In the mid 1970's, I began working for a small humane society in Oregon. I had little experience with animals and even less experience with the realities of pet overpopulation.
Each day I answered phone calls from pet owners who wanted advice about how to fix their pets' behavior problems. The most common types of problems were chronic barking, digging or jumping on guests -- simple problems for which I had no simple solutions.
Another type of call came from owners who wished to release their pets to the shelter. Our policy was to tell the owners that the shelter should be used as a last resort and that they should keep the animal if possible. After a very short time I realized that there was a clear connection between these two types of phone calls.
I remember one particular call that radically changed my attitude about our shelter policies. I spoke to a man who was angry because his German Shorthaired pointer had destroyed over $1000.00 worth of drapes. I attempted to persuade him to work through his problems and keep the dog. His reply pointed out the weakness of my position.
I was ethically opposed to anything so obviously violent and realistic enough to see that even someone with perfect timing could make a tiny error and injure the animal. I had come to a crossroads, of sorts. I decided to search beyond traditional obedience training to find methods that could not possibly injure an animal - even accidentally.
Another obstacle in my attempt to learn about animal behavior was that the experts didn't seem to agree about even basic concepts.
Worse, when they did agree, it often seemed to contradict my own experience. For instance, many authorities suggested that scent is the primary cause of many behaviors. Book after book cautioned that dogs will bite you if they detect the odor of fear, yet I spent many fearful moments handling vicious dogs without being attacked.
I discovered that visual signs, such as eye contact or touching a dog at the shoulders, are far more likely to trigger an attack than scent. It was not that the experts were wrong, they had simply not seen the entire spectrum of dog behavior. Following a traditional approach to dog training seemed like a limited path.
In contrast to conventional dog obedience training, there were many examples of trainers in different disciplines who seemed free of traditional rules or expectations. I had seen marine mammal trainers who could get a 600 pound sea lion to gently kiss a small child.
This type of behavior had not been taught using choke chains or shock collars, but with toy clickers and food rewards. I once saw a herding demonstration, where three border collies fetched a group of sheep from a distance of over 100 yards. The herdsman used neither harsh words nor a leash. His control was so refined that he could move each of the dogs, by name, a few inches at a time.
The previous examples of humane and effective training are not isolated. Sheepherders in New Zealand use dogs to herd sheep at distances up to 1000 yards. The U.S. Navy has trained both dolphins and seals to perform patrol duties at distances ten times that far. Trainers at the Brookfield Zoo , in Chicago, recently taught a female Orangutan how to nurture her baby. She had been born in captivity and had never learned from other Orangutans how to be a proper mother.
Though these examples of training all differ from traditional forms, they are quite similar to each other. The connecting thread between them is their focus on primarily positive reinforcement to shape successful performance, rather than corrections for failure. Even though these various types of trainers use different terms to describe what they do, their proper use of reinforcement is consistent.
It should not be surprising that pet owners can benefit from the knowledge of these "super trainers". Teaching a dog to lie quietly while having his nails trimmed is not so different than teaching a dolphin to lie quietly for a medical examination. Sheepherders whose dogs respond to the faint sound of a whistle can give us insight into teaching a dog to come when called.
Over the past 20 years a growing number of trainers and behaviorists have turned their skills toward expanding the methodology of training and behavior modification.
New forms of training such as dog agility competitions rely on trust between the dog and handler. Trust can only be built with positive reinforcement. Service dog trainers routinely teach dogs to respond to people who are physically unable to force a dog to be obedient. These innovative techniques offer real advantages for pet owners as well as professional trainers.
Examining these new and exciting applications for training and behavioral control is one of my goals for "On Good Behavior". While we are all interested in correcting misbehavior it is important to celebrate the entire spectrum of what dogs do. Be sure to stay tuned if you would like to examine how a breeder's whelping box can inadvertently make puppies harder to housetrain, a standard dachshund who learned to help his owner clean the fish tank by gently removing the fish with his mouth, and why dogs should never be taught to ask for bon bons at the movie theater.
Gary Wilkes, Copyright 1991-2003
Gary Wilkes - All rights reserved.
Return from On Good Behavior to Dog Articles
"It all started when my dog began getting free roll over minutes." - Jay London