Dog Training Is An Art, But Guitars Don’t Bite

As an artist first and a dog trainer second, I surely get why dog training is an art. My area of artistic talent and experience is in music. I am trained and have sought the tutelage of musical mentors along the way. I have also followed this course of education as it relates to my dog training profession.

In professional pet dog training (professional — someone who earns income from training other people’s dogs) the seeking of education is sadly forgone in place of folk wisdom and a comfort level handling dogs or perhaps the experience or success with one’s own dogs. This success in training a dog is based on the reliability of the training against distractions as well as how the human’s mechanics and timing are implemented. When it comes to behavior modification I often come into contact with dogs that have been interpreted as aggressive when in fact they are merely suffering form barrier frustration and a desire to greet a member of its own species.  As Jean Donaldson says there are observations and then there are interpretations. This is where it gets tricky.
How do we know not “think” a dog is aggressive? By the number of bites it has landed and the severity of those bites. In addition we need the context of the bite and some quantifiable data about the dog and the humans involved. For many times what is thought or interpreted to be aggression in a dog is actually frustration or a case of guarding or perhaps a learned behavior due to some form of stress. Frustration can turn into aggression and sadly many of the approaches and mind-sets about what dogs should and should not do result in the iatrogenic methods, resulting in making the dog worse.
So where does the art of dog training come in? I would say in the mechanics, the timing of rewards or operant conditioning be it R+ / R-/ P+/ or P- and in recognizing the dog’s behavior factually. Also how is the dog trainer padding an experience that may be scary? How is the dog trainer helping the dog make as positive an association to world as possible? To me that is the art. It is also a science, and a well developed one at that.
Much like music, dance, or acting mechanics and timing – the science and math of the art are essential to the art. They are the foundational underpinning’s that support the art. The interpretation or the stylized execution of a skill is where the artist makes it come alive. We’ve all been to a wedding and the band was in time and in tune, but the music missed that intangible vibe that comes only when you are in the presence of a true artist at the top of their craft.
The good news about dog training is you can get by quite well with just the mechanics and the timing; you really do not need some otherworldly gift to have a well-trained dog. In fact this mythical notion that some have a gift has derailed dog training and set many dog owners up for failure, thinking how can I do this when so-and-so has such a “way” with dogs. It sets the bar too high for Jane and John dog owner.

What people need is a plan and a simple and safe one at that. Many dogs that are thought of as “dumb” are just not motivated, and many people who are at the mercy of their dogs behavior are simply not getting the accurate information about mechanics, timing of rewards or consequences, and simple explanations of how dogs learn through associations & consequences. 

Extrapolate this art & science combination to dog training with aversive methods and we have an alarming dynamic at work. Dogs get scarred, dogs developed conditioned emotional responses (CER’s) and those are not always of the tail wagging and drooling when the can opener is turned on variety. Sometimes these CER’s are negative and the dog is not happy in the least. These negative CER’s can send a dog to the shelter or worse to death row. Let’s also remember that dogs bite, other than in the martial arts there generally are no physical consequences humans pay for a misstep in an art.
Many times these negative associations start off mild and due to negligent attention to the behavior or downright cruelty disguised as “training” then the dog gets emotionally undone. This is where the art and science of dog training gets muddled by people claiming they “know” dogs, and worst of all the dogs suffer when the artistry of dogs fails to deliver results.
We can make all the analogies we want and make human comparisons about dogs and learning etc; however that has not been enough to dissuade people from trying things out on a dog to fix behavior or obtain some control.  The idea to use aversive methods to obtain reliable dog behavior and keep the dog’s mental state sound is a bad idea. I say this because with any applied aversive especially an aversive applied consistently there is fallout. This is a fact that has been scientifically proven.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not just for people. Dogs are sentient beings they feel, they learn and figure out many things, most of all they quickly figure out if they are in danger. As survivalists they rule. Think about it. They are perhaps the smartest animals on the planet; they figured out how to live in homes with people. That is one smart animal. What other animal has a monetary economy totaling the billions? (That is beneficial to the animal.) On the other hand, what other animal has to pay the price of being misunderstood and then blamed and then killed?
If I was to go to a park in any city and choke or shock a dog in front of people and call it “training” I would be allowed to do it and many people would accept it. If I was in that same park and I was choking or shocking a dog and I was not “training” or a dog “trainer” but was just causing the dog to feel pain I would be arrested for animal abuse.

What’s the difference? To the dog there is little difference, perhaps in the pain “training” there would be some padding or some positive reward after the aversive, then again maybe not. I am amazed at how many “trainers” suggest people do not show affection to their dogs, so much for the theory of bonding! I wonder what these “trainers” tell a family with kids who want to hug the dog? 

Let’s go now to the e-collar. This is a collar that delivers electronic shock. I had a client whose dog was “trained” by a “professional” with a “business”. The “trainer” suggested that the owners of the dog zap the dog anytime the dog did something the owner did not want the dog to do. So off went the owner with his shock collar and zapped the dog for barking at people or dogs while walking on leash, for barking when the doorbell ringed, and from what I gathered a whole host of behaviors the owners wanted to stop. The barking at the doorbell and the other behaviors did not stop, they became even worse.
The client called me because the dog had now become aggressive. It landed a bite and caused 6 stitches to a women’s hand. The dog would “out of nowhere” freak out on people. This behavior began after they met with the shock “trainer”.
The dog had zero protracted warning signs. I know because it bit me. So I know firsthand what happened with this dog. I moved slowly, I was jolly and I dropped, not tossed, food. My movements were very relaxed and slow; I allowed the dog to feel safe by not approaching it. This was a dog that had generalized the whole world other than its owners to being shocked.
New people now correlated to pain in this dog’s view thanks to the doorbell shock “training”. The end of the story for this dog is euthanasia. It was too far-gone.  The “trainer” had the people pay for 7 sessions, the “trainer” bailed after five. I wonder why? I have found that negligence in dog training is rarely paired with a conscious. Instead it is combined with ignorance and many times arrogance. 

I am loathe to think how many dogs are at this very moment waiting for the shoe to drop by way of an electronic shock or to a lesser but equally sad outcome some form of pain force or startle. How many people either do not notice this fallout or live with them and laugh them off as some people will just laugh it off and say “ that’s ol' Bowzer he’s just that way”…yeah because your shocking the poor dog!

I recently had a women call me with a dogs displaying aggression towards dogs. The dog had been on an electronic containment system for 5 years with a doggie door to come & go at will. She was aghast at my question of “is the dog wearing a prong or choke collar on walks”? However she was willing to shock her dog with the electronic fence. What people will do for convenience is astounding.
My contention is with the professional dog people who dole out advice and take money for it. These "methods” some “trainers” are advising people on their dogs based in nonsense or outright dangerous approaches to the dogs they work with and the communities they are supposedly trying to help by “training” people’s dogs. In no other profession, perhaps save for politics, do we see such a disregard for obtaining the proper knowledge to do the job you are hired to do.
As an art the objective of dog training should be to create safe, sound dogs that are examples of the trainer’s humane approach. If a pet dog trainer taking money as a professional cannot explain how the training works, how it is done, and that it is safe and humane without pain, and how to work with distractions and be able to substantiate what normal dog behavior is, then I say to the consumer run and run fast and tell your friends to steer clear as well.

I taught music, guitar to be specific, many times to people who had no shot at ever being good or remotely adequate to entertain anyone, even themselves. Eventually they would quit or laugh it off and do it for fun. My advice was if you are not paying the rent with your guitar don’t worry about it.  However guitars don’t bite, they do not get sent to shelters and musical instruments will never be banned or euthanized. In addition, unless you pick up the guitar it just sits there, where as dogs are continuously taking in messages from the world and deciding how to react. 

Taking a lackadaisical approach or a haphazard approach to dog training will at best get you a dog that runs ramshod over you, or worse bites you or someone else.  Maybe your poorly trained dog by way of shock or pain bites someone gets you sued? Do you still want to use that approach?
Dogs however do get euthanized, and they get caught up in doggie jail and sent to death row for many times what is the humans a misunderstanding of the dog’s behavior, this misinformation is often delivered by a “professional” that has “years” in the business or by a dog training “company”. Or worse, misinformation is gathered ad hock in a panic from books and websites because the dog is “doing something we are afraid of” or “we wanted it to stop”.
Squelching dog behavior is not always training. Shushing or interrupting a dog is just that. It is consequence that drives behavior. If that consequence is inconsistent or worse causes the dog to feel afraid or unsafe the dog could develop a negative association to all manner of things, one thing we know is dogs generalize fear really well.
Dogs work with the predictive value of flow charts quite well, such as the leash predicts the walk. These so called “trainers” have to realize that Pavlov is always on their shoulder. Dogs are associating to everything. If the dog associates the aversive happening with, let’s say, people approaching or maybe dogs walking by, and that aversive is applied over and over the dog will most certainly have ill side-effects that range from aggression to fear, at best you will get an anxious dog.  Dogs that shut down and keep still to avoid being shocked, hit, yelled at, or choked are not “trained”. What they have become is akin to a child who learns if they don’t make a sound they will not get hit. However this pain shock startle approach never addresses the root cause of the behavior. That is the only way to obtain reliable, sound, safe dog behavior.
No one can guarantee their dog will never be around children or new people. Plus the goal of companion animal ownership is just that — companionship. Not having some canine slave that fears for its life.
As I sat there telling my client the dog was too far gone due to the shock the tears fell from his face. This was no wimpy guy mind you. He was a strong young man who loved his dog. A dog he saved from a shelter that had a horrible past. His heart was in the right place, however he was duped. He wanted to do the right thing, but because the “trainer” had a “business” yada yada yada... he accpeted the info.
The behavior of humans has a direct effect on a dog. It can take one bad experience with shock or pain or force to undo a dog’s association to the world. The moral of the story here is don’t do anything to your dog you would not want done to yourself or your children — period.
The message to the “pain trainers”; get a clue, get a conscience, and get some actual education as it relates to dog behavior and training. It is out there, it is free in many cases and as long as you are willing to drop the “me human me dominant” caveman approach and start utilizing the leverage we have in abundance, just stop! Get out of the dog training game, you are ruining dogs. The goal is to create bonds not build binds for people. Besides those of us who actually know how to train dogs and modify behavior are sick to death of cleaning up your crap!

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