Further Thoughts on Dog Training by David Cavill

Further thoughts on dog training, behaviour modification and accreditation by David Cavill

Complications continue to abound within the world of dog training and behaviour modification and as chairman of the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council I have been asked several times over the last few months for an update.  I hope that this article will answer some of the questions being posed.

It is many years since the family dog ran free and worked off its energy and frustrations running the streets and countryside. Society has become more sophisticated and regulated and ‘the dog’ is now expected to ‘fit in’ after thousands of generations just ‘being’. We should not be surprised that the transition is confusing for the dog and difficult and uncomfortable for us. We demand much of our ‘best friend’ and are concerned and disappointed when he is found lacking in the social and personal skills we have come to expect via Fred Basset, Lassie Come Home and Lady and the Tramp. Puppies still have enormous appeal to all ages, but many are square pegs that find it difficult being forced into the convenient round holes of modern life. When they present a problem we want an ‘expert’ to solve it as we do when a tap leaks or the lights fuse.

It is therefore not surprising that the demand for dog trainers and those who set themselves up as being able to modify dog behaviour has soared.

Over the past fifteen years many hundreds of books have been written and published on training dogs and an immense amount of related material is available. Some is very sensible and useful to dog owners, but much is confusing and buried in jargon: a jumble of ideas, techniques and unproven ‘experience’ moulded into a convenient and sometimes flashy ‘package’ of smoke and mirrors that conceal rather than illuminates.

The result is that much dog training consists of a range of either vague aspirations or formulaic, prescribed and mechanical processes delivered by those who only partly understand the basis of their techniques – and misunderstand the rest. It is not surprising that much behaviour modification is unsuccessful and it is no accident that many ineffective methods wrapped and ‘spun’ with unrealistic promises of success abound on web pages. The result has been that over the past 15 years there has been a huge increase in dogs being dumped in rescue and being designated as un-trainable. The theory extremists frown upon the word ‘discipline’, thus the number of dogs being euthanized is constantly rising. Other organisations have a more modern, balanced intelligent training approach, have much more success and prevent hundreds of dogs from being rejected and put down.

As a result, the world of training dogs and those who are involved in the modification of their behaviour is in turmoil. In fact, although a report in 2008 by the respected Companion Animal Welfare Council in the UK does not actually use the word ‘chaos’, even the briefest scan of its 52 pages can leave the reader in little doubt that the situation is thoroughly unsatisfactory and this is reflected throughout the western world, wherever dogs are expected to ‘conform’ to the standards set by humans and their regulatory regimes.

Current situation
It is because of the wide range of ideas, theories, processes and techniques, which have gained an adherence over the last 30 years that many organisations have been established that purport to represent the best methods and practitioners of dog training and behaviour modification. Most are member organisations of like-minded people and each seeks to establish its authority through a series of stated aims, objectives and ethical standards. The situation has been complicated by the involvement of the major charities whose role is no longer to just re home dogs, but to rehabilitate them as well. Some have instituted research to help them achieve this objective, but there is general agreement among dog trainers with experience that this research has not been sound, which has led to even more disagreements between the varying factions.

One reason why there is so much bad blood and disinformation between groups is the decision by the pet insurance companies to accept claims regarding pet behaviour. The insurance companies, understandably, want to ensure that claims are dealt with quickly and effectively; the mechanism that they have introduced is that of referral by a veterinary surgeon. Vets are busy people – they do not have the time to assess the quality of practitioners so it is easier to select someone with a ‘qualification’ even if that qualification is irrelevant or spurious and the practical experience of the ‘expert’ is minimal. In addition, the political ramifications within the competing organisations have often led to their focus being on their status and influence as an organisation rather than what is best for the dog.

The report by the Companion Animal Welfare Counsel referred to above, suggested that there should be one registration organisation for practitioners and a series of meetings was held in 2009/10 to try and achieve this worthy objective. Those present recognised that this was likely to be very difficult and probably impossible. In practice this has proved to be the case.

Standards and accreditation
In their attempt to establish themselves as the prime group, each organisation has set themselves standards to which they expect their members to adhere. Some are fiercely academic, insisting on a science degree for all their members and stressing their ‘clinical’ qualifications (qualifications which do not exist in dog behaviour – a fly on the wall while the definition of ‘clinical’ was discussed at the meetings called by CAWC would have wept!) – whilst others emphasise their professionalism, vocational study, experience and dedication. A perennial problem is that there is confusion between the undoubtedly important and valuable academic study of animal behaviour and that of dog training and dog specific behaviour modification. There is an assumption that a degree or postgraduate general study in animal behaviour gives some extra insight into dog behaviour/training and practical modification skills.

This is not the case, not just because dogs form no part of most animal behaviour degrees, but what little is taught is only theory; this critical fact is not explained to the public by people using these general animal behaviour degrees. The Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council promotes a more transparent and open classification of experience so the public can choose their ‘expert’ from relevant, credible and reliable information about the qualifications of any individuals, rather than irrelevant ‘animal behaviour’ degrees, which do not provide an appropriate knowledge base.

Choosing a trainer or behaviourist is not rocket science but it requires a degree of common sense, which balances experience, personality and dedication. Qualifications are relevant, but it is certainly not just about academic expertise; if a student wishes to obtain a Degree, two are available in Britain specifically in dog behaviour, thus solving the problem for those wishing to attain a high level of knowledge. The questions that need to be asked about anyone purporting to be a dog behaviour specialist are:

  • Are they successful?
  • Is their web site transparent and open about their expertise, experience and specific specialised dog qualification?
  • Does the owner of the dog with a problem behaviour feel confident in their ability?
  • Is there a change in the behaviour of their dog when the expert is present and post consultation?
  • Do they use kind, balanced and practical methods?
  • Do they spend time with the owner, helping them understand the circumstances (that they have often created) that led to the dog’s fear, distress or recalcitrance?
  • Does the expert try to blind the owner with irrelevant jargon and complex scientific concepts or do they take a common sense, practical approach?
  • In dog behaviour cases does the expert provide a report and assessment which reflects the consultation process?
  • Can the expert practically handle the dog, especially in aggression cases when the owner is in difficulty and in real situations not theoretical.
  • Are they recommended by owners, whose dogs they have successfully treated?

All groups struggle with the problem that there is no satisfactory definition, status or fully professional designation for a person who trains and/or modifies the behaviour of dogs. There is an increasing number of qualifications, both work-based and theoretical, that are available but until last year when the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council published ‘Defining Roles for Dog Behaviour and Training Professionals’ there has been no common consensus of the various roles of those involved. This was written in consultation with many organisations including the police. It is now the widely accepted model and standard.

Most organisations have developed some form of internal accreditation system to justify the status of their members. In fact, there is a deliberate intention to mislead by some organisations that state they have ‘created’ an independent organisation that accredits them. Clearly if that organisation has no history or knowledge base or has the very people on their board from the organisation they are supposed to be accrediting, their role can only be described as fraudulent.

As a result, the whole concept of the term ‘accreditation’ has become devalued. The dictionary definition is ‘the act of granting credit or recognition (especially with respect to educational institution that maintains suitable standards)’, but the most important and key element is that the accreditation of any person or organisation should be truly separate and independent from the person or organisation accredited. There is a number of organisations in Britain that carry out this task and you can find a full list by accessing the National Database of Accrediting.

Organisations on the Internet: unless an accrediting body is a recognised university or on this list, then it will have been set up specifically to give credence to standards, which are not genuinely independently audited. Whatever the claims of separateness and independence, any accrediting body worthy of the name will be on the National Database of Accrediting Organisations.

‘The only thing two dog trainers can agree about is what a third trainer is doing wrong’ Steve White, Vice-president of the USA Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers.

Back in the 1940s, a psychologist called BF Skinner did a great deal of work on animal behaviour. He argued that it is pointless to imagine what is going on in an animal’s head. It was better to treat its mind as a black box, closed and unknowable, with inputs that lead to predictable outputs. He identified four ways to manipulate behaviour: these were – positive reinforcement (good dog – have a biscuit), positive punishment (bad dog – administer physical punishment), negative reinforcement good dog – stop punishment) and negative punishment (bad dog – take away the biscuit). He argued that by connecting an action to its outcome almost any behaviour can be trained. Skinner called this ‘operant conditioning’ and considered it as effective for people as for their pets!

There is no doubt that these processes work, but over the years, new ideas have been introduced, which emphasise the positive and eliminate the brutal. Curiously, this change did not come from dog trainers, but from marine parks and aquariums. In the 1960s an animal behaviourist called Karen Pryor discovered that rather than punishing bad behaviour, dolphins and killer whales loved rewards and, more importantly, if a reward were available they would repeat the good behaviour. She found that all she needed to do was wait for the behaviour she wanted, give a reward. Very quickly, the animal would repeat the behaviour, because it wanted the satisfaction and pleasure of the extra food. She also discovered that even if you replaced the reward of food with a whistle, the behaviour would be repeated. She once taught a goldfish to swim through a tiny hoop in response to the flicker of a flashlight! ‘Its easy’, she said. ‘You just have to have a healthy, hungry goldfish.’ Karen developed what we now know as ’clicker’ training; most advanced training and obedience work with dogs uses the ‘clicker’.

There will be many demonstrations of Heelwork to Music at Crufts and I would be very surprised if any of those dog trainers did not use a clicker. Certainly Mary Ray, who will once again be putting her dogs through their paces in the big ring, uses the technique and if you ever have a chance to attend one of her demonstrations of how she trains her dogs you will see how effective it is. This does not mean it is easy: the trainer needs intelligent, amenable dogs who are willing to please and must exercise considerable personal discipline and patience to achieve those displays, which look so easy.

Karen Pryor, her colleagues and followers have wrought immense change in the way in which dogs are trained. Heelwork to Music is a wonderful spectacle, but the principle is being used in many ways by dog trainers to make use of the fantastic powers that dogs have to make our lives safer and better. The dog has immense and useful abilities, which can improve our lives and alert us to danger. Working dogs can jump higher, run faster, see further and hear better as well as being equipped for subduing the most fractious of men, but these are nothing compared with the sensitivity of their sense of smell, that can detect a few particles of a specific substance per trillion, with ease. So, apart from being wonderful companions for families and individuals who are also able to take part in our leisure activities, whether it be racing, agility, flyball, obedience, hunting or pointing game, dogs have further, more professional roles. There are three primary areas of their activity: They are the helping hand (as with herding, guide dogs or dogs for the disabled), detection, protection and pursuit.

It is in the interest of all pet dogs to be well trained: to ‘walk to heel’, ‘sit’, ‘wait’ and ‘come’ when told to do so are simple commands well within the training capabilities of most pet owners. Problems arise when the dogs are, usually inadvertently, spoiled – for once they are adults and have bad habits, it is very difficult to modify their behaviour. Such problems require specialist skills as does the formal training for leisure pursuits and the higher levels of training required for working dogs. To have some understanding of the expertise and the knowledge required go to www.petbc.org.uk and click on to the cover of the booklet at the bottom of the homepage called ‘Defining Roles for Dog Behaviour and Training Professionals’. If you have not thought about it, you will be amazed at the dedication and patience of those involved, the complexity and range of the skills required.

However, let me get back to the development of the modern techniques of dog training. By the 1940s when Skinner was putting forward his ideas, Guide Dogs for the Blind (as they were then called in the UK) and Seeing Eye (in the USA) were already well established, but it was not until the 60s onwards that Hearing Dogs for the Deaf and Dogs for the Disabled (among many other charitable training groups) were established. During the last 40 years there has also been a much greater demand for pet dogs to be well trained and in the Kennel Club’s words be ‘good citizens’. This has led to an explosion of dog trainers at every level – and when there is an explosion there is nearly always collateral damage.

In this case that damage was caused by some trainers and charities being so seduced by the concept of positive reinforcement (the first of Skinners conditioning operants) which they, rightly, perceived as ‘kind’, that they forgot that in the domestic situation there have to be rules and an element of discipline. This requires a degree of negative reinforcement, but this does not, repeat not, mean ‘cruelty’ or hurting the dog in any way. There is no doubt at all that given the right conditions and an amenable dog which wants to please, positive reinforcement is very effective, but the enthusiasts for this approach have, as enthusiasts tend to do, taken the idea to the extreme and even used it to distort our understanding of the way in which the mind of the dog works.

You will remember that Skinner felt that the dog’s mind was a black box that we could not begin to understand. This is no longer the case. Over the past 60 years we have learned a great deal about how the brains and minds of animals work and an enormous amount of research has gone into trying to understand precisely the way in which developmental, evolutionary, environmental and genetic factors have combined to provide the behaviours that we see in all animals and particularly in dogs. It is unfortunate that much of this research is contradictory and it has led to a significant schism between dog trainers. I have written in the past that this divide is more a question of semantics then of real differences in approach; nevertheless those at either end of the spectrum (especially those at the ‘kind’ end of the spectrum) see themselves as being at war!

The key to all this is in the way in which we understand some of the words used to define the various interrelationships between animals of the same species. Skinner and many of those working with dogs and animals at the time believed that man had to behave in a way that asserted his authority over the animals he wished to train. They drew parallels with what they said was the standard model of relationships in the wild. This implied a ‘pack’ and a ‘pack leader’, who was in ‘control’ of the group. The words used to describe these relationships were ‘dominance’ and ‘alpha’ among others designed to emphasise and establish power and authority. Those committed to using only positive reinforcement techniques believed that this theory was not relevant and that research showed that such ‘packs’ were equivalent to ‘family groups’; the idea that control was being exercised was both wrong and misleading. They also suggest that those who do not concur with their view are themselves cruel in the techniques that they use.

Those trainers who see themselves as realists (and recognise that a measure of discipline within society and family groups, which has uncomfortable consequences, is essential if it is to be well ordered) see the first group as ‘bunny huggers’. They suggest that many of the problems of dogs in society (specifically the increase in dog bites that we have seen over the last few years) is a result of ground rules not being applied. There have been similar discussions among psychologists regarding the upbringing of children for as long as I can remember – and I began teaching back in 1963!

Who is right? I do not believe that there is any need to treat dogs cruelly (and no trainer worth their salt does so), but I am a realist and I was pleased to read a recent article by somebody who should know that rather supports my view.

Roger Abrantes is very well known in the world of dog training. He holds a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology and another in Ethology; he is the author of seventeen books many of which have become standard works. He is a world-renowned lecturer on animal behaviour and the drawings of dog positions and expressions he has published are generally agreed to be the clearest and most definitive of the many available. The article is called ‘Dominance – Making Sense of the Nonsense’ and in it he says: ‘The discussion on dominance has run away with us’.

He explains that the word has ‘so many meanings and connotations that it is difficult to know how to use it as a precise scientific term in the behavioural sciences’.

The article is the first of a series and if you are interested you should certainly follow them through. You will find them at http://rogerabrantes.wordpress.com. The detail of his discussion is too long to discuss in Speakers’ Corner, but in my view his arguments are convincing and should be studied by everyone who has any interest in dogs and why they behave in the way they do. This does not just mean dog trainers – it means anyone who feels it important to have a better understanding of dog psychology.

David Cavill is Chairman of the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of David Cavill and the PETbc.