Thursday, September 5, 2013

Choices and Comfort Zones

Yesterday I enrolled in a competition obedience class that lies a little outside my comfort zone.

The instructor is extremely skilled and extraordinarily accomplished, and it's clear that she is very effective with her chosen methods -- both personally and as a teacher. For this reason, I'm trying to take the class with an open mind, because even if I opt not to use some of those techniques in my own training (and there are several that I can't imagine I'll ever want to use), there should be a lot for me to learn here.

One of the things I've already learned -- and this is something I'd already suspected but which was thrown into sharp relief by some of the exercises in the class I audited -- was that I place a high value on my dogs choosing to work with me, and I do not want my dogs to be coerced into compliance, even if that coercion is done with a relatively light touch. I value a thinking, eager partner who gives me willing cooperation; if that means my dog occasionally says "no," that's fine.

In the classes I watched, the dogs did not have the option of saying no. They didn't really have many options at all. Everything was taught by physical manipulation: attention heeling was taught with the dog's head pulled up by a taut short lead, a Sit-Stay was taught with two fingers hooked into the dog's collar to hold it in place, moving Fronts were taught by (again) hooking fingers into the dog's collar and pulling it along. Handlers reinforced dumbbell holds by clamping their hands around the dogs' mouths. Rarely were the dogs asked to think or given any choices; mostly they were just passive creatures being pulled into position by their handlers.

While almost all the dogs were on prong collars (which in itself makes me uncomfortable), mostly the force employed in training them was relatively light. Not many of the handlers yanked their dogs to the point of causing obvious pain. Nevertheless, it was very clear that the dogs had no choice about participation, and almost all of them exhibited discomfort at times. At the end of the session, many of them fell asleep while their handlers were talking, which to my eye looked like stress exhaustion (and over the course of pushing Pongu up the competition career hill, I have seen plenty of stress exhaustion).

To my surprise, there didn't seem to be much attention paid to motivating the dogs; they were encouraged to jump up on their handlers (which appeared to be genuinely motivating for some, and more of a frenetic stress-relieving movement for others) and were given verbal praise and occasional treats, but the level of primary reinforcement being used was much lower than what I'm used to seeing.

So, overall, the total picture is of something slightly outside my comfort zone. It is by no means a crank-and-yank class (I'd have no use whatsoever for something like that), but it's far from my preferred position on the R+ end of the training spectrum. Watching these dogs and their handlers, I was struck by the total one-sidedness of the working interactions. During their downtime, many handlers were affectionate with their dogs, but when it came time to practice the exercises, it was all one-way dictation, zero listening to the dogs.

And that's not something I want, personally. What I want is a dog who works joyously in competition because the dog wants to be there -- really wants to be there, not Stockholm Syndrome "wants to be there." My choice is to give them choices.

This class may teach me many other things (and I hope it will), but it's not looking likely that it'll teach me how to make obedience a genuinely fun game for my dogs.

And if that environment of stressy and anxious dogs is not only outside my comfort zone, but badly outside Dog Mob's, then we'll drop out. Because that, too, is a choice they get to make.

1 comment:

  1. I just want to say that this is all really well said. Your mention of wanting your dogs to choose to work with you versus being forced really rings true with me.