Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Sacred Cows of Dog Training

The dog's intelligence, sociable nature and adaptability make him an excellent companion and also make it easy to train and educate him to ensure he fits comfortably into the human world. Today the dog is more companion then working partner and various theories have emerged to explain his behavior - and mis-behavior - and how to make that behavior more amenable to us as humans.

Since the advent of the Internet, the availability of information about everything you could possibly know about anything has grown exponentially.  Dog training is no different.  You can now find the "secrets" of the Hollywood dog trainers, dog trainers in general and the ways of canine whichness on National Geographic and Animal Planet.  Don't get me wrong, I've benefited tremendously from this availability of information despite decades of experience and college studying animal behavior, biology and genetics.

Before the information age, one had to either go to school and become a Veterinarian or an Animal Behaviorist.  There was no university education in becoming a dog trainer or even just a dog behaviorist.  You had to have the whole ball or nothing.  Or, you could apprentice under an existing trainer.  Canine behaviorists didn't actually exist before the last few years that didn't have one of the above two degrees.  Trainers however, learned about behavior as it applies to dogs, and learned how to train a dog. 

Before the 40's and the advent of learning theory and the Premack Principle, animal training was a hit or miss thing.  Different "schools" of training existed generally based on what breed group of dog you were training or what function you were training a dog for.  There were the herding dogs, guarding, hauling, hunting, pointing, retreiving and earth dogs. Each breed group had it's job and a basic set of guidelines for how to train a dog in it's group.  But each individual did things their own way for the most part, mostly after apprenticing under a family member or neighbor. 

Then came BF Skinner and his students, the Brelands, with operant conditioning, classical conditioning (Pavlov), the Premack Principle and various other pieces of psycho babble - how dogs and other animals (including humans), supposedly learn.  At pretty much the same time, there were studies done on captive wolves and dominance theory emerged to explain lupine behavior and this was translated into canine behavior.  Everyone "knows" that dogs are descended from wolves.

During the 1900's many prominent trainers, and their methodologies, emerged in the field of dog training. These include Conrad Most, William Koehler, Winifred Strickland, C.W. Meisterfeld and Barbara Woodhouse. They developed their own particular style of training techniques, and made lasting contributions to the field of organized dog training.  

Then came Ian Dunbar and Karen Pryor who introduced positive reinforcement only training and pushed it into prominance in the 80's.  Karen Pryor and several others were trainers for Sea World and learned the techniques that the Breland's had perfected.  But the 80's also brought out the dominance theory and a battle began between proponents of the two methods.


Personally, my practice and theory is different then most of what you read, see on TV or hear from other trainers.  I think it is a mistake to think that because dogs are descended from an ancestor of wolves, they behave like wolves. If you actually watched wolves in the wild, they cooperate, not dominate.  Wolves understand who is good at what and test each other in play to find out where they fit in - not the pack as a whole - but in each activity that the pack is involved in. 

Training dogs is fun for me and for the dog, as it should be. It is through play behavior, and the social rules that all dogs and wolves learn as pups, that a "pack" or "family" of canines is ruled. Further, it is fun to play with our dogs even if none of us learn anything. It will certainly make more sense to the dog than to be jerked around on a leash or sent to the corner for a timeout.


I've found through the years that all that's really necessary is a knowledge of and continual use of communication signals to and from the dog, the willingness of the owner to change how they view their dog and how they interact with it, and a rehabilitation period for the dog to discard the behaviors that were driving everyone (including the dog) crazy.  Play is an important aspect of this process because it is how dogs learn to be dogs as puppies.  The rehabilitation process is basically just informing the dog, in a language and format that he understands (what momma did when he was a pup), what is acceptable, where the boundaries lie, and what the rules for future behavior are.

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