Monday, 18 April 2022

Because We Always Have is Not a Valid Reason

I was reading a post the other day on empathy and consideration in dog training, following the growing movement towards recognising and acknowledging the emotional capacity and experience of dogs. I’ll admit it is something I have become passionate about myself, especially since encountering a dog who has such a need for the people around him to understand how he is feeling in any given situation. This particular dog’s needs have set me to learning how best to support and work with dogs, and discovering the ways that give dogs the best and kindest experience of life with us.

This quote from my Blue Merle Minion page fits so well for Good Guardianship

Along with supporters like me, these posts always draw detractors as well. Those who use and promote the use of methods and techniques that fall under the heading of aversive. The dictionary definition of aversive (taken from Merriam Webster) is:

1. tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus

2. behaviour modification by aversive stimulation

Among these pro-aversive people, there’s usually at least one who trots out a phrase along very familiar lines. ‘I’ve been training dogs for 20/30/40+ years and always used a (choke/prong/rolled up newspaper) and my dogs have always been fine!” On this particular post was someone saying they were in their 70s and had always trained this way. They never see a need to reconsider what they are doing because ‘the old ways work fine for me!’

This always puzzles me – are they driving the same sorts of cars that were around when they started training dogs? Are they using the same medicines or medical procedures? They were viewed as working the best all those years ago, so what’s the difference? Let’s be honest, if everybody through time had thought the same as these people, we wouldn’t have left the caves!

I do to an extent get it, honestly – I make no secret of the fact I’m a crossover trainer, who used to use a choke chain as standard. I remember when things started to go off course with Finn thinking to myself ‘I’ve had collies for more than 30 years!’ In my hunt to find out what to do about my ‘problem dog’ I was fortunate to stumble over some other people who could tell me what was causing my dog to struggle and, through the people that I met, find my way to Canine Principles to start my learning journey.

I understand that horrible feeling of cognitive dissonance, of having to face up to the fact that the methods I had been using could have long lasting negative effects on my dogs. I’ve been through it for myself, had to look at what I’ve been doing wrong and what had been jeopardising my relationship with my dogs. It was such a tough thing to go through but I’m so, so glad that I did.

We understand the science underpinning learning so much better now and our knowledge is increasing all the time, both of how learning occurs and the effects of different methods used to teach. Our understanding of the emotional capacity and expression of dogs is also increasing all the time. We are beginning to see them as the wonderful sentient beings that they are, and give them the consideration and respect that they deserve.

Many people are moving past the old pet/master dynamic and living with dogs as part of the family, with choice and respect applied to all members of that family. This is not, as those ‘old-school’ supporters would claim, being permissive and letting dogs rule the household. That old myth of needing to be the pack leader so dogs respect us just will not die, despite having been debunked what is now decades ago. Giving dogs choice and autonomy, letting them communicate whether or not they would like to do a particular thing at a particular moment is not permissiveness, it’s basic respect for another living being. It’s living in harmony with another.

There is an effect seen by giving our dogs choice when it comes to things that they may not always like – when the dog realises they have a choice, they will often become more willing. We see it a lot with cooperative care. The dog who hates being brushed, or who fights to avoid a nail trim, when taught that he can let us know when he’s ready for the procedure to begin and that we will respect him when he says he’d like to stop, will frequently choose to take part readily. How much more pleasant for everyone to have a happy and relaxed dog who wants to be there, than one held still and forced against their will?

If you would like to know more about why the use of aversive methods and techniques is not recommended and what we can use instead, have a look at the Good Guardianship workshop Punishment and Why to Avoid It.

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