Debbie called me on a Friday afternoon. I could clearly hear the stress and frustration in her voice. “I’m at my wit’s end with my dog”, she said. “She’s out of control! I’ve been to two trainers and you’re my last hope.”
Daisy, a three year old German Shepherd/Husky mix, greeted me at the door with a smile a mile wide, jumping, wiggling, and mouthing my hands with much excited energy. Debbie hurled a barrage of commands and incoherent exclamations at her. “SIT!”, “DOWN!”, “NO JUMP!”, plus various clicks, buzzes and some guttural noise that that sounded like dialogue from the Star Wars bar scene. In addition, she was waving an assortment of treats in front of Daisy, everything from dog biscuits to what appeared to be chunks of a cheese stick. Daisy was not impressed and she completely ignored her until Debbie clipped the leash onto her prong collar that was far too big for Daisy’s neck. Daisy’s ears went back and she immediately hit the floor. “You see this?”, Debbie exclaimed, “She won’t listen!” “I hope you have better techniques.”
I completely understood Debbie’s frustration and had seen this many times before. The problem was that Debbie was only trying to treat the symptoms, and she wasn’t getting to the root of the issue. She was just looking to correct Daisy’s behavior, rather than growing the friendship she wanted with Daisy into a relationship of mutual trust and respect that would have prevented these problems in the first place. Debbie wanted “quick-fix” answers, so she turned to the popular dog training methods that were available to her.
Her first trainer subscribed to the “Positive Reinforcement” model of training. It’s based on B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism. It’s idea is that as long as the correct buttons are pushed, the desired outcome will be achieved, as if a dog is a machine. The premise is solely one of cause and effect, devoid of the dog’s feelings or emotions (according to Skinner). Free will, character, or spirit have no place here. Using this model, the best case scenario is that you treat your dog like a puppet, where you become the puppeteer. In the worst case scenario, you turn your dog into an approval junkie that needs a dopamine “fix” from praise or treats, where you become the “dealer”. This does not advance the friendship. It may be work to train your dog to do tricks, but it does nothing to deepen the friendship. It creates an atmosphere of one-sided dependency that inhibits individual growth.
Debbie’s second attempt at training was with a more traditional Dominance focused trainer. Although many modern trainers and behaviorists agree that this model is outdated, it is still has a popular following. It’s basic assumption is that you need to be a “pack leader” to your dog, achieved through intimidation, ostracizing, punishment and coercion. In other words, you bully your dog into good behavior. In the best case scenario your dog becomes subservient and you become the boss. In the worst case scenario your dog becomes a victim and you are a persecutor. This creates an atmosphere of oppression. How’s that for creating a trusting friendship!
I realize my criticism of these models of training has been fairly harsh. In truth, I have used, and occasionally still do use, both these methods, and only the most incompetent trainers would follow through with the worst case scenarios. Most trainers are skilled in their particular area of training, but there is no “one-size-fits-all” method that works for all dogs and all situations. My criticism is not so much that these methods are wrong, but that they miss the point entirely. They deal with the symptoms and not the “disease”. Behavioristic and Dominance training attempt to solve behavior issues with dogs by controlling only what they do, through manipulation or coercion. They set us in opposition with our dogs, rather than working it out together, as good friends would do. The popular models of training focus on control, not connection. When Daisy ignores Debbie’s pleas to stop jumping, it’s not because she doesn’t understand what Debbie wants, nor is it that she hasn’t been well trained. She knows very well how to “Sit” and “Stay”. The problem is that Daisy doesn’t trust Debbie’s guidance in that situation, nor does she respect what’s important to her.
Debbie was confused, as Daisy was, about the meaning of their relationship. On the one hand, Debbie wants Daisy to be her companion and her friend. On the other hand, she also wants to be in control of Daisy. The two are not compatible. Good friends are equal partners, and want each other to be the best they can be. One friend does not try to control the other – that’s not friendship, that’s manipulation. This is the problem between Debbie and Daisy. If they had a relationship that was based on trust, compassionate communication, respect and empathy, Daisy would want to make Debbie happy by not jumping, rather than feeling she has to or needs to. They would work together on this issue rather than being opposed to each other.
This, I believe, is one of the greatest differences between traditional behaviorism and dominance training and a more humanistic approach. The popular models of training regard dogs as creatures that need to be controlled or “fixed”. The humanistic model regards dogs as already perfect. With the former, there is no foundation of faith in each other and the desire to work together is absent. There is no real friendship. With the latter, there is total belief in each other. A harmonious relationship is an organic and natural result.
The problem that Debbie and many other people have with their dogs is not that they lack training, or know the right behavior modification techniques, but that there is no foundational relationship. It’s a one-sided, often self serving coexistence rather than a true and deep friendship. Friendship must come first and everything else is secondary. And when a behavioral storm hits, if the roots of friendship grow deep, both the person and their dog will not only survive the storm, but will grow even closer together because of it.
I’m happy to report that Debbie and Daisy are doing much better. It’s not that they no longer have problems, (do you know of any relationship that doesn’t?), but they work them out together, as good friends are supposed to do.