I Choose Life. Do you?

I have a couple of priorities that I consider necessary to begin a successful training program. I must have a way to make a behavior more common and I must be able to stop a behavior immediately. If I fail to create a foundation for those things I will eventually find gaps in the dog’s repertoire, later. If the gap includes important behaviors and inhibitions such as escaping out the front door, failing to come when called or chewing a live extension cord, any gap can be fatal. That is an ever-present consideration in my life. If I fail to do my job the dog could die. It’s not just with “serious” behavior problems. It is about creating a repertoire that preserves life. I assume that both polarities must be addressed – creating necessary behaviors and creating necessary inhibitions. Of the two, the overwhelmingly more important is stopping and inhibiting unacceptable behavior. That is the primary cause of death to dogs in the US. They do things that people can’t live with. Stop the behavior, save a life. Ignore the behavior or take too long to fix it and you might as well schedule an appointment for euthanasia.

Unlike most trainers I have an extensive knowledge about dogs dying. It was an important part of my daily work for about 8 years. I know why it happens, how it happens and the aftermath of the event. It doesn’t require picking up thousands of dead dogs or killing 20,000 living ones to figure out some things. The death may or may not be monumental but the behavior that caused it is often trivial. I say, ‘may or may not’ because many times the owner’s inattention is responsible. A dog that has jumped the fence a few times is ripe for picking up, dead, off the pavement. This is something no one can deny. It is all around us and never ending. For instance, I was driving across an Indian reservation in Scottsdale, Arizona the other day when I saw two lab mixes cross a four-lane, 45 mile-per-hour avenue. One was alternately limping on her right foreleg and left hind leg or walking exclusively on her good ones. This might easily go viral on YouTube as the wondrous adaptability of the canine spirit. I saw something different – dead dog hobbling. Because of my former life as a dog catcher that kind of scene is very hard for me to look at.

Another class of potentially lethal but innocuous behaviors is anything that forces an owner to get rid of a dog. A dog that slams into small children in play isn’t long for the family. This often starts happening as the dog matures from equally innocuous puppy to strong, fast, playful adolescent. As much as people claim dogs are smart, they are incapable of knowing that knocking a child to the ground is a problem. They also have no remorse after they do it. They are amoral creatures, after all. A child who goes to the ER with a concussion will inevitably trigger a serious discussion about getting rid of the dog – I had a client-call yesterday that described a similar behavior that would make the dog no longer welcome. If it goes to a shelter it has an 80% chance of becoming immediately dead. Anti-punishment ideologues often suggest that the only reason someone would use punishment is to take a short cut. This ignores the pressing need to stop problems immediately or the dog goes to the landfill. One might as well criticize firemen for their sense of urgency and willingness to cause massive water damage to stop a fire.

The urgency for solving dog problems becomes apparent once the animal leaves its home. If taken to a shelter, it is one of many. I use the 80% dead number because I never worked in a shelter with better than 20% adoptions for surrendered animals. The reason they were taken to the shelter will become rapidly apparent. Few people want to examine a dog that is frantically jumping up against the chain link, desperate for attention. A wise shelter manager isn’t going to keep a dog that behaves that way in preference to a sedate, polite dog sitting and wagging its tail. The wildly obvious secret is that the obnoxious dog should be rapidly taught to be the polite dog, sitting and wagging its tail. It is only a secret because the current orthodoxy hides and vilifies the solution. The problem, of course, is that to make the obnoxious dog into the polite dog requires specific training elements. By definition, the behavioral effect that stops behavior is punishment. This is characterized as traumatic, risky and harmful – along with a laundry list of words intended to make it unacceptable. BrdigeWashout brakesThis is like choosing to not apply the brakes of your car because they squeal – as you plunge toward a washed-out bridge. Failing to stop is lethal. Ruining the brakes is preferable if it slows or stops your progress. This simple logic escapes about half the population. They are helped in their delusion by people who claim to be animal advocates. I think not. I think they are their own advocates and say things to elevate their status in a closed society…and make money.

Going back to our ‘don’t use the brakes’ metaphor, what if the brakes are well serviced and perfectly functional? What if hitting the brakes causes side-effects limited to excessive heat that is designed into the system? What if five minutes of cooling returns them to perfect functionality? Compared to plunging into the river this is literally inconsequential. You didn’t die. The brakes got cool. Drive yourself back to a safe roadway. When we arrive at this conclusion we move to more than a metaphor. This is a direct analogy to stopping a runaway behavior.

Learning to stop doing a behavior via punishment is an evolutionary feature of virtually all living organisms. A sensitivity to aversive events is the means by which behaviors are stopped, as the brakes are the feature by which the car is stopped. In both cases, correct application does no harm. The absence of using the feature is what causes the damage – most often, massive damage. Those who wish to prattle about the harmful side-effects of punishment are fools for several reasons. First, they are like back-seat drivers who have never learned to drive. Meaning they do not know how to apply punishment correctly and have no experience that would guide their mistakes. That is why all the objections to punishment actually describe errors in application rather than errors in concept. If your foot misses the brake pedal and you continue to stomp on the floorboard it is not a valid criticism of the brakes. The second reason they are fools is that they never bother to describe the primary effect of punishment and how it benefits the recipient. If I can stop a shelter dog from jumping up on people, immediately, it’s got a shot at going to a new home. If that is not done, the primary effect of allowing it to be wild and crazy is a short trip to the land-fill. Me? I chose life.

One thought on “I Choose Life. Do you?

  1. Hi Gary-

    I live in southwest Ohio and have had the pleasure and enlightenment of attending two of your seminars in recent years, held in conjunction with Barkleigh’s PetQuest grooming expos.

    However, I was disappointed when I didn’t see you listed as a presenter in the new program guide for this year’s PetQuest grooming expo held from June 23-26 in the Roberts Center in my area of Ohio.

    Will you be in the southwest Ohio/northern Kentucky area this year?

    Wishing you well,
    Bonnie Keller
    Wilmington OH

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