We are a long way from completely understanding how the brain works and how to fully explain, interpret and modify behavior. Yet, we have developed some good tools and insights, and it is worthwhile to invest time into the study of the latest avenues of scientific inquiry and how we got here. In the meantime, I suggest finding out how to read how your dog will help you throw away the dog training method cookbooks.
I don’t use a pop culture method of dog training… such as “all positive”, “balanced”, “dog whisperer”, or any other such programmed system. Those are just cookbooks; they really don’t speak to how to read or work with a dog’s instinctive and learned behavioral programming according to current scientific knowledge. Cookbooks work for making food because you can measure, mix, and cook several inanimate components and make the same cake again and again. But dog training cookbook methods don’t work so well with every dog. These methodological approaches don’t point out how to read a dog, give a full picture of causal conditions, give individualized ways of working with various dogs, or provide valid ways to analyze behavioral pathologies. The training should always fit the dog, the dog shouldn’t have to be made to fit a training method.
For example, let’s take a small sliver of innate behavior for analysis: let’s talk about feelings. When I work with a dog, I try to anticipate and guess how a particular dog is feeling, how what I’m about to do might alter those feelings, how that dog is going to end up feeling, whether the feelings are going to be pleasant or unpleasant, other factors that might influence the feelings, and what I think the dog remembers and what I want the dog to remember in the future. That’s a lot to process and to then make instant adjustments in real time. Overall, I generally want to create a positive anticipation that will influence those first appraisals, and then intervene with other input to modulate the continuing appraisals, so that the immediate behavioral responses and resulting learning set the dog up for as good, or better, appraisals and resulting actions in future similar situations. Or, in the case of dangers, such as an encounter with a rattlesnake or other harmful situation, how I’m going to create a negative anticipation of all these same processes. Feelings give feedback to the dog and to others around them, you have to see what is going on instead of consulting a dog training method cookbook.
For a very long time, emotions have been a scorned and controversial topic in the scientific study of animal behavior. Since feelings couldn’t be sampled in a laboratory, in some kind of test tube or experimental box, it became easier to treat feelings as scientifically irrelevant. However, we need to give those skeptics their due, because their narrow focus resulted in many important discoveries about learning. But the intensity of this viewpoint transmogrified into vehement opposition of any discussion of, or research into, feelings. As a result, scientists self-censored their opinions about feelings to avoid professional exile. Yeah, it was that bad, and in some ways, is still that bad. Sometimes people, even scientists, can convince themselves they are so impartial that the outcome is fanatical partiality to their own views and new ideas become forbidden. Thus, adherence to methods became the law of the crowd.
On the other hand, we all feel emotions and can see that animals have them, too. Our way of interpreting them is to say things like the dog bit that person because it was afraid; the dog licked me because it was happy; or the dog was sad because the owner left for work. We understand, without being a professor, that a dog’s emotional expressions provide us with valuable predictive information about what they are likely to do. And we are right. However, this only gets us so far because feelings don’t cause a dog to do these things directly, but they do act as feedback, like physical sensations, to help a dog to evaluate, act upon and remember events.
I am confident in saying feelings aren’t irrelevant. Dogs feel real things (hot, cold, soft, hard, etc.), and they “feel” virtual things (anger, panic, fear, happiness, etc.), and when those feelings are good or bad, they notice, decide or react, and remember them. There is a lot going on, and to ignore feelings puts you in the obsolete camp of the epiphenomenalists, and radical behaviorists, who thought feelings had no place in the scientific study of behavior. All the dog training methods embody these same errors and are missing huge chunks of what is going on with the entire dog. It is good to study the different methods, to see what is being done (often times so you can unravel the damage they did). I could enrage a number of dog training method fanatics by naming method names, but that would divert us from the topic at hand, and I don’t need my inbox crammed with a lot of nonsense and chest bumping challenges. However, it is time to stop using the popular dog training method approaches because better science, and our experiences, tell us so. Your dog isn’t a cake to be baked.