Why is it that trainers using aversive, sometimes even cruel, training methods get good feedback, or come highly recommended by the owners of dogs they have worked with? As far as I can see, there are three major reasons…
1. They are ‘just magic’ with dogs
“Fido behaves so beautifully with Trainer X, but he would never behave that way for me”.
This is often the response that people have when watching dog ‘whisperers’. So why is it that dogs appear to behave so well in the hands of these types of trainers?
Let’s consider the scenario from the dog’s perspective. Upon meeting Trainer X, Fido is overwhelmed by a strange, domineering figure that proceeds to manhandle them. Fido’s might be so fearful of Trainer X that his normal behaviours are suppressed. Alternatively, Fido may have exhausted his usual responses to restraint and enter a state of ‘learned helplessness’. Learned helplessness can best be explained if you imagine being locked in an old fashioned jail – you don’t rattle the bars for very long before you realize it doesn’t get you anywhere. You’re not a well-behaved prisoner, but a helpless one.
From our perspective, Fido transforms from an excitable, slightly maddening blur to a picture of obedience.Without knowing the mechanisms for this change, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Trainer X could really ‘speak dog’. Like all illusions, though, the magic is lost when you see the strings.
2. They get results
Any trainer that consistently applies a consequence (either good or bad) to a certain behaviour will usually succeed in either encouraging that behaviour, or discouraging that behaviour. If we’re just interested in outcome and don’t care about the dog’s treatment whilst being trained, it doesn’t matter what method is used.
To illustrate this idea, imagine you’re in a room with a sofa and a chair, and I don’t want you to sit on the sofa (but I can’t tell you why). I might shout at you every time you sit on the sofa. This would probably stop you sitting on the sofa, but you wouldn’t like me very much after all the shouting, and you might still sit on the sofa when I’m not around. Alternatively, I could encourage you to sit on the chair instead, using chocolates. You subconsciously start to associate sitting on the chair with good things, and you like and trust me more, because of all of the chocolate.
Unfortunately the shouting method often has more immediate results than the ‘chocolate’ method (most people would initially want to avoid being shouted at more than they would want a chocolate). Likewise, most dogs respond quickly to verbal or physical punishment. However, these methods do not contribute to a good dog-handler relationship, can be emotionally distressing and physically painful, and often result in further behavioural problems in the long term. Unfortunately, all of these negative effects are hidden at first, and so the trainer is evaluated on how quickly they can ‘fix’ the dog.
3. They make so much sense
Sometimes, dog’s do really weird things. They are, after all, a complex social species, with specialized senses that are very different to our own. But when Trainer X applies a universal motivation to all undesirable behaviours, (for example, “Fido jumps up, runs away and chases the cat to maintain his position as pack leader”) they become very easy to make sense of.
I wish it were that simple – it’s so much easier to get on board with something if it makes immediate sense. But it’s our responsibility as owners and people who work with dogs to challenge the assertions of trainers, even if what they’re doing seems to make sense and work.