We live in a golden age of dog training, and this is an exciting time to be a dog trainer. Just a few decades ago, Karen Pryor and the Baileys launched training technology which ignited a huge paradigm shift from “dog-breaking” to “relationship-making,” and there’s been no turning back since.
In just the last decade or so this paradigm shift has taken off like a rocket. Only a few years ago, I could expect to be challenged at seminars by people who did not believe a dog could be trained without force. Their entire belief structure about dogs, themselves, and the world, was based on assumptions of dominance, obedience, and “because I say so.” Fast forward a few years and we see a completely different picture at seminars. Sure, the old values are still there, but increasingly we see students rolling in with a stated goal of making their dog “happy” or “making it fun” for their dog. This is a breath of fresh air and a pleasure to see. But, I have to ask, is there room for emotion in dog training?
I’m OK, You’re OK, But Are We Getting Anywhere?
I am a tireless advocate of measuring behavior rather than guessing at a dog’s motivation and emotion. I persistently work to re-direct students who diagnose their dogs in emotive or moral terms, such as, “He’s blowing me off”, “I want this to be fun for him”, “I want him to be happy, “ “he needs to be close to me to feel safe.” I try hard to get those students to let go of their emotional presumptions about their dog, see their dog’s behavior for what it presently is, and get down to shaping the behavior they want.
Why am I so dismissive of ascribing general emotional content to behavior and training goals? Because it’s just not useful information. It’s stuff that interferes with seeing what’s in front of you, and changing it to what you’d like it to be. It’s stuff that keeps you from sitting down and learning the four quadrants of operant conditioning, and mastering how to use the universal laws of learning to shape the behavior you want.
Wow, that sounds so cold. Does that mean I don’t care about emotion in my dogs? Well, here’s a quote from one of my Clean Run articles:
While we certainly care about outward indications of a happy, relaxed, emotional state, those are criteria we shape for, not a definition of whether something is reinforcing or punishing.
Truly, we do not know what our dogs are thinking, but there are some relatively objective criteria that we can articulate and measure that will honestly tell us what our dog’s inner feelings are. Saying “I want this to be fun for my dog” is a nice sentiment, but it does not move the training story forward. So often, people who say this engage in “play” or “encouragement” that actually backs the dog off or arouses them in uncomfortable ways. If they stopped for a moment and actually looked at their dog, his body language, and whether the target behavior was increasing or decreasing, they often would find that their idea of “fun” was in fact “punishing” to the dog.
Think about this quote from that same Clean Run Article:
Your dog can be wagging his tail with a soft, open countenance as he takes the treat from your hand and runs away, but that does not make that treat a reinforcer for anything related to agility!
And therein lies the rub with focusing on general emotional states or attitudes. If you just want your dog to be “happy,” I’d say doing whatever he wants and getting fed for nothing will please him greatly. If you want to train your dog, you need to shape him to be happy doing the things you would like him to do, which is a scientifically much more complicated proposition.
Shaping What Can’t be Held
Now, here’s the dirty secret. My entire training program is fueled by pure emotion. Every training choice I make is governed by my love for dogs and my wish that they enjoy whatever we are doing. In all my seminars and writings, I have been consistent in believing that emotion not only counts, it’s the first and most important thing I shape for. But I’m not talking about me having a smile and a sunny disposition, I’m talking about metrics that I can touch and see. If I can get my dog to heel for a half an hour in technically perfect heel position, but his ears are flat and his head is down, in my opinion I have not trained heel position. I’m not enjoying it, and my dog arguably is not, either. My criteria requires that my dog heel with his head up and tail wagging, with his pupils not dilated, mouth relaxed and his breathing elevated, but not manic. If I can get my dog to do one step that meets my criteria, I have at least shaped one step of heeling, and I’m way ahead of where I would be if my dog heeled for a half hour with his head down and his ears back.
I start from the premise that I love dogs and I have dogs because I want to make meaningful connections with other living beings. I want to enjoy my dogs, and have them enjoy me, too. But I have found over the years that just generally saying or wishing for those things does not make them come true. In my observation, unless you selectively look for and shape relatively objective indication of those desirable emotional states, such as “enjoyment,” and “happiness,” they will slip through your fingers like so many grains of sand.
Most of my students have the will to bring happiness to their dog, but they lack the training chops to find the way to do so. That’s where I come in. I support their will, and I want to give them the way. My mission is to give students the mechanical skills to shape whatever behavior they want, including and especially emotional states in their dogs.
In sum, I’m suggesting that not only is there room for emotion in dog training, but that joy and happiness are the most important criteria of all. But they’re criteria not constructs. They’re things that have to be pursued and maintained with excellent training skills. It appears to me that happiness, for dogs as for people, is not a wish that is granted, but a goal that is shaped.
***The article quoted in this blog, Consequences, Schmonsequences: Understanding Reinforcers and Punishers originally appeared in Clean Run in January 2010. You can read the entire article, HERE