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Making choices

August 25, 2011

Our training histories and the type of dog we live with affect our choices. I find and applaud some sympathetically sensitive methods of teaching dogs and then go around the corner and trip over the methods that seem to regard the dog as an enemy to do battle with. Possibly the originators of those methods lived with type the dogs that encouraged those beliefs, which when applied, were successful and reinforced the employer in application. Some dogs are extremely gentle and sensitive methods of teaching are very effective, but at the other end of the scale some are extremely insensitive, compulsive, energetic and walk over the sensitive approach, often viewing everything that stands between them and their goals as an irritant. Some dogs can be both, in different environmental situations. On the hillside with the sheep my collies would continue to work with a broken leg, horizontally driving rain and freezing conditions. But in the kitchen following my wasp killings dramas they will be under the table shaking with anxiety. Physically insensitive, when in adrenaline driven work mode, and mentally sensitive when not working, taking on the guilt of nature for devising such an abomination known as The Wasp. (Read here: a history here of trauma-by-multi-wasps).

Back in my early training history my passion, hobby and social life was dependant on dog sports. Success also stimulated my need for intellectual exercise and I kept copious records of training solutions shared by the various masters of the day. The seventeen different ways to stop a dog pouncing on the retrieve object, five solutions for a tight about turn. These were collections of different strategies, protocols and mechanical solutions that left me with an extensive range of options. I made a living dosing out options!

Fate, or a dog named Abacab, pushed me into a need to discover more about why certain solutions worked, and when and why they didn’t. How was one dog able to learn from method A, but the next dog seemed to founder? Was it the teacher? Or was it the right method for the wrong reason? We learn to swim through many different methods, some more gentle than others. I was hauled along the side of a Victorian swimming baths with a canvas strap under my armpits. Hmm, it worked for me but not for my brother. It didn’t make the method right and my brother a failure, it just did not take into account our individuality, ambitions or fears.

In dog training the methods seem to rule, making all round-hole dogs successful and square-peg dogs failures. By exploring the science underneath this apparent failure, we can begin to understand how the method is failing the learner, not the other way around. A technique that works for a Gordon Setter may not work for a Border Collie.

The science underlying the method is true, the desired behaviour is cued and reinforced, the undesired is ignored. But the underlying nature of the different dogs is affecting the outcome. My collies will run around with joy when I get home, my Gordons need to physically reconnect, usually at face height.

  • Protocol for greeting Collies: let them into the garden to zoom around with many toys
  • Protocol for greeting Gordons: hold onto their collar, let them nuzzle your face and talk silly nonsense for sixty seconds.

If I took the approach using the same method for all dogs the Gordons would be deeply distraught: door punching, barking distress, at being put into the garden, and the Collies would be deeply embarrassed and frustrated of having to stay still, proximity to my face and listening to silly nonsense. Neither would be happy with a “sit for greeting and ignore all other behaviours” protocol, or the “cross your arms and turn your back” protocol. We need to do better and try to avoid the “one shoe fits all” philosophies, our dogs deserve a much better understanding.

This is my view of the decision-making process:

Making Choices pyramid

The basis for making choices

Back in my sports obsessed days I was stuck in the top of the pyramid only seeing the different methods. But by living with dogs on a closer basis and viewing them as part of nature I began my journey through the bottom layer. I went back to school to learn about the science. This bottom layer is fixed in fact, we don’t get dogs to behave like camels, you don’t get to unlearn anything and my brother would never choose a scuba diving holiday.

Our decisions are made in the middle layer and shaped by our ethics and beliefs. This is plastic, this can change and grow and dictate which mechanics and protocols we select. In this middle layer I choose to block some of the harsh realities of science and nature from my selection, I choose not to use physically harmful techniques that do exist and do work, but ethically I find uncomfortable. I do not believe that dogs are seeking to take over the world and make us slaves. I believe they make great partners and good friends and should be treated with that respect.

This middle layer is developed through consideration, exploration and understanding. It should be continually evolving, and if your choices are made at this level you will be comfortable with the protocols and solutions that you use. I study many different mechanical solutions, choose the ones that sit in conjunction with my ethical layer and employ them with an understanding of the science and nature behind them.

Back in the dark history of dog training there was a standard technique of getting the dog to lie down by stepping on the short lead forcing pressure on the back on the dog’s next, lowering the head to the floor. This was accompanied by pressure on the shoulders to cause the dog to collapse down to the floor – see how successful we were? Youch. Ethically this is, and always was, way beyond my consideration of how to get my much-loved friend to lie down. But there is a nubbin of an idea there that I still use and recommend today – “parking”.

Parking is one of your best management tools. With the dog standing at your left side, place your left hand on their collar to maintain them in position, hold your lead by the handle with your right hand and drop the slack to the floor as if you were intending to start skipping, you will need at least 5 foot lead. Place the ball of both feet on the lead, release the collar, hold the handle securely. Breathe. Talk to friends, drink coffee, text the family, listen to the teacher. Dog is safe and “parked”, you can divert your attention to other demands. Dog can take a break, watch the pretty girls. The lead is slack enough for them to move around a small amount, they can choose to sit, lie down, indulge in some mutual grooming. What they can’t do is jump at you, your companions, visitors or knock the coffee flying. Do not worry about giving them treats or praise in this position, it is about taking a break. The only interaction is for health or safety reasons. When you are ready to move off, step off the lead, raise it to your hands, by which time the dog will be alert to the next activity. No release cue, just resuming togetherness.

So the mechanics of stomping on the lead to get the dog down works, ethically it gives off a very bad smell and would seriously taint my relationship with my dog. By adapting it scientifically (a longer lead), it opens up a management protocol that is safe and comfortable for both parties, neither paying any cost.

Even the distasteful techniques that can be successful deserve examination to understand how they work, measuring against your ethics and beliefs, and perhaps adapting for your personal choice. Which ever choice you make you should always be comfortable with, if you feel slightly uneasy, stop, rethink, explore, learn and adjust or set off back to the shops for more choices … we always have more choices.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Barb Buchmayer permalink
    August 26, 2011 5:04 pm

    I believe you have hit on the crux of the matter. If you really care about your dogs you come to realize that some of the methods you have learned work but, at a cost to your relationship with your dog. The people who use these “hard” methods believe in them and get the results they desire but their dogs pay a terrible price.

    You cannot convince anyone of anything they are not ready to be convinced of. So you part company and search out your own more positive ways and hopefully, once you are fluent with your new method, others will see the difference in your dogs and open their eyes and minds to a better way.

    Life is definitely a journey and we can all continue to learn if we will put our egos aside and look to our dogs as our ultimate teachers. Not everyone will bother to find or implement a better method because it takes work and humility. If it were easy everyone would be doing it.

    Kay, keep swimming upstream!


  2. Nikki Brown permalink
    August 26, 2011 6:43 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your comments and observations. I especially related to your description of the importance of taking into account the differences in the dogs. My australian shepherds will never be the dogs to just be totally calm and passive when people come into the house, or when they see others that they love (dogs or humans or cats). They can now greet without danger of knocking one out, but will never loose their wiggles or enthusiasm. I am now fine with that, but for a long time I was told that various methods would “work”, and that it was unacceptable for them to not be able to sit or stay calm. Fortunately, I never resorted to many of the methods, and your comments have helped reinforce my decision to not be concerned about it any more.

  3. Anne Bove permalink
    August 26, 2011 8:04 pm

    You may have an aversion to writing, Kay, but what you have to say is always instructive and profoundly interesting to my discerning ears. I’m so happy you have joined the blogosphere and look forward to future posts.

    I like your decision-making pyramid… food for thought. And ‘parking’ as a management tool is a simple concept but one not many handlers think about using when they are out and about with their dogs (you once mentioned ‘parking’ in a class I took of yours way back when and I’ve used it to great effect since).

    I’ve always thought you had a heuristic approach to teaching/learning which is a boon for us as students… we can absorb the bits of wisdom you put forth and then further our knowledge by doing the homework. So, if ever I’m lazy and find myself stuck in the top portion of the pyramid, I’ll know to journey through to the bottom layer, taking my time to learn and enjoy the process before making decisions that may come to haunt me later.

    Thank you for your insights. It’s always a pleasure to read the writings of someone who is as impassioned and conscientious about their field of expertise as you indeed are.

  4. Lisa Clifton-Bumpass permalink
    August 26, 2011 9:58 pm

    I agree with Anne, your words always stir much thought and consideration. Thank you for finding a forum that is comfortable enough for you to share your observations, thoughts and experiences as they enrich everyone, regardless of species under consideration.

  5. hoppita permalink
    August 26, 2011 11:39 pm

    Hi Kay
    I enjoyed reading your great article. Nice to see that you have a blog for make us to think more about our understanding of dogs.
    Loved this: “We need to do better and try to avoid the “one shoe fits all” philosophies, our dogs deserve a much better understanding.”

    Thank you for share your your thoughts with all of us.

    Cristina & Lua

  6. Clare Russell permalink
    August 27, 2011 8:21 am

    Hi Kay

    You and the COLLAR team introduced the joys of ‘thinking’ and this blog will surely bring forth even more thinking opportunities!

    Best wishes

    Clare & ‘Team’

  7. August 30, 2011 10:20 am

    Thank you for this blog – very interesting and thought provoking reading.

    I also love hearing your observations on the Gordons and the collies. Having 3 Gordons myself and now 2 inherited working collies the differences are amazing (not least as you say their greeting styles 😉

    Looking forward to further blogs.

  8. Jeannie from Toronto, Ontario, Canada permalink
    August 31, 2011 11:53 am

    Kay I have been following you for years since the first time I saw you at a convention in the USA.
    Just when I feel like I am the only person in my area that doesn’t use force I get something from you to reinforce my belief. I have a standard poodle with a “clicker” CD.
    You bring tears to my eyes with your compassion mixed with knowledge. Something as simple a “parking” gives owners a choice. With so much of the traditional training methods out there people don’t realise there can be another method that will work without force.
    Thank you for showing us your methods.
    Love to read your articles!

  9. Peter Staniforth permalink
    September 2, 2011 12:24 pm

    Well done Kay, I thought I was cracking up but I see that my full on Aussie (who’s mum is from working lines) needs more than my traditional line of thought to get through. He runs on duracells and does his own thing when out much to my annoyance so at the moment any glimmer of attention gets much praise. I will observe more and react less and try to make friends again.Thanks for your insight- love the parking idea by the way.

  10. Chris Bond permalink
    September 5, 2011 9:39 pm

    Kay, this is so true.

    I spent years listening to dog training instructors tell me that the choke chain would make a better behaved dog. And other, similar, advice. Even though I had to fight down a bad feeling when it was clear on my dog’s face that he was unhappy, these people were the experts so they must know best. Eventually the conflict was enough that I avoided even the family obedience classes, and went to less suppressive training: Agility.

    Then in an agility class, two dogs started fighting and Spryte flipped out. She looked up at the ceiling and started barking at nothing, repeated barks spaced a second or so apart. She was gone. The instructor told me to force her mouth closed and tell her to be quiet.

    That was my moment of enlightenment. My dog was frightened, and forcing her mouth shut was something I would absolutely not do. I knelt down and caught her eye. She silenced and came to me, crawled up into my lap for safety. I left the class and never returned.

    On that day I promised Spryte, and all my dogs, I would follow my gut feeling, listen to my own ethics. Despite any embarrassment or rudeness to humans, I would not put my dogs at the mercy of someone else’s idea of what was right. It is my job to protect my dogs and look after them as I believe respectful, to keep them mentally and physically healthy.

    Every time I feel a tinge of discomfort in my gut at someone’s suggestion, I remember the promise I made to Spryte that day in class. No more internal conflict. Sometimes I still need to remind myself that I have this right, extend it beyond just training classes and to the greater world.

    Science and ethics are my new best friends.

    • September 26, 2011 3:25 am

      Beautifully said. Thank you.
      I was in a similar situation in an agility class with my puppy who to that point had been the happiest carefree and dog friendly dog. There was a dog in class who focused on my dog from the very second he had set eyes on him, growling and getting ready to attack. My gut was: leave the class immediately. the trainers said: oh don’t! He is on a lead, it will be fine. Well, it was NOT fine. This dog turned around inside the tunnel and made a straight attack for my puppy.
      I have made the same vow: follow my gut instinct.

  11. January 27, 2012 8:53 pm

    Wonderful blog, Kay. I just came across this article and thought of you. Really believe you are on target and am eager to learn more about how to incorporate choice in my teaching.

    Born to Choose: The Origins and Value of the Need for Control

    Lauren A. Leotti, Department of Psychology, Rutgers University Newark, Smith Hall, Room 301, 101 Warren Street, Newark, NJ 07102
    Sheena S. Iyengar, and Department of Management, Columbia University, Uris Hall, Room 714, 3022 Broadway, New York, NY 10027
    Kevin N. Ochsner, Department of Psychology, Columbia University, 406 Schermerhorn Hall, 1190 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10027
    Lauren A. Leotti:; Sheena S. Iyengar:; Kevin N. Ochsner:

    Belief in one’s ability to exert control over the environment and to produce desired results is essential for an individual’s well being. It has been repeatedly argued that the perception of control is not only desirable, but it is likely a psychological and biological necessity. In this article, we review the literature supporting this claim and present evidence for a biological basis for the need for control and for choice — that is, the means by which we exercise control over the environment. Converging evidence from animal research, clinical studies, and neuroimaging work suggest that the need for control is a biological imperative for survival, and a corticostriatal network is implicated as the neural substrate of this adaptive behavior.

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