A bunch of years back when I was mucking around with boats powered by the wind there was a joke. It was kind of involved, and dealt with esoteric points of sailboat racing rules. The gist was that three boats were approaching a point where they had to turn around a buoy. Two of the captains shouted obscure rules at each other as to who had right of way when the third captain simply yelled two words: “STEEL HULL”.
In dog training we get into the same snit. Trainers and behavior folks love to argue, and the arguments get pretty technical. Reinforcement schedules, attitude and energy, whether we have the “correct” tool of the moment. And then sometimes we get overwhelmed by another voice that yells “STEEL HULL” and mows down everyone.
Unfortunately, the dog we are working with hasn’t always read the same books we have, and may not really care about which technique is “right”. And the “STEEL HULL” trainer, force-based or not, may mow everyone down in their path, certain they are always correct. Meanwhile, the situation goes from bad to worse, and while we argue the dog-and their owner-are still in trouble.
When we discuss methods, and ideals, and technical points, we have to keep one principle at the very front: we are there to make a positive difference. The owner has come to us with a problem. Their relationship with their dog is suffering. They are suffering. The dog may be suffering. They are looking to us for help, and usually just at the last possible minute.
We have a duty. That duty is to first, do no harm. Our goal is to never make situation worse. That does not mean that we cover everything in unicorns and rainbows: we have an equal duty to be honest with the client. If the dog has problems beyond our skill set or comfort range, we have the obligation to refer. If the situation is serious enough to risk safety and health of dog or human, we have the obligation to explain the issue clearly and openly.
Doing no harm does not equate to never saying no. Doing no harm does not mean that we simply let the dog act however he/she wants, waiting (or praying) that the dog finally does something we can reward, especially when a dog is showing dangerous behavior. We have an obligation to step in and try to prevent the dog harming itself and harming humans.
This does not give us an excuse to be abusive. This does not authorize force. Force is applying violence to effect change. That is not the manner by which I, as a trainer, effect change. Although behavior can be changed using force - over the short run - force produces consequences that build fear. Organisms, humans included, avoid things they fear. Any organism will learn to comply to avoid consequences it fears.
But that is not the relationship I want with a dog. I want a relationship based on mutual trust, and on mutual understanding.
Often the dogs I am called for have serious problems. They are either a threat to themselves or to others, human or animal. Building trust is essential. The dog must learn two equally important things: first, I am not a threat. I am not going to harm the dog. I will be patient. I will be non-threatening. I will communicate with the dog using signals and cues he/she understand.
The second thing we establish is that I will not allow the dog to harm me. Many times, dogs have been placed in situations where they have become fearful, and as a result of the fear have reacted violently. They have bitten. Why? Because biting is a perfectly valid method a dog has to remove a threat, real or perceived. A dog that has become openly violent may have been placed in situations where the only way to feel safe is to manipulate their environment through violence. A scary thing comes up - the dog bites – the scary thing goes away. The dog has achieved success, in behavioral terms.
But not in life terms. A dog that has learned to deal with fearful or unusual circumstances by biting is at immediate risk of losing its life. Punishing the biting behavior is useless and cruel. The dog is simply reacting as a dog, and is using a method of dealing with a perceived threat that has been successful, that has been reinforced. After all, reinforcement is simply anything that makes a behavior more likely to recur. Success equals reinforcement. Making the scary thing go away is success. Biting becomes reinforced.
How do we break this cycle? First, we have to look to the root cause-fear. Fear and perception of threat is at the root of the problem. If we fail to treat the fear, we are wasting our time and making the dog’s life worse. The dog needs a sanctuary from the fear, and we can build that sanctuary with trust. Our dog learns that, beginning with just one person, there is a safe place. With just a single safe place, we can help the dog build other safe places.
But sometimes we have to get past the success of violent behavior to approach building a safe place. That means that we have to let the dog know that violence is no longer successful. Biting behavior no longer drives everything and everyone back.
If a dog is safely confined in a kennel, that means that I may simply sit in front of the kennel, neutral, and wait. My presence may precipitate a violent display from the dog. After all, the dog has become fearful and learned that violence drives scary things away. Does that mean the dog is “over threshold”, in popular terms? Probably. But the poor dog lives in this territory of “over threshold”. “Over threshold” behavior is the only thing the dog knows. No safe place. No positive reaction. No chance to trust.
So I wait. It takes quite a while some days. During a visit to England I was at a shelter where a new dog had come in. The dog, fresh from the street, was very fearful. He lunged, snapped, growled and overall carried on like a mad dog. Me? I just sat in front of his kennel. And waited. And waited. I sat with my back turned, ignoring his various efforts – until the moment that he took a breath and relaxed for just one second. And then I acknowledged him with a positive “good boy”. After which he went back to foolishness.
We went back and forth for quite a while. Slowly, he began to calm. Slowly I began to engage him. Slowly, his desire for positive social contact began to sneak out a second or three at a time.
And then I upped the ante. Still sitting, neutral and non-threatening, I started to offer encouragement in the form of nice, smelly, soft dog food in small bits tossed to him. The first time or two we got a brief respite, then back to foolishness. But over time he relaxed. He began to see me as other than a threat, but as a possible resource. And we took small steps. After a couple successful tosses of yummy treats I backed out of sight for a few minutes. He got treats, he took them calmly (ish), and I went away briefly. He returned to quiet baseline, and could process the information. And then we started again.
To distill the process here, after a time the dog came to the fence calmly and took the soft food off a fork. He was not able to quite take the closeness of direct hand contact, but the fork gave him just enough separation to let him begin to trust.
Within a day or so of the staff there taking their time and working with this guy he was able to be walked, fed, and began to become socialized, first to a small group, then to more people in a positive manner. He learned that 1) people could be trusted and 2) biting and violence was no longer successful.
There are those who would say that this was stressful. They may have a point: the dog was placed under stress. Being dumped on the street and taken to a shelter is stressful. Life is full of stress.
Was this aversive? In some eyes yes. Aversive is, by some, interpreted as anything that the dog avoids. In this case the dog wanted to avoid me – he wanted me to leave. He was never forced to come to me. He was not punished. He was not presented with a situation that he did not have the tools to address in a dog appropriate method. Instead, he had choice. Bark and lunge, or not. Snap and bite, or not. Approach, or not. By providing a safe environment where this guy had the chance to make choices, to decide to act one way or another, and then to learn the benefits of acting with other than violence, he was able to take the first step towards a trusting relationship with first one, then many, people.
In this case my method of working with the dog might not be the way another trainer would do it. One trainer might have considered the entire process to be too stressful for the dog. A different trainer might have simply grabbed the dog and forced him to “submit” and comply by adding violence and fear to the fear already present. There are those who would have simply labelled him “vicious” and destroyed him. We could get lost debating fine points of theory, or simply ram through with a “STEEL HULL” method that we are convinced fits all dogs, all of the time. The points of debate are irrelevant: our duty is to help the dog. I don’t feel that trying to make every contact unicorns and rainbows is any more successful than violence and force. We should, as trainers, be able to kindly and humanely approach problem behaviors with minimal stress and the least possible aversive situation to help the dog make constructive choices that make sense to the dog-not just to us. We are here to help the dog, not to make esoteric points in some academic debate.