You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘language’ tag.

[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.

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.

I grew up in a commuter town in New Jersey known for its faux-tudor houses, devil-worshipers, and radon.

As a teenager, I spent an inordinate amount of time traipsing up and down Manhattan, taking classes at the Art Students League, and missing the last bus home. I still miss NYC at times, and make sporadic efforts to stay abreast.

This post has nothing to do with dogs, and may be offensive to some. Word to the wise.

It has to do with Ground Zero, or the real estate surrounding it, where a nominally local dispute over the proposed erection of a Muslim community center has lately ignited an international debate.

I don’t intend to rehash it here.

I will only comment on an argument encountered Friday night while wading through the political blogosphere: that had strippers flown the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center, they would not be welcome on such hallowed ground, either.

This is the preferred resolution, it seems, to the conflict created by the widespread insistence in recent days that some undetermined amount of real estate peripheral to Ground Zero be counted as hallowed, despite its meanwhile playing host to strip clubs, peep shows, and off-track betting.

It’s been a while since I lived in the tri-state area, but last time I checked, hallowed ground wasn’t subject to byzantine zoning codes.

hallowed: adj 1. holy, consecrated  2. sacred, revered

Just double-checking. So how does this jibe with accommodating sex shops, lap dances, and gambling?

Let’s see how author and acclaimed journalist Abigail Esman explained it Friday in her Forbes blog Pen & Sword:

Rauf  [the man steering the proposed development]– and others – note that strip joints and OTB offices occupy the space nearby Ground Zero, and argue that this proves, somehow, that the area is not considered “hallowed ground.” This, of course, is idiocy. Strippers didn’t kill 3000 people that day; Muslims did. Strippers don’t threaten to destroy America if we don’t build a temple to nudity where they want us to; Muslims do. Had strippers and gamblers been the ones who plowed their planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, you can bet they’d not be welcome there now, either.

I forget the Latin term right now for HUH???? But it will come to me.

In any case, I know basing one’s argument on a purely ludicrous hypothesis is not considered entirely kosher among bona fide logicians. And I would note that presuming that one’s opponents spout idiocy falls somewhat short of actually demonstrating it.

I also question her basic presumption. I mean, how totally convinced are we that strippers would be unwelcome? No doubt whatsoever? Not even really kickin’ ones?

Okay, what about cab drivers? If cab drivers had flown planes into the Twin Towers, would they now be unwelcome within a two block radius of the footprint?? You see my dilemma.

As an aside, I do think Esman’s startling hypothesis has the stuff of a really solid premise for old-school science fiction. What if….

This may be the biggest problem with Esman’s red herring–the imagery it conjures, which is both bizarre and distracting, as well as a teensy bit hard to shake. Face it, when your head is spinning with visions of scantily clad terrorists deftly twirling their tassels as they overwhelm the cockpit, focusing on the earnest intent behind words such as these becomes genuinely challenging:

Like the papers that wind whisked that day as far as to downtown Brooklyn, Sabella’s body, it seems, simply blew away. His remains could still be buried in the earth deep below the WTC foundations – or, more likely, they fell as ashes, not so far away–perhaps, indeed, where the Burlington Coat Factory still stands.

…or on the stage of the Pussycat Lounge.

Maybe lower Manhattan’s sex stores, strip club, and OTBs got grandfathered in as acceptable “special uses” on its hallowed ground, sort of like the slaughterhouses within Chicago’s Planned Manufacturing Districts (also most hallowed, by the way).

My own conviction is that there is no graceful way to rationalize declaring the ground in question to be hallowed, when no one has treated it as such before now.

And for the record, I am neither a prude, nor an enemy of the state.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.


I was lately asked to write a few words on “introducing a new baby to the family dog”. My first thought? More people should read Emily Post.

It may be a point lost on many these days, but one does not in fact introduce a person of higher stature to a person of lower stature. As Emily Post explains,

The correct formal introduction is:
“Mrs. Jones, may I present Mr. Smith?”
“Mr. Distinguished, may I present Mr. Young?”

The younger person is always presented to the older or more distinguished, but a gentleman is always presented to a lady, even though he is an old gentleman of great distinction and the lady a mere slip of a girl.

No lady is ever, except to the President of the United States, a cardinal, or a reigning sovereign, presented to a man.

Thus, when in high school, I introduced each new boyfriend to my father, not the other way around (I may be exaggerating the number of boyfriends here). And when I brought my first baby home from hospital, each dog was introduced to her.

When the reverse is suggested, that one ought to introduce one’s new arrival to the dog, what really comes across? No one may consciously mean to promote the idea of ceremoniously presenting baby to the family dog at nose level for his inspection (“Bruno, may we present our new daughter?”), yet such abuses of protocol still occur.


Most dogs are fully capable of adapting to life with a new baby, bonding with the child as he or she matures, and even providing valuable assistance to parents interested in teaching their children early on to be gentle, kind, and empathetic. But first impressions do count, and sending the wrong message in the beginning may undermine one’s ability to nurture a healthy and mutually respectful relationship going forward.

Here is my advice to new and expectant parents concerned with sending the right message and setting their dog up to succeed.

When orchestrating the introduction, keep in mind that your dog should be relaxed and attentive to both parents whenever baby is present. The goal is to forge positive associations while encouraging good behavior and communicating baby’s status.

If your dog is stir-crazy after days of confinement or lack of exercise while mom was in hospital, postpone the introduction until later on, after Bruno has settled down. If he knows some basic obedience commands, and is capable of, say, holding a sit reliably in distracting situations, then by all means use it! Ask him to sit and reward him with treats, calm petting and/or praise for demonstrating restraint and responsiveness in the baby’s presence. If he has excellent leash manners, take him for a short walk while the other parent carries the baby or pushes the stroller. The idea is to show your dog from day one that it is simple, straightforward, and rewarding to succeed in the presence of the new baby.

Do not ask the impossible of him: do not ask for a sit or any other behavior he has not been well prepared to demonstrate under distracting or moderately stressful conditions. Do not allow him to jump up or behave otherwise inappropriately, only to be corrected for doing the wrong thing. You do not want your dog’s first experience of your new arrival to be frustration or, worse, punishment, because you have either left him too much to his own devices or, worse, set him up to fail.

A calm dog requires a calm owner, so if mom or dad is stressed out, or fearful regarding how the introduction might go, it should potentially be put off until a plan is in place that ensures smooth sailing. I strongly recommend to my clients that they allow their dog to say hello to each parent while the other holds the baby, and to exercise him a bit, before expecting calm behavior in baby’s presence.

An important point is that physical contact between dog and baby is not only unnecessary, but potentially counter-productive. Parents should not feel compelled to hold their breath and cross their fingers while their dog inspects the bundle, nor allow their dog to sniff and lick their newborn, either on the day baby comes home, or any day soon. Photo opportunities are one thing, safety and sending appropriate signals is another; and such introductions may easily give Bruno the wrong impression of baby’s status compared to his own. Remember, it’s not about whether baby meets with Bruno’s approval. It’s about making it clear that baby is a good thing; that she shares equal status with her parents; and that continued inclusion in the goings-on of the household is entirely contingent on the demonstration of obedient behavior in her presence.

It is immensely helpful to put any new rules (not allowed on the bed), boundaries (no entrance into the nursery without invitation), or routines (shorter walks in the morning, longer walks after dad comes home), in place well ahead of baby’s arrival. This will cut down on potential conflicts, resentment and anxiety for all involved after baby arrives.

And if you’re imaging yourself walking or jogging with your dog along with a baby stroller, don’t forget to try a few pre-baby excursions. Many dogs are made anxious by wheeled vehicles like bicycles and shopping carts. Make certain your dog isn’t frightened of the stroller, and that his leash skills are up to par, before it comes time for baby’s maiden voyage.

In a perfect world, Bruno would be prepared well ahead of time to meet these expectations. He would be taught good manners and a suite of practical skills before baby was so much as a glimmer in her father’s eye.

If, however, your dog is less well-schooled, do not despair. It might take less time to prepare your dog for meeting the new baby than it would take to ready you to meet the President of the United States, a cardinal, or a reigning sovereign. Remember, dogs are generally capable of learning fairly quickly, and don’t require an expensive suit or gown to turn heads.

Formal etiquette and formal obedience have something curious in common. Despite sharing a profound utility, they are similarly ignored and discarded by many as old-fashioned and irrelevant. No doubt, on the surface they can both come across as fussy, artificial, and overly strict. But underneath there is in each case a laudable structure, a foundation of basic skills and protocols, within which we may frame and even better comprehend our relationships, communicate more clearly, and interact more comfortably.

© 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

My Thought Exactly

"There's facts about dogs, and there's opinions about them. The dogs have the facts, and the humans have the opinions." --J. Allen Boone

See Spot Run Website

See Spot Run Kennel

Contact Me

Ruth Crisler



Blog Stats

  • 67,239 hits


© 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.
%d bloggers like this: