Closing the Chasm
Since my last article, I have become increasingly aware of the huge chasm that lies between what have become known as ‘traditional’ trainers and ‘modern’ trainers. Again I find the semantics troubling, as neither description is particularly accurate, but whatever the terminology used the differences between them remain the same. The differences are so great that it seems a dog trainer (or indeed a dog hobbyist) must align themselves with one camp or the other. Either you are a ‘traditional’ trainer who scoffs at the idea of little boxes that make funny clicking noises or you are a ‘modern’ trainer whose blood runs cold at the merest sound of a clinking chain. And never the twain shall meet. But are they really all that different?
A ‘traditional’ trainer perceives what they do to be completely at odds with what a ‘modern’ trainer does and the feeling is entirely mutual. But what actually are the differences, other than the tools used by each? Do both trainers have a love of dogs? Yes. Do both trainers want to achieve results as quickly as possible? Yes. Do both trainers use methods that they have seen reap successes in other cases? Yes.
Many of you, having read my previous article, will already have decided what ‘sort’ of trainer I am. But you would be wrong, as I do not accept being labelled as one type of trainer or another. I happily live in the chasm, nipping into whichever camp necessary to achieve results for each particular dog. I am simply a dog lover with a keen interest in animal behaviour science. Therefore, seeing a dog with behavioural problems sparks two things in me– a desire to help the animal from a welfare perspective and a fascination that moves me to apply behavioural principles to solve the particular issue.
And here we come to a problem of using me as an example. I have had some of the best, most inspirational mentors to learn from. I have a wide knowledge of behaviour and have practiced it on a multitude of dogs. I am consistent in my training and have good timing, plus the experience and knowledge to think on my feet. All (good) dog trainers have the same qualities. Pet owners on the other hand, by and large do not. So I have serious concerns with giving a pet owner a check chain or electronic collar because I know they have no understanding of learning theory, of conditioning or of correct punishment (I am deliberately ignoring the welfare concerns temporarily – forgive me). That having been said, I have exactly the same concerns about giving a pet owner a clicker or a treat bag because I know they have no understanding of learning theory, of conditioning or correct reinforcement. They often have bad timing, are inconsistent and prone to anthropomorphism. Tools do not a good dog trainer make, no matter how modern. As an amateur, I cannot play a keyboard any better then I can a harpsichord.
As a dog lover, if you see a dog with issues, you want to help. People who have used check chains successfully and with good results in the past are not bad people because they recommend a struggling owner also tries them. Quite the opposite – the recommendation is stemmed in a desire to help the struggling owner achieve quick, desirable results. I oppose the accusation that these trainers are somehow evil as much as I oppose the accusation that modern trainers would hinder the owner’s chances of success. The modern trainer who has used clicker training recommends doing so to help a struggling owner because they have had success with it before – not because they are afraid to get stuck in and ‘sort the dog out’.
So let’s agree to respect our similarities and not focus on our differences. The various tools we use are not inherently good or evil – they are inanimate objects which can be used for good in the right hands. There are welfare issues surrounding some tools that I think need attention (why is it that a box of toothpicks comes with instructions but a check chain doesn’t?) But my main gripe is that most owners are not experts and are using tools without correct training. For example, learning theory states that punishment only works if delivered extremely promptly following a behaviour – check chains are supposed to deliver that, but they do not operate themselves: handler timing is essential.
Of course, we operate in a field of massive flux, with new research being conducted and published all the time. Our knowledge of both animal behaviour and learning theory is evolving and changing. What we know is that a lot of the older training methods work not because they reduce ‘dominance’ but for other reasons – often by creating fear in a dog or by suppressing a dog’s reactions. These methods in the hands of a skilled trainer can sometimes be effective. In the hands of the average pet owner, they are more likely to end with a bite and, as a consequence, either re-homing or euthanasia.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that most modern techniques take longer to get results and in some situations where, for instance, aggression directed towards people or even owner impatience is involved, what is needed is a quick fix to prevent injury or euthanasia. Some owners are simply not capable of operating some of the more time consuming methods involved with modern training. So the choice boils down to: leave the dog and owners in danger/re-home the dog/use a different method. The first two options are never favourable, leaving the third the only option. However, none of this alters the fact I think we all agree on regardless of our methods: obtaining a dog in the first place should be harder. But that is the topic of a much later article!
The question I always get asked when I discuss traditional training methods is "why change what isn’t broken?" My answer is always the same: because it is broken. The relationship between dog and owner is inevitably fractured when the person operates in a ‘dominant’ fashion because, despite pervading popular belief, dogs do not operate on a dominance hierarchy and simply don’t understand why their owner is being so horrible to them! For my next article, I am currently researching the question of dominance and why dominance theory won’t die. "Because it works" I hear you yell. The question I will seek to answer in my next article is..."does it?"