Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Integrity: a response to Drayton Michaels

Yesterday, I read this blog post by Drayton Michaels:

It contained quite a bit of critique of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) for not taking a tough enough stance on enforcing the use of positive, science-based, humane training methods among its members.  Around paragraph #432 (kidding, but it IS long) I started really thinking about Drayton's message, and what points I agreed and disagreed with.  I too am disheartened when "the trainer down the road" uses heavy-handed methods like choking, alpha rolls, and shock on a dog-reactive dog, and I later see that same dog and owner as a client - and need to deal with the havoc that trainer's methods have made of the situation.  And sometimes it's nice to hear someone forego the sugar-coating and just speak from their heart (and speak, and speak, and  Of course, Drayton's chosen tone will likely only strengthen the resolve of anyone in disagreement. 

So what do I want, from fellow trainers, and from professional organizations?

As I was composing some comments, it dawned on me that a common theme in my collection of thoughts is INTEGRITY.

Our perspectives are shaped by our experiences of course...

While not his main point, the author seems to convey that EVERY dog trainer should have skill and knowledge for EVERY situation, referencing behavior modification, taking detailed behavioral histories, and a long list of things the APDT should require before allowing a person to be a member.
From a dog trainer, what I really want is INTEGRITY.  If a trainer only dispenses advice they are qualified to give, and can identify and refer other problems to qualified trainers or behavior consultants – well, I think that’s not only adequate, but more reasonable to achieve.  If we as a community focused on this one thing, made this one of our core cultural values, if we regarded saying “I am not qualified for this” as a badge of honor rather than meeting it with scorn, and if we developed better and more cooperative networks of trainers in our communities – well not only would we be better off, but our clients and their dogs would be too.  Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant are two different roles; a person can be both, but if we required all dog trainers to be both, we would lose many wonderful dog trainers who have no interest in being everything a dog owner could ever need in one package.  (And, just putting myself in someone else’s shoes -  if it were me, I’d be more likely to refer cases and ask questions if my local expert didn’t call me a “cookie tossing hack.”  Just sayin’.)

From a professional organization I want INTEGRITY.  I have to say this about APDT – I don’t see them professing to be something they are not.  They provide good information to pet owners about choosing a trainer, and they are very clear about what their various levels of membership mean – and do not mean.  They offer information to pet owners about more stringent memberships and certifications conferred by other organizations.  Their position statements are easy to find by both members and dog owners.  They have a good track record of continuously improving their educational offerings and services to members.  It’s not everything, but it’s something, and I think they accomplish the things they claim to do with a reasonable degree of success.

When a trainer describes their methods, first and foremost I want INTEGRITY.  I don’t want to hear about the “static tickle” of a shock collar, but I also don’t want to hear about your “100% Positive” dog training, either – neither of these adequately informs the client about the trainer’s chosen methods, and neither is helping the dog owner truly understand dog training.  Of course, it can be hard to describe your methods honestly, at least in a concise way, since no one agrees what positive is, but we should try to be as accurate as we can.
Which leads me to my last comment:  I think the problem with having an Association of “Positive” Professional Dog Trainers is defining “positive” in a way that enough people agree with, to form a sustainable volume of membership. 
The spectrum of commonly used training methods is quite a rainbow from choking and alpha rolls, to shock, to traditional leash pops, to a spray of water, to scolding, to a mat on the couch that beeps loudly and scares the dog when the dog steps on it, to tucking a dog gently into a sit and time-outs and penalty yards.  Any attempt to divide the vast spectrum of methods into “positive” and “not positive” immediately splits trainers into two camps - Too Little and Too Much - and the trainers are then focused more on their differences than their similarities.  I wonder sometimes if some of the positive training groups that have started, might possibly not be able to get enough traction due to just how far along the spectrum they are.  Uniting less members means an organization has less power to make any impact at all.  It’s hard to tell where the “perfect” balance would be, where the restrictions on methodology would still allow for a large enough supporting membership to make the organization large enough to forward the goals of the professionals in its membership.
Do I wish the ADPT could wave a magic wand, and help the dog training community evolve more quickly?  Sure.  Do I wish there was an alternative nationwide association or professional designation with the same size and offerings that the APDT has, that could accurately capture exactly *my* definition of “positive” and promote my own professional standards?  Sure.  But whenever you unite a large group, there is some element of compromise needed, and the APDT helps me to be better at what I do, which I why I am a member.  To some degree, I think we’ll all have to settle for making our own culture change, with our communities, by volunteering in ways that advance our profession, and with the dog and person in front of us.
Any maybe, just maybe, an APDT webinar on how to use science-based and kind methods to deal with dog-dog reactivity is just what "the trainer down the road," or a potential protege', needs to choose a new path.
Ann Withun, BS, CPDT-KA

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Riverboats and Riesling

Ah, sometimes as dog trainers, our dreams come true, if only for the day.  Which is good enough for anyone, I think.

Today, the Humane Society of the Harrisburg Area was hosting Ride the Pride With Your Dog, where we could ride on the riverboat "Pride of the Susquehanna" with our dogs, and enjoy a picnic on shore.  Happily for the HSHA, there was a nice, large crowd of dogs and their people out on this hot but beautiful day. 

Of course, this is Brutus' cup of tea.  As Mayor of Dogtown he's always eager to get out and meet his constituents, shaking hands and kissing babies.  Paul and I decided that this would be a fun way to begin phasing out his convalescence after surgery about 6 weeks ago. 

But essentially, this event, with no personal space for canine or human, all potentially grumpy from the heat, would be Rowdy's nightmare.  Or at least, not something I would take him to, knowing that while he *would* do it for me, having "rude strangers rub up against him left and right" would not be something he'd enjoy.  Understandable, I think, if you really put yourself in his paws.  Reminding me of the good dog trainer's rule of thumb that "just because you can does not mean you should."  Rowdy stayed home with a lovely food-hiding-toy stuffed with a slice of cheese and a handful of biscuits, which is definitely more his style.

Enter Seelie.  A year and a half ago, I was looking for a dog to add to the family both to ease Rowdy's burden as demo dog (and overall utility wonder dog) as he grows older, and to hopefully be able to just walk into a crowded dog event without me having to be on "high alert" like I need to be with the, um, less than social cattle dog.  OK, so Seelie turned out NOT to be the answer to this request, ending up being - in technical dog trainer terms - "kinda freaky."  Ah well, the best laid plans...... 

But TODAY!  Little wonder-woman girl!  There were dogs everyplace, with weird pushed-in noses, and odd fluffy ones, and dogs littler than any normal dog should be and just tons of dogs that are decidedly NOT border-collie-shaped (i.e. "not normal" in Seelie's eyes.)  And gangplanks, and miniature trains with kids riding on top, and kids grabbing her tail, and horns sounding, and a BOAT for goodness sake!

And she was a CHAMP.  A Dream.  She met every dog and person of every age not only with tolerance, but enthusiasm and impeccable social skill.  I'd like to say this is a result of very hard work over the past year and a half, and maybe it is - but either way, I'll just sit here with my glass of Riesling and bask in the small gift I received today.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Losing Touch, and Trying to Regain It

some disjointed ramblings on nature, dogs, and the side effects of positive cultural change

On a blog I follow, the question was posed: "Are dogs behaving worse now than before?"  Which of course begs a few questions, like how long ago is 'before,' what dogs are you talking about, and what kind of behavior is "worse?" 

But to be honest, here's my reply: Yes, I think the average dog-on-the-street's behavior has gotten worse on average over just the past few years.  That a lot of averaging, but still.  Basic and Intermediate classes are increasingly challenging, with one or more bark-lungers, constant barkers, or just several that have no self control at all.  But I'm going to try to convince you how in some ways, this is a good thing.

The author of a recent article which was the subject of the blog goes on to propose that - get this - dogs are behaving worse nowadays because people are starting to train them at a young age.  (Really?!)  He goes on to make all kinds of wild comparisons to things akin to forcing kindergarteners to learn algebra or face consequences.  Which is different or course, because we must always remember that dogs are not children - in this case because they have no capacity for math.  But in some ways the same because if you put pressure on any student to learn something they are incapable of doing, it could certainly affect the learner's interest in future learning, among other things. 

But the keystone isn't the subject matter, it's the method!  Frankly, I think if a little kid were introduced to algebra in a positive, motivational, non-punitive way, and some of it sank in, well kudos to the teacher.  But that's just it, isn't it?  I agree, if you're shocking or choking your dog into submission, it does make it even worse to apply these techniques to a puppy... but when training is a fun game, for kids or for dogs, there is no age limit.  A good instrctor using positive reinforcement training adjusts the training goals and criteria in order to work in small steps.  They ensure that the student has a large percentage of success on one step, before moving on to the next step.  Voila!  Teach anything you want, to anyone, because the learner drives the pace of the training. 

You can even teach a young and crazy border collie, who you've had for a very short time, to paint.  Over the span of three days of joyous learning.  If only you can accept the teeny steps forward that she offers on days 1 and 2 that seem like they will never turn into painting, until it magically happens on day 3.  I think this painting thing is a remarkably good model for learning to teach, and maybe elementary school teachers should come to Dog Scout Camp.

But back to the unruly dogs.  Here are my observations:
  • Less optimistic than the points that will follow... I think people are increasingly losing touch with the natural world.

Paul's family are outdoorsy folks from northern Michigan who have always had dogs, always had their dogs accompany them camping and fishing, etc, and always had dogs who were reasonably well-behaved, happy, well-adjusted dogs.  Oh, there are grand stories of dog misbehavior, for sure.  But these tales were the exception in otherwise harmonious dog-human relationships.  And I'll bet not one of these people ever spent one millisecond considering Dog Training Methods. They were, and are, naturals. They strike a balance between letting dogs be dogs, and setting clear boundaries for their behavior. They are able, without an instructor for an interpreter, to communicate with dogs. They read dog body language without knowing they have this skill. This, I believe, is because they grew up surrounded by the natural world, and maintained a lifelong connection with it.  Also important is that their dogs also were not so far removed from the natural world as "city dogs" are. 

I claim that the same things that are producing some very bad parenting, are producing dogs and kids who are paridoxically BOTH over-indulged and over-punished (this is not a word I'm sure, but you know what I mean.) People set no boundaries, and then punish kids and dogs for crossing them. People don't really bother to communicate, at least not the part of communication that involves seeing if and how your message was received, and listening to the messages you're getting in return. People think a dog wagging his tail is always friendly, because they heard it on TV or something, even if the rest of the dog's body is clearly communicating a wide array of dog curse words. 

In some ways, teaching a dog training class involves reconnecting people to a small piece of the natural world.  Which may be part of why people like having dogs, this re-connection to a part of us we've lost.  And might be part of the reason I enjoy teaching dog training class.

But here are some BETTER reasons you might see more unruly dogs out and about:

  • People, not just crazy dog training people, are increasingly considering their dogs to be family members, and wanting them to accompany them to all kinds of places.  Creating a side effect to this wonderful trend, these same people have not necessarily embraced "training" as something that is important for their dog.  And they may suffer from the same lack of personal responsibility sickness that much of society is ill from.  Oh well.  Society walks forward in baby steps.
  • People are increasingly aware that dog behavior can be changed through training.  Here, I've got to give a RARE shout-out to the Dog Whisperer (what?!) - because though I generally wholeheartedly disagree with his methods, the show brings this important factoid into people's homes: you can do something about your dog's issues, and you might need a competent professional with knowledge and experience (i.e. not CM...) to help you.  And so they come to class.  Which is good.
  • Less people are content to respond to a dog's issues with 1) take him to the pound, 2) put him to sleep, 3) chain him out back/never let him leave the house.  They love their dogs anyway.  They care for their dogs more than they care for strangers on the street who might look down their nose at them for their dog's behavior.  Maybe the dog's capacity for unconditional love is starting to rub off on us, a little.
  • More people are giving second chances to shelter and rescue dogs whose previous owners left them "go to seed" without any early training.  Here is the biggest contradiction to the article in question: early training is the CURE, not the CAUSE.  But these kind folks haven't missed the boat, because they are generally very motivated to put some effort into re-training these dogs, by attending a class with them.  And it WORKS.  And all of a sudden, they're the best behaved dog in the neighborhood.