing a ball and giving the dog affection, food and water, where was the real learning about dog behavior and training? Just as with driving, we all saw our parents do it, they may have even explained it, but we had to take a test in order to actually drive the car legally. Most kids are busy with being kids, then teenagers and mom & dad do the bulk of the work. So the notion of having a dog as a kid is not grounds for dog knowledge. Neither is having had a dog once.

We’ve come a long way in understanding dogs, not only as far as their behavior goes but how our behavior affects them as well. Consider that a dog will remember the scent of everyone it has met, even if for a few seconds. Dogs house millions of scent memories in their brain and their fear center, the amygdale is connected directly to their nose. When you consider this it does shed light on the fact that dogs are basically looking to be safe. After all they are animals, and animals are not burdened with the desires of humans, except for food, fun and sex dogs are not interested in many of the things us humans are. The desires of dogs are on a short list, food, water, shelter, procreation, some form of socializing & fun with dogs or humans and sleep. That’s pretty much it.

The anthropomorphic dressing that is placed on dogs will in many cases lead them to be either treated with disregard for their intrinsic canine behaviors, treated unfairly or inappropriately or on the far end of the unfair spectrum euthanized. Sure we can discuss dogs in an anthropomorphic way at the bar over a few beers, but when we have training and behavior concerns we need to get down to the legit view and help the dog and the people in the dogs life feel better.

Take the dog that is merely frustrated and viewed as aggressive, he may be put down, or if the human(s) in care of the dog are not aware of the difference between barrier frustration and aggression the dog may be kept away from dogs and people and then socialization slips further, or worse the dog is viewed as dominate and now someone applies “training” that is harsh and painful, either making the dog worse, or the dog becomes shut down and lives in a state of learned helplessness or tunes out the human, now the dog is labeled stubborn. The sad thing here is that we’ve got the humane information to address all dog behaviors in a way that can actually help decrease unwanted behaviors.

I have been perplexed for a while now as to why dogs give people a false sense of knowledge, why dogs make people feel like they are gifted? How on earth do people feel compelled to risk a dog’s life based on a patchwork of what they were told at a dog park once, what their grand pa said, and a few websites they visited once. Perhaps it’s the disposable mindset some people have; perhaps it’s just plain old laziness? I often think why do people not leave a major league baseball game and believe they are as good as their idols. Mainly because they cannot replicate the players, and they know it, yet if a dog does something we ask it imbues the human with a sense of accomplishment far beyond the task of hitting a ball, the human just communicated with an animal, and the animal obeyed, it must be magic, right? Maybe, but I’d say it has more to do with reward and consequence history in the context the behavior occurred.

Maybe this sense of knowledge about dogs is because by and large dogs make us feel. They make us feel special, they make us feel accomplished (Look I can get this creature to obey), they make us feel altruistic (I saved this dog).

Dogs can also make humans frustrated, fearful, and stressed out. On the opposite end of the spectrum where the non dog loving humans live people are either ambivalent, slightly concerned because they are caring individuals and do not want to see dogs harmed or they are outright fearful. No matter where you fall dogs usually make us feel something. For dog owners, and people working with dogs, these feelings can be a hindrance or fuel to learn and grow. It all depends on who you are and who you want to be.

It’s in these feelings that the human can lose site of the fact the dogs are feeling right along with us. It is more about what the dogs are feeling and less about the human’s feelings, this is where the experienced and legitimate dog trainers/owners differ from the people that are simply with dogs or have a dog.

I am not taking anything away from anyone’s love for dogs, or their concern for dogs. Love and concern are great foundations, but love and concern do not train dogs or modify dog behavior. That is accomplished through legitimate knowledge of dog behavior (which is not too difficult if you apply yourself) and good old leg work.
It seems people have a hard time admitting they do not know something, or perhaps it’s a belief system that is so firmly in place that the thought of it not being 100% accurate is frightening? Or maybe it’s the “give it to me now” instant gratification conditioning that the 20th and 21st Centuries have plagued humans with.

Yet, when someone says they love dogs and they know dogs and they are incapable of discussing let alone educating others about dogs they do damage to dogs when they dispense false advice or put faulty training methods into practice. There is a ripple effect that goes from one dog to the next to the next…

When I work with dog owners I ask them to fill out an 18 page behavior history form. This tells me allot about the humans behavior as well as the dogs behavior. Context is everything and even having a basic description of the events daily or otherwise can allow me the window in I need to begin to address the situation.

Asking questions and them approaching dog behavior in a way that set’s the dog and human up for success is to my mind, common sense. Having a reasonable expectation is also a major part of success with dogs. Knowing that the dog does not have to be 100% perfect all the time is freeing for people, and think how your dog will feel about not having to be a battery operated machine 24/7.

There are some people out here that have expectations for dogs that are so unreasonable they could not live up to these expectations themselves. So why does the dog have to be a perfect robot, if the human does not. Further more if you are looking to have a “perfect” dog, you’d better get your knowledge base of dog behavior in line with the legit crowd and your training chops better take on rock star status in the way of mechanics, timing and humane methods. Because if your sloppy your dogs training will reflect that.

Knowing that human behavior has to change first, and then dog behavior will follow is tantamount to setting up the dynamic of dogs and humans to be less stressful.

I see where the problem exists and hopefully the knowledge gap will start to close sooner than later.

· Dog training requires that the human be humane, kind and consistent in both rewards and consequences.
· Dog training is all about human mechanics and timing. These mechanics and timing will have to be adjusted based on the dog and the context that you are in. This requires patience and being more observational than emotional.

· Dog behavior is contextual and dogs view the world as safe, unsafe or neutral. By and large humans can help dictate this world view by our actions.

· Don’t make things up to suite your opinion. It’s 2010; there is no shortage of legitimate information about dogs that is founded in humane approaches based in the science of animal learning theory. Reading is fundamental and essential for humans to be educated on anything. It’s ok to play it safe and say ‘I don’t know” then get the right information to help the dog.

· Dogs are sentient beings that have feelings and emotions and most would argue are a big reason why we humans made it through history. If you live with or work with dogs, you owe to them to get the best and most sound advice from trusted legitimate sources.

Everyone is a dog trainer, and it’s about time we took the job as serious as other far less important tasks that are in our lives. This goes for dog owners as well as people in the business of training dogs. It is a gift that we even get to have dogs, think about it.

Dogs in the USA are worshiped and celebrated, not so in many other countries.
Dogs are a large part of the economy that is thriving, the pet care industry is a 48 billion dollar business, and dogs are a huge part of it. So we’d all be wise to take care of our investments and treat dogs with the same respect as we treat our beloved automobiles. You take your car to experts, to people that fix it not “break it”, why? Because you need it to survive, and I’d say it’s high time we thought of dogs the same way. Let’s get them the best so they can be their best.
Want one more reason if that is not enough. Dogs are the source of free, yes free, joy, love, entertainment and health. Dogs are good for us and we owe them the benefit of our intelligent compassion.

So who’s with me? Are you going to be a dog trainer or just someone with a dog?

After all everyone is a dog trainer.

References and some books to consider.

Jean Donaldson - Train your dog like a pro

Karen Pryor - Don’t Shoot the Dog

Pam Reid - Excel-erated Learning

James O’Heare - The Canine Aggression Workbook 3rd edition

Terry Ryan - Outwitting Dogs