I'm being stalked by Stanley Milgram.
His experiments in the nature of obedience and resistance keep coming up in conversation these last few months. Each time, I'm not the one who introduces the idea. It comes after me. I'm often the one in any given group who ends up explaining the experiments and clarifying the results, because in a former life I actually read Milgram's book, and more recently, Lauren Slater's jaw-dropping account of the lives of two of Milgram's human subjects.
One of the things I have confidently "explained" in these exchanges is that, of course, these experiments would be impossible to duplicate today.
I really believed that a combination of university human-subject review committees and the ubiquity of the meme -- the near-universal vague awareness of the set-up, embedded in Western culture for half a century -- made Milgram's results unrepeatable.
Perhaps at one time, I even held out the hope that the incorporation of this knowledge into the collective semi-conscious could prod human beings towards greater resistance, a self-awareness of what it is to become a tool of atrocity.
Just a helpful bit of advice gleaned during the composition of this entry. If all you have seen are the five or six pixelated "family-friendly" photos of the prison atrocities at Abu Ghraib that have been reprinted by the major news outlets, and if you have any delicacy of sensibility, do not view the results of a Google image search on the topic.
And what has this to do with dogs?
The Terrierman has one take on it. Absolutely. Oh Hell yes.
My slightly-less-ornery-half over at Did a Cat Shit in Here? takes it on more generally, here, and here.
But I want to talk about training. Specifically, the responsibilities that trainers -- instructors -- have when they are teaching dog owners how to train their dogs, and in a wider sense, providing models for how one lives one's life with a dog.
Because isn't that exactly what Milgram told his subjects -- that they were taking part in an experiment on learning, and that the other guy was the subject? We tell people they will change their dogs, that their dogs will learn, through training.
Yet in a dog-training class, or in private sessions, it is the human, not the dog, who is being trained. It is the human's actions that we seek to alter. Dogs is easy.
So, funny story.
First week of class -- which is conducted without student dogs present -- my students get a homework assignment that is titled "Sit on the Dog."
In the handout, it very clearly states, in italics, at the beginning, that the owner is not to actually sit on the dog. The procedure for sitting in a chair with the dog's leash under one's buttocks for a half-hour a day is clearly described.
In class, I demonstrate the exercise while explaining it. It looks like this:
So, like any good teacher of a skill, I engaged several different modes of learning: visual, aural, and the written word.
One lady came in with a question at week two; her dog simply would not hold still for a half-hour.
(You know what's coming, don't you?)
So I explain, again, for the class that the goal isn't for the dog to hold a (not yet taught) formal down-stay for a half-hour, and to ignore any wiggling and pacing, let him settle on his own.
But how do you stay sitting if he won't stay down?
The faces of the other students showed comprehension and horror well before I caught up. My brain resisted the image the student was conveying. It can't be ...
Fortunately, this substantial lady had an equally substantial dog. He was strong enough to escape injury and asphyxiation, and assertive enough to discourage her from trying every day. Unfortunately for the dog, his first experience of "training" was a series of weird and desperate wrestling matches with an owner for whom oral instructions, an in-person demonstration, and clear written instructions were insufficient to combat her reflexive action on hearing the tongue-in-cheek name of the exercise.
But it's not the student's cognitive block -- the part that makes it a "funny" story, given that the dog was unharmed, or at least, no worse off than he was every day -- that concerns me here. It's the student's determination to follow instructions she believed had been given by an authority figure whom she had just met, and who was not even present while she was attempting to carry them out.
It is absolutely the instructor's responsibility to be clear in his or her instructions. After this one astonishing miscue, I now have each student practice the exercise on one of the stooge dogs that I bring to the first night orientation. And the handout has the picture above.
But the burden of clarity is beside the point when the instructor is actually giving bad advice, issuing instructions that will harm the dog.
There are many ways to harm a dog with attempts at training. Physically abusive training, to be sure. Techniques and tools that are inappropriate to a given dog -- food training for the thyroid patient and food rationing for the hypoglycemic min pin , excessive confinement to "housebreak" the Dalmatian with stones, a head-halter fitted on a Doberman with Wobbler syndrome.
Students will do them all at the instructor's behest. Two thirds of them will do something that they feel (whether correctly or not) is wrong at the instructor's behest.
Students will go so far as to refrain from disciplining a dog who needs it, if sufficient pressure comes from an "authority" who claims -- fraudulently -- both the white coat of "science" and the shimmering vestment of "kindness." They frequently require another authority figure to later give them "permission" to be normal with their dog again.
And the result is best expressed by the owner of a dog who is now in rehab (not with me) after at least two bites:
When F. was six months, he was impish, but when that spilled over into teenage cockiness, and I was trained that I didn't know anything about dogs and that I should be able to control this dog with a clicker and a bait bag. This is the prevailing attitude of the training community in my area. I've read most of the books mentioned on this list, not many of them recommend anything other than redirection and outsmarting your dog...
It was a miserable realization that for ALL of the training, and classes, and reading, and NILFing, WHICH I INCREASED AS HIS BEHAVIOR GOT WORSE, I had still become nothing more than a human buster-cube, randomly handing out treats when F. decided to be compliant...
In the absence of balanced training, my family lost our dog. He was very nearly put down because no one wants to work with a biter.
So, trainers, when you are telling a student to press the button, click the clicker, pop the leash, turn your back and ignore it, alpha roll, become a slot machine -- you are taking on the responsibility of the experimenter. You are the white coat -- The experiment requires that you continue. It is absolutely essential that you continue -- and it is your student and his dog who will live with the results. Or not.
Choose your instructions carefully.