Two national news stories drew my attention over the past weeks. First, the reported misdeeds of television personality Rachael Ray’s pit bull Isaboo; second, the death by orca attack of trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World.

According to The National Enquirer, Isaboo was being walked by one of her handlers through New York’s Greenwich Village when the pair encountered another dog on leash. Isaboo reportedly froze and began to growl, then lashed out and ripped off the other dog’s ear. This is supposedly the latest in a string of incidents involving the dog, who has her own Facebook page and makes regular appearances on Ray’s show. An Enquirer source suggests,

Rachael calls Isaboo her ‘baby’, but after the latest dog fight, she’s living in fear that her pet will have to be put down.

Meanwhile in sunny Orlando, Florida, the killer whale known to tourists as Shamu was plotting his next move, or so it would seem. Known to Sea World staff as Tilikum, this whale had himself been involved in prior incidents, including the 1991 death of a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia. Last week, the performing whale grabbed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau’s pony tail and dragged her into the pool, thrashing her about and ultimately drowning her. Brancheau, whose skill and dedication I have no reason to question, was petting him poolside when the attack occurred. Calls for Tilikum’s death notwithstanding, Brancheau’s sister suggests the trainer would not want any harm to come to the whale. She says of her sister, who was childless,

She loved the whales like her children, she loved all of them.

So we have a pair of animals, Isaboo the pit bull and Tilikum the bull orca, each potentially formidable, each very much beloved, one by its owner and one by its trainer and both by many members of the public at large. Yet despite all the love heaped on these animals, and despite the relatively enormous resources dedicated to them, neither appears to be reliable and both face an uncertain future. At best, they will likely endure increased confinement and/or isolation, devoid of some number of previously enjoyed privileges. At worst, they will suffer a premature death.

My question is, what good is our love and affection for animals such as these, in the absence of a deep understanding of their nature and an equally deep commitment to making the most informed and responsible decisions on their behalf? And what does it mean for such creatures to be referred to or viewed by their owners and handlers as children, rather than as the mature and potentially dangerous predators they actually are?

neoteny n : retention of some immature characteristics in adulthood

No doubt, there are perks associated with the ability to inspire such sentiments. After all, pandas and pit bulls alike would have far fewer fans if they weren’t so darn cute. But the downside, that they are more widely and profoundly misrepresented and misunderstood than their less adorable brethren, is pretty steep.

It is theorized that dogs are in fact neotenized wolves. Whether or not that holds true, many domestic dogs have been bred with a mind toward upping the cuteness quotient. Neotenized features and behaviors appeal to us, as does the parent-child metaphor.  And maybe both serve the wellfare of dogs in so far as they help to foster a caring relationship. But I very much doubt that the parent-child metaphor would ring true to most dogs, no matter how puppyish they look or behave compared to their ancestors. Worse, this superficially affectionate metaphor diminishes dogs, while pretending to elevate their status.

The naked, non-neotenized truth is dogs mature as all creatures do, and it’s only appropriate to refer to them (and treat them) in a manner that acknowledges that maturity. Words like “child” and “baby” imply diminished capacity– for taking responsibility, for self-restraint, for decision making, for meeting expectations.

Not surprisingly, this mindset can have unfortunate behavior ramifications. Take Isaboo. A brief visit to Rachael Ray’s official website tells the story. Ray writes,

She has thousands of toys. Her faves are any stuffed animal with squeakers inside of them. It’s like a challenge; she bites through the toy until she finally gets to the squeaker.

One can watch Isaboo as she runs adorably amok backstage, helping herself to plates of human food and so forth. One can read about what a “princess” she is and how much she enjoys special attention from “mommy and daddy”. And then there’s the front-clip harness she’s wearing, a popular device favored by those who can’t be bothered (or perhaps think it inhumane) to train their dogs to respect a slack leash. Obviously, I don’t know what Isaboo was wearing on the day she helped herself to another dog’s ear in passing, nor can I say with certainty that she hasn’t been well-trained up to this point. But what I can and indeed will say is that a dog who is heeling beside its handler is incapable of both maintaining the heel and ripping another dog’s ear off. Of course, in a world where tearing apart a stuffed animal is considered a challenge, formal obedience might loom as insurmountable as Mount Everest.

Had Isaboo been recognized as the dog she was, her self-control might successfully have been nurtured along with her penchant for tearing up squeaky toys. Her more inconvenient predispositions might successfully have been channelled or suppressed, rather than denied and left to fester. She might have proved a great ambassador of her breed, rather than another argument for breed specific legislation.

Sadly, her story is not unique. There are many more non-celebrity dog owners, who despite having ample resources, are nonetheless disinclined to give their dogs the balanced training they deserve. Why? Go ask Shamu.

You cannot use a leash or bridle, or even your fist on an animal that just swims away. Positive reinforcement — primarily a bucket of fish — was the only tool we had. Don’t Shoot the Dog, by dolphin trainer Karen Pryor

Captive performing marine mammals were first drafted in the war against traditional dog training in the late 1980’s, when Karen Pryor began lecturing on the effectiveness of reward-based training and clicker training in particular. Since then, killer whales and other species having very little in common with dogs have been held up as poster children for the power of positive reinforcement and applied operant conditioning generally to produce reliable behavior without the use of force. Standard training tools and practices have in the meantime been systematically pooh-poohed as unscientific and needlessly coercive, and their proponents roundly dismissed as backward-thinking relics.

The argument tends to go something like this:

If we don’t need a [scary-sounding training device] to train a [impressively high number]-pound [large marine mammal or other beast unfortunate enough to be the subject of positive reinforcement training while captive and powerless], why would you need to use such a tool to train a dog??

The answer may have something to do with the fact that dogs, unlike orcas and sea lions, are expected to be reliable in our homes and in public. But I’m less interested in making an argument for the necessity of punishment to training reliable behavior, as in pointing out that the relationship between man and dog, in so far as it is both more natural and more intimate than between marine mammal trainers and their captive pupils, is capable of supporting far more complex communication than the standard positive reinforcement operant conditioning model allows. But prior to further deconstructing the dolphin-dog analogy, let’s return to the unhappy story of Tilikum.


Unlike Isaboo, Tilikum must work for a living, while consigned to what must seem a life of abject deprivation. He is without doubt a valuable asset, being Sea World Orlando’s main attraction. According to a 2006 profile of trainer Brancheau,

[Brancheau and Tilikum have] been key in Sea World’s effort to launch the first major update to its signature Shamu show in nearly a decade.

Thus the homicidal orca will likely live to splash tourists another day. Yet the fact that his training, along with that of other captive performing marine mammals, has long been held up as a model of humane treatment, as compared to that of the average hunting dog wearing an electronic training collar, for example, strikes me as more than a little bit backward. What is done to orcas in the name of science and profit is an atrocity that all the buckets of fish in the world cannot possibly erase.

Still, Tilikum killed a human being that loved him. Perhaps thinking of him as a child allows us to more gracefully absolve him of her tragic death. Perhaps it helps us to rationalize our unnatural and unjustifiable treatment of him. Perhaps it serves to support the myth of the magical relationship humans may share with such a creature. After all, children require caretakers to house and feed them; they cannot be held wholly responsible for their actions; and, most importantly, they love us back.

According again to the 2006 profile of Brancheau,

The [updated Shamu] show is designed to be inspirational, leaving the audience with the notion that if people can swim with killer whales they can achieve anything.

An interesting proposition, but like the dog-dolphin analogy, it doesn’t hold much water. A more reasonable theory might be

If people can be persuaded that Sea World’s exploitation of Tilikum is a model of humane and enlightened treatment, they might also be persuaded to purchase an overpriced stuffed animal at the gift shop (Isaboo, look what mommy got you!).

Or perhaps they might order a copy of Whale Done Parenting, published last October and co-authored by Sea World’s head trainer Chuck Tompkins. It promises parents “five simple and effective principles for coping with any parenting challenge based on actual killer whale training techniques”. (I guess dogs weren’t enough.)

Speaking only for myself, such tips strike me as potentially less relevant to the average parent, than to the average child-abductor, who having imprisoned his catch in the cellar, might be interested in engendering his captive’s cooperation, and in shaping behaviors that support the idea, no matter how deluded, that a loving bond exists between them.

My point is that a relationship based primarily on operant conditioning may be productive without being healthy or mutually respectful; and that where the possibility of a meaningful relationship and meaningful communication do exist, as for example between a child and a parent or between a dog and its owner, it is both unnecessary to constrain oneself to the behaviorist approach and may be missing the point to do so.

Outside the somewhat insular field of animal behavior and training, the learning theories developed by B. F. Skinner are being laid aside by many in favor of more constructivist principles. Take a current leader in progressive education, Alfie Kohn. Kohn argues against approaches exemplified by punishments and rewards, and, more generally, against a focus on behavior rather than on the motives and values that underlie behavior.

Rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it is a coin that does not buy very much.Punished by Rewards

The value of a book about dealing with children is inversely proportional to the number of times it contains the word behavior. When our primary focus is on discrete behaviors, we end up ignoring the whole child. – “Unconditional Teaching,” Educational Leadership 2005

It ought to be acknowledged that the proposition that all things a being does can and should be treated as behaviors, is at heart a philosophical position, not a scientific one. As a tool, positive reinforcement operant conditioning has many sound applications to be sure, but its primary utility may ultimately live in the world of controlling, manipulating, and exploiting the behaviors of captive animals, with whom a relationship supportive of more meaningful communication and genuine leadership is highly unlikely if not altogether impossible.

At the end of the day, I suspect Isaboo and Tilikum are victims of the same tragedy, in which each played his role despite being horribly miscast. They may indeed have been loved, but love, as they say, is rarely enough; and in this case love, at least in its more noble and selfless incarnations, has nothing to do with it.

Note: I am told that Rachael Ray’s publicist disputes the truth of the National Enquirer story.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.