I’ve been thinking about this a lot today because of something a friend is going through, and thought it was worth exploring with the group of you.
I’ve been interested in dogs long enough, and been reading about them long enough, to have seen some broad swings in training. I’m not talking about positive/negative reinforcement, though that is certainly the case (and I honestly think it’s a mistake to see this as a progression from bad to good – it’s a lot more of a pendulum swing, and I would predict things will move back the other way in the next twenty or so years); what I mean is a change in the definition of the well-trained dog.
It has historically been the case that training was a preparation for the dog to work a job; you were teaching the dog the vocabulary it needed for its role in life. The basic stuff was all the same – whether herding or protecting or sending messages or a hundred other things, dogs need to not run off on their own, need to come when called, need to stay close to a handler, need to pick up and carry stuff when asked. So that’s what basic training was – heel and sit and down and stay and so on. A few people got very interested in doing those basic exercises super well, which is where competitive obedience comes from – competitive obedience is like compulsory figures in figure skating. You’re doing a few simple things with a very, very high degree of style and consistency.
But whether the commands were done at that very high level or on a more normal level, the goal was never to be that the dog just did THAT. It was supposed to lead to a life with a dog that was just a normal life where the dog did stuff. It’s sort of like teaching a toddler what the word cup and then cupboard means – you don’t do it so you can say “cup!” “cupboard!” when the kid is eighteen years old. You do it so you can say “Hey, go get me some coffee when you’re in the kitchen.” The basic commands for a dog were in order to facilitate a day where you go move a bunch of sheep, or walk down a dangerous street and collect rent, or deliver milk, or patrol a wall. “Stay” was “stay there and don’t move so I don’t get shot when I peer around this corner,” not an exercise to see how straight the legs were.
When dogs lost their jobs, over the course of the 20th century, for a long time the basic commands kept their place in training and obedience. You took a puppy to a class that taught sit and down and stay, and the further classes were refining those same basic commands. The focus of training became competitive obedience, which I honestly think is kind of a tragedy because so few of the students would ever go on to compete and we lost the idea that the commands were part of normal life and not a style exercise.
In maybe the 90s trainers began to realize that the usefulness of a beautiful retrieve and finish was pretty low in the real world, because nobody was using dogs to send messages to soldiers anymore (where the dog should quickly deliver the message and then get ready to run with the soldier to the commanding officer) or in fact to do anything that a retrieve and finish is good for. “Hand me something and then get ready to move” was no longer a problem that anyone was trying to solve.
What people WERE trying to solve were the issues that come when you have a whole bunch of frustrated dogs living with no exercise in close proximity to other dogs. Because, as you know, humans have ALSO lost a lot of their jobs. But we’re still the same inside – we still envision ourselves as hunters or fishers or farmers or explorers or messengers or warriors. And we buy dogs that satisfy those internal envisionings, not the crappy office job we actually have. We buy big retrievers and mastiffs and border collies and livestock guards and hunting dogs, and so do all our neighbors, and then the dogs are living far closer to each other than they’d ever choose to live and they’re not getting any exercise and they have no job or outlet and they start acting badly.
So trainers began to try to solve the problems of dogs biting other dogs, dogs pulling on leash, dogs who didn’t get along at the dog park, dogs who weren’t happy with strangers approaching them, dogs who were distracted by moving objects, and so on.
The expectation moved from “well-trained dogs are useful dogs” to “well-trained dogs are endlessly tolerant of absolutely anything and never discipline, punish, or predate on anything.”
With this new expectation came new words – it’s FASCINATING. When I do a book search, from 1800-1980 there’s ONE book that uses the phrase “dog aggression”–the Monks of New Skete book that came out in 1978. From 1980 to 2000 there are about a hundred books using that phrase or close to it. From 2000 to 2011 there are almost a THOUSAND. “Reactive” has exploded; before 2000 it was almost always used positively – a dog who has a quick response time. After 2000 it’s now in thousands of references to bad dogs, poorly trained dogs, unsocialized dogs.
There will be more new words – I told my friend today that I needed to go copyright “motion insecurity” before somebody decides that we have to rename the urge dogs have to chase moving objects!
I said earlier that I thought it was a tragedy that training didn’t move away from competitive obedience sooner – and I do mean that. But I think we may have done an even bigger disservice to dogs by saying that the new role of the good dog is basically a big body pillow.
So here are the big questions –
1) Is it in fact normal for dogs to endlessly tolerate everything?
2) Are we insisting that dogs be perfect when they’re not in fact perfect? Where is the place for the dog who’s just plain grouchy, and it’s not a training error but personality?
3) Are we doing justice to owners by implying that this new expectation of behavior is valid for all dogs? (To use a specific example, saying that we can “help” their terrier not chase cats, or “help” their chow not react to other dogs.)
4) Why exposure and not avoidance? That is, if you have a dog who lunges at other dogs, why is the answer to “helping” that dog (and yes, I do keep putting helping in quotes because that’s how I ALWAYS hear it used now – it’s not training, it’s “helping,” implying that the dog WANTS this help and is incomplete without this help) going out and finding 40 other dogs to expose the dog to (whether in a class or in a park or whatever) and not avoiding other dogs? Why is one right and one wrong?
5) Do we need a revival in an understanding of “dogginess”? (A celebration of Jungian dog archetypes, if you want to get fancy-dancy?) Can we re-find the validity of the warrior dog, messenger dog, defender dog, hunting dog in our own backyards?
Talk to me! I am very interested to hear if you think I am completely off-base, or if you have thoughts to add or ways to solve these problems. Should I start a new blog like the Art of Manliness called the Art of Dogginess? 🙂 Hmmm… primal weekends with dogs howling at the moon – it could work!