Monday, August 25, 2014

Calm Submissive State, My A%#.

My blood pressure has been rising almost exponentially lately whenever I hear about other trainers who look down on or dismiss the effectiveness of reward based training. These trainers are always spouting someone else's mantra about your dog needing to be in a "calm, submissive state". They are even right here-gasp-in my hometown. They are claiming that there is a limit to what you can do with reward based training or that after a certain age, you simply need to switch to using compulsion-based methods to get results.

I'm calling shenanigans.

Think about it in human terms, if it helps. If you are relaxed, laying on the couch reading a book, that's a "calm state" right? If someone bursts through your front door and begins to threaten you and your family, you'll switch to being in (some degree of) a frightened or submissive state. Are you still as relaxed as you were when you were relaxing on the couch reading your book?
 My point is that it is physiologically impossible to be both calm and submissive at the same time. This is true across species. When you are calm, your heart rate is at a normal, low rate and your respiration rate is even and relatively low. Muscles are relaxed and your body posture will reflect that. On the other hand, when you are feeling submissive your body will reflect that you are unsure and on edge. Your heart rate and respiration rate will be (even slightly) elevated. Say you are in this unsure, submissive state and you are then given a random, unrelated written exam or multiple choice Japanese (it's a notoriously difficult language to learn). How well are you going to do? Will you be able to focus and learn new things while in this environment? Will you retain it? Will you want to learn more from this person?
A dog who is calm is comfortable, relaxed, serene, tranquil and safe.
A dog who is submissive is unsure, anxious, meek and passive.
The two cannot exist together in the same animal at the same time.

Quick history lesson:
Compulsion based methods have been used widely since the first days of dog training in the early 1900's (military dogs during WWI) and back then, we honestly didn't know any better. Things like alpha rolls, scruff shakes, choking, etc were originally used because it was a fast effective way to get a dog's attention and slow them down to give the human the advantage.
Unfortunately, these are still fast, effective ways to get most dogs to stop demonstrating any given behavior. They are not resolutions to behavioral problems, and the dog does not suddenly respect the trainer/handler who is using these methods. The dog is likely shutting down because they are mentally overwhelmed and literally cannot respond any more (we call this "flooding")and has stopped fighting back because they feel their survival is at risk (this may or may not be rational). The dog is learning to distrust that person. Over time, dogs stop doing just about anything (even new behaviors) that may get them in trouble. This is called "learned helplessness"; the dog has learned that they can have no impact on their environment so they stop trying.
Back when dogs were first trained to do work and these methods were implemented, it was believed that any dog who did not respond well to training was simply not capable of being trained.
Using these methods, training cannot start until the dog is over 6 months of age. Ever wonder why? First of all, the physical force could do serious damage to young puppies, that's pretty obvious. The other thing is that this is after dogs have grown out of their Fear Imprint period in development and they have an understanding of what things are good and what things are bad in life.
Sure, go ahead and slap a prong collar on him- that won't be at all confusing.

What I'm trying to explain is that these 'trainers' who go on about a "calm, submissive" dog are so full of it I'm waiting for them to explode. The terms are made up. Their methods are antiquated at best and abusive at worst. Most of them don't even have an actual education beyond attending a few seminars on these methods. They have no real knowledge of Behavior, Cognition, Development or Learning Theory and they wield tools meant to cause harm.

You know why positive based training methods started being used and how clicker training developed? Marine mammals- you can't really punish a whale or a dolphin. They swim away and don't want to interact with you if you are a big jerkface. We had to come up with a way to motivate them to want to hang around and interact. Yeah, yeah that initially involves food rewards. Big deal. We ALL like rewards and food is something we can provide easily to animals when we train. Then we fade it out. Check out my post on bribery here to learn a little more about proper use of food in training.  What's wrong with that?! I'm not saying your dog gets 3 Big Macs every day, his own meals can be the reward if you're worried about weight gain. Food is a different topic entirely anyway, so I'll stop with that here.

I was recently watching a video another trainer in my area has on their website of a "before and after" of a dog who is trained using a prong collar. The "before" is a brief moment of the dog on camera reacting to another dog. The "before" dog is a dog who is excited, pulling on leash, jumping and doing a bit of barking. The tail is up a little higher than it would be for normal friendly play, and she appears to be switching between a play bow and a prey bow, so I would agree that there is some degree of over-stimulation at play and potential for trouble. The dog is not displaying outright aggression and appears to have a generally loose body (no tension, no crouching) which indicates that aggression is likely not going to be her first response. This does not mean that it is out of the realm of possibility, given her arousal level, so I would agree that this dog does need help coping with the stimulus. The "after" is after the trainer and owner have worked a few times with the prong collar on the dog so the dog understands the pressure placed on her by the collar. The dog after the prong collar training could be a different dog, and I don't mean that in a good way. She is nervous, anxious and unsure about everything. Her tail is low and almost tucked, she is completely avoiding eye contact with the other dog and is panting in an environment where the people are wearing pants and jackets. She is stressed out.
But she's submissive as she can be.
You know what she's not?
She's not "calm, submissive" because that DOESN'T EXIST.

Would you be calm if you had this around your neck?

With reward based training, I'm not going to try to change your dog's state or your state- I'm going to give you both tools to communicate and cope with challenges you will face in life together. With reward based training, the goal is to strengthen the bond between you and your dog. Pain and force are not the way to strengthen any relationship, and neither is bribery; which is why I don't use either. It's also why any trainer with an education in canine behavior, cognition and learning won't use them if they want results without dangerous side effects. I also don't just teach cute tricks to dogs using food rewards. I teach owners to communicate effectively with their dog; how to read their dog's body language so they understand their dog. I teach basic commands to help build a bond and use fun games to ensure both canine and human are having fun and thinking. You can have fun and still learn at the same time, you know. Ask a first grader about school this week. Do they have any fun during the day? Do they learn anything? Odds are, if they get to do both they are looking forward to the rest of the school year and the rest of their education in school. Why not set up a similar learning environment for your dog?

Excel-Erated Learning by Pamela Reid, PhD (Flooding- pgs 115-116; Learned Helplessness pages 98-99)
Canine Body Language; A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff
Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor (chapter on Fear, pages 115-132) (article on first recorded use of Military dogs in WWI)
Animal Behavior College Dog Trainer's Curriculum (Use of Military Dogs: pages 4-6)

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