Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Natural Dog Training Difference

Here's an in-depth look at how Natural Dog Training differs from the popular pack leader and positive reinforcement methods, including videos of all three methods in action.

The Natural Dog Training Difference
I read something interesting on Kevin Behans’s blog the other day, about how nearly everyone who takes their first ride on a camel or elephant experiences motion sickness, but this doesn’t happen when people ride a horse for the first time. Kevin’s reasoning is that horses naturally know how to adjust their movements to incorporate the rider’s center of gravity.

In thinking about that, I realized that what’s missing from both the dominance and +R approach to training, and what we do, is that dogs really do have a sort of emotional center of gravity as Kevin postulates. And when we teach them to do an exercise like the heel, for instance, using thought-centric models of learning, such as dominance and +R, the dogs have to figure out, on their own, how to match their forward momentum and energy with ours. But when we teach them using Natural Dog Training, no matter how bad we are at it initially, if our goal is to teach the dog to be in-synch with us physically and emotionally (instead of teaching them to respect our leadership, or by rewarding their external behaviors), at some point we’ll find that we’re actually creating a feeling in the dog of a shared center-of-gravity, just like with a horse and rider. In that respect, heeling not only feels natural to the dog. It feels really, really good. 

To highlight these differences, here’s a video of Cesar Millan [note: this video has been deleted] solving a fairly simple behavioral problem of a great Dane who gets too energized when she goes jogging with her owner. She expresses this excess energy (which is essentially a nervousness about how to keep her desire to run full-bore in check) as jumping up. Millan interprets this as dominance, and teaches the dog to stay next to her owner by being “submissive.”

There’s so much wrong in Cesar’s explanation of the problem, not mention in how he solves it, yet it’s hard to dispute the visual “evidence” of the results.

So what, exactly, if anything, is wrong with Cesar’s approach? 

Well for starters, even without knowing that dominance is not a real character trait or behavioral output in dogs, it’s quite easy to see that the Dane is simply expressing a strong social attraction — the desire to connect to her owner — in an inappropriate way. She’s also feeling nervous because she's unsure of how to align her energy with the owner while they're running: faster forward momentum = a challenge to the dog's ability to feel or stay connected, so she’s jumping up to ground some of that excess energy. 

The thing is, you never want to punish or correct social attraction, no matter what form it takes. And you especially don’t want to do it by intimidating the dog, as Cesar does. If you watch his body language, and the body language of the dog very closely, you’ll see that Millan is actually acting very much like a predator in order to keep the dog in a “submissive” state. You can see this most clearly in the section where he first demonstrates the “touch” to the dog’s throat — which in the past he described as a “bite,” as in “If a dog can bite me, why I can't I bite him back?” — then moves into the dog’s space, making the dog even more nervous and unsure of herself.

In short, the problem is “solved” by repressing the dog’s energy instead of celebrating that energy and channeling it into a happy, joyous heel. (Personally, I probably wouldn’t take a great Dane jogging anyway; I don’t thinking jogging is a good idea with most dogs, particularly those with a big barrel chest and narrow waist.*)

But other than telling the owner to come up with an alternative exercise plan,** if we look at this as an energy problem, the way to solve it would be keep that level of energy active in the dog, but give it a different outlet without intimidating or repressing her drive to connect. In other words, keep the dog’s drive energy up but channel it into a heel. (After a while the Dane learns to do this on her own, but is still confused, unhappy, and not as energetic as before.)

Contrast the dominance approach with the traditional clicker-training and food-luring method, as shown by Nancy Cusick, a professional dog trainer from Texas who's been described (by herself and others) as The Awesomest Dog Trainer in Austin, which she may very well be. (I pulled this video at random from YouTube.)

I see several things lacking here. One is that the puppy is a bit too young for the exercise. She just wants to sniff and explore. Each time she does, Cusick redirects her with a kissing sound. That’s nice, and fine in theory, but by doing this Cusick slowly and inevitably becomes an obstacle to the puppy’s desires, desires that are being controlled more by the puppy’s developmental needs than by hunger.

Also, at one point when the pup sits while not in the heel position, the trainer moves her body next to the pup’s rather than using her own body language and energy to induce the puppy to move toward her and then sit. Then she clicks and rewards the dog for being in that position. This is based on the somewhat questionable idea that dogs learn through positive reinforcement: if the dog is reinforced while it’s in the proper position it will gradually learn to choose that position on its own. (Notice that despite the seeming validity of this idea, the more the trainer rewards the puppy for being in the heel position, the more the puppy actually wanders off to explore, and do other things on her own.)

Another problem is that when the trainer accidentally drops food on the ground, and the puppy goes after it, the trainer makes the kissing sound again to try to redirect the puppy’s attention back to her. Again, you can see clearly that the more the trainer does this, the less attention the puppy pays to the trainer. (At one point the trainer even jokes to the camera, “Attention doggie deficit…” and chuckles.) 

There is nothing inherently wrong with using a kissing sound while teaching a dog to walk next to you. The problem here is with the timing. Instead of making the kissing sound as soon as the pup loses focus, the trainer does it after the puppy has already projected its energy onto something else. So the kissing sound ends up feeling like a punishment to the puppy.  

Puppy loses focus ... finds something to focus on ... handler makes kissing sound.  

Puppy feels, “Hey, I was having fun!” 

Contrast that with making the kissing sound the instant the pup loses focus, before she finds something else to focus her energy on: “What can I find around here to focus on?”   

Puppy loses focus ... trainer immediately makes kissing sound.  

Here the puppy feels, “Oh, good! I can focus my energy on you! This feels great!”

See the difference?

I’ll give Cusick the benefit of the doubt (as I said, she probably is the awesomest dog trainer in Austin, Texas), and suggest that part of the problem may be she’s not just focused on training the pup, she’s also talking to the camera as she works: not an easy thing to do. 

However, in the end the puppy only has a “generalized” heel, whose focus is very easily broken except when doing the sit while in the heel position. The reason the puppy is focused then is because that’s the only time the puppy isn’t feeling a disconnect between its own body and the trainer’s. While they’re doing the heel the puppy is mildly interested in getting the treats, but can’t figure out how to match her body’s need for forward momentum with the movement of the trainer’s body and the food lure. And the trainer isn’t using the food to help the pup solve the problem, she’s only using it as a lure and a positive reinforcement.

To recap, in Cesar Millan’s mind the dog’s problem is “How can I be submissive to my pack leader?” which is based on a false premise. Meanwhile, the positive trainer sees the puppy’s problem as, “How can I get a reward? Maybe if I heel I’ll get a treat?” which is just as false. Both ideas require the dog to engage in a linear, rational, time-dependent thought process, and a) dogs aren't capable of rational or hypothetical thinking, and b) they live totally in the moment, without any awareness of linear, chronological time. 

In each case the real problem for the doggie is, “How can I get my body to feel in-synch with my handler’s energy and momentum while we’re both moving together?” 

Now contrast these two approaches with this video of Kevin Behan, working on the heel with a Doberman pinscher named Laszlo, using the natural approach. 

First of all Laszlo is no ordinary dog. His owner brought him to Kevin because she was having a great deal of difficulty with his overabundant energy. As she wrote on her own blog, Laszlo was so wired that “he wouldn't lie down. I don't mean on command — I mean, he wouldn't lie down. Such was his anxiety and vigilance.” 

Now, that’s a tense doggie! 

The first thing Kevin does with Laszlo in this video is the pushing exercise, where he gets Laszlo to push for food. He does it, among other things, to stimulate Laszlo's social attraction to him. To the uninitiated viewer this may look just like “luring” the dog with treats the way Nancy Cusick does, but there’s a lot more to it than that. 

How to Do the Pushing Exercise 

How and Why It Works 

After a bit of pushing, Kevin begins moving around, encouraging Laszlo to move with him. At one point Laszlo gets distracted by a puddle, but Kevin just keeps moving (no kissing sound), encouraging the dog to connect to him (and what’s in his bait bag). At other times Laszlo finds bits of food on the ground and Kevin waits a bit for him to finish eating them before he starts moving again. 

Once he’s got Laszlo moving with him he begins to oscillate between acting like prey and predator, moves that again, to the uninitiated, might seem to have no purpose.

“He’s just throwing in some silly tai-chi moves to impress people.”

They may seem silly, but if you watch carefully, you’ll see that each shift in Kevin’s body language creates an immediate, in-the-moment shift in Laszlo's behavior, his approach to staying in-synch with Kevin’s movements. Those “silly” moves of Kevin’s have nothing to do with tai-chi, per se, though they do create shifts in Laszlo’s energy (which, for all I know, may actually be one of the goals of tai-chi).

At a certain point, Kevin even gets Laszlo to hold a down/stay without even giving the command. (Kevin exhibits some interesting “marching band” moves during this sequence as a means of both enticing Laszlo to break the stay, and to keep him in it at the same time.) And you’ll notice that Laszlo’s ears never go down or back except once or twice, for a fraction of a second, and each time they do, Kevin compensates with food or with his body language to bring the dog’s energy back into to a more relaxed and confident state.

There is no intimidation or dominance and submission in anything Kevin does. (Kevin does occasionally touch Laszlo’s neck with the back of his hand, which is done to help ground the dog's energy a little and to “steer” him a little, the way you’d do with a horse’s reins.)

You’ll also notice (I hope) the way Kevin does the about turns, which gently induce Laszlo to stay in "the pocket." To help with this, he uses food as a means of keeping the dog’s drive-to-connect up and active rather than as a reward for any one specific behavior. It’s more like a dance, one that leaves Laszlo entirely under Kevin’s command with no punishment or bad feelings taking place. 

At the end, Laszlo is heeling off-lead, and his energy is totally plugged in to Kevin.

By the way, the movements that Kevin makes don’t need to be, and in my opinion, shouldn’t be, copied exactly by you or anyone else. Those particular “dance steps” are organic to Kevin’s emotional energy and personality. Think of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Bob Fosse performing the exact same dance sequence for a movie. Even seen only in silhouette, so you couldn’t recognize their faces, there would be no question as to which man was dancing during each sequence. By the same token, everyone will do the heel exercise differently, depending on how they naturally express their own energy through their own physical and emotional centers-of-gravity. 

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*Breeds like Danes, Dobermans, Dalmatians, viszlas, boxers, greyhounds, who all have a similar chest conformation, are designed to run hard and fast for brief spurts, not to jog slowly for long stretches.
**Working on the heel the way Kevin does will use up more of a dog's energy in 5 - 10 minutes than a 1/2 hour jog will. If you add playing tug, fetch, and push-of-war, the dog's energy needs will be completely satisfied.


Sang said...

I actually just saw that episode of Dog Whisperer the other night, and when the segment with the Great Dane came on, all I could think was just how attracted the Dane was to the owner, and just how much he just wanted to express his energy but couldn't. All I saw was a dog with great drive and energy that just needed a channel.....not a dog that needed to be "submissive". Really sad to see an otherwise healthy, happy dog that has intense attraction to his owner being corrected for his enthusiasm and energy rather than being given a proper outlet for it.

Hope you had a great Christmas and New Year Lee!

LCK said...

Great comment, Sang.

I would only add to what you said by suggesting (as I do in passing in the article), that in my view the dog wasn't really very happy initially, at least not as I read it. His jumping up was more like an expression of "Help! I don't know how to do this jogging thing with you, Dad!"

So the behavior was initially a combination of fear (or nervousness) and excitement. What I'd like to see, as a "before and after" is how well the dog comes when called -- or doesn't -- under various conditions.



Sang said...

Now that you mention it, as I think back and revisit it in my mind, I can totally see what you're referring to.

I just want to add that I've been working on the heel work using Kevin's method of teaching it and it really is like the dogs are attached to an invisible line to me. The emotional center of gravity that Kevin speaks of really is there, because when I'm doing the heel with them, they move exactly and precisely where I move. Doesn't matter if I'm moving forward in a straight line, or if I start doing arcs back and forth to see how connected they are, or if I just decide to stop abruptly and start moving backward. They stay in the pocket, magnetized to me. Really really cool stuff.

And another example of the power of working this way. Our house sits on a hill with no fence. It used to be that whenever I would take them outside for potty breaks or whatever else, they would charge off and up the hill and go running around tracking and looking for things to investigate and chase. Ever since I started pushing with all of them consistently, they no longer do this. In fact, they just go out the door and hang around me and have little interest in running off onto the hill. I actually have to tell them to go potty to get them to stop orbiting me. It's actually pretty funny when you think about it:)

LCK said...

The fact that your dogs used to run off to explore the world, and now they'd rather stay close and circle around you is HUGE, man!

Nice goin',


Sang said...

Thanks Lee! I thought so too:)

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Unknown said...

Dog participates and trains the dog, as they will be the one who will be giving the commands.

Looking for tips on how to dog train said...

Very informative! Thanks for the tips. Great post!