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.