Help is needed
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), approximately 3.3 million dogs are surrendered to shelters every year and 20% of them are killed in the United States alone. Globally, these figures are likely to be significantly higher. For these dogs, extermination is likely the kindest thing they have had to endure throughout the course of their lives. Quite often, they are put through horrific and painful procedures in the name of training before being surrendered. Then there’s dogs who don’t make it to the shelter but instead live diminished lives. Perhaps they are confined to a backyard and deprived of social contact and needed stimulation. Others, who may be more included in the family still tolerate pain and all sorts of abuse by people with good intentions who want to do the right thing for their dogs.
The tendency is to assign blame. It’s the dog’s fault for acting aggressively and biting children or the person’s fault for using heavy punishment like choke chains and shock collars. Perhaps the breeder is held to be most responsible. After all, it was their failings that produced the imbalanced temperament and fear-driven tendencies that led the dog in the direction of being a “poorly trained” animal. However, If we look closely at this situation, a clearer picture begins to emerge. To do this well, we have to grant that there are some truths that must be embraced. The science of behaviorism is nothing new. We have known everything we needed to know to train dogs effectively and without causing them pain for over a hundred years. So what’s really going on?
Why do we continue to hold dearly our justifications for using strong and aversive punishment in dog training? Why are explanations based on pseudo-science as enticing as they seem to be? It may be in part that we live in a culture of entertainment where wrestling to rehabilitate a dominant dog is far more gripping to watch than someone patiently using clicker training to desensitize a dog to his usual triggers. It may also be that a storied explanation about how the dog is plotting to overthrow the hierarchical structure of your household seems more sinister and justifies an aggressive response. It may even be that dogs are very easy to violate. Their eagerness to learn is so deeply ingrained that even in the face of the most foul “training”, they search hard to find the best way to behave to preserve their own life and achieve what they want. Their undying loyalty even to abusive owners is a testament to their kindness.
The way forward
A scientifically informed psychology of learning is our biggest ally. Whether you are interested in saving dogs’ lives or simply improving your connection with the family pet, training a dog does not need to be painful for the dog or difficult for the human. This is truly good news except that there is nothing new about it. Our deep connection and history with dogs has led us to think of them not as dogs, but as caricatures with psychological processes they do not posses. Dogs do not operate based on long term goals and they carry no hidden agendas. They behave the way they do because it has had some payoff in the past. If we can understand what their “payoffs” are and what they value, we will put ourselves in the strongest position to influence their behavior.
There appears to be a significant knowledge gap in the world of dog training. People with the best intentions and desires to train their dogs do not have easy access to information that makes sense and is presented in a format that is designed to optimize human learning. The world of dog training has also been polluted by misguided information that takes us away from what works best. The techniques, principles, and strategies you will find on this website and in my videos are based on a scientific understanding of dogs and essential truths about learning that apply to all living beings. The purpose of these efforts is to fill this void with good information and equip more people with better tools. If you share your life with a dog, then you are already invested in living harmoniously with the single greatest companion to humans on earth. It’s about time we figure out how to do it best.