Monday, October 24, 2011

Perception

It really does matter what other people think. What other people think changes laws, creates common cultural responses, affects how you dress, how you eat, how you drive your car.

Pit Bulls are banned, attacked and vilified now, but that hasn't always been the case. Rottweilers, German Shepards and Dobermans in past decades have shared this spotlight. It seems to be part of human nature to need villains and monsters.

The current common perception of pit bulls is enhanced by many of the same people who say they are trying to change that perception.

Commonly associated with pit bulls are gangs, drugs and of course dog fighting. If you walk the streets of most inner cities, you'll see pit bulls sporting collars with two inch spikes and heavy chains instead of collars. The perception is that either 1) in the case of the spikes on the collar that the dog is dangerous and made even more so by the spikes or 2) in the case of the heavy chain and thick ropes, that the dog needs extreme measures to control it.

Yesterday I attended an event that was designed to create a good impression of pit bulls.  In many ways it did just that.  But in others, not only was the message lost, but the current perception was upheld.

For instance, there were five demo's yesterday.  Two demos did not involve pit bulls. One from the Border Patrol with German Shepards, one from the Doberman rescue.  Both demo's showed these two breeds in a good light.  The Shepards showed off their search and rescue and their scenting abilities in finding drugs and even people.  The Doberman demo showed how to control the prey drive of the dog with fun games, played by rules and how to positively interact with the breed.

The third demo was of pit bulls attacking ropes hanging from chains and holding on so tight and so long they appeared to have the mythical lock jaw that is actually physically impossible.  I'm all for exercising a dog, especially a powerful dog, but every time I saw one of the dogs attack those ropes all I could picture is what would happen if that dog went for a throat. 

This same group did show pit bulls in a good light doing the weight pull competition.  This is an activity where pits shine and should be promoted - not (IMO) attacking something, not in public where you are trying to create a good impression, not even something as inanimate as a ball on a string when it could so easily be misconstrued.

The fourth demo was my own.  The drill team.  We didn't perform all that well, it was hot, the dogs didn't want to work, especially my own dog and we weren't as coordinated as we should have been.  But what the dogs were doing and how we worked with the dogs, showed a totally positive light on what the breed can be like and how positive training works even on a powerful breed of dog.  During the course of our demo, the dogs showed off 10 behaviors / tricks that they had learned in the last 3 months.  The kind of behaviors and tricks that most people teach their dogs, no matter what breed.  Sit, down, stay, come, beg, crawl, circle, go around, back up and our specialty of hug the flag - all on a loose leash with no corrections, no punishment, no shocks.

The fifth demo could have been just as positive, but (again In My Opinion) failed.  It was an obedience demo and whereas the dog did marvelous, his owner trainer had been walking around the event with a client dog for a couple of hours before his demonstration.
This client dog was sporting an e-collar.  The remote was in the trainers hand and he was actively shocking the dog at intervals.  I never did figure out what the dog had attempted to do that the trainer didn't like that elicited a shock, but one time, right in front of the main event tables where the DJ was, the dog was shocked at least 7 times (and corrected also with the choke collar getting jerked) in the space of 2 minutes and made to crawl and grovel on the ground from the shock. 


How is this going to change the perceptions that people have a bout those "dangerous" pit bulls?  This post is not about shock collars, corrective type training or even that particular trainer.  This post is about the perception that is created in the minds of the public when they see the "experts" treat these magnificent dogs with disrespect, abuse and such tight control that a dog is forced to grovel on the ground in pain.  Or asked to publicly attack and hold on for minutes to a rope that is at the same height off the ground as some one's throat?
 
I have to admit that I am a crossover trainer.  I have to admit that not so very long ago, the shock collar would not have bothered me as it does today.  But even back there, in this instance, the use of it would have bothered me as it does now, because I could not figure out why the dog was getting so viciously shocked.  But even when I was using corrective measures, positive punishment and training my clients to use the same - I never did it in public. I never did it where others could misunderstand what was occurring or get a bad impression of the dog, the breed of dog (needing such harsh treatment to gain control) or myself as a trainer.  And only twice have I ever used a shock collar in my life.
 
When I started my Reactive Dog group classes almost three years ago, I realized I had to find a better way then what I'd been doing up to that point.  I immediately stopped teaching corrections.  Not only was it counter productive in a group situation, but I felt that the skill necessary, the timing necessary for proper, effective corrections, could not be achieved in that environment. 
 
What replaced positive punishment was focus, engagement, play and creating in the mind of the human that not only were they responsible for their dogs behavior but that they could change it easily. Every class since then has been fun, educational and effective.  Yes, there have been those who drop out - mostly because they wanted the magic wand technique and didn't want to expend the effort needed to help their dog achieve success.  The times when I slipped back and jerked a collar, alpha rolled a dog or tried to teach someone to do the same, ended up in chaos and I lost some of the respect I'd built in that group.
 
So yes, what others think really does matter.  What you project will create what others think.  Be aware of what perception you are creating.  Do your actions and the response they create with your dog create respect, admiration, hope and affinity in those watching?  Or are you promoting that which you say you are trying to eradicate?

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