Treat Training Trinity – Why positive reinforcement did not work for my dog.

About fifteen years ago, when I started apprenticing as a trainer, I used leash corrections and other forms of “discipline”.  I no longer leash correct, and have not for more than a decade.  This is not because I had a moral agenda.  I simply needed an effective training solution.

Kiki, my learning dog pulled like a tugboat.  We tried so many techniques we could have been the poster child for:

“But I tried positive reinforcement and it did not work.”

I chuckled and snickered with other trainers, “Ignore bad behaviour?  So you just LET the dog knock grandma to the ground?”  Teaching with food and then proofing with corrections seemed to make more sense.

We ran the gamut on protocols:

Food luring Collar corrections – flat collar
Collar corrections – nylon slip Head halter use
Head halter to reposition dog Head halter corrections
Chain choke collar correction Special choke collar correction (sits behind the dog’s ears)
Clicker instead of verbal marker Penalty yards
Be a tree Change of direction
Reward dog for releasing leash pressure Reward with approach to distractions
Hiding food rewards/surprise Finger poking the dog

 

Failure was not from a lack of effort or poor timing.  That special choke collar came from a very large, well-known training facility.  Ironically, they market themselves as being positive.

I have heard people say that positive reinforcement did not work for their pets.  Upon further digging, their chart looks oddly similar to mine. This is not positive reinforcement.  This is a mixed bag of reinforcements and punishments, more aversive than not.  We don’t even know if any of the elements were executed correctly.  In hindsight, I know that in Kiki’s case, they were not.

Kiki was lucky because I am stubborn.  Despite multiple trainers telling me to give up on her, I kept searching for a solution.  Our journey took us to a workshop and some private sessions where some exercises had a profound impact on my way of thinking.  I realized that intending to use positive reinforcement was not the same as using it effectively.

In each of these exercises, we initially fed so quickly it was obscene.  The clicker took on a machine gun staccato.   Feed!  Faster!  Click – TREAT!  Click – TREAT!  Again!  Again!  Faster!  You’re clicking too slowly!

I can’t emphasize how fast we were feeding that dog.  She was right and right and right.

Twitchy toes Kiki, who couldn’t stand still on account of her tail wagging so hard, learned a stand for exam.  On the formal recall, she learned to target a bulldog clip attached to the front of my shirt.  I stepped back 5 cm, asked for the touch – click and treat.  Five centimeters seems absurdly easy!  (That’s two inches for my American friends.)

Wouldn’t you know: it worked.  Not only did it work, we finally moved AWAY from food rewards.  The gasp I heard at her first competition as she charged toward me and sat in a perfect front , I can still hear it.  It’s one of my fondest memories of Kiki.  Within months of measured, planned and well-executed positive reinforcement, Kiki stopped pulling on leash.  Did I mention, she did this on a body harness?

Properly executed, positive reinforcement works.

It all comes down to the Bob Bailey trinity.  Timing – criteria – rate of reinforcement.  While providing feedback at the right moment in time is important, it is equally important to raise expectations in small, measured increments.  Too big of a leap and the dog goes from right to wrong.  We also need to provide fast feedback in the initial stages of training.  Pause too long between reinforcements and the dog checks out, gets bored or would rather be elsewhere.

Trinity
The greatest irony being that strong technique allows owners to wean away from food treats faster.  A few weeks or a month of good technique may include bursts of obscene machine gun clicking.  The alternative is months or years of slow feeding and searching for the miracle cure that may or may not come.

It doesn’t help when fear of food mongering encourages people to reduce treat use.  Stingy feeding and large leaps in criteria create a weak technical foundation.  That weakness is what creates, “I tried positive reinforcement, but it did not work.”

Technique matters…period.  The tougher the dog, the more important technique becomes.  I see those dogs as the ones that point a paw at me and say, “You have more learning to do….I shall point out your technical weaknesses!”  I cherish those dogs for the lessons.  I truly hope that I never fall into the mindset to think that I know it all.

Re-visit the dog training trinity first when a dog is not responding in the way you want.  We seem to spend so much time, effort and money adding new tools to the toolbox.  It pays to sharpen and hone the essential tools we already have.

It’s like buying a food processor because your dull knife won’t cut a tomato.  Of course the knife isn’t working.  You have not maintained it.  Sharpen it.  Don’t neglect the essential tools of timing, criteria and rate of reinforcement.  They are the ones you need to count on.  Really, it’s not a moral issue.  At the end of the day we want dog training that works.

Are you positive? Ask your dog.

I think most dog owners want to be as kind, gentle and humane as possible, while still effectively training their dogs.  If you read training blogs, you might start to think that withholding rewards is rather…punishing.  Others claim that rewards and punishments have a ying yang relationship.  You cannot have one without the other.

Many of these blogs have a technique-centric approach.  For example, cookies are positive.  Hitting a dog is punishment.  Verbal corrections (No! or Eh eh) are punishment.  Petting and praise are rewards.

If you think this is true, then you would be very wrong.

The DOG determines if you are using the carrot or the stick.  You, the human, trainer, owner do NOT get to determine what is naughty or nice.  Technique-centric trainers are wrong because they are presuming to know how the dog feels and thinks about various consequences.  They are painting all dogs with the same brush.

All dog training (not rehabilitation – different ballgame) uses carrots and sticks.  The technical terms are reinforcements and punishments.  You can giveth or taketh them away.  Not everyone has the same likes and dislikes.

For example, some people hate snakes while other like them.  Offering Johnny a trip to the snake exhibit for cleaning his room is a pleasant consequence only if Johnny likes snakes.  If Johnny refuses to clean his room despite a trip to the snake exhibit, you would be foolish to ignore that reaction.  The smart move is to consider that Johnny may be terrified of snakes.

So too it is with our pets.  Fasten your seat belts and leave your ego at the door.  It is time to ask the dog for some feedback on what they really think.  Here are some examples to consider:
Petting and praise for sitting.

  • If the dog sits more often, you have used a carrot.
  • If the dog sits less often, you have used the proverbial stick.

Your touch could be repulsive to a dog.  Puppy mill dogs and other under socialized animals cringe in terror at being touched.  Other dogs may tolerate your advances but really do not like it.  Some pets develop pain issues and no longer enjoy touch like they did in the past.  Never assume someone welcomes physical contact.

Push the dog off when it jumps.

  • If the dog jumps lesKip and Ic intense plays often, you have punished jumping.
  • If your dog jumps more often, you have rewarded it.

Many dogs love rough, physical play.  Rough handling can be play.  Pushing, shoving, grabbing – are fun for many dogs.   Being physically pushed is better than a slab of steak for many dogs.

Leash correcting a dog for pulling, then rewarding when the dog comes back to your side.

  • If the dog pulls less often, then the correction has punished the pulling.
  • If the dog stays right by your side, then you are reinforcing the dog for being at your side.
  • If your dog yo-yos between pulling and walking at your side, then you have rewarded pulling on the leash.  The dog has learned that pulling gets a correction.  The dog willing takes the pain in order to get a reward.

Dogs will learn to misbehave to get rewards.  You always get what you create.  The dog is not lying.  If you do not like having a yo-yo dog, look in the mirror because you probably created this problem behaviour.  I certainly hope no one would intentionally do this, but it does have some practical uses.  Think needle at the veterinary clinic means cookies.

Ignoring barking

  • You ignore barking.  Your dog’s barking worsens and then eventually stops.  You have used extinction.
  • You ignore barking and the dog quickly stops barking.  You have punished the dog by withdrawing attention the dog finds valuable, much like a timeout.
  • You ignore barking and barking escalates.  The dog probably wants you to go away.

You do not necessarily punish a dog by ignoring it.  If a dog wants you to go away, ignoring them is a carrot.  Even the happiest married couples probably realize it’s nice to see your spouse leave so you can have a bubble bath.  Love you – go away – come back later.  Do not assume your presence is always a gift to the universe.  You’re special, but not THAT special.  None of us is.

The point being that in order to aspire to compassionate – to be more humane and kinder, we need to stop talking so much and we need to start listening.

We listen by watching the dog’s reaction.  When you reach to pat a dog on the head and see that slight ducking and shying away, then take note.  Look for escape and avoidance behaviours.  They can be hard to spot.  Relief can look oddly similar to joy.

Avoid a technique-centric approach and choose communication.  When you stop – really stop – and listen, you realize that all dogs respond to positive reinforcement.  Unfortunately, too often, the human thinks they are being positive and the dog firmly disagrees.  You must truly hear what the dog is saying.

If you do that, you realize that the dog will tell you which quadrant is in play.  Open yourself up to the dog’s answer, even if the truth might sting a little.

Side note:  I love technical, jargon filled blogs.  I just happen to think that most people fall into a coma reading them.  Would recommend an introductory psychology text as a good source of information for anyone wanting to learn more.

Toolbox or Technique

I am a tool junkie – specifically, kitchen gadgets.  In dog training, there are also plenty of tools.  Some people feel that the more tools a trainer has, the more problems they are capable of solving.  That would be wrong.

Bear with me for a moment while I go back to cooking…..

My ability to cook is not tied to my tools.  Give me wood and a pan, and I’ll cook you something so good that you’ll go weak at the knees.  If you like a nice ceviche, you can even skip the fire.  Someone has serious technical skill when they can take the cheapest, toughest piece of meat and turn it into something succulent.  It’s all about having mad skills.

If you are good at what you do, you don’t need a whole toolbox of tools.

Realistically speaking, I don’t want to whisk egg whites by hand, so I have a stand mixer.  However, I don’t need one to have success.  The act of buying a thousand dollar Robot Coup will not magically transform someone into a cook.  Nor will it result in an edible meal.

Many tools that I have bought fall into the miserable uni-tasker category.  Meaning they do only one thing, or aren’t worth the time or money.  They wind up in the trash.  They are too frustrating and aggravating to drag out of the back of the pantry when a decent chef’s knife will do.

You can also waste money on dog training uni-taskers.  Introducing the Dog-a-matic 6000.  Fast results.  So easy!!  Anyone can do it just press the button for instant results.  Money back guarantee if you’re not 100% satisfied.

It’s a bit of a money grab in my opinion.  That’s not my real beef.  An editor’s comment is.  There is a screen shot circulating on social media.  It’s allegedly a snapshot from Dog’s in Canada Magazine – the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) publication.  It states:

“Purely positive trainers…are limited by their personal training philosophies, leaving them unable to fix difficult, long-term behaviours in a timely manner.  A balanced or integrated trainer may be more likely to have a variety of skills and methods to fix problem dogs because they have a wider set of TOOLS and approaches…..”  (Caps added)

Excuse me – but a plethora of tools is just a bunch of gadgets.  The only tools a trainer really needs sits squarely between their ears.  It’s called a brain.

Just as I do own kitchen tools, I do own dog training tools.  I use a clicker.  Do I need it?  Heck no.

Without timing and skill, that clicker won’t give effective results.  Neither will prong collars, shock collars, chock collar, leash correction on any kind of collar or using your hand to poke, swat, hit or otherwise punish the dog.  (None of those I use.)  If you’re struggling with the timing of food rewards, then you’ll also struggle with the timing of corrections.  It’s a hand/eye co-ordination problem.  How is it fair to use the dog as a guinea pig while you learn to use pain?

Some tools do more harm than good.  It’s like driving a nail with a sledgehammer.  It might be possible, but it’s a little crazy to think you won’t damage the wall.  Greater power does not always equal better results.

Plenty of dog training techniques come with a bunch of side effects, creating other problems in the wake.  According to research, some techniques trigger aggressionRetaliation toward discipline is the number 2 trigger for dog bites to children.  Pressure on a dog’s neck has been tied to eye problems.  When you’re playing with life and death outcomes, asking about potentially negative fallout matters.

When it comes to some of the gadgets such as shock collars, electric fences and citronella collar –  they come with a manufacturer’s warning that says, “Do not use on aggressive dogs.”  According to the makers, don’t even use them on dogs prone to aggression.  With restricted use, having these in a toolbox doesn’t seem to offer any benefit.

At the end of the day, I don’t NEED to buy a sledgehammer to drive a nail.  Frankly, I don’t WANT one either.  I don’t NEED a Robot Coup to make a puree.  I WANT one.  I really don’t WANT the latest Dog-a-matic 6000 gadget because it’s a cheap piece of marketing nonsense that will end up in the garbage.  Waste o’ cash.

Call me really old school if you like.  I believe in technical skill and practice.  I don’t NEED to use any pain or fear.  I don’t NEED any tools that cause pain or fear.  I don’t NEED silly gadgets.  That old school attitude does not at all compromise results because a multitude of gadgets and tools will never make up for lack of technical skills.

If you have solid technique, you never NEED a full toolbox to get results.

Pain: When in Doubt, Leave it Out

What makes pain … painful?    It’s an interesting question because let’s face it, some pain is just worse than others.

Think of removing a bandage.  You could rip it off quickly, suffering an intense short burst of pain.  Alternatively, you could gently ease it off, suffering less, but for longer.  Which is worse?

What do bandages have to do with pet training?  Bear with me.  This pain stuff is interesting.

Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University, devised multiple experiments – inflicting pain on willing subjects so he could ask, “How did that feel?”  Creepy as it seems, Ariely was the victim of severe burns.

During his recovery, he begged nurses to remove the bandages slowly.  The nurses, experienced in patient care and no doubt caring people, disagreed.  They believed, based on experience and observation that a fast tug was kinder and less painful.  After recovering, Ariely began researching pain perception.  These types of pain studies objectively study the mechanics of pain so we can reduce the future suffering of others.

Others have followed similar lines of questioning for various reasons.  Some of the findings are as follows:

Individual tolerances differ.
The ability to tolerate pain differs from one individual to another.  Studies on electric shock found that some people felt pain when shocked with 0.30 mA of electricity.  Others could tolerate up to 2.0 mA.  Each individual feels things differently.  There is no really good way to predict how any individual will respond.  (For more information on pain   and shock, see my previous blog post.)

Escalating pain feels much worse than diminishing pain.
Some pain becomes worse over time.  Mild discomfort turns into intense throbbing.  Take the same pain but reverse it.  Start high and reduce the intensity.  Our perceptions change.  Given the exact same pain levels, we find increasing pain to be much more severe.

Duration matters.
Long pain feels worse than short pain especially when the intensity varies.  There is a very important side note.  Low levels of discomfort might not start out painful, but they can become painful over time.  Imagine a heating pad.  At first, it feels hot and possibly even therapeutic.  As time passes, heat builds to intolerable levels.  With the passage of time the pain threshold is crossed.  Just because something feels mild – nay pleasant – it doesn’t mean it stays that way.

Uncertainty increases pain sensitivity (Hyperalgesia)
Unpredictable pain makes us sensitive and less tolerant to unpleasant and painful situations.  Research shows that as little as three mild shocks can trigger this hypersensitivity.  It’s like watching a scary movie and then jumping at every bump in the night.  Our bodies have this built in survival skill that says, “This place is unpredictable and dangerous.  Be careful.  Be on high alert, extremely anxious and sensitive to any level of pain.”

Consistent outcomes reduce pain sensitivity (Hypoalgesia)
When faced with consistent pain, our bodies react differently.  When we can control and predict painful consequences, our brains release natural opiates to block pain sensation.  In other words, our brains self medicate in order to stay strong and carry on.  It’s a bit like getting injured while on pain medication.  Saying “That wasn’t so bad,” does not mean the incident was pleasant or safe.  It means we didn’t feel the full sensation because of the drugs coursing through our body.  The natural release of opiates is a coping mechanism and another survival skill.  It lets you keep going despite pain.  It’s handy if you need to ignore pain in order to escape a clear and present danger.

What it boils down to is that pain is complex.  You cannot measure pain based on a technique.  There will be variation that can increase, decrease or mask pain.  This raises concerns because pain is not about actual physical harm.  It’s about our perceptions and even the anticipation of pain.

With all the subtle nuances, how can anyone claim that physical discipline in dog training is not painful?  We cannot judge based on a happy demeanor because the dog could be hypoanalgesic.  “Gentle” or “mild” correction is dubious because it could trigger hypersensitivity toward pain.  If long in duration, it could cross that pain threshold.

Gimmicky videos of happy yet physically punished dogs is not evidence of lack of pain.

Many dog training techniques are at risk of triggering these problems.

  • Shock collars often have a continuous function for corrections that are longer in duration. Does mild ‘stim” cross the pain threshold, and if so, at exactly what point?
  • Inexperienced handlers and novice owners are notoriously inconsistent.  Consistency comes with practice.
  • Consistent trainers dismiss initial shrieks claiming that with time, the dog does not mind.  They say it’s surprise.  Couldn’t we also assume that pets are self medicating – releasing natural opiates to cope with their training.
  • Bark collars and electric fencing increase the intensity of pain when the dog fails to comply.

I can hear the objections now.  Dogs are not people, rats, mice or monkeys.  True.  Let’s remember, plenty of research indicates that our pets feel pain in the same way we do.

We have two choices.  We can assume that dogs and cats are freaks of nature – different from all other mammals.  We can turn a blind eye to the possibility that the “mild” or “correct” use of physical discipline has no pain or consequence.  We can pretend it ain’t so.

Or, we can look at the bandage question at the beginning of this blog – realizing that the nurses – the practical hands on experts on bandage removal in a burn ward were wrong.  Slow and gentle was better!

We can admit that dishing out physical corrections does not make one an expert on taking them.

Ariely’s most profound finding in my opinion is that you can look someone right in the eye, convinced that you are acting in their best interest, sure that you are not causing pain – and you can be wrong.  That’s what’s so great about science.  It just answers the questions so we can make better choices in the future.  In the meantime, we take the science we have.  Where pain is concerned, when in doubt, leave it out.

You Don’t Know Sit

We live in the country.  As such, our son Jordan takes the bus to school.  It did not take our dog Kip long to realize that every morning the big yellow bus came along and whisked his friend away.  Then, every day at the same time, the big yellow bus brought him back home.

Kip at windowAs the clock neared four o’clock, I found myself asking Kip, “Where’s Jordan”?  Kip came to know that his best friend would be home soon.  Perking his ears, he would leap to attention and vault onto the chair that sat beneath our dining room window.  Paws on the window ledge, he cocked his head to get a clear view of the road, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the bus.

When the bus finally arrived, he would carefully peer at each child.  Five boys in total would get off the bus at our stop.  He always knew, even at a distance, “That one is Jordan!”  His body would wiggle with overt happiness.

It did not surprise me that Kip would readily learn the meaning of repeated expressions.  He is a smart dog.  Kip just seemed to know what I meant.  When I said, “Where’s Jordan,” he knew…absolutely knew his friend was coming home.

One P.D. day, the days when children have no school, I began chatting away to Kip.  Yes, I absolutely do talk to my dog.  I asked if he was happy to have Jordan home.  I asked, “Where’s Jordan?”

Immediately, Kip ran to the chair under the window.  Jordan was sitting there reading a book.  He leapt up on the chair.  His back legs on Jordan’s lap, his front paws on the windowsill; he cocked his head and scanned the street left and right looking for the big yellow bus.

He looked for the bus while standing right on top of Jordan.  It seems that Kip did not actually know the meaning of, “Where’s Jordan.”  I was mistaken and presumed far too much.

Dog owners often complain that their dogs know obedience commands and house rules.  They say, “He KNOWS sit, but he won’t do it.”

Assuming that a dog knows the meaning of a phrase or word implies that the dog is refusing to obey.  Labelled as stubborn, defiant and dominant, owners start looking for ways to make the dog submit and obey.  It opens the door to a wide array of concocted punishments to ensure the dog obeys the commands that it supposedly knows.  Plenty of dog training methods feed into these notions perpetuating needless discipline.

It is a darn shame, because miscommunication happens frequently.  People misunderstand each other all the time and we have the distinct advantage of speaking a common language.  I can send my husband to the store for buttermilk only to receive butter and milk!  Is it not likely that dogs would misunderstand?  We are different species with very different communication styles.

Dogs misunderstand for many reasons.  Sometimes, a dog’s actions are misinterpreted – just as I misunderstood Kip’s reaction to, “Where’s Jordan.”  Other dogs notice subtle gestures instead of learning verbal commands.  For example, a finger pointed at the ground overshadows the command “down.”  There are other dogs that perform their entire repertoire of skills:  sit; down; stand; shake a paw; rollover; play dead.  They continue until they happen upon the correct response.

Unless we test our dog’s comprehension, we run the risk of assuming too much.  While it may feel intimidating to take responsibility for our dog’s misbehaviour, this is exactly what great teachers do.  They leave ego at the door.  There is no blame and no guilt.  Owners feel relief knowing their dogs are not stubborn, status seeking adversaries.  Rather, training issues are just a simple misunderstanding.

Stop for a minute when about to say, “He knows….”.Test those assumptions.  Then test them again.  Miscommunication is a common problem and a very easy fix.

Pinch Me A.K.A. Prong Me

During a recent Facebook discussion, it was pointed out that I had never worn a prong collar.  As such, I would  have no idea whether a prong (a.k.a. pinch collar) causes pain.  My knuckles firmly rapped, it seemed the only solution would be for me to open my mind and wear a prong collar.

prongFor those unfamiliar with the product, these come in a variety of styles.  Some look scary with spikes and “prongs” of metal.  Newer models hide the “teeth” of the prong collar under a strip of leather, plastic or fabric.  I use the word “teeth” very deliberately, because proponents of these products claim that the spikes of a prong replicate a mother dog’s teeth as she corrects a misbehaving pup.

I do know how to fit a prong collar, and I know how to use one.  I am a crossover trainer, meaning that I have used physical corrections and discipline in the past.  However, never have a put a prong collar around my neck I have not been able to claim to know how it feels.  It is about time.

While not scientific, I wanted to challenge my pre-conceived notions.  How does a prong feel?  Does it cause pain?  When products “work”, they work for a reason.  What is that reason?

I began by placing the collar on my forearm.  Surprisingly, it did not cause pain.  There was pressure.  At this point, I felt that I would be eating a good healthy dose of crow.  This gave me the confidence to move forward – to fit the prong to my neck.

Carefully, I adjusted the number of links so the collar sat high up on my neck, snug but not tight.  Gently I pulled on the ring where the leash attached.  Again, I was legitimately surprised that spikes did not dig into my neck, and there was very little pain.

My husband entered the room, rolled his eyes at yet another “experiment”.  Jokingly, he grasped the chain.  Using his fingers only he tugged.  “You’re coming with me!”

That is when the prong collar “bit” me.  As the metal of the prong pressed against the bone of my spine, it created sharp, intense pain.  I screamed – yes screamed – for him to stop.  My husband blubbered, “I didn’t pull hard.  It wasn’t hard at all.  I just used my fingers.”

One of my friends pointed out that dogs have muscular necks and walk on all fours.  I can respect that my husband’s tug on the collar does not replicate a dog walking at an owner’s side.  Head down (literally, I got down on all fours) we attached the leash to the collar.  My son “walked” me around the house.  He was applying FINGERTIP pressure.

It was here that the collar “bit” me for the second time.  It was not painful.  I think it was worse than that.  The pressure from the evenly spaced links didn’t distribute evenly, the way it had on my arm.  Walking on my hands and knees, the collar did not pinch.  It pulled up against the front of my throat, an area that has very little muscle to afford any protection.  Checking the front of my dog’s neck, it becomes quickly apparent that his muscular neck and shoulders do not offer protection to the front of his neck either.

As I crawled along the ground, and the prong dug up into my windpipe, I felt a primal urge to recoil and relieve pressure.  While not quite a choking feeling, it was a gagging, gurgling, inability to swallow.  My stomach seized and I felt panic.  In an instinctive need for self-preservation I gasped, “Drop the leash!”  Grasping at the links, my hands shaking, I immediately struggled to remove the prong collar from my neck.  Having felt both the pain of prong on bone, and the pressure of a prong on my windpipe, the pressure on my windpipe was, at least to me, far worse.

I went into this process with an open mind.  Some of my most profound life lessons have come when others have challenged my position.  I respect it when people speak up and push me.  I want to know why a product “works.”

This little experiment may have begun as a prong question; it has led me to wonder how we perceive a dog’s neck.  We see the muscle and power.  Under their chin is the soft underside, cartilage, glands, bones.

collageProng collars are not the only collars placed high upon a dog’s neck.  Owners are often told to ensure collars stay up as high as possible.  Why?  They are told this is to maximize control – and the effectiveness of the collar.  Some collars are designed so they intentionally do not slide down the dog’s neck – to the muscular part.  I can see how that “works.”  It hurts like hell when a collar presses on delicate tissue.  Research shows that pressure on a dog’s neck presses on the optic nerve, potentially causing eye problems.  This isn’t just a moral “tree hugging” concern.  Veterinary organization recommend harnesses for this reason.

I can’t ask my dog how any collar feels for them.  However, I can, for a minute, put myself in their position – look at the anatomy of their neck and look at the fit of a variety of collars and ask how it would make me feel.

No dogs were harmed, corrected or pulled using a training collar.  In other words, the photos for this blog post were staged.

Update:  May 6th, 2013.  There have been an overwhelming amount of comments.  This one stood out.  Jennifer Montgomery Kay wrote the following:

I tried this experiment myself on Saturday. There really is nothing like the horrible feeling of it merely resting on my windpipe. The moment I caused it to apply actual pressure? I thought I was near death.

Treated Like a Dog

This is the most difficult story that I have ever written.  Repeatedly I have deleted the words.  They take me to a place I am not comfortable with.  A dark, painful place, it remains only in the memories of my childhood.

Growing up, I had a father who believed in discipline.  That discipline was coupled with strict religious values.  Rules were clear.  Men, women and children held traditional values and roles.  Wives and children should submit.  The man was head of the house.  Spare the rod and you spoiled the child.  That rod was literal.

Dog lovers who know my work probably have already realized that the word “submit” alludes to where I am going with this story.  Submission and dominance are two concepts commonly used in dog training.  Forced to submit while growing up, I feel safe saying that I can verbalize what if feels like to be a dog.

Physical discipline has at its core an honest motive.  I truly believe those who use it, genuinely believe they are acting in the child or dog’s best interest.  Many expressions support this idea.  I heard them all, and I heard them often.  The words would echo in my ears, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.  But you have to learn.”  As I grow older, I truly believe that people who use physical discipline really have never learned an alternative solution, or have not learned that alternative well enough.

As a child, I really do not think I was a danger to society or to myself.  In other words, physical punishment was not given to stop a dangerous situation.  I was, however, an independent thinker.  Independent thinkers are not well regarded in homes or churches ruled by male authority figures.

Control, through submission is all about fear mongering.  Parents use physical punishment because they fear that harm will befall their children.  Perceived as serving a greater good, force is justified.

That is the perception of the adult and it is a naive one.

Some children and wives may submit to authority.  Others do not.  Anyone with a backbone learns to misbehave behind the backs of authority figures.  School officials would be shocked to learn that all the forms signed by my dad had forged signatures.  I wanted to go on class field trips.   I wanted to take part in activities and sports.  They were not allowed, so I forged signatures and went regardless.

When my dad caught on, it meant greater supervision, which I rallied against.  Surprise visits and inspections became the norm.  It meant that I always had to be on guard.

Living under rigid structure and rules coupled with the threat of negative consequences leads to strong emotions.  I identify with three.

Anxiety grips you at the pit of your stomach, leaving you in a perpetual state of heightened awareness.  The tentacles of fear take over your muscles, clenching them repeatedly until they spasm.  Each step you take, you look over your shoulder, fully expecting that someone is watching and waiting for you to fail.  Inevitably, the punishment comes.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please don’t hit me,” does not work because spoiling the rod is equated with spoiling the child.

Coupled with that is a sense of relief.  It comes when you realize that you have passed or met expectations.  When it happens, you smile.  Do not mistake that smile for pride, joy or love.  Trust me – it is relief.  Inside you feel like a quivering, grateful and groveling mess.  “Thank you, oh thank you for being pleased with me.”

Those reading might wonder why people do not just leave or call the police.  Because for the most part, it is legal, and the church took painstaking efforts in educating parents on how to hit their children legally.

Turning to authorities for help triggers the third and final emotion of rage.  Begging and pleading for help (please make it stop) fails.  I stood there and listened as the police officers chastised my mom and me.  “You need to be more submissive.  You need to be a better wife.  You need to obey your dad.”  When this happens, when no one listens, you take matters into your own hands.  In the heat of the moment, when your spirit is broken and have no say over your own life, you take your life back through force.

Eventually I grew up, as all children do.  I can say with absolute certainty that rules, boundaries and discipline did not keep me safe.  I rebelled.   For the first time in my life, I felt I had wings.  Like Icarus, perhaps there were times I flew too close to the sun, crashing to the sea below.

I share this story because I see many parallels between force based dog training and cult based religion.  They claim that lack of discipline and physical correction spoils the dog.  Owners fear remote and unrealistic dire consequences.  “If you don’t correct the dog, it will run into traffic and die…jump on grandma and knock her over…maul babies and children…kill other dogs.”  Exaggerated worst case scenarios justify the use of force.

When dogs misbehave, owners are encouraged to supervise consistently.  Some trainers recommend tethering (umbilical cording) the dog to their waist.  With the alpha human always looming by ever so closely, every transgression is seen and disciplined with a jerk of the leash, a smack to the nose, a pinch on the ear.

As with spanking, the legal definition of dog abuse allows many of these practices to continue.  Dogs can neither complain nor consent.  People who advocate for the animals have their concerns dismissed.  Hitting is often within the bounds of the law. I think the law is wrong and needs to change.  Just as I retaliated and rebelled, research shows that physical discipline triggers aggression in dogs.  It does not take a rocket scientist to see that many dogs would bite when hit.

Some people claim that physical discipline is necessary and effective.  Others say it teaches the dog to respect the owner.  They point to heavy-handed trainers and owners with happy dogs.

Let me very clearly clarify.  Yes, forcing someone to submit can get them to comply – until they have enough and snap.  That is not respect.  I think dogs trained with force are relieved when owners are calm because the alternative is punishment.  That is not love or even like.  Once the dog figures out that the owner is associated with discipline, we really shouldn’t be surprised when they snap.

I will concede that I may never know exactly what a dog thinks or feels.  However, I do know what it is like to be forced to submit.  I cannot understand how any woman or minority who has fought for equal rights could not see the parallels and the offensiveness of the concept.

If I have one hope, it is that people reading this stop for one second and think what it is like to be the dog.  In the future, perhaps, I will pull the Band-Aid off the wounds of my past a bit further and talk about the dog that was forced to submit along with me.