I’m a big fan of the Kevin Smith movies. I love the facetious way he handles topics like religion, sexuality, and the angst of young adulthood. One of my favorite movies is Dogma, a 1999 film with a star studded cast that looks at religiosity from the perspective of a skeptical generation.
What does this have to do with animals and training? How does it play into the behaviors and exchanges we have with non-human species?
Let me ask you this. Do you have strong beliefs about your training methods or just a really good idea? In the movie, Rufus (the unwritten black apostle) addresses that most religious groups get it just a little wrong, but because they have beliefs they are unwilling to learn and change. These groups become dogmatic about what is right and wrong. However, the groups that have a good idea, but are willing to learn and grow are closest to the truth.
So I ask you again, do you have strong beliefs about your training methods or just a really good idea?
I’ve been quite shocked over the years to see what is happening in the training world. This applies to non-human animals of any species, but especially dogs. There is a growing division among trainers who have strong beliefs. I have seen some of the most positive trainers become quite negative with owners and other trainers who “just don’t get it.” I have seen some of the most negative trainers become increasingly negative with the dogs in response to the push for more humane methods. Yet people flock to them for help because they know how to work with people and “sell an idea.” Everyone is so busy trying to be right, and in the end, it is the animals who are suffering.
The truth is, there is a lot of research going on right now. We are on the cusp of some great discoveries into the minds of non-human animals, especially dogs because they share our homes and, in many cases, our beds. The future is exciting as we discover just how much the non-human animal mind is capable. In the not too distant future, it will be convoluted to insist that non-human animals can’t think, feel, or have their own beliefs. We have whales and elephants who mourn their dead, tigers and dogs who will adopt and raise another’s young, and Capuchin monkeys who insist on fair pay for equal work.
So I send out a challenge to everyone in the animal world right now. Especially those dogmatic trainers who spend all their time insisting they are right.
- Put that energy to good use. Focus on the positive in your clients and your dogs, and you will get much further and learn from each other.
- Listen to the dogs with your heart. We’ve spent thousands of years evolving together, so listen to what they are trying to say.
- Learn more about how their minds work, and learn more about how you can work with them…not against them.
- Be flexible in your training and your opinions. There are a plethora of methods for dealing with and teaching even a simple skill. If at first you don’t succeed, try something different.
- Be kind. Aggression and obstinance are often met with the same. This is true within our “evolved and intelligent” species, as well.
In the end, all we have area ideas. Stick to good ones, and be willing to learn new ones. Be ready to educate and be open to education. We can learn so much from each other, human and non-human animal, and we do ourselves a disservice if we stop learning.
As the proverb says, “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Will your mind be open to new ideas or will you stand fast behind strong beliefs?
I am happy to announce that there are two new webinars available via e-Training for Dogs, Inc. These ninety minute webinars were designed to offer business related training at an affordable price.
Before working as a dog training and behavior consultant, I spent years in graphic design and marketing. My focus was on helping small businesses learn to develop the same branding and positioning as large corporations. In the first course, Marketing Dog Training Businesses, I discuss core concepts within marketing and address how to apply this knowledge to a dog training business. From social media to yellow page ads, logos to pet expos, I discuss the pros and cons of each…and how to decide where to invest your hard earned advertising budget.
In the second course, Ethics for Dog Trainers (Keeping professional in an unregulated industry), I discuss the wide range of ethical concerns facing dog trainers today. Do you know when it is time to refer out? Can you successfully build relationships with veterinarians in your community? Do you have a recipe for determining which methods to use with each client? This course will teach you how to answer these and many more questions.
Both of these courses are approved for 1.5 CEUs with the IAABC and The CCPDT.
In training circles, there are certain words that can spark a debate quicker than talk of budgets in Washington. One of these is the term “dominant,” often misused as a personality trait. (For a current, accurate discussion of dominance and its appropriate use in dogs, visit Patricia McConnell’s post here.) The other is stubbornness, which is the topic of this blog post.
First, we must define stubborn. Frequently, stubborn is used to define a dog or person who is refusing to do something out of spite or simply to be oppositional. But is this a fair, accurate definition of the word? Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines stubborn as “a (1) : unreasonably or perversely unyielding : mulish (2) : justifiably unyielding : resolute.” Justifiably unyielding…so stubborn isn’t always bad, either.
If you have a 10 year old dog who refuses to sit on cue after years of sitting with no problem there could be many reasons. Maybe he’s losing his hearing and missed the request. Maybe he is distracted. Or maybe he heard you, but he is in pain from hip dysplasia. We would consider this a reason to be “justifiably unyielding,” would we not?
Here’s another example. You have a newly adopted family member, say a 2 year old dog from the shelter. According to shelter employees, she knows a variety of cues. You ask her to sit, and she stares back at you blankly. Is she being “justifiably unyielding?” Maybe none of her previous training taught her that the request to sit still applies in a home environment. Maybe she is unsure if when you say sit, it means the same thing as when the trainer at the shelter said it. Lack of contextual generalization (the meaning of sit is always the same no matter where I put you or who says it) is a common reason for owners claiming that dogs are stubborn. This new pup may simply be unsure of the correct response.
When my beagle mix, Calvin, runs around at the park, there are times he “blows off” my request for him to come to me. Is he being stubborn? I have done a gazillion recalls in the 8.5 years he’s been in my life (Ok, maybe not a gazillion, but it has been a lot, and I never counted). We have worked in many locations, times of day, with different people, different distractions, and different levels and types of rewards. He has called off a flock of pigeons. I have reasonable expectations that most of the time when I call he will come. But sometimes, he will be unreasonably unyielding and refuse to come to me at a park, time of day, etc. at which he has performed flawlessly in the past. My students know my mantra. “No matter how well trained you think your dog is, there’s always a rabbit.”
Do I think Calvin is being stubborn? Absolutely. Let me explain. To deny Calvin the emotional and mental capacity to be stubborn is like denying him autonomy. I choose to work with my dogs. This means understanding their desires and preferences and being willing to work within their personality quirks. I embrace everything “dog” about them. If I were to deny Calvin the capacity to be unreasonably or justifiably unyielding, I’m denying him choice. And my dogs almost always have choice. (Life threatening situations are one of the rare occasions on which I expect a response, and we practice these responses, too.)
Does this mean that every time a dog “doesn’t listen” they are being stubborn? Absolutely NOT. There are many reasons a dog may fail to respond. The training may have failed for many reasons – poor generalization as noted above, lack of practice, confusion, hormones (ask a male tracking a female in estrus to come), unreasonable expectations from the owner – these are just a few of the possible reasons a dog “doesn’t listen.”
I’m not saying every refusal to perform is stubbornness. To the contrary. However, I think that it is time that those of us in training and research stop fearing the use of personality and behavior as an excuse. People who don’t train their dogs because “he’s just stubborn” will always find an excuse not to do the work. But is it fair to dogs to deny them what every dog owner knows they have?
I’d rather stop worrying about what the newest “excuse” will be, and instead, celebrate, study, and revere dogs for the beautiful, autonomous, intelligence, emotionally vibrant creatures they are.
I got to spend spring break reading books for me. These are books that will likely shape my research as I continue through grad school. Because of these, of course, my book choices dealt with dogs and the animal emotional world.
Genius of Dogs
The first book I read was Dr. Brian Hare and Dr. Vanessa Woods’ Genius of Dogs. I admit, I felt Dr. Hare’s book was just short of genius. Let me explain.
The first part titled “Brian’s Dogs” was a solid review of canine literature, evolutionary data, and domestication processes as found through Dr. Hare’s research experiences. I was delighted to read about his endeavors with the well known Belyaev foxes of Russia. It was also fun to read about Dr. Hare’s research into the canine understanding of human communicative intent in a format that was a little more palatable than the traditional peer reviewed journal article.
He also gave nods to Dr. Ray Coppinger’s self-domestication theory, which I admit, I thought was already pretty well accepted. In the chapter titled, “Survival of the Friendliest” Dr. Hare covers some cool stuff regarding bonobos, chimps, and the possibility that we co-domesticated with dogs.
The second part of the book is titled “Dog Smarts.” Here Dr. Hare gets into some cool stuff regarding the canine appreciation of the human language, spatial problem solving (which apparently, in a lab, dogs are not so good at), and their ability to estimate quantities and “spot a cheater.” He even acknowledged that feral dog packs spend less time in dominance displays and control (although he is still a little behind when it comes to wolves). Instead, popularity contests and “politics” are often employed when these stray dog groups decide whom to follow. Good stuff.
So far so good, and I really liked his take on things…even the stuff I already knew. (Let’s be honest, I have lived and breathed dogs for quite a long time now.)
The third part of the book is titled “Your Dog,” and it is where things get dicey for a lot of people. This is especially true for trainers who have a lot invested in this book’s popularity. Here Dr. Hare gets into things like breed differences (most research showed there isn’t really much, the variation is between individual dogs), scientifically expelling what he calls “The Aggressive Breed Myth.” He reviews some current schools of thought on training and covers some great data on the healing power of dogs.
He also knocks behaviorism and B.F. Skinner (Skinner was a nerd in coke bottle glasses, I’m sorry), and I know this hasn’t been well received. However, I think it is important to really read what he says. He makes a great case for what behaviorism really is, discusses the proverbial “black box” and makes a good case that most trainers are actually Cognitive/Behavior trainers. The deal is this: In textbook behaviorism (the way an academic like Hare will see it), you cannot ascribe or assume anything regarding emotion, motivation or free will. In true behaviorism, these may exist but according to Skinner himself, they are irrelevant. Any training that involves motivation, emotion or free will is simply not behaviorism. As a clicker trainer who prefers to work with her dogs, I would argue that I am a cognitive/behaviorist.
Overall, I really liked Drs. Hare and Woods’s book. There were certainly some things that I may not have agreed with, but that disagreement is what spurs future research, discovery and discussion. There are some dismissals of cognitive and emotional skills in dogs that I found disappointing (as a dog owner AND a trainer, I can make a list of anecdotal proof to the contrary), but I understand and appreciate that they were trying to stick to what science “knows.” After all, there are 282 citations and footnotes in the back of the book. But that is the beauty of research. Each discovery leads to the questions or disagreements that lead to discovery.
Now, on to a completely different animal. Dr. Marc Bekoff is known in the animal world for being compassionate to all species, embracing the possibilities of intelligence, emotion, and now, morality? Yes, you read that right. Dr. Bekoff makes a case for animal morality in his book Wild Justice.
The book is co-authored with philosopher Jessica Pierce, Ph.D. This collaboration ties together some interesting components as it confronts the expectations placed on animals and makes a case for their true experience of justice. The duo use case studies, observational data, and biological and ethological definitions of “common” terms to speculate if and what type of justice system exists in the wild. They explore empathy and grief in elephant societies as well as fairness navigation among wolves. There is even a review of rat and chimp research which forces one to at least stop and think. (Did you know that rats will not press a lever for food if it means that a cage mate will receive a shock?)
Mind you, they do not expect us to believe that animals have the premeditated, right/wrong morality of humans. After all, to this point, we have little to no data suggesting that animals have religion (the main source of human morality). However, using biologists’ definitions of concepts such as empathy, altruism, other-regarding behavior, and fairness, he does make an interesting case for the idea of animal morality.
The overall concept behind the book is that there are three categories of behaviors that can be grouped under the concept of morality. Within each of these categories are individual behaviors (contagious yawning, reward anticipation, respect of possession) that each play a role in defining “morality” in the non-human animal world.
It’s also noteworthy to mention, Darwin is quoted that morality in the animal kingdom is a matter of degree, not kind. Yup, even going back to notes from Darwin there was faith in a sort of morality among animals.
Putting the Two Together
I found these books to be two, very interested sides of the same coin. With Dr. Hare’s book, I felt there were some things lacking. I appreciate that he was trying to stick to the research data, but even then, there seemed to be interdisciplinary findings missing. It felt almost as though Hare and Woods were afraid to speculate, opting instead, to conservatively stick to the “facts.” In contrast, while I love Dr. Bekoff (if you haven’t read The Emotional Lives of Animals what are you waiting for?) I feel he and Pierce are a bit quick to speculate. Much of the data they cite come from observations of small populations, case studies, and ethograms. While this is all valuable for thesis building (thank you to Dr. Goodall for her observations of tool use in chimps), I felt that some of the leaps may be a bit too frivolous and unsupported to apply to entire populations and species. Then again, who knows what time and future research will uncover?
Many of us who have dogs won’t be surprised to hear this. More and more couples are choosing to have dogs (and other pets) instead of children. Of those who do have children, many begin with dogs as “practice” children who continue to be important members of the family after baby comes along.
There are many theories circulating the world of anthrozoology regarding this trend. Some discussions center around a growing need for two income families. The suggestion is that couples are finding it more difficult or unfair to have children to whom they cannot dedicate a full time parent. Other theories suggest that family problems growing up leave individuals less inclined to have children in fear that they will “mess up” another human being. Yet other theories suggest a social disconnect, and still more note our trend towards self interest.
Personally, I think the answer is “E: all of the above.” I also think that pets are easier to raise. (Let me add the caveat that this is in the long run, lest I be inundated with comments about how difficult an adolescent puppy can be.)
Whatever the reason, according to statistics from the American Pet Products Association (www.americanpetproducts.org) spending on our furred, finned and feathered family members has been on a steady rise for years. This trend is likely the result of Americans showering their surrogate children with all the love and care that would have otherwise been lavished upon human children.
Along those lines, let me remind you – pets are not human children. Although there is increasing research showing just how similar dogs are to us (check out Dr. Brian Hare’s new book “The Genius of Dogs” for some really cool discoveries), they have their own unique needs. Whether it be slight differences in nutrition or behavior and developmental distinctions, it is important that we spend as much time learning what our pets need as we would have spent learning to help our human children.
That said, the expectation to have children is diminishing in America. The stigma in having dogs instead of kids is fading away. And now it’s time we begin to learn more about what our new “children” need, why they need it, and how we can best provide.