Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Problem of Dog Training: Theory and Practice

This is a response to Sam's post on the dog in group classes that is not ready for that situation.

Ideally, when I am running my own training center, I would tell the person to sign up for some privates and credit  what they paid for the class towards private instruction.
Sometimes I really wonder: does the ability to understand classical conditioning methods require a genuine and whole interest in dog training and behavior, or even learning and behavior as a whole?  I don't say that disparagingly.  The fact is that we live in a society where it's largely accepted as OK to deal with dog misbehavior with a pop, a snap, and perhaps a verbal hiss.  Can people who just want a nice house pet wrap their mind around the idea of not JUST rewarding or punishing behaviors, but shaping emotions and associations?
This is why I want to separate pet and performance classes.

What makes the difference between a Dog Trainer and a Dog Owner is interest in the process vs. interest in the product. You can drive a car without knowing how the engine works. I like driving my car. It fits my needs. I really don't have the time or inclination to study how engines work, what a spark plug is or where it goes. As long as it goes when I step on the gas and stops when I step on the brake, I'm happy. It's similar with dog owners. As long as it doesn't shit in the house, doesn't bite people, and walks on a leash, they're happy. And they can really take or leave the leash walking thing.

As a Dog Trainer, I am highly motivated by the theory behind the method. Training dogs is an intellectual exercise for me, and it's one of the reasons I stick to positive methods. Anyone can train a dog with a choke chain! People have been doing it for decades! I need to make it harder! Yes, there's also the practical benefits and I wholly believe in the validity of the method, but the idea of limiting my tool box to accomplish goals is very, very appealing to me. Constraint forces creativity.

I am teaching my very first class, Clicks & Tricks. I have designed the class all by myself and am teaching alone. I have three students. It is kind of a disaster.

The conflict is one of theory vs. practice.

On one hand, I want to promote my training philosophy. I want the hallmark of my classes to be that you never need to take one again: you should have a solid enough foundation of theory to teach your dog anything. I think my understanding of dog training theory is one of my strengths as a dog trainer, that is something that I bring to the table that no one else I have seen in the area is really doing.

By on the other hand, I am weak in practice. I am the first to point out my lack of experience: I have two dogs, and no titles. They are relatively civilized dogs, but Gatsby got issues and Marsh has no recall. My strength in theory also bites me; I like this quote from Sam:
How can I stitch up that big gap between what I know and what the handler knows in the most effective way possible?
I know more about what I'm talking about (which is why I'm talking about it) than who I'm talking to. I can barely organize my thoughts in a way that makes sense to other human beings, let alone ones that don't have a background in whatever the hell I'm talking about. I can't separate what is actually important knowledge to complete a task because ALL of the information is vital. So I end up infodumping on the student (which, if you've read any other post on this blog, should not surprise you) and watch their eyes glaze over.
Fiesty Fido or Shy Dog classes sound great in theory, and that's because they are.  But they're not offered nearly enough.  Subsequently, those teams who need a little bit of extra help are thrown in with the teacher's pets and valedictorians.. and the result isn't pretty.
Training people should reflect how you train dogs. One of the things we stress in clicker training is "raise one criteria at a time." So you don't go from a ten second sit stay toe to toe with the dog to a three minute sit stay thirty feet from the dog while someone is bouncing a tennis ball behind him. You don't hand a person a clicker, a leash, treats, and a dog and say "you'll figure it out." That is sloppy training.

In many pet dog classes, there is just too much covered. The dogs (and people!) are supposed to learn rough forms of all the AKC Novice Obedience exercises, how to manage their dog at home, basic dog safety, socialization, AND how to read dog body language. In one hour a week for eight weeks. If you're lucky, you get a puppy class and a basic obedience class out of any one dog and if you're REALLY lucky you'll see that person in another eight years when they get their next puppy. You just can't get all of that in, period, let alone to any degree of nuance.

In my opinion it is a mistake to lead pet owners to believe that one class will cover all their needs. Yes, people are always told that training is for the life of the dog, there are more advanced classes, etc, but at least in my club the number of people who follow through on that are very small. The general consensus of trainers seems to be "let's hit on all the topics so if we never see them again at least we said SOMEthing," but I think that is giving owners just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Especially when I consider the information you're giving them to be dangerous, like the idea that you need to be the boss of your dog, he will work for you just because you are the boss, or that noncompliance is disobedience.

I would much rather see smaller, more tightly focused classes that address the core needs of the pet owner.

Puppy Kindergarten: How To Not Kill Your Puppy in the First Six Months, Accidentally or On Purpose
Household Manners: Go to Mat, Recall, Down Stay*
Zen and the Art of Dog Training: Leave it!
Loose Leash Walking
Canine Good Citizen

Can a DOG learn all of these skills more or less simultaneously? Yes. Can a PERSON learn to TEACH all of these skills to their first dog? NO. Most people that have been in my puppy class don't understand that if you are going to be teaching dogs with food treats, HE GETS TO EAT THE TREAT. Looking at treats is not reinforcing for dogs, EATING them is.

*for the average pet dog, I consider the down stay a better option than sit stay.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the idea of tightly focused classes, and would totally take 4-8 weeks of just loose leash walking.

    I'm going to read Sam's post, because I've definitely been the person with the dog who needs extra help, and the class moves on without her actually "getting" it.