Saturday, April 28, 2018
Is the reluctance in using positive reinforcement in dog training linked to the fear of vulnerablilty?
My colleagues and I talk a lot about our industry and those related to it, especially the dog training industry. That’s because with our interactions with dogs are deeply impacted by the way that others interact with them—and that the dog training industry is unregulated. Despite certifications available through organizations like Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers as a start, some trainers don't seek professional training, certification and ongoing education. I’ve talked before about how rough handling, punishment-based dog training and ill-conceived pet products impact my fellow pet sitters and everyone else around the dog that they’re being used on. Sometimes, these have consequences that are unthinkable. It's sad to think that as a pet sitter, given even one of the certifications I've got I out-qualify some professional dog trainers out there.
Whether we have a pet or not, we hear a lot about dogs that have been poorly socialized, have had a cloudy history or have suffered abuse. I’ll venture to say that we all know of a family with a dog that has separation anxiety, others that have fear-based issues, aggression or anything in between. I know several. Having a knack for understanding how to communicate with them, I’ve several in my care, and we’ve great relationships. Trust is the bass for that. Given the fact that trust and communication are touted so much in relationships between humans (though not so easy facilitated), it’s no surprise that it’s been a healthy boon in our interactions with dogs. This is the core of positive-reinforcement training, and something my work is firmly rooted in. I know that’s true for a lot of other people, too. In fact, most of the interactions that I and other folks have with dogs and their handlers are good. I’m happy about that, given how unfavorably I’ve seen some of them go.
I’ll note that I can always spot an individual that uses training (if at all) and interaction methods that rely on dominance and fear or if a handler is clearly just clueless. The humans may not tell me, but a dog’s body language doesn’t lie. That’s a heart wrenching thing to observe. I’ve learned to be pretty savvy about diffusing situations for the dog’s sake as well as any human close by and advocating for the dog (and in turn for the humans).
It’s fair to say that in my own view, one that I share with so many others who adhere to ethical and science-based training and interaction concepts, that each of us has not only a responsibility to the animals that have been entrusted to us by clients, The Universe or otherwise, but to the well-being and safety of other humans and animals.
So, why isn’t everyone doing it?
That’s a very good question—one that I've been mulling around—and something that Zazie Todd, PhD explores in a new paper, titled ‘Barriers to the Adoption of Humane Training Methods’ out this month. She detailed a few interesting ideas in a companion piece “Why Don’t More People Use Positive Reinforcement?’, on Companion Animal Psychology.
I’ll assert that, as Todd does, it’s likely that it’s complicated, just as we humans are.
It’s true, that having a smooth flow of communication with dogs takes time, effort, and as is the case with other humans, it’s not the one we’re communicating with -- it’s usually us -- that’s not doing so effectively. But the difference between communicating with dogs and other humans is the language barrier: we need to speak ‘dog’. That requires us to be fully present, clear, precise in our timing, and to be aware of our body language as well as our pet’s. We need to be patient, to stop, back up, start again. Being conscious of how we’re feeling physically and mentally when we’re engaging with our dogs is key, and that goes for our dogs, too: are they distracted or uncomfortable? And, just how does that affect our training time and everyday interactions?
This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course, but my goodness, it all seems like such work, compared to methods that rely on fear, punishment, dominance, the notion of living in a pack, or aversives, or so it seems. The fact is that once one understands how to use humane training methods they understand it isn’t work: it’s simply a shift in thinking about how to communicate. The rest comes easily.
There are a lot of other reasons why the humane methods, though the norm these days, still don’t resonate with some families and even trainers. Todd skillfully points those out, but I feel a lot of it comes down to the perceived barriers of those that aren’t on board, especially because it calls on us as humans to step it up and take stock of how lazy we can be about communication and relationship-building.
But something else has been gnawing at me: I kind of wonder how much of it has to do with the sense of vulnerability that dogs inherently bring out in us. (Thanks, oxytocin!)
As a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, I’ve studied how grief and loss are often tainted by shame and fear—and how vulnerability comes with the territory of loss and connection. That’s not always a comfortable feeling, vulnerability. It’s not a far leap then to consider how one, in an effort to maybe tamp down their natural vulnerability in interacting day after day with their dog during training to go with a methodology that is the polar opposite: to try and mold a dog, like a lump of clay by using fear, pain even punishment, rather than honoring the living, breathing being that they are and building a trust relationship. I wonder the same about those hired by families to train dogs... what is their relationship with vulnerability?
What I find it hard to ignore is that humane training methods by their very nature require us to tap into our vulnerability and be open to it; those that are antiquated rely on punishment, fear and pain, squashing any any sense of being vulnerable. Going the humane route—being vulnerable—forges the human-animal bond and preserves it. It teaches the pet to be resilient and to cope with difficult situations with more finesse. These methods promote choice and autonomy for the pet, and they hold us humans accountable. Most importantly, they bolster the well-being and safety of not only the humans and animals that engage in interactions that are up close and personal, but every human and animal that they are in proximity of.