Monday, November 27

Robot Dogs, Broken Spirits, and Reliable Obedience

Consider this statement:
"Some people want a dog with robotic obedience... I personally prefer a dog with an unbroken spirit, a bounce in his step, and a sense of humor."
What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree?

I saw this a few weeks back, posted on social media by a veterinarian who I very highly respect for her vast amount of medical advice, but occasionally wish would leave the training to the trainers.

I wholeheartedly agree that I want a dog with an “unbroken spirit” and a “bounce in his step.” I don’t know any good trainer or owner who doesn’t want that for their dogs or the dogs they’re working with.

What I DON’T agree with, however, is the implication that these - the dog with robotic obedience and the dog with the unbroken spirit - are two mutually exclusive types of dogs.

This is what that statement implies:

It allows for no overlap between the two – it seems to insist that you can have one or the other, but not both. I’d like to propose, however, that the reality is quite different and in fact looks something more like this:

It's true, there are some dogs that have “robotic obedience” that comply and do what you ask, but that are truly shut down and obey only from fear of punishment. They do what you ask, but often do so with head hanging, tail low, and without enthusiasm. There are also dogs with “unbroken spirits” and “a sense of humor” that are out of control and even potentially dangerous to society or to themselves. These are the types of dogs that may run off and, even if they are friendly, try to get a nervous or reactive dog to play with them and end up in a fight because they forced that dog into fight-or-flight. These are the types of dogs that knock over little kids or elderly folks because of their exuberance. They may jump on guests or destroy things in the house and, consequentially, cause tension in family relationships. They may run into busy roads or eat things that are toxic, or injure themselves in their reckless abandon.
Then there are the middle dogs. The dogs that respond promptly to commands, exercise self-control, but also get to experience all the joys in life like running around, exploring, playing, etc. This is what every dog owner that I know wants for their dog.

When well-respected people put out statements implying that you have to pick one or the other, and that you definitely don’t want a “robot dog,” it seems to encourage people to not train the dogs (or, at least, not to be consistent in enforcing the boundaries and expectations they have established in training), for fear of creating a robot. If their dog ignores them when they call “come,” they shrug it off as their dog’s “sense of humor” instead of addressing the training problem, because they don’t want a “robot.” And then they miss out on the fulfilling, trusting, mutually respectful and loving relationship with their dog that is a product of good, reliable training.

As a side-note: When I say “Well-Trained Dog,” I say it regardless of training method. A truly well-trained dog can be achieved with a multitude of methods. Anyone who tells you that their method is the only way to get a dog that matches the description in the center is probably either closed-minded, inexperienced, or lying. Don’t believe me? Check out balanced trainers like Forrest Micke, Tyler Muto, Blake Rodriguez, etc. Then check out all-positive trainers like Sara Brueske, Susan Garrett, Denise Fenzi, etc. They all have (and help others develop) well-trained, responsive, happy dogs who love to work and love to play (and who believe that the two are the same thing). Some methods work better for some dogs, but there is no single one-method-fits-all.

Although this discussion isn’t really about training methods, it’s hard not to bring methodology into it. Personally, I have found that the e-collar (electric collar, remote collar) is a useful training tool for getting off-leash reliable obedience – for helping to develop that middle dog. This is just one of the many tools that I utilize in my training, and one that is commonly misunderstood and thought to only create the dog on the left who obeys only out of fear. Used correctly, this is not the case at all.* I recently taught Week One of my first “Intro to E-Collar” class, a new class that I started offering because I had a couple people ask about it, and ended up having to split into two classes because of the amount of people wanting to sign up for it.

One of my clients who has a boisterous young dog signed up for the class, but on the first night, before class started, I could tell she was hesitant. She asked me, in essence, “Will this break my dog’s personality? I don’t want him to lose his sense of humor. Will it hurt him to use the electric on him?”

First, I assured her that the e-collar would not hurt her dog and that we always start on levels the dog can barely feel, and had her feel the e-collar stimulation herself (as all clients using the e-collar are required to do before using it on their dog). Then I asked her if she thought that my young, energetic Malinois (who she is familiar with) had a “broken personality.” As she is aware, I have used the e-collar quite a bit in his training. She thought for a while, and eventually conceded that no, she didn’t think his personality was broken, but the hesitation was still there.

You see, she had bought into the idea that an untrained, unruly dog was actually a dog with an “unbroken spirit,” and that any dog who consistently responded to obedience commands must not have a “sense of humor.” The “unbroken spirit” sounded like something she wanted (after all, no one wants a dog with a broken spirit!), but she didn’t understand or believe in the middle ground. She knew that e-collar training was intended to make a dog more compliant and reliable, but she didn’t understand that her dog doesn’t have to give up his personality to achieve reliable obedience.

Picture this hypothetical but realistic situation:
A dog is bouncing-off-the-walls crazy. I mean, really hyperactive - nearly out of control. After attending training (method being irrelevant) for a period of time, he is "a different dog" - he is calm, controlled, thinks before he acts, and responds promptly to obedience commands. Gone are the days of mauling guests and stealing food from the counters. His owners are delighted by their "new dog." However, the next time their friend sees the dog, she questions, "Wow, he seems sad. He doesn't jump on everyone to greet them, and isn’t begging for food. Does he have any fun anymore? It's like all that training broke his spirit." Suddenly the owners are doubtful. Did they do the right thing? Is their dog still happy?

That friend had bought into the picture of the boisterous, excited dog who has "a bounce in his step" and a "sense of humor," that has been labelled by many as the ideal "happy dog.”

However, that picture is incomplete.

The dog who is allowed to run around and chases rabbits, whose owners know that he will come back when called, is no less happy than the dog who just ignores their owner and goes to chase rabbits without permission.

The dog lying calmly on "place," his safe spot, who gets to quietly observe visitors when they enter the house and then gets released to calmly greet them once the initial chaos settles, is no less happy than the dog who nearly mauls the guests in his insistence on figuring out who just walked into his house.

The dog whose body waggles side-to-side as he greets his owners but knows not to jump on them is no less happy to see them than the dog who mauls their owners and makes them drop the groceries they were carrying in (probably resulting in frustration that, even if they don’t physically punish the dog for his actions, may cause the dog stress).

In fact, the dog who can never go anywhere off-leash and can never just "be a dog" because he might run off, get hit by a car, get in a fight with another dog, jump on a child or elderly person, etc., is likely to be much less happy than the one who is allowed freedom to explore his world because he responds to his handler when they call.

Adding clear rules and expectations can boost your dog's confidence, improve your relationship, and offer that dog more freedom in a safe way.

If my dog is running outside off-leash and starts heading towards a busy road, you’d better believe I'm calling that dog to "Come." I do want him to have a sense of humor and to experience the joy of running around like a dog should, but I will only allow him that if I know he can do it safely. Allowing the dog to blow me off and run into the road is the least kind thing I can do for him.

I don't know where along the way a dog ignoring commands became seen as a good thing, or a sign of a “happy” dog. I can't imagine any world where the dog blowing you off, running into the road, and getting hit by a car would ever be considered a good thing. Are we going to celebrate, "Well, at least he died free and happy!"? Or are we going to lament, "If only he had listened when I said "Come.""?

Train hard. Play hard. Get your dog to that healthy spot in the middle.

He’ll thank you for it.

* If you are interested in learning more about how we use the e-collar to build well-rounded, happy, confident, "middle dogs" with unbroken spirits and with more freedom than ever before, please feel free to contact me about it. I'd love to discuss it with you!

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful testament to not only dogs but children. I started reading with my 8 month old puppy in mind, then started realizing I was comparing this to my children verses some of their friends who are allowed to do anything and everything without reprimand. A "well-trained, well-brought up child" (two legged or 4-legged furbaby) is much happier within their safe boundaries than one who runs the neighborhood or town and is a danger to him/herself and others due to lack of obedience, and consequences of actions.
    thank you so much for sharing your views!