Why "good" dog training doesn't make good TV

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 5/13/12
By: Gail T. Fisher

Last weekend I was in Atlanta presenting a training seminar for Canine Country Academy. The attendees—both the people and the dogs—were a wonderful group of eager, knowledgeable trainers. Most of the participants were professional dog trainers, and the few who weren’t, were avid, well-educated enthusiasts in related professions (including a co-owner of a veterinary practice—how terrific to have her there!).

The topic of my seminar is, like the title of my book, “Training a thinking dog” ... “because a dog’s mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Toward the end of the weekend, one of the participants, I’ll call “Mark,” asked what my “elevator spiel” is when someone asks me about Cesar Millan’s training method. I replied that I say he has a charismatic TV personality, and his training makes for dramatic “reality” TV, but it is not reality. And, more importantly, it’s not good, positive dog training.

A participant asked why there are no TV shows demonstrating “good, positive dog training”. The fact is, such dog training is not dramatic. Watching a dog learning how to do something right, as opposed to being punished and corrected for doing something wrong, is simply not as interesting. As an example, I talked about a training session earlier that day with Mark’s dog “Thor,” a bright miniature Poodle. Mark was training Thor to push a toddler’s plastic mini-truck with his forepaws on the rear bumpers and pushing it from behind. In a three or four minute training session, Thor tried a variety of different behaviors.

Mark was shaping his behavior, using a sound marker (a click—an event marker that says “That’s it!”) to let Thor know when he was getting closer to the correct behavior. Thor got a click and treat each time he pushed the truck with his feet, but not when he pushed it with his nose, scratched at the truck rather than pushing it, or pushed from the side or front. Thor provided the seminar participants with a perfect demonstration of what a “thinking dog” means.

After a few interactions with the truck that didn’t get a click, Thor stood still with his mental wheels visibly turning. He paused, then looked at Mark. After a few seconds, he lifted one of his forepaws and waved it. When that didn’t get a click, he noticed his leash on the floor and pawed at it. Then he pawed his leash with his other foot.

Thor was clearly trying to determine if it was forepaw action that was being clicked. When none of these actions got clicked, Thor paused, then turned to the truck and put both his forefeet on the bumper and pushed the truck—Click! From that moment on, Thor’s behavior progressed. He had figured out that what got a click (and of course the food treat to reward him), was something to do with his forepaws on the truck.

We dog trainers loved it! We loved watching Thor’s wheels turn. We loved watching him eliminate the irrelevant behaviors (wave his paw in the air, paw at the leash, paw or push the front of the truck, etc.). We even loved it when he didn’t move—standing there looking at Mark, clearly “thinking”—pondering what to try next.

We loved it, but also recognized that to the average TV watcher, it would be like watching paint dry. It was not dramatic. Thor didn’t bite Mark. He didn’t growl or lunge or destroy anything. He didn’t display any dramatic, terrible behavior—but he learned a new behavior in a matter of minutes, and his mind was engaged. Best of all, Thor and Mark were working together in a true partnership—a cooperative relationship that is the goal of good dog training. I’d far rather have that reality than any “reality” TV program.

PET FOOD RECALL: Please check the Internet for the wide variety of pet food brands that are subject to the recent recall. Some foods were sold in New Hampshire, or were sold through the Internet, so make sure that your pet’s food is not one of the affected brands. Affected brands have a 2 or 3 in the 9th position in the product code and an “X” in either the 10th or 11th digit place.

 


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