Monday, January 24, 2011

Reply to Patricia McConnell

This is a reply to Patricia McConnell's critique of one of my articles.

Patricia McConnell with One of Her Border Collies
Thank you, Dr. McConnell, for mentioning my blog article here. Oscar Wilde said that the only thing worse than people talking about you, is people not talking about you. Still, I stand by what I wrote. And I’d have to say that some of the people commenting here have actually proved my point for me.

It might help to know that the rationale behind my “Unified Dog Theory” series at is a, perhaps vain, attempt to help end the divisiveness in the training world, but also based on a very real need to help educate dog owners and trainers that there aren’t just two philosophical or methodological choices — dominance and positive reinforcement — there’s a third form of dog training, one that’s used to train working dogs: police dogs, herding dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, etc. It’s been modified for use with pet dogs by former police dog trainer, Kevin Behan, who learned his trade from his father, Jack Behan, a famous figure of the 1950s and 60s (and probably the first famous dog trainer in America). As Kevin grew as a trainer he disagreed with his father’s reliance on dominance, and set out on his own to find a training method for police work that wasn’t abusive, and formulated a training program in his 1st book, Natural Dog Training.

So there are really 3 common forms of dog training: dominance, +R, and drive training (in general) and Natural Dog Training (in particular).

One of your readers mentioned Sigmund Freud, and seemed to be scratching her head over why his name comes up in my articles. There’s actually a sound, scientific reason for it. That’s because the basic principles of drive training are more consonant with Freud’s pleasure principle than with Skinner’s experimental outgrowth of the pleasure principle, positive reinforcement. One of the ways Freud defined pleasure was as the release of internal tension. This is a physiological phenomenon, measurable in real time. On the other hand, positive reinforcement is only measurable after the fact through statistical analyses. Theres no real physiological basis for it. It isn’t an actual object, marker or event; it’s a function of statistics. (Plus, most behavioral scientists will tell you that there’s no real way to determine if a behavior was learned through positive or negative reinforcement.)

Personally, I’ll go with actual physiological realities (Freud) over statistical probabilities (Skinner) any day.

Another reason for writing this series, is to bring the wolf model — the real one, not the one that’s been proven invalid by modern research — back into play.

Formal obedience training got its start (by Max von Stephanitz in the early 1900s), in part, as a way of imitating the predatory motor patterns of wild wolves. This bit of history is missing from both the dominance and the +R views of training. And it’s very important, in terms of this current discussion, because juvenile wolves don’t begin hunting until they’re well into adolescence. That’s why I wrote in my article: 

This is the model that has been set in place by Nature, and has worked for millions of years. Why change it now? Why force puppies to pay attention and ‘learn,’ when Nature is telling them to jump around, bite, play, get distracted, and amuse the heck out of their owners?

The other problem is that it’s long been believed that a dog (or puppy) has to be calm in order to learn; dogs can’t learn when they’re highly stimulated. I’ve found that the exact opposite is true. I think it’s best to teach obedience skills as part of an active, high-energy game, where you stimulate the dog’s urge to bite, focus it on a toy, and teach him that he gets to win the toy by obeying your commands. It’s not a good idea to do this with puppies because once they get wound up it’s for them to wind down.

The more actively the dog’s whole organism is involved — his emotions, his kinetic energy, his instincts, and his brain — the better and faster he’ll learn. This is something, that frankly, you can’t do with young puppies because they only have 3 play settings: Off, Play Hard, and Play Way Too Hard.

It’s time we re-think the whole idea of puppy obedience classes, and perhaps set them up more as owner orientation classes, where the owners can watch their puppies play while the instructor explains a few simple training techniques for teaching their pup’s basic manners, but does so through the spoken and written word, without using the pup to demonstrate the process. That way the owners can learn two important things: how to teach their pup manners, at home, on their own time, and how much fun it is to watch puppies play together.

With all that said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using food or positive reinforcement in training pet dogs. Behan himself writes about the value of these things in his 1st book, something which caused a little conflict with some of the K-9 trainers he worked with over the years. But I also think it’s important to take a look at what Ian Dunbar has been writing about on his blog recently. 

“Laboratory study has revealed a variety of reinforcement schedules. Puppy training has revealed that most of these are notorious[ly] ineffective, or impossible to administer … Wake up! Puppy training has taught us that most of this stuff doesn’t work too well.”

Dunbar also says that one of the worst things you can do is reward a dog every time he obeys. Yet Bob Bailey, perhaps the most knowledgeable animal trainer we have at least when it comes to operant conditioning says that a dog should be rewarded every single time he obeys.

Like me, Bailey has also been somewhat critical of the +R movement, particularly the tendency some within it have to isolate themselves from the dog training community at large. Last year, after someone gave him a link to one of my blog articles, Bailey sent out a newsletter in response. In it he wrote, “The‘clicker training community’ has insulated itself from much of the public and from trainers not embracing the ‘purist’ methods … How many have heard me say, ‘Beware of he or she who claims [to have] The Truth?’”

Some people have closed their minds, but believe it or not, Cesar Millan sometimes gets things right, and some well-known figures in the +R world sometimes get things wrong. The truth is, dog training is as much of an art as it is a science. In fact, it may be more of an art than a science. We all gravitate towards what feels right to us. 

My “Unified Dog Theory” is an attempt to give people who are unaware of the scientific principles behind drive training, or don’t know how to utilize it with their dogs, some simple tools to start them on their way.

Hopefully, it will start the ball rolling toward bringing all dog trainers together rather than setting up opposing camps and sniping at one another. (And I’ve been as guilty of that in the past as anyone.)

Thanks again for mentioning my article.

Lee Charles Kelley
Life Is an Adventure — Where Will Your Dog Take You?

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