Monday, March 1, 2010

What are you teaching, anyway?

Terrierman had a blog post about humane v. abusive training aids.

My first thought was, I don't have to ask myself whether I'm abusing my dog - I don't train her at all and we walk off leash as much as possible.

Then I started asking myself, what in the world according to Garp are people trying to teach their dogs anyway? I don't mean working dogs, obviously, but pet dogs. What do people train pet dogs to do? All they need to know is to relieve themselves outside and come when called. Both of which they do naturally.

Yes, I just said that.

Dogs naturally relieve themselves outside the house and come when called.

Yes, I mean it.

First of all, dogs don't like to live in their own filth. Left to their own devices, they'll foul somewhere other than where they sleep. Of course in a big house, that's lots of places they could relieve themselves without inconveniencing themselves, so it's a little harder for them to define where to go or not to go, but they'll still prefer to go somewhere else. As long as you're walking them regularly, often, and long enough each time, they'll wait for a chance to go outside instead of fouling the house. Voila, instant house-training.

Of course there is the odd dog who finds it normal to foul his territory. And then eat his feces.

Yes, that's disgusting.

No, it's not normal.

If your dog is doing that, there's something wrong with your dog. Probably caused by you.

Yes, I just said that, and I mean it.

Second, as to coming when called, yes, dogs do that naturally. They're pack animals. They want to be with the pack. They also want to obey the rules of the pack. So when you, the pack leader, call, the dog naturally wants to come.

Oh wait... That's right, you are not the pack leader, because you don't "believe in dominance."

Ok then. That would be why your dog doesn't come when called. You're not the leader, so who are you to tell him what to do?

My dog comes when called, and shibas are notorious for having poor recall. And if you watch her, you can see why: because she's making a conscious decision to come or not to come. If Tinky-Winky is busy with something, she'll come to me... once she's done. Or when my growling becomes menacing enough that it's not worth it anymore.

Is that inconvenient? Some times. Is it horrible? No. And I frequently inconvenience her by stopping to take photos, so I don't mind so much. I know she's coming sooner or later, she knows she's coming sooner or later. All good.

So what does that have to do with proving that dogs come naturally when called? Exactly because of what I just said: she chooses to come or not to come. Therefore, she doesn't need to be conditioned to do it. All we need is an agreed-upon signal for me to let her know that I desire her attendance. And this is very easy, because dogs naturally have that. I don't know what biologists call it, but I call it a "pack call" or "trail call."

Where did I get this idea?

I learned it from Tinky-Winky, thusly. She's a very quiet dog, but once in a while, she'll give one bark. One. A very specific sound that I recognized from the first time I heard it as one thing: "Mama, come help me!"

Why did I know what it meant instantly? Because humans and dogs have formed mixed packs for more than 10,000 years, I suppose. Also because my dog doesn't bark constantly, so it was immediately obvious that she needed something. Whether we're on the trail or at home, when she gives that one bark, I know she needs me. This is her "pack call."

I, conversely, developed a unique sound for calling her. I always call "Tinky-Winky, come!" in the same pitch and rhythm. Some times louder, if I think she's far away, and some times with a growly sound, if she's pissing me off, but always the same pitch and rhythm. Because I know she recognizes that sound as her pack calling to her.

Does it work? Absolutely. Before I figured it out, Tinky-Winky would get lost on the trail and be gone for hours. Now, I just give my pack call from time to time when she's out of sight, and she hasn't been lost since. Even if she doesn't come straight back to me, she knows where her pack is and she's reminded to keep up. That way she doesn't get absorbed with what she's doing and lose track of me.

Of course the way Tinky-Winky and I came to understand this is by walking off leash a great deal. So once again the answer to your dog training problem is: walk more.

If you walked far enough, often enough, and off-leash enough, your dog would be house-trained and come when called. And that's the only two things a pet dog needs to know. "Sit-stay"? Useless. Tinky-Winky doesn't sit-stay, and not once in four years together have we felt a need for her to sit-stay. She does, however, drop on recall. She does many tricks, in exchange for cheese. I think that's absolutely fair. I expect to get paid to do someone else's bidding, and so does she. But as for the two cardinal pack rules of "don't foul the den" and "come when the pack calls", I never had to teach her either of those. She's born with it, that's all.

At this point you may be disagreeing with me because your dog isn't house-trained and doesn't come when called.

Well, let me put it to you this way. Those are the two things your dog does naturally in his pack. If you can't even "train" him to do just that, you're a pretty piss-poor trainer. Maybe now would be a good time to start "believing" in dominance.

Second, you may be thinking that you can't possibly walk your dog far enough, often enough, and off-leash enough, because you live in some ungodly cityscape where there is nowhere to walk, plus you work for a living and you don't have that kind of time.

All right then. Get rid of the dog and get a cat.

I'm serious.

If you can't walk your dog far enough, often enough, and off-leash enough to prevent behavioural problems, you mustn't have a dog. Or at least not that dog. And yes, I said "mustn't", not "shouldn't". I'm not suggesting you get rid of the dog. I'm telling you. Get rid of the dog.

"Oh, no," you say, "I love my dog, it's ok that I can't do everything perfect, that doesn't mean I can't have a dog."

Actually, it does mean you can't have a dog. If you were keeping a child under such conditions that he'd start eating his own feces and losing track of the most elementary rules of human behaviour, you'd be going to jail. Whatever you think you're doing for your dog, the fact that he has behavioural problems is prima facie evidence that you're doing it wrong. Don't make me use the A-word, but yeah, your dog has problems because you are causing him to have problems. Either change what you're doing, or get rid of the dog. (Unless of course, the problems pre-date you having the dog and are decreasing the longer the dog is in your care.)

And as for the humanity of various training aids, it all doesn't matter. It's a dog, not a circus pony. Whatever you're using the training aids for, stop it.


Jenny said...

I never thought about it this way but I totally agree. In regards to walking off leash, I still don't trust myself nor my dog to do so. She does show signs of returning and has returned on several occasions. If she's in a danger zone (busy streets), all you have to do is open a car door and she's in :)

TeamDog said...

To be honest, I've "trained" my dogs. The first dog I trained was a foster puppy for a bomb-sniffing program, & I had to teach her certain commands for her work. The second dog I trained I trained a) for mental stimulation & b) a cheap way to amuse myself, 'cause it's it's really cute when you're dog waves at you on cue:)

Mongoose said...

Working dogs are included under my disclaimer about working dogs at the beginning of the post.

Teaching tricks I see as more of a game between man and dog. Tinky-Winky does tricks for treats. If she doesn't do them, well, oh well. It was just for fun anyway. If someone is using questionable training aids to teach a dog to shake hands, I think they have way too much time on their hands.