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[The following was written for Animal Behavior College in response to a request for an article on balanced training.]

I’m not big on labels, especially empty ones. Tags like positive or balanced don’t signify much, in my opinion, beyond the public image a trainer wishes to project. These are marketing terms, not definable training methods. Yet all of dogdom seems to have settled into the opinion that every trainer is either one or the other.

The more serious trainers I get to know from both sides of the supposed divide, the more I reject this idea. But if pressed, I do identify as balanced, and will continue to do so going forward, regardless how the scales of positive and negative or punishment and reinforcement truly fall within my programs. Balanced may not go a long way toward conveying what I do, but it’s not inaccurate, and I like to think it evokes something of what I actually mean when I use it to describe myself and my colleagues.

To my mind, balanced trainers are by and large pragmatic. We approach tools and methods sensibly, unfettered by politics or ideology. We do what works, within an ethical framework involving fair expectations, clear communication, and respect for the dog in front of us. This may mean building a foundation of understanding and enthusiasm via positive reinforcement, then layering instructional corrections overtop to enhance reliability and steadiness under distraction. It may mean choosing negative reinforcement or positive punishment first, if so doing resolves a problem safely and efficiently. In all cases, it means remaining flexible, reading the dog at every turn, and keeping all options on the table.

Balanced training is unapologetically results oriented. Results matter, both to the client rightly expecting some deliverables, and to the dog, whose quality of life may ultimately depend a great deal more on whether his owner may walk him confidently in public or take him hiking off-leash, than on which quadrants of operant conditioning happened to land the dog such opportunities. Good results also represent the most reliable indicator that a given method is sound, which is not to say ends justify means. Means, particularly highly aversive or costly ones, are justified by the knowledge and experience that they represent the optimal path toward a good result, not the mere hope of achieving one. Being results oriented is not about being a cowboy. It is about being open to both new and traditional tools and methods as long as they have practical utility, and being prepared to do some amount of internal calculus before settling on the best approach.

Photo courtesy of Lionheart K9

Balanced trainers acknowledge that the deliberate inclusion of aversives within a training program is neither inhumane nor unscientific. Our commitment to canine welfare and fostering healthy relationships between dogs and people does not inhibit us from taking ownership of those aversives we employ. We focus our energies on applying them productively and responsibly, whether via electronic collar or head halter, with maximum efficiency and minimal risk. Denying their legitimate (and largely unavoidable) role in training and behavior modification both constrains trainers unnecessarily and inhibits frank discussion of how more socially acceptable tools and protocols actually work.

There have been some major shifts in dog training culture over the past several decades. On the upside, there’s been a great surge of interest and innovation, along with a new emphasis on ethical standards and humane methods. On the downside, it has become highly politicized, and lousy with specious claims driven by competition over market share. Balanced trainers recognize their work as existing on a continuum with what dog men have been doing for centuries, not as a departure so radical as to deny their influence and contributions to our field. Even if our approach bears little outward resemblance to the training of old, we refuse to reject traditional tools based on popular trends, and balk at the arrogant dismissal of generations of skilled and accomplished trainers as backward thinking relics.

In the end, it’s a matter of devotion to craft ahead of devotion to methodology.

Does every trainer currently advertising himself as balanced conform to my private definition? No, but I think it holds true for the balanced trainers I know best and attempt to model myself after, including a number who do not identify as such.

Whether positive trainers will mainly sympathize with or feel excluded by the above, I cannot guess. But I invite them to rethink the utility of defining ourselves according to terms that are ultimately more divisive than descriptive, and to help move our industry away from empty labels and toward an honest discussion of what we really do and why.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

I am a balanced trainer. I use a wide range of tools and approaches as I see fit, and have no moral or ethical qualms with using punishment skillfully and responsibly to meet training goals. I view dog training pragmatically, as a matter of choosing the optimal path for each dog/client team, respectful of individual needs and preferences, but not bound up in specious notions of self-perfection or personal growth.

I do not see dog training as a contest between me and the dog, and have come to bitterly resent the appropriation of the term “balanced” by trainers whose attitude toward dogs is essentially combative.

Forcing unnecessary confrontations is no more “balanced” than a head halter is “positive”. It’s also nothing like genuine leadership, which involves inspiring trust and respect, providing guidance when needed, setting fair boundaries, and creating stability.

Nowhere is this more important than in the context of working with aggression, yet one still hears trainers refer to gloving up and doing battle in such cases, as if resolving aggression issues was simply a matter of going mano a mano.

I tend to attribute this mindset to the combined influence of dog training as television drama, our natural fascination with aggression and its traditional role as a professional proving ground, and the old school myth that one need bring aggression out in order to address it.

Of course, most balanced trainers are not actively looking for a fight. But some are clearly a little too eager to prove they can win a confrontation, or maybe just too comfortable in that arena to bother avoiding one. I would have to put Cesar Milan in the latter category, as his obvious confidence in his physical prowess seems to tempt him into triggering aggression fairly casually.  And in balanced trainer circles, one frequently encounters those who seem to be courting aggression unnecessarily, and, in some cases, suffering the consequences.

Now, for the record, I’m not suggesting that every trainer who’s ever been bitten was asking for it.

I’ve been bitten a number of times, once trying to get a tennis ball away from a
bull mastiff at a dog park before she swallowed it, once breaking up a fight,
once leashing up a kennel-crazy dogo-mix, once in the leg (redirected
aggression), and once because I reflexively reached for the collar of an
aggressive Rottweiler in a moment of confusion (he’d just gotten loose from
another handler). Those were all legit bites requiring medical attention. The
last one was probably four years ago. But none occurred in a training context.

The only time I’ve been bitten while training a dog was around two years ago, when I was nipped by a year-old cattle dog with zero bite inhibition. (Before anyone starts an argument over the meaning of bite inhibition, let me note that this cattle dog was not protesting anything, just executing a Touch command.) I honestly don’t remember if I needed a band aid, but I know I didn’t take it personally.

Again, good trainers can occasionally get bitten in the course of training. But good trainers are damn careful. They not only aren’t looking for a fight, but know how to avoid stumbling into one. As to how that’s accomplished, there are clearly more ways than one. I can only speak for myself, and don’t consider myself an expert, despite a reasonably good track record.

First, I don’t generally use muzzles in training contexts. I own a bunch and use them occasionally while socializing an aggressive dog. I’m not saying it’s wrong to use muzzles while training, just saying I don’t. They interfere with the dog’s demonstration of natural body language, and cause most to feel nervous and/or compromised, potentially inhibiting normal behavior. They can also embolden the handler to take greater risks, as with pushing a dog too close to–or over–threshold. As a friend who worked as a motorcycle messenger once expounded, “I ride a lot more carefully when not wearing a helmet.” Personally, I don’t find helmets to be an issue. But a muzzle is a game changer, and it’s a game I don’t care to play.

Now I will employ a second line, either in conjunction with a second handler, or a tethered to a wall or post. That’s kept me safe in cases where I suspected the dog might come up the leash. And at least in the colder months, I’ve been known to strategically don my trusty pair of Carhartt overalls, just in case.

I don’t train aggressive dogs on psychotropic meds, and I don’t train aggressive
dogs I can’t read, or feel genuinely uncomfortable with. In at least two cases,
that’s meant instructing the client without handling the dog myself at all. In
one case, it meant referring the client out. That dog should probably have been
euthanized (and maybe has been).

I’m not suggesting I read all dogs with ease, by the way, only that I happen to be able to read most of the ones that present to me as clients. There are frankly certain breeds I see so infrequently, that I would hesitate to work with a genuinely aggressive one. (Akitas come to mind.) Bully breeds, on the other hand, are my bread and butter, so I’ve had a lot more practice reading them (and they’re just easier, too, I suspect).

Mostly, I train the dog at whatever pace he needs, in order to keep him
fundamentally on board with the project. That means keeping a sharp eye on the
threshold for a bite at any given moment, and maintaining a keen awareness of
the dog’s overall stress level. Sometimes, it means breaking lessons down into
very tiny steps, so as not to risk confusion or frustration. Sometimes (not
often) it means backing out of an exercise as gracefully as possible, and
revisiting it more carefully or intelligently just a little later on.

I still remember one session with a two-year-old American bulldog mix, newly enrolled in a board/train program. He’d been impressively responsive to a number of introductory exercises, seemed quite enthusiastic, and took the occasional correction totally in stride…until I decided to review his down command. He visibly tensed and braced himself. I went slowly, knowing I had unwittingly trespassed onto precarious ground. I’d given the cue, and felt obliged to enforce it. But just as he averted his gaze in the manner of a dog preparing to bite, I made the call to abort the exercise, returning briefly to something less stressful and ending on a high note, rather than a trip to the emergency room.

Not so long after that, I found myself listening to a young enthusiastic trainer explaining how she’d been bitten in the course of demonstrating an exercise with a client dog. She’d gotten herself into an intractable situation in the course of enforcing a command, and wound up the story with the words, “But you know, you can’t back down. You gotta win, right?”

Sure, if you call that winning.

I acknowledge skillful training can include conflict between dog and handler. But I’m against courting such conflicts
(whether intentionally or carelessly) or rushing headlong into them.

Training should be a collaboration, not between equals, but between parties that
share mutual respect. Sometimes, I think that respect is expressed by a trainer
backing off, and coming back with a better strategy, rather than coming back
with more gear.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

If your dog was to be subjected to an aversive, would you rather it occurred randomly or control the timing yourself?

I put this question to a rational positive-reinforcement trainer, who responded unhesitatingly that she would prefer to control the timing of the aversive, so as to minimize fallout, and in order to potentially create some practical inhibition.

The logic of her choice hinges on a pair of sensible assumptions. First, that controlling an aversive (even just the timing) naturally lends any competent handler the opportunity to avoid (or at least temper) detrimental associations; second, that the well-timed application of an aversive has potential utility. Of course, she would prefer to avoid aversives altogether, and clearly stated so.

No surprise, given the well-publicized risks. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior,

the potential adverse effects of punishment [include] but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people[1]

Moreover, we are warned that risks such as extreme generalized fear and negative associations with the dog’s environment or handler, can occur “regardless of the strength of the punishment.”

This last claim must rest on belief in a dark sort of behavioral homeopathy, whereby the magical effects of punishment [2] endure despite its infinite dilution.

But there is another problem. If we accept that the experience of even mild punishment carries an arguably prohibitive level of risk, and we acknowledge that the deliberate application of an aversive is nonetheless safer in obvious respects than allowing exposure to randomly occurring ones, how is it that trainers come to fret over distilling off every atom of punishment from their training programs, while blithely acknowledging that naturally occurring aversives are both largely unavoidable and relatively innocuous?

One would think such events as getting stepped on or startled would carry a risk (of potentially extreme and irreversible fallout) equal to that borne by the deliberate application of a comparable aversive. Yet few cautionary tales exist to illustrate these hazards, such as happen to dogs every day of their

lives, often right in the presence of their owners or at their owners’ very hands.

Even the authors of some of the most dire warnings regarding the purposeful use of aversives to punish behavior, seem to understand that the bulk of natural or accidentally inflicted aversives are fairly harmless.

I imagine it is intuitively obvious to them, as it is to me and to the dog-owning public, that a dog’s stubbing its toe while chasing a frisbee is unlikely to sour him on the game or ruin his relationship with the person who threw it.

So, what makes the demon punishment so extra-special potent, and its measured application so inescapably treacherous, compared to those unplanned aversives our dogs regularly suffer and gracefully overcome?

Aversives v. Punishment

Karen Pryor explains the critical distinction in a 2007 blog post (emphasis mine):

There’s a difference between aversive events and punishment. Life is full of aversive events—it rains, you stub your toe, the train leaves without you. These things happen to all of us, and to our pets, and we don’t control when or if they occur. Kay Laurence has an amusing paragraph about the aversive events that befall her Gordon setters (all of which they ignore)—falling off the bed, running into door posts, and more (read that article here).

In general, all that we learn from the inevitable aversives in daily life is to avoid them if we can.

On the other hand, a punishment is something aversive that you do on purpose. It may be contingent on a behavior, and it may stop or interrupt that behavior—which reinforces YOU for punishing, so watch out for that.

I find this explanation notable for several reasons.

First, it happens to be framed in response (albeit indirect) to the question, “Can you teach everything without punishment?”, yet that question is in no way addressed either by the above or within the remainder of Pryor’s comments.

It does, however, illustrate the tendency to frame discussions on tools and methods in terms of human intent, rather than in terms of the dog’s actual experience.

It’s a common tendency–and problematic, as when assumptions regarding the intention behind either the design or application of a given tool are offered as proxy for an objective analysis of how the tool actually operates or is actually applied.

Consider the myth, held true by many and even promoted by such authorities as Dr. Karen Overall, that head-halters are non-aversive. It’s an error that persists despite the reality that dogs do not casually accept wearing them, nor reliably tolerate being steered or restrained with their assistance.

It’s surprising that a phenomenon so widely observed and even scientifically documented [3] would be so widely ignored. But if we accept that our intentions are directly relevant to any and all contemplations of tools and methods, it’s only a small leap to imagine they may represent an acceptable standard of measurement.

And if we buy that, head-halters clearly rate as non-aversive by virtue of their gentle intention (indicated right there on the package), whereas prong and electronic collars may fairly be judged inhumane by virtue of being, as Dr. Overall put it in a 2007 editorial, “rooted in an adversarial, confrontational interaction with the dog.”[4]

Why would anyone invest in a scheme so clearly divorced from objective analysis?

For starters, it allows one to rationalize bypassing the complicated business of assessing how a given dog experiences a given tool wielded by a given trainer under given circumstances, instead suggesting a far easier equation, according to which one need only infer a tool’s intention in order to gauge its virtue.

This represents a boon, of course, for the purveyors of tools designed more for the purpose of persuading us of their kindness than actually facilitating it, as well as for anyone in the business of evoking faith in good intentions above promoting trust in skill or effectiveness. Moreover, substituting cursory judgements for true investigation is a real time-saver, freeing one up to concentrate one’s efforts on cementing the stigma attached to those intentions deemed impure, or on promoting the prohibition of those tools and methods associated with them.

But most importantly, it diverts attention from the fact that to a dog, an aversive is just an aversive, whether willfully administered or the result of mere clumsiness, a point that–if fully appreciated–would stand to undermine the endowment of punishment with extra-normal danger and potency.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for or against specific equipment or methods. I’m suggesting good intentions wield little to no dependable influence over how much a dog gains or suffers. And until we make a practice as an industry of evaluating the effect of our actions independently from the righteousness of our intentions, we may remain blind to those cases where to two are in conflict.

“I Can’t…”

Suzanne Clothier lately posted some thoughts on punishment under the title “I had to…”. On her blog, she takes positive trainers to task for dodging responsibility in instances where they’ve made the choice to punish. She offers examples of what she evidently considers lame excuses, like “the client was frustrated,” or “I had tried everything else.” And she challenges trainers to do better:

Replacing the phrase “I had to. . .” with “I chose to. . .” puts the responsibility where it belongs: on the trainer who made the choice to use techniques or equipment. It helps us all remember that in making that choice, by definition we excluded other possibilities. When using force, we need to be very clear that in discarding other options, other possible solutions, we may also be choosing to limit what is possible when we push ourselves.

For the record, I agree force is often used too casually, without due consideration of alternate strategies, and that acting out of mere convenience or fustration should be roundly discouraged. I also believe in the importance of accountability in dog training across the board. However, I was struck reading Clothier’s article by what seemed a misplaced focus on the moral peril (for lack of a better term) associated with use of force, rather than on any harm–real or presumed–that might be dealt the dog as a result.

She details an event involving a young Labrador who’d just head-butted her very hard for the second time, and describes the moment in which she considered her options:

I began to think, “One good correction might get through this dog’s thick skull.” I surprised myself by thinking that, but then I further shocked myself (and some of the audience) when I asked the handler explicity for permission to use a physical correction on her dog. She agreed, trusting me as a trainer to do right by her dog.

In that moment when she trustingly agreed to let me use force on her dog, I found something in myself that surprised me further: a little voice that challenged me to push myself further, to help this dog without force. It was like having a gauntlet thrown down at my feet. Do it without force, without ego, without justifying force.

Compelling words. But what does Clothier’s internal struggle have to do with the needs of this somewhat thick-headed young dog?

We are meant to assume he benefited from Clothier’s suppression of her ego, to understand that what he needed most in that pivotal moment, was not “one good correction,” but rather for Clothier to “take up the gauntlet” and turn the other cheek.

But it’s impossible to deduce that from Clothier’s narrative, because it has nothing to do with the dog’s experience.

Instead, she gives us a parable about overcoming temptation and perfecting one’s intention. Good stuff from a personal improvement standpoint, but no substitute for a reasoned consideration of whether a correction might have been productive. Granted, not the point. But what is??

That we are accountable for our choices to use force, yes. That one should not act out of ego or vengeance, clearly. But was that the temptation Clothier resisted? Remember, she didn’t just refrain from lashing out in anger. She suppressed the instinct to consider punishment as an option.

Despite Clothier’s drawing the familiar analogy between the application of a training correction and the specter of wife-beating, this is ultimately not a lesson in tempering one’s anger or shoring up one’s patience. It is a lesson in training one’s inner voice to distrust one’s rational mind.

Clothier equates the use of aversives with the use of force, and equates force with violence. She frames its contemplation as a sign of moral weakness, and the decision to use “force” as a failure by definition:

Whatever the answer, the solution is to recognize where I went wrong.

Dog training is many things, including a lesson in kindness and patience. But it should not be exploited as a proving ground for fringe notions of moral perfection.

If “I had to…” is a cop-out, then so is “I can’t…”  After all, in making that choice, aren’t we also “choosing to limit what is possible”?

Bible and Hatchet

Meanwhile, a generation of trainers is being bullied into signing blood oaths constraining them from ever practicing the productive application of aversives.

Jean Donaldson, Karen Pryor, and Victoria Stillwell all require pledges from their disciples, while selling the public on the idea that hobbling oneself with a vow of irrational temperance is a mark of enlightenment.

The result is a murky and oppressive climate, often dominated by vitriol and intolerance, as in Dr. Karen Overall’s unsubtle insinuation that owning a choke, prong, or electronic collar may lead to child and spousal abuse:

Without exception, such devices will make my anxious patients worse and allow the anger level of my clients to reach levels that are not helpful and may be dangerous. The link between dog abuse and spousal/child abuse is now well-established (Ascione and Arkow, 1999; Lockwood and Ascione, 1998).[4]

Like Pryor’s warning to beware the utility of punishment, lest one’s urge to punish be strengthened, Overall here concerns herself with the threat punishment poses to us. It’s a clumsy argument at best, and less than cleanly scientific. But it succeeds in promoting the point that punishment is poisonous and intoxicating, while skirting the question of what that has to do with training a dog.

Child abuse is real. Animal abuse is real. Drunkenness is real. It’s a fact there are cretins and criminals within our ranks.

Likewise, there’s a history of countering such abuses with fear-mongering, misinformation, and hyperbole. And science, or some fractured fairy tale version of it, has been drafted into these campaigns before.

These tactics are effective, which I’ve heard is reinforcing. But they are a rejection of reason, and an abuse of the influence their authors wield. It’s as old school as tent revivals and temperance unions, and as backward as beating a dog.

There are solid arguments for taking care in applying aversives. But there is no credible foundation, scientific or ethical, for the wholesale exclusion of aversives from a training program, except if one accepts the idea that the very willingness to punish is perverse, and so fit to be stigmatized and suppressed.

Take away that belief, and the dragon vanishes. One is left with a serviceable tool and a solvable problem. The dog doesn’t know you are putting your soul at risk. He doesn’t even need to know you did it on purpose.

It’s not rocket science. It’s not alchemy.

It’s just good bar tending.


1. AVSAB Position Statement: The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals. 2007.

2. I use the term “punishment” here and throughout this post in the same arguably vague way as the sources I’m quoting, to denote the deliberate application of an aversive to discourage behavior.

3. L. I. Haug, B. V. Beavera and M. T. Longneckerb, Comparison of dogs’ reactions to four different head collars, Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 79, Issue 1, 20 September 2002, Pages 53-61

4. Overall, K.L., 2007. Considerations for shock and ‘training’ collars: Concerns from and for the working dog community. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. Res.2, page 106.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

Rosie came to me last month for a 1-week training program, while her owner, a recent transplant from England, recovered from the metatarsal fracture she’d suffered while walking Rosie on-leash. There was mention of improper footwear, but the real issue seemed to be that at 1-yr-old Rosie had no leash manners whatever. Fact was that back in England, where walks were staged in open fields and marshes and leashes weren’t a big part of life, she hadn’t needed any.

She also hadn’t needed to go up and down stairs, as it turns out.

I’ve taught a few dogs to do stairs over the years, figured it couldn’t be too challenging to accomplish with a young and biddable Lab.

Well, Rosie had the most severe stairs phobia I’d ever seen. No amount of cheese, sausage, or coaxing would get her up any farther than her front end could easily reach while keeping her hind feet safely planted on terra firma.

Gentle “suggestions” that she ought to consider bringing up her rear were met by sheer panic, including throwing her full weight backward and away from the steps. For the record, I did try different types and quantities of steps, and even a low table, always with the same result. I also saw no signs of physical pain or disability.

I’m very reluctant to use force or correction in addressing a phobia, but several things occurred to me in this case. First, that running-backward-at-full-tilt nonsense was going to get someone’s neck broken one day if allowed to persist. Second, it might easily take months and untold quantities of sausage to get this dog up a flight of stairs if the choice was left up to her. Third, this was not a fearful dog generally, despite her paranoia of stairs, so it seemed entirely likely that once she discovered she was in fact perfectly capable of moving up and down stairs without the earth opening up and swallowing her, she might actually enjoy doing so.

Thus, with some reluctance, I popped on her prong collar, and allowed her to discover the downside of running backward away from stairs. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked like gangbusters, let me tell you. With that option off the table, she quickly found the courage to attack the stairs (and the sausage). By the following day, she was happily trotting up and down unbidden, and looking Very Pleased With Herself.

Of course, I was concerned that she might fail to generalize, and continue to balk at the stairs in her house. But her owners reported that as soon as they walked through the front door, she proceeded to show off her new-found confidence. Here is the note I got yesterday along with the above video:

Hi Ruth,
Thought you might like to see Rosie starring in her very own movie.
Before you had her the stair phobia was so bad she hated to even walk by our staircases.
We can’t believe you did so much with her in just one week.
Her leash manners are now so good a neighbor yesterday didn’t recognize her.
Thank you so much.
With all good wishes
Mary and Richard

I gambled a bit on this one, not usually my style, but there you have it. Maybe I was channelling my inner Cesar Millan (a strangely repelling thought). In truth, this was one of those rare training sessions that would have made for excellent television. And, like Cesar, I don’t recommend that anyone try this at home.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

I’d like to say a few words about Cesar Millan.

I appreciate his focus on exercise, structure, and leadership. And I can’t get through an episode of The Dog Whisperer without shouting at the TV.

Truth is I don’t indulge very often, despite the professional interest I presumably should have. And I do shout at other TV trainers, notably Victoria “Why-let-never-owning-a-dog-get-in-the-way-of-a brilliant-career?” Stillwell, and that Canadian fellow whose modus operendi seems to involve an intensely creepy home-search. But Cesar’s overwhelming popularity and unofficial status as the patron saint of balanced trainers earns him special consideration.

Many dog trainers will tell you that Cesar Millan is not a dog trainer. I’ve said it myself. Cesar has said it himself. But to non-trainers, that assertion comes across as a nonsensical cop-out, and maybe it is. What is certain is that as long as he keeps showing up on Animal Planet National Geographic Channel doing something that for all the world is indistinguishable from dog training, real-life trainers will be called upon to address Cesar’s message, methods, and towering success.

I usually begin by pointing out that Cesar is not so much instructive as inspirational. He presents a compelling example of how one might–or even ought to–live with dogs. It is an entertaining illustration of what is possible (and also occasionally of what is not, even for him). It is great television. It is good business.

It is not a training method.

A method is systematic and reliable, if not universally applicable. Socrates had a method. Lee Strasberg had a method. Bill Koehler had a method. Cesar draws on something closer to a style. His style works for him, at least by and large, but that success depends heavily on a particular dynamic existing between himself and the dog (not to mention skilled editors and a dynamite publicist). In its absence, Cesar’s way yields less reliable results, and few of his signature techniques remain advisable.

A sound method, by contrast, should function independent of extraordinary powers of calm assertion and physical prowess. Mind you, both help a great deal, and may in fact be prerequisites in some cases where the stakes are especially high. But they are arguably more gifts than skills, and thus challenging to teach, develop, or codify.

I know, Cesar doesn’t train, he rehabilitates. So are we talking apples and oranges? Charting new territory? Or just flying blind?

I find that rehabilitating aggressive dogs is less linear than straight obedience training, and that a lot may be accomplished without teaching formal skills. I still call it dog training, and suggest method is no less important in these cases. In fact, every aspect of dealing with dangerous dogs argues strongly in favor of a reliable, systematic approach.

The fact some number of exceptional people are capable of going it alone into the void, relying on instinct to carry the day, and coming out unscathed, does not persuade me of the existence of an alternate model. But it is sound entertainment to be sure.

Many experienced trainers take cases similar to those featured on The Dog Whisperer, but it’s rare that made-for-TV drama ensues. Real-life trainers are mostly not showmen, but rather engineers. We lay a solid foundation and build skills overtop. We teach first and apply second. It’s less sexy, takes longer than an hour, and is rarely televised. It is methodical, and we generally do let you try it at home.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

I like to watch Top Chef.

Not for the brilliantly embedded advertisements for Whole Paycheck, nor the towering asymmetrical bowls, nor the ever popular Pollock-inspired platings.

But because I like to cook. And I like to train dogs. And the two activities seem to me to have a great deal in common.

Professional chefs remind me of professional dog trainers. Like dog trainers, chefs come to their field from every walk of life. They knowingly follow in the footsteps of masters, tend to respect the need for knowledge of basic principles and a familiarity with a wide range of techniques, develop their skill primarily through years of practice, and finally bring their own individual styles to the table.

You also won’t find too many good examples of either that didn’t do their fair share of grunt work early on in their careers.

Cooking is in fact an interesting metaphor for dog training. It has a long history, is commonly practiced by those with no formal training, and has a collection of perfectly sound rules, theories, and traditions (as well as a handful of ridiculous myths), that were derived empirically by those at work out in the field. Tastes and techniques may differ, new schools of thought may evolve, but in the end, the strength of any given method may generally be appraised by the quality of the results.

Over the past decade or so, a style of cooking called “molecular gastronomy” has developed, begging the question of whether the many styles of cooking that came before were somehow unmolecular. The Wikipedia entry for molecular gastronomy begins,

Molecular gastronomy is a scientific discipline that studies the physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking. Molecular gastronomy seeks to investigate and explain the chemical reasons behind the transformation of ingredients

Practitioners of molecular gastronomy are dedicated to taking a more scientific approach to their craft. They have introduced a number of interesting new methods and tools to the kitchen (like liquid nitrogen, yum). They have also debunked a few myths.

Here’s the thing. The food turned out by this new breed of chef is not obviously or unilaterally superior to what your mom made for dinner, not to mention the dishes turned out by, say, Julia Child.

And while no one has so far suggested, at least to my knowledge, that the art of cooking generally would benefit from banning traditional tools and methods in favor of an all-molecular approach, God knows what the future has in store.

Perhaps one day soon, it will be widely believed that molecular scientists are the natural authorities on what tastes best. Perhaps one day a PhD in chemistry will be considered de rigueur before breaking an egg. Perhaps future seasons of Top Chef will involve judging cheftestants on method alone, while host Padma Lakshmi politely demurs from taking even a bare amuse-bouche between her lips. Perhaps not.

In the meantime, I keep my mind open to both received wisdom and modern science.

Food for thought.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

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.


spot-check: to sample or investigate quickly or at random

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© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ruth Crisler and Spot Check with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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