I’m joking, of course, but you might not know it if you don’t know me. Those of you who do know me know that I’m kind of a geek—I like science, I like research, I like to study and I spend a fairly ridiculous amount of time on continuing education and professional development. One of the greatest resources we dog trainerly types have is a little company called Tawzer Dog Videos. The fine folks at Tawzer travel all over the country videotaping seminars on dog training and behavior. These seminars—and some of them are several days and many hours long—are presented by the top experts in the field talking about everything from dog sports to sheltering issues, aggression or the cutting edge of research cognition and genetics. Tawzer Dog Videos has a rental program rather like Netflix that allows me to partake of all these goods without breaking my budget. Without having to spend a fortune on travel and hotel bills, I can sit in the comfort of my own home and broaden my horizons with the best of the best.
Now, almost all of the presenters in these videos are first rate—outstanding trainers, top competitors in their sports, deeply experienced and knowledgeable in their specialties. And that being said, there’s still a difference in the quality of the information they present.
The truth is, the people with formal academic backgrounds in science—the Ph.D.s in biology, zoology, psychology, etc., the veterinary behaviorists (a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with a specialty in behavior) and the Masters of Science holders—really are on a different level. Approaching them closely are people with long backgrounds and experience in animal training. Not dog training, animal training—people who’ve worked across multiple species like marine mammals, exotics and wild animals in zoos and aquariums (though they often also have an academic degree as well.) And these folks tend to come to the dog training table with a rather different approach than the stereotypical Pop Culture dog training experts, because they tend to come equipped with a couple of different paradigms.
In this first part of the blog, I’m going to talk about animal trainers, and I want to be clear—I’m talking about good animal trainers—the ones following best practices. Yes, there are idiots out there in every field, but we don’t want to use them as our models. That’s the whole point: if you want to get the best information about how to train your dog, you want to know what the best people are saying and doing. You and your dog deserve it.
On that note, it’s not unusual for a “dog expert”—whether a trainer, a groomer, a committed rescuer, a dog sports competitor or the person who’s “been around dogs all my life”--to have gotten into their avocation because they deeply, passionately love dogs. Dogs are their heart, their chosen calling. And they may or may not know a blessed thing about animals in general, or animal behavior, or any of the broader principles of science about learning or evolution or genetics that influence how all animals behave. This narrowness of focus and lack of context can result, frankly, in all kinds of silliness based on a notion that dogs are special. Dogs aren’t like other animals—they learn because they want to please us, there are no “bad dogs” and we have only to project enough Alpha leadership energy and they’ll figure out how to behave the way we want them to. Of course, no one in their right mind would try this with my cat, but dogs are regularly twisted into Pop Culture shapes that no animal on the planet could conform to.
The trouble with this is that if your only point of reference is a passion for dogs, it’s hard to see the mistakes. A trainer who teaches puppy classes may spout utter nonsense about wolf behavior without knowing the same behavior can be seen in, oh, ostriches and lizards, a top sports competitor may have a case full of trophies and know nothing whatsoever about treating separation anxiety or noise phobias, a 20 year veteran of animal control may believe things about a “breed” that are simply impossible according to the rules of genetics and the heart-on-the-sleeve rescuer may be so convinced that there are “no bad dogs” that he completely misses signs that a dog is flat-out abnormal due to untreated medical conditions, genetic glitches or birth defects. The result is a veritable zoo of misinformation, fallacy and goofiness that pet owners have to wade through at their peril.
So the first thing animal trainers have is a context: animals are animals, and it doesn’t shock them or upset them when dogs (animals) behave like dogs (animals) instead of fantasy wolves, little furry people or heavily edited canine movie stars. They also tend not to get sidetracked by irrelevancies—they don’t worry about whether the rhinoceros wants to please them or if the sea lion is being spiteful because she was left alone at lunchtime. They do tend to be far more sensitive to how their students feel—when you’re working with critters that will scratch, bite, kick, gore or otherwise hurt you when it moves them, it tends to engender respect for their emotional states—you pay very close attention to their level of stress, fearfulness and all attendant body language signals. It pays royally to learn the ethogram of the species you’re working with—that catalog of observable behaviors and body language postures that tells you the difference between an animal that loves your reinforcers and is happily working and an animal that is freaking out and contemplating a go at your throat. Animal behavior is complicated, not all animals are easy to read and mistakes do happen. But no animal trainer worth their salt steps into a pen with a potentially dangerous critter—or one that could hurt itself if it panics--without having done their homework and learned what to pay close attention to.
This is in contrast, alas, to the uncounted numbers of “experienced pet owners” and self-appointed dog experts who don’t know, can’t read or simply ignore the most basic signs of stress in our beloved pet dogs—displacement sniffing, look-aways, lip licks and paw raises being a few commonly missed items on the dog ethogram. The saddest of these are the parents who ignore the growls of the family dog because Fido doesn’t actually bite the child—until the day he finally does. A growl means, “I don’t like this, I’m getting really stressed, frightened or angry, please stop.” Not something a good animal trainer would ever ignore, and certainly the bite would come as no surprise to them if they did.
To the folks with solid backgrounds in animal training, a lot of popular dog training practices look simply ridiculous. Common failings include using poor reinforcers, poor delivery, bad timing, working too fast or too slow, being inconsistent, unclear, stressing the dog out (which blocks learning) and expecting brilliant behavior after three repetitions in the kitchen instead of the thousands of reps in multiple locations and contexts it takes to craft a truly reliable response. This isn’t to say that little Fifi can’t be housetrained and learn to come when called unless you’ve spent years training seals or lemurs—of course she can. Thanks to domestication and centuries of genetic selection, dogs are probably the easiest animal on the planet to train, which is why we get away with so much nonsense. Little Fifi is one sharp cookie and likely to figure out what you want eventually—or how to get around you if she can’t. But bad information and bad practices make it slower and harder on her, and you, than it needs to be.
Of course, most dog trainers don’t have experience with exotics or marine mammals—I certainly don’t. Curiously, we can have an advantage in one respect: there are a lot more dogs than grizzly bears to train, they’re readily accessible and I can rack up hands-on experience with hundreds and thousands of dogs in far less time than it would take me to find that many sea lions. There are also a lot more dog trainers working and researching and developing their art and science. What’s cool about this is that a healthy cross-flow is underway: dog trainers and animal trainers are talking to each other now, sharing ideas and learning from each other’s best practices. Once the notion that dogs are somehow different from other animals is driven to the wasteland where it belongs, the walls come tumbling down, and a technique that works fabulously in zoos with a cranky hippo that doesn’t like to pick up his feet may be just the ticket for a cranky Rottweiler with nail-trimming issues—or visa versa.
Learning more and understanding more about animals and animal behavior in general is a wonderful and I think necessary foundation for learning about and understanding dogs and their behavior. Trainers who have a background in or who have taken the time and effort to educate themselves about animals in general are less likely to give you outdated, inaccurate information about wolf behavior, make broad sweeping statements about breeds or suggest that your cat isn’t marvelously trainable. They’re also less likely to give you sound-bite, cookie cutter answers to complex behavior questions, attribute every problem to one-size-fits-all answers like “dominance” or ignore how your dog feels during a training session.
Most of all, as we’ll see in the next section, they won’t say stuff or do stuff that flies in the face of what the best of the best are saying or doing—stuff that just isn’t true to the science of animal behavior and in keeping with the best knowledge and best practices we’ve currently got.
Coming in Part 2: Academia and why it matters.