The Job at Hand: Failure is not a practice.

Caution: Minor preaching at the end. (My father was a Methodist minister and theologian. Sometimes I can’t help letting in some of that stuff.)

If I fail to do my job a dog could die. That has been my life since 1977. If I fail to catch a dog loose on the freeway, it could die. If I fail to get a stuck dog out of a drainage culvert when it’s raining and the water is rising, the dog could die. If I fail to teach a dog not to blast out the front door, a dog could die. If I fail to teach a reliable recall, a dog could die.

I have listed a few obvious fail-safe events that are obviously serious. However, from the beginning of working in shelters I started seeing the bigger picture. It’s not just about “serious” behavior problems as imagined by short-sighted people. A dog that pulls the laundry off the clothes-line one-too-many times may find an ‘accidentally’ open side-gate. A dog that knocks down a child, leading to a concussion and an ER visit may end up in limbo and leave the family. A potentially fatal behavior may not seem ‘serious’. ANY behavior that leads to the dog going to a shelter or being sold on Craig’s list is potentially fatal. Insulting dog owners for not being able to live with insanity doesn’t fix anything. Learning how to satisfy their desires for a good dog is the answer.

So, my rule of thumb isn’t about preventing death, it’s about creating a repertoire that preserves life. I assume that both behavioral polarities must be addressed – creating necessary behaviors and creating necessary inhibitions. Of the two, the overwhelmingly more important is stopping and inhibiting unacceptable behavior. If the dog is alive and temporarily scared spitless, you can take a lifetime to undo the horrible, traumatic, devastating BUT NOT FATAL side-effects of punishment. If the dog is dead, you can’t train it any more.

According to many behavior experts, the primary cause of death to companion animals is behavioral, not medical. 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 – which is not always “eu” – Greek for good. (To quote my first executive shelter director, sometimes it’s just killing. You can’t know that in advance. )

The correct way to save them is to use whatever behavioral effect you can, in any order, concurrency or exclusivity. I have fixed un-houstrainable dogs with exclusively positive methods. I have fixed vicious dogs with a single bonk. Those represent a tiny slice of what I do. In almost all cases the ‘fix’ is a combination of positive and negative in a recipe designed for that dog and that owner.

My question is for anyone who thinks their positive-only or negative-only solution is at all functional. If you are ‘all positive’ you have just told me your sphere of ignorance and what you can’t do. If you are all negative (I’ve never met that person, but if he/she exists, I will include that category) you have just told me your sphere of ignorance and what you can’t do.

If you wish to offer effective training to insure and preserve life, it makes sense to know as much or more than the ‘all positive’ people AND as much or more as the ‘all negative’ people and be able to know when either, both or some of each is the right fix for the dog. Meaning if you are truly balanced, you should know more about positive reinforcement than ‘all positive’ trainers. For the all positive people, you need to know a great deal more about aversive control than memorized hearsay. Get thee to a shelter and watch how animals are handled roughly and 20 minutes later completely unidentifiable as having been “abused” by a dog catcher. Guess what? You can’t pick them out of a line-up. You’ll likely ID the wussie-dogs every time. The ones that were babied their whole lives and were actually brought to the shelter by their owners vs. a dog that fought violently on a control stick. You have to address the dog in front of you without resorting to templates.

2 thoughts on “The Job at Hand: Failure is not a practice.

  1. Love this one, Gary! My first mentor used to advise his group OB classes (when teaching the recall Koehler-style), “The correction I’m giving is nothing compared to what a car will deliver.” Even when I was in full “positive-only” mentality about 10 years ago, I never forgot that. I think keeping such a perspective helped me move beyond my own ideology and keep sight of the bigger picture, and your post is yet another reminder of the need to consider the day-to-day challenges of the dog/owner relationship. It’s the dog who pays the price if we forget!

    • Thank you for sharing that comment from your mentor! Perfectly captures the essence of Gary’s article.

      As a fellow “convert” from full positive-only also 10 years ago, did you see behaviors like jumping up, begging at the table, and door-dashing as Life-threatening sooner than I did? I will admit the realization is new for me.

      I found Gary recently, and I absolutely agree that pet dog “irritation” behaviors are Life-threatening. I think most of us in positive training, at least back then, thought an e-collar punisher was justified for “legitimately” Life-threatening behaviors – rattlesnakes, killing cats or chickens, chasing cars. It’s resonated deeply that dogs who bark excessively, hump their toys, pull on leash, won’t recall promptly at the dog park, or do any other things that irritate, inconvenience, embarrass, or scare their owners may very well be at risk of losing both their home and life.

      So, does this now make me not a positive trainer?

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