Monday, May 11, 2009

Advancements in Dog Training

What if everyone in the medical field decided that they have learned all they needed to know about veterinary medicine and all new research and advancements stopped?

This question was posed during a recent seminar I attended at my clinic. Of course this would never happen in veterinary medicine, but it got me thinking about dog training. Most pets owners would avoid taking their pets to a clinic that had not updated its practices for 15-20 years, however these same pet owners are taking their animals to trainers who do just that.

Despite new research and information on pet training promoting safer and more effective techniques for changing behavior, a large percentage of trainers are still practicing methods that are quite outdated. Traditional training places a lot of emphasis on using punishment and aversives(something the animal finds unpleasant) to stop behaviors. Dominance training works in a similar vein. The idea being that the dog is always striving for a higher rank, harsh techniques and fear are often used to "put the dog in his place". These techniques can be harmful and scary to the dog. They can also be dangerous to pet owners as many dogs do not tolerate being treated harshly.

Many trainers argue the fact that these older methods are still effective in changing behavior, so why fix something that's still working? Let's go back to the medical analogy for a moment. Say you are offered two different drugs to treat a migraine. Both medications help to relieve the pain, but one drug works for longer and has much fewer side effects than the other. Which one would you choose? It is the same in dog training. While many traditional training techniques can work(trainers would not be continuing to use them if they didn't), there is more of a chance for side effects. Using punishment has many drawbacks, for instance it can create negative associations and damage your relationship with your pet. In a recent veterinary study, it was found that many punishment based methods actually elicited aggressive responses in the dogs. In other cases punishment only suppresses behaviors. So while it may appear to be fixed initially, the underlying cause was never addressed and the behavior may resurface again at a later date.

In recent years training techniques have surfaced that are not only more effective, they are gentler and safer for both you and your pet. Positive methods such as clicker training are backed by current research and studies and have very little chance of side effects. Newer training looks to change the underlying cause of a behavior, instead of just suppressing it. There is more focus on creating a relationship built on trust and understanding with your pet, instead of using fear and punishment to keep them in line.

So what does this mean as a pet owner? When looking for a trainer you will need to do your research and choose carefully. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Did the trainer attend any type of schooling or certification course? Do they belong to any professional organizations such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers? Do they continue to attend seminars and workshops and keep up to date with new training information? These questions should help you get an idea of whether the trainer is right for you. If there is anything about a trainer's methods that make you uncomfortable, let them know. It is up to you to speak up for and protect your pet. There are too many better alternatives out there for you and your dog to suffer through harsh and outdated training.

For more info: For a list of great dog trainers around the country, check out the list of Karen Pryor Academy graduates. The Karen Pryor Academy is an intensive certification course for dog trainers that emphasizes techniques that are current, humane, and effective.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has released position statements regarding topics such as punishment, dominance, and choosing a good trainer. These statements can be found here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Do Dogs Feel Guilt?

One of the most common complaints I hear from pet owners in regards to their dog's misbehavior is that the pet knew he did wrong but did it anyways. Let's take, for instance, the owner that comes home to find that her dog has urinated on the carpet at some point during the day. Upon seeing the owner and the mess on the carpet, the dog lowers his head, flattens his ears, and approaches the owner very slowly. To this the owner may respond;
"Just look at his face, he knows he isn't supposed to pee on the carpet or else he wouldn't look so guilty."
But is this really guilt we are seeing when dogs offer these kinds of behaviors? For the answer we need to understand more about how dogs think and perceive the world.
First off we need to understand that dogs tend to live in the moment. They are unable to understand consequences for behaviors they have done in the past. It may seem obvious to us that the urine spot on the rug was caused by the dog peeing there, but to the dog it is just a urine spot on the rug, he does not think about how it got there in the first place.
Another reason to question the idea that dogs feel guilt is that to feel guilt would imply that dogs have a moral code. There is no evidence to suggest that dogs have a true understanding of right and wrong. Certainly dogs understand that their actions can result in good and bad things happening, and therefore will modify their behavior accordingly. However, to truly have a sense of morality would require such abstract thinking that is far beyond the capacity of a dog's mind. This is not to say that dogs do not experience a wide range of basic emotions such as fear, sadness and happiness, but I have yet to hear of any research that can truly prove that dogs feel guilty for their actions.
So what is really happening in the scenario with the owner and the dog that peed on the carpet above, if not guilt? The answer lies in a dog's incredible ability to pick up on cues from us and their environment. Dogs can read our body language and tone of voice amazingly well. The reason the dog acted the way he did when he saw his owner was that he was able to pick up on the fact that the owner was angry and quite possibly about to punish him. So he quickly begins offering appeasement behaviors(lowering head and body, flattening ears, etc.) in an attempt to avoid being punished. He has no idea why he is going to be punished, but he has learned that an angry owner predicts bad things that need to be avoided. The poor dog is not feeling guilt, but fear.
Now what about the dog that offers these behaviors before the owner even realizes something is wrong? There is no way the dog is picking up on signs of anger from it's owner, so surely this dog must be feeling guilty, right? Here is where the environmental cues come into play. At one point in time the owner came home, saw a mess on the carpet, and punished the dog in front of the mess. So now the presence of the urine on the carpet and the owner coming home have become predictors of punishment for the dog.
Here is why this is so important to understand when it comes to training dogs. If we truly believe that the dog is feeling guilt for his actions and therefore knew that he was doing something wrong, then it is easy to understand why we would want to punish the dog. This way of thinking has led to the unfair treatment of an untold number of dogs. Once we realize what is truly going on when our dogs behave this way, we can begin to foster a relationship of understanding and trust between us and our furry companions.

-The photo above was taken by Colure. Visit her flickr site here.