Years ago, I was working with a new student. A few days prior, we had completed a first lesson with her puppy. We were using treats and using luring to establish beginning word associations for Sit, Down, Come and Heel. Pretty standard stuff. She was at a quiet park, as I recommended, doing her homework. Along came some woman in a car who pulled over, went over to my student, and made a big scene, saying “You’re turning your dog into a robot!” My student contacted me afterwards quite upset and almost in tears. I had to reassure her she wasn’t doing anything wrong, and this busybody was out of line and goofy. Over time, we finished the training of her dog, and everything turned out well.
So, what’s with this “robot” stuff people are referring to?
First, this incident was the result of an unfortunate encounter with someone who thought it was her job to meddle in the life of a stranger who was not doing anything wrong. This person had a problem. If you train your dog in public, you are eventually going to attract the prying eyes of this type of person. They might even call the police on you claiming you are abusing your dog! Just politely excuse yourself and promptly leave the location. You don’t have to explain yourself. We can therefore dismiss this type of thing from our interest.
To me, what a “robot” means is a dog that has had all the life taken out of them. These dogs exhibit signs of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is typically the result of overwhelming a dog with response-independent, inescapable, unpredictable, very severe psychological shock, and the dog responds by engaging in a behavior of last resort: extreme passivity or freezing. These effects can drastically impair learning and normal responses and can spread throughout all of the dogs responses and training. Pavlov’s laboratory was flooded after a severe storm, some dogs had to swim in their cages all night in order to not drown, and all the dogs in his program were traumatized. We can see this in some dogs which have been trapped in a shelter environment too long. The severe shock is the entire shelter experience. In other cases, we can see this with dogs that have been abused, or that have experienced some awful trauma. Sometimes a severe shock is the type of training implemented.
Some people often assume that robot-like behavior is always a result of using this or that training tool. Believe me, it isn’t the tool, it’s what happened to the dog. Remember, the problem sets up as follows. The stimulus used is a severe shock. You can shock a dog with a high intensity of anything. A shock could be unsolvable motivational conflicts; social relationship abnormalities between the dog and owner/ trainer; something too traumatic (such as a dog fight, car crash, or other disaster); sleep deprivation; something too irritating; something too painful; or some kind of extreme deprivation. Severe shock psychologically paralyzes a dog so that it can’t perform the necessary actions to get away from the shock. Next, the situation is inescapable. If you physically or psychologically trap a dog to where it can’t get away from that shock, that is going to break the dog. Response-independent means that no matter what the dog does, it can’t get away from the shock. Experimental studies have demonstrated mammals can learn to deal with shocks, and not break down, if they are warned in advance so they can escape. And unpredictable means the dog comes to dread the situations because there is no warning. Trainers and owners should take a hard look at what they are doing in their handling and training and see if they are damaging their dogs and turning them into robots.
I’ve seen way too many instances of training that I believe puts dogs in peril of becoming robots. Some trainers post videos of their students and dogs. Maybe you might have a dog, or some dogs, that started out as robots before you had a chance to work with them and what you are showing is the best that could reasonably be expected at this juncture in the program. But, when all the dogs coming from a program passively move about, to me, that is a sign of concern that those dogs aren’t experiencing very good training. If I see no joy, happy tails, exchanged and real affection, motivation and accomplished skills, and joyful body language, I’m not impressed. If all the dogs can do is passively walk about on leash with their owners, I suspect something is wrong.
Good dog training doesn’t cause dogs to become robots. A well-trained dog is not a robot. A dog which has a high proficiency because of good training doesn’t display the characteristics of a dog with learned helplessness. Good training is personal, and good trainers are empathetic and provide appropriate and abundant emotional rewards. If anything, novice dog owners and trainers are too mechanical with their dogs. Their dogs aren’t experiencing the full range of emotions and motivation possible, and their experiences are bereft of the wide range of information that can be exchanged between a human and a dog. Their dogs don’t present a very pleasing picture.
Good dog trainers, and owners, maintain a merry mood when working with dogs. They exude legitimate confidence and safety. They continue to hone their ability to facilitate learning to help dogs be prepared to deal with the typical surprises that can be encountered inside and outside the home. That type of functional working, personal relationship doesn’t turn dogs into robots. Good training is available. Extreme training of any type, especially gimmick training fads, should be shunned because of the risks of turning dogs into robots.