The Current Situation
There is a standing joke in dog training which goes something like this; what’s the only thing two dog trainers agree on? that the third dog trainer is wrong. Any dog trainer who uses social media couldn’t miss the animosity between the various factions. Animosity between groups of people is nothing new. We’ve been waging war on one another other since the beginning of time.
Greater understanding of the scientific principles of learning theory and shifts in ethical thinking has led to very distinct training methodologies. This has created the groups. There are those who train only with positive reinforcement (or as far as is possible) and there are those who see nothing wrong with using physical punishment to teach a dog what he needs to know. There are also (of course) many positions between these two standpoints.
A Brief History of Dog Training
It was not very long ago that the use of harsh chastisement was the norm. Konrad Most (1910) was perhaps the first to set out systematic training methods in his book, Training Dogs. Konrad was actually a forward thinker, he described reinforcement, generalisation, association and shaping long before the influences of Burrhus Frederic Skinner (considered to have developed the science of operant conditioning). However, Most’s use of physical force largely set the standard and had enormous influence on the future of dog training. Such was the book’s influence, that in 1954 (44 years after publication) it was translated from German and reprinted in English.
In the 1960’s harsh punishment was still pretty much the norm. William Koehler was the trainer of Wildfire, the Bull Terrier in the Disney film, It’s a Dog’s Life. The dog was awarded, ‘Animal Star of the Year’. Koehler’s book The Koehler Method of Dog Training (1962) is largely based on positive punishment and negative reinforcement (applying and ceasing an aversive). Harsh punishments were not restricted to animal training. Human behaviour was also very often met with uncompassionate, cruel and barbaric acts, for example, those carried out in mental institutions of the 1960’s.
Other huge influences such as The Monks of New Skete (who became prominent in the 1970’s), further promoted the idea of physical force. Although they emphasised the need for a good relationship between people and dogs, they also used harsh correction techniques in a bid to establish and maintain their perceived hierarchical position.
Anyone around in the 1980’s (in the UK) could not have missed the huge presence of Barbara Woodhouse (TV dog training personality). Barbara made dog training an everyday, normal thing to do. She must have influenced millions to have a go at training their pet dog. She was, however, quite forceful (with people as well as dogs) and promoted the use of choke chains to give, in her words, a short sharp jerk.
I don’t think of any of these people as bad people, in fact, they all contributed to the development of dog training to some degree. But you could say, they were of their time in regard to using punishment.
However, other methods were also developing. William Campbell (1975) in his book, Behaviour Problems in Dogs was probably the first person to truly consider the root cause of behaviour problems, considering such things as, environment, health and nutrition. Ian Dunbar (1981) began to emphasise the importance of early socialisation and promoted lure and reward training. Although Ian didn’t have the same level of impact as Barbara Woodhouse, his influence grew and grew. Today he is largely credited with introducing a kinder and more gentle approach to dog training and remains somewhat of a superstar amongst dog training geeks.
We then have the enormous influence of Karen Pryor who united the science of operant conditioning and dog training. Pryor’s influence is probably the greatest of anybody in the dog training world. Shaping, clicker training and behaviour modification without the risk of side effects associated with positive punishment, exploded during the 90’s as a direct influence of Karen’s ability to unite science and dog training.
There are so many others who have influenced us, I could literally write a book on the subject, it’s so large. But the point is this; Not everyone has read the same books. Some people have not read any books. The most famous dog trainer in the world (Cesar Millan) has stated that he learned about dogs from watching them, not from reading books. Even if we had all read the same books our understandings would vary.
The Problem With Getting Along
It is hardly surprising, given the history, that people may have very contrasting views about dog training methodology. People also like to belong to groups, groups are everywhere you look, religious groups, football fans, national patriotism, Conservatives, Liberals etc. We then tend to defend our chosen group passionately. In evolutionary terms, belonging to a group may give an individual an advantage (safety in numbers).
Cognitive dissonance occurs where one idea conflicts with another idea. For example, we may find it difficult to accept that positive punishment is ethically wrong if we already believe that we are a good person and we already use positive punishment training methods. It conflicts with what we already believe.
Confirmation bias is a flaw in human thinking. We basically look for evidence which confirms what we already believe and we disregard anything which conflicts with it. Ever tried convincing somebody not to be religious, support a particular football team or change their political allegiance? I wouldn’t bother! This seems like a small thing but even great scientists can struggle with confirmation bias.
We now have the influence of social media. In real life, we address our boss, our family, our friends, our wider acquaintances differently. On Facebook, you are more likely addressing everyone in the same way, there is no natural differentiation taking place, the same message goes to everyone. We’re also unable to extend the subtle social facial expressions, body language and tone, which all change how communication is received. Added to this, we feel safe. Just like people feel more able to hurl insults in the safety of their car, so it is with social media, only more so. Social media is really where all the animosity takes place. We are not walking past each other’s training hall shouting ‘YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG, YOU MORON’ through the window, are we?
We develop group mentality, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and shout at people around the world like a Tasmanian Devil with toothache in a traffic jam.
We are all on different paths. I haven’t walked yours and you haven’t walked mine. I dislike forceful training with a passion, but the majority of trainers who use such methods are not the monsters we’d like to believe they are. They are just people on a different path doing what they believe is best. I bet they even cry when their dog dies, just like we do.
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read