Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When "Obedience" is Right There in the Damned Name

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.

Foolish mortal.

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.

Nevertheless ...

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.


  1. Ohhh- good post, and thank you for the links.

    There is a stalker-clerk at the local PetSmart who *I* am about to start snapping at. I have been training dogs since I was nine years old. I did it full time for a while between other jobs, and yes, training the people is the most difficult part of obedience training.

    Anyway, about six weeks ago, I adopted a nine month old Border Collie bitch with fear-aggression towards women. Mostly barking and growling, which is still not good because of the preponderance of women visitors to our farm. Had no idea about the fear aggression because *all* dogs I encounter seem to just know that I am a dog person, so of course, she showed no fearfulness of me. So, after trying with just the clicker to get the dog to behave appropriately, I started to use a choke collar in combination with clicker and treat. Voila! Success in two sessions.

    Anyway, I'm in the PetSmart (only because I was desperate to give the puppy something to play with besides every loose object she could find in my office), and stalker clerk comes over and starts suggesting I use a gentle leader to help with the aggression. That is NOT going to help with her growling at people. "Oh, I see you have a choke collar on her, but you said you were going to use clicker training. Did you really feel the need to introduce a negative?". I've already told this lady that I've been training dogs for over 20 years. Yes, I obviously felt the need to introduce a negative. Sometimes you have to tell your dog "no", and I don't think stalker-clerk gets that. This is one of the reasons I try to avoid stalker-clerk- several times she will strike up a conversation in which she is clearly very against giving corrections to dogs, and very against the idea of the collar on my dog's neck (usually just a flat collar). I don't know if she makes extra commission on the gentle leaders, but most people I see with those on their dogs haven't fit them to the dog very well, their faces are all squished up, and it just doesn't look like it is working quite right. I could understand if my dog were an out of control spaz with a giant pinch collar and I were shopping for a shock collar to use in addition to it, but that isn't the case.

  2. It's as simple as a fundamental confusion between what we're doing for the animal's good and what we're doing for other people to see. I think the inability to recognize the utility, fairness, and humaneness of gentle, calm, but firm limit-setting comes from a desperate need to be the "Good Guy" at all costs. Your slip collar becomes a moral failing because this clerk's main goal is not to help you, but to display moral superiority.

    One reason you're having trouble avoiding her is that your apparent success is an affront to her sense of self-righteousness.

    Worse, no experience can convince this person otherwise. If she owned a dog that didn't respond to all-positive training, she'd either engage in denial (a gentle leader, while it can be a control tool, essentially bypasses the need to train the dog out of many bad behaviors, though you're right about it seeming useless for aggression) or she'd find a way to blame the dog.

    My take is that you put a bunch of tools in a toolbox, even if some of them aren't appropriate 90 percent of the time. Doesn't sound like anybody needs to tell you to stick to your guns, results speak for themselves.

  3. Hi Sarah --

    Trust me, YOU ARE NOT ALONE in the big-box trainette stalking victim demographic.

    Check your stalker's name tag. Though she emerges from behind the cash register, does it say "trainer" on it? There's your sign.

    My favorite was the lecture from the "trainer" when I was working with Pip on heeling past spilled kibble. Nice distraction the store provided there. Pip got corrected about twice, and then fell into line on the heeling deal.

    He helpfully suggested that I should WARN Pip whenever I was about to make a sharp right turn, so she could be spared the consequences of lusting after the kibble.

    As he delivered this bit of brilliant insight, his own dog was scrabbling madly on the tile floor, pulling full-out against the "gentle leader" and fairly frothing in a frenzy to get to the spillage, to jump on Pip's head, and, I must speculate, to get the hell away from his owner. Dog had dents in his muzzle from the head halter.

    I asked him to demonstrate. "Oh no, this dog isn't ready to learn heeling!" "Really? How long have you had him?"

    Three years.


    Pip was eight months old.

  4. Thanks to both of you for the feed back- it is funny when random people need to feel superior based on some very abstract sort of standard.

    The significant other and I were at another pet store looking for something the puppy wouldn't be able to destroy within 5 minutes (she doesn't go for the whole toy, she zeros right in on the seams and carefully plucks at them, then removes the fluff and spreads it everywhere). We were debating the merits of one toy vs. another while in line and the guy ahead of us was listening in and mentioned that he had a Lab puppy who was chewing on lots of stuff too, and then as he went to leave said something along the lines of his puppy didn't destroy all of its toys, but maybe that's because he "had more experience with dogs". His tone clearly had more than a twinge of superiority in it too.


    For one thing, this guy doesn't know me from Eve, so why would he assume he has more "experience"?

    For another thing, why would you be getting all superior that your puppy has more/less/the same destructive jaw power as some random stranger's puppy?

    Soooooo weird.

    And we made it clear that she wasn't destroying the house, or everything therin, just her toys.

    I guess if it made him sleep better thinking that his puppy is in some way superior to the puppy of total strangers, then yay.

    And Heather, I'm snerking along with you. =)

    On the other end of the spectrum is another guy I met who was telling me that he can't seem to obedience train his dane/lab mix.

    I asked how old it was.

    Three months.

    Uh, that's your problem right there. You don't expect your two year old child to read, and you don't expect your three month old puppy to heel.

  5. This is a great post.

    I myself have always wondered how "trainers" these days (yes, I use quotes for a reason) make quips about science backing up their "dog-friendly," "nonviolent" methods while the dogs I see coming out of their classes are...otherwise untrained? I've seen far too many injuries and even discomfort on head halters to consider them as a required (much less useful) training tool...whereas, on a training collar, the dog doesn't even know it's wearing it until the leash is popped.

    Sarah, I applied to be a trainer at PetSmart while I was in a jobless period. I knew what I was getting into, with the whole pure-positive thing. During the interview, I noted to the "head trainer" that in their aisle with the slip and pinch collars, there is a sign stating "Training collars are a great way to control your dog." He replied that they are a last resort, and anyone using them in a class needs to sign a release in case of injury.

    My reply was that I am a balanced trainer, I use both training collars and food in my program, and when used correctly, there is negligible risk for injury. To sign a release like that indicates that someone is using the collars in such a way to that tells me that they don't know how to use or apply them properly. And if that's the case...what are they doing calling themselves "trainers," much less "professionals"?

    I never received a call back from that one. But it felt darn skippy to get my thoughts out like that.

    Science can only do SO MUCH in the way of behavior...it truly is more of an art, and needs to not be confined by such rigid boundaries because of it.

  6. Viatecio-

    That is a funny story, especially because one of the things that stalker-clerk told me was that the trainers from Petco were always coming over to PetSmart to buy electric collars for the dogs they "just couldn't train".

    So apparently, their methods don't always work.

    Different dogs also need different methods- I'm not training my Border Collie the same way I would a Rhodesian Ridgeback. A shepherd friend of mine had one of her Borders destroyed (figuratively) by a "professional trainer" who treated her bitch more like a cattle dog. Now when she sees sheep, she looks for a place to hide because the sheep themselves bring back such bad memories. This "trainer" also told my friend that her other Border was unworkable. Last month, he easily did his first level herding trial- amazing the work the right sort of trainer can do.


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