An opinion piece by Diana Kastner, ADB Instructor
I have been pondering over this article for quite some time; not just days or weeks, but months. I didn't want it to be too controversial or too opinionated or too casual, but in the end, it is what it is: an opinion piece and a little bit of a personal story. And as it goes with opinions, depending on your own lived experiences, you may or may not agree, may even hate what you are about to read. But if I am reaching only a handful of people who find this article thought-provoking, it will be worth the backlash.
Can we over-train dogs?
When two different species find peaceful togetherness, the harmony in their interactions can be simply astonishing; not only in domestic settings, but thanks to TV and social media, it has gotten increasingly easier to observe interspecies relationships in the wild as well. The beauty of friendly animal-to-animal connections lies in the momentary acceptance of one another's uniqueness. But when an interspecies relationship involves a human who is focused on training, whether for obedience or for connection, harmony can quickly give way to expectations and various forms of mind-manipulations. And no two species experience this more than horses and dogs, where we have built multi-billion-dollar industries mainly to satisfy our desires to control.
Thus, to answer the question at hand: Yes, it is absolutely possible to over-train a dog; to a point even where dogs are more like puppets; a shell of what is supposed to be a self-thinking, self-expressing, emotional companion.
How did this happen?
Even though the art of training dogs for specific tasks goes back at least 2000 years, training companion dogs hasn't really been much of a thing until after WWII, when war dog trainers and handlers left the service and introduced dog training to civilians. In 1910, Konrad Most, who was an accomplished German police dog and military dog trainer, published his work in Dog Training: A Manual. In this publication, he outlined the importance of utilizing a dog's instinctive behaviors as well as compulsion in dog training. And he also discussed things we are quite familiar with today: primary and secondary reinforcers, shaping, chaining, correct timing of rewards and yes, punishments, too, and even the principles of operant conditioning. Again, this was in 1910, so, decades before B.F. Skinner gained fame for his work in operant conditioning. (source: Wikipedia.com)
Anyway, before former military dog trainers took their knowledge to the masses, we looked at and lived with dogs differently - less mechanical and with a lot fewer expectations and a bit more freedom for the dogs. With the introduction of formal training, however, that changed dramatically. With every new technique, our expectations of how dogs were supposed to be and act increased, and with every expectation, we invented more protocols. Over time, the dog training industry has created a semi-hostile environment of competing methods; it's basically a binary industry where clients can opt for rewards only training or include punishments (corrections). Either way, focus is on training, and both options are more or less coercive.
My own path as a canine professional has taken me all over the place. I have loved dogs all my life, and like everybody else, I thought that caring for dogs meant that I had to learn how to train even before I became a professional. And like so many before me, I was sucked into the world of balanced training. (I'm sorry, I didn't really mean to make this personal, but it is an opinion piece, and telling you about my personal transformation may just help you in your own discoveries.) Then I adopted (unknowingly) my first "aggressive" dog - Lilu; and then (unknowingly) another one - Sharpie. Returning them to their high-kill shelters was not an option, but becoming more effective in my use of rewards and corrections was - so I thought. Indeed, I learned to manage their aggression and reactivity quite well, but that's about it. Now, let me tell you, just managing a situation is not good enough. It wasn't good enough for me, and it definitely wasn't good enough for Lilu and Sharpie. On top of Lilu's aggression, she also suffered from chronic anxiety - so I thought. Can you see the pattern of "so I thought"? That's the thing with dog training, it makes us think a lot of things, even wrong things. Strangely, during that time, the option of rewards-based only was never appealing to me. The mere principle of it just didn't make sense to me.
But then I watched a video of a trainer I had never heard of before. He talked about not using the leash to control a dog, he talked about emotional connection and relationships, he talked about training not being important and about things that reminded me of how I used to be with dogs when I was a child; before dog training ever entered my mind; before I was coerced into believing that dogs had to be trained. That little video has forever changed my life and work with dogs; it changed it back to how I used to engage with them. And the trainer was no other than Scott Stauffer, the creator of Affective Dog Behavior.
Training should, at best, be secondary
Here are a few personally experienced cases that make me wish we would untrain some of our dogs. These dogs are stuck in so much predictability that their behaviors have become almost autonomous. To untrain your dog you will need to recognize your dog's heavily masked innate needs. Emotional needs are always for connection; without emotional connection, dogs feel lost, unsafe, even in emotional and physical pain. Physical needs are about more than a couple of controlled walks a day, a roof over their head, food and water. Dogs need to be able to move when the chemicals in their nervous system prompt movement. And cognitive needs go beyond being able to follow cues. Canine cognition includes the ability to use all of their senses and process information in their ways.
#1 - Sit for privileges
Many years ago, before I got involved in dog training, I was greeted by an obediently sitting Schnauzer when I walked into a coworker's home. The little Schnauzer's butt was wiggling back and forth in excitement, seemingly glued to the floor. His dad told me that he had to sit and stay pretty much for everything - to put on the leash, in front of the door, when visitors walked in, for treats, for meals, for play, even for cuddles and pets. This little dog was so meticulously conditioned that dad didn't even have to cue him anymore. My heart immediate went out to this little soul who wanted nothing more than shower me with his mighty "happiness".
Does your dog sit like that for privileges?
#2 - The velcro heel
A few weeks ago, I was asked to analyze a video. Initially, the dog was on leash and obediently walking in a perfect heel position. And not only that, but the dog's gaze also was focused on their human. Despite the random turns, forward motion, and stops, the dog's focus never broke, and that didn't change even after the leash was taken off. The trainer's website praises this extreme focus as one of their signature achievements when they train a client's dog. Dogs that consistently ignore their environment on walks, dogs that are glued to you in a perfect heel have been taught to suppress their own need to take in and engage with the environment. Does your dog do this, too?
#3 - Play obsessions
I was called to help a border collie with a ball obsession (other obsessions included circling the duck pen and charging at the horses). Mom thought that her little girl was lacking an off-switch when it came to retrieving tennis balls. But no dog, not even the most obsessed dog, wants to play fetch nonstop - even if that's what you think. In these cases, over-training happens unintentionally in both dog and human in that, initially, the human finds the game a fun and convenient way to exercise the dog. And for the dog, playing fetch or chasing after a flirt pole (or other similarly obsessive activities) quickly becomes an arousing way to connect with their human. And therein lies the off-switch - connection. The dog has learned to connect with their human through obsessive play - because the dog desires connection.
# 4 - Lack of play initiative
Are you living with a dog that doesn't typically initiate play, or stops to play on cue? This is another scenario I came across when I was asked to analyze a video. The dog in the clip was a seasoned search dog who has lost some of their motivation to search. The video showed dog and handler on a non-working walk, and one of the first things that jumped out at me was that moments of play were on cue. The handler cued to initiate play, and a minute later, the handler cued to stop play. Play, especially the rough-housing kind, is supposed to be heart-felt, crazy wild and without rules. If a dog only plays when the human starts it, or the dog stops on a dime, then play doesn't go deep enough. It's controlled and micro-managed, and the subsequent lack of initiative can also carry over into other areas of life.
I challenge you
Now, my challenge for you is to find things your dog does just to please you, then identify and meet your dog's actual need(s). See if you can recognize when a cue or your measures of control unnecessarily go against your dog's needs or wants. See if you can lower your expectations and think less about training and more about being in the moment with your wonderful companion.
To learn more about the emotions and relationship-based, non-coercive approach known as Affective Dog Behavior, please visit our website at www.affectivedog.com