Dumb and Dumber: Two ‘solutions’ that aren’t

Two of the dumbest concepts in dog training have roots in the same thing – ignorance. Here’s how it works.

You don’t know how to control a behavior problem. Meaning you are incapable of working on a specific behavior and eliminating it or putting it ‘on cue’.

Your knee-jerk solution becomes 1) Exercise and 2) Redirection/teach an alternate behavior.

Let me ask you a question. If you wanted to make a behavior 100% reliable, would you recommend exercise? That may sound silly at first, but it’s just as disconnected to suggest that you can remove a behavior from a dog’s repertoire, reliably, with exercise. Fatigue does not insure the suppression of a behavior or the occurrence of a behavior. To do that there would have to be some kind of cosmic link between a physical state (fatigue) and whatever behavior you want to stop. EG: The dog gets into the garbage so you tire him out and he doesn’t get into the garbage. Or, the dog jumps on guests so you tire him out and he doesn’t jump on guests. If you cannot prove that the dog somehow psychically knows which behavior the fatigue is supposed to be connected to, it’s a mindless suggestion.

Redirection/Alternate Behavior: I’ll use the same examples. Your dog gets into the garbage. You teach the dog that when it approaches and investigates the garbage it should ‘roll over’. Why ‘roll over’? Because it is obviously an ‘alternate’ behavior and it has enough gross body movements that you can determine if the behavior is full strength AND you will see the decay if it starts to fall apart.

If you try this you’ll find out why I say that this is all about ignorance. The person recommending the solution has never actually achieved the success they predict…wait for it…because they have never done it. They couldn’t get their dog to roll over at 20 feet. The couldn’t get their dog to ‘roll over’ in their absence based on the proximity to garbage or the smell associated with garbage. How come? Shouldn’t it be a slam dunk if it’s a panacea? “Hey Rover, when you feel the need to attack that other dog, roll over, instead.” Yeah, right.

When you crack open these ideas you find that the speaker doesn’t understand the fundamental factors that would control a behavior – any behavior. Working dogs work at both high levels of exertion when they are fresh AND when they are fatigued. They recuperate in a very short time and then go back to work. Their behavior might lose some intensity when they are exhausted but it does not disappear.

As for redirection/alternate behavior, telling a stock dog to go sit in the corner of a rodeo arena instead of going after a horse with a rider depends on positive reinforcement as described by the ‘alternate behavior’ advocates. That creates a constant struggle between the value of two behaviors and the consequences associated with each. The problem lies in the nature of instinctive behaviors that need no ‘reinforcement’ and cannot be removed by lack of reinforcement. That means that a cattle dog’s drive to go after cows will always overrule behaviors that have to be maintained with ‘reinforcers’. If you find a cattle dog that prefers treats to biting a cow’s planted hoof, it’s not really a cattle dog, is it?

Tired dogs still get in the garbage. Dogs taught to do one behavior over another always drop back to doing what the want to do at any given time. The level of focus necessary to teach a dog to roll-over rather than get in the garbage is unsustainable…and that is only one behavior. If the dog has multiple behaviors that need correcting it will require the same level of focus for each of those behaviors. Sophia Yin took four months to teach 20 dogs to lie on a rug rather than rush the front door. It took an average of 30 minutes a day. It also required the help of a live trainer along with the owner. She never mentioned what it took to maintain – and that was a single behavior. That is not a solution, it is a life-sentence for the owner.

Using formulaic concepts to control behavior that do not include specificity and components needed to create reliability are usually the result of not having a real solution for a problem. I suggest that those trainers take their own advice. When they wish to act as experts without expertise, they should go out and run five miles whenever they get the urge. Then they should teach themselves an alternate behavior and reinforce it heavily – like selling Mary Kay cosmetics or time-share memberships.

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