Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fence Fighting at the Dog Trainers Guild

The first email came over-the-transom from Gina Spadafori, a fellow blogger, and author of the Dogs for Dummies book, among others.

All the click-and-treaters are screaming about this guy, signing petitions and what-not. I haven't time to get into it this week, but since the rotten dog in question is a JRT, I thought you'd be interested

She supplied a link to this video.

I quickly ripped
through the video (time is at a premium some days!) and though I disliked the presentation to both the dog and the audience, and I was not impressed with the experience of the trainer, I did not actually see anything too conceptually wrong.

[W]hat did this fellow do to the dog that has them all upset? He said NO to the dog, and the dog bit his shoe before the new idea of NO took over from the old idea that the dog had, which is that he could terrify at will. About par for the course. He did not claim space very well, and he did it all a bit too fast and with a bit more explosion than was needed (he might need to know how to go a lot slower and with lot less pressure with a larger dog), but it was not cruel and it worked.

... What's the summation of the clicker opposition? That he didn't train the dog to go somewhere else on command?

The trick to bowl guarding issues, of course, is to stop using bowls. That's what zoos do and what houndsmen do, and they are not nuts.

Gina emailed back and I think she got it right, but more on that later.

In truth I moved on to other issues. What did I care about some young fellow in the UK who was pushing things a bit too hard, and a bit too fast? That sort of thing happens all the time. For all I know, the bookers at The One Show do shoddy guest selection all the time.

Then, in my Google Reader, I spied a post from a smart lady who will remain nameless as I do not wish to embarrass her. She has been around dogs in a professional way for a long time, however, and she was opining about what sounded like the same video clip. I shot her an email and asked for a link to the clip, and for a specific autopsy on what the trainer was doing wrong (or right). After a bit of fumbling due to the BBC video driver not working in the U.S., it turned out this was the same clip Gina had sent me.

But guess what? My friend never answer the question as to what specifically this person in the clip was doing wrong. Hmmm... Would she put down her sniper rifle and come out from the tall grass and say what she thinks is specifically wrong here? I tried the question again:

Why don't YOU tell me what he did wrong.

First, tell me what is going on with the dog (what it is doing and why), and THEN tell me how to change this behavior using all three legs of operant conditioning... and then say what this fellow is doing wrong (or right).

Talk it out and be specific. There are a lot of ways of doing most things, but what is wrong (or right) with this method or the way this fellow is doing it?

Is violence being done to the dog?

Does the system not work?

Is the system right in this case, but it might be wrong in another?

Is the trainer's presentation the problem?

What I got back was troubling to me, as this person has spent better than 25 years in dogs and yet she wrote the following:

I’m not a behaviorist. The dog is resource guarding. This guy has just ‘trained’ the dog not to growl – which is dangerous as it will now probably just wait till there’s a less scary person and just bite. In reality he just spent 3 hours encouraging the dog to bite his foot. I am no dog behavior expert, but I do know that showing someone repeatedly putting their foot into a snarling dog without even the simplest warning of not to try this at home is very dangerous.


Here was a person that could not use her eyes, and did not understand what she was seeing.   I was rather amazed. 

Watch the video clip for yourself.  This fellow did NOT "encourage this dog to bite his foot."

This fellow simply put his shoe near the food bowl, and the dog attacked the foot again and again on its own.

And the result? The foot did not move away -- the dog got a different reaction than it had always gotten before, and because it got a different reaction, things slowly began to change in its mind. More on that in a minute, but I could not help but notice that the mail slot issue was not mentioned at all. Mail slots are not about "resource" guarding!

I wrote back:
Lets start with your first sentence: "I am not a behaviorist." That's a cop out. You have spent several decades boiled in the dog world, and there are only three legs to operant conditioning. If you do not know what they are, and cannot describe what is going on this video, then you have not read a pamphlet and have never trained a dog with ANY problems. Let's not stand in the weeds and snipe at people who have. If you do not know what is going on in this video, please do NOT write about it, as you are not qualified to judge an honest answer from a nonsense answer.

You say this fellow has just "trained this dog not to growl" which means (according to you) it will explode on someone else.

Nonsense. This bad behavior occurs in the house where these people [and this dog] live. It should NOT be tolerated, and getting rid of the behavior does not mean the dog explodes due to some sort of imagined bottled aggression, any more than getting your own kid to stop throwing screaming fits when it does not get its way will make it start building bombs in the basement.

.... To return to the video: What is going on in all three situations is the same thing. You should have started with that! If you had bothered to read the two posts I directed you to, you would know what the core problem is, and you would be able to talk about it in terms of classical operant conditioning. Sorry, but "food guarding" is not an explanation. That's a label, and it does NOT tell you why the dog is acting the way it is. And, to be clear, that is only one of three situations going on this video. In fact "food guarding" is simply a kind of aggression that is routinely reinforced, which is why it is so common. The other two actions in this video are also reinforced behaviors, in which the dog has trained the people quite successfully.

Please read this post on desensitizing dogs to stimulus.

Please read this post on extinguishing bad behavior.

Now, why have I directed you to these two posts? Because (a bit clumsily, and too rapidly, and without a very good explanation to the lay audience) this is what this young fellow is doing, and it is why it has WORKED.

Are there other ways to train out the bad behavior?

YES, but ALL of them are going to have to start with the fact that this dog has already been trained -- he has been trained to bite and growl. And who trained it? The people like you, and the arm chair commentators who seem to be shocked that a dog would bite, and who run screaming from a few teeth and a little growling!

After a bit more palaver about the notion of self-credentialing "experts" in the field of dog training, I noted that my friend has missed the two most obvious experts to interview about this trainer: the dog and the dog's owner!

But there is another expert here -- the OWNERS of these dogs. They used to have to walk around in boots, but apparently no more. Would you have simply walked around in boots forever like they did?

Now, to be clear, I DO have some small criticism of this kid -- both his presentation to the dog, and the television audience. More on that later if you care.

But did this kid beat the dog? NO.

And did the dog change its long-developed behavior? YES.

And was this achieved through the three legs of operant conditioning? YES.

If you missed these three points, you have missed the real story, and you have missed it because you are ignoring the two most important facts, and because you do not know or understand basic operant conditioning.

And "I am not a behaviorist" is NOT an excuse.

Now, to be clear, I am not thrilled with this young wanna-be TV dog trainer.

He is moving too fast with the dog and in life. He is presenting or suggesting expertise he does not yet have.

The BBC simply failed to get a better trainer, and there are a LOT of them out there -- no disagreement on that.

That said, watch the video. Violence is not being done to this dog. This dog is doing the violence, and in the end he stops because things change (albeit not as quietly or as quickly as they might have with a better trainer with better timing and a few more tricks up his sleeve).

So what's my point?

My point is this: When asked very bluntly to detail what is wrong with what is going on in this video, someone with a quarter of a century in dogs could not tell me. She did not know and she did not even bother to really look at the video tape! She could not describe what she was seeing (from the dog or the person) in terms of simple operant conditioning.

Instead of doing the "dog work" of actually looking at the video and narrating what was going on in the simplest terms of operant conditioning, she punted to adhominem attack, rumor mongering, and generalized tut-tutting. Among the charges: this 21-year old trainer is too young, too rich, and has no credentials.

I would agree with all those points, but guess what?

The dog does not care how old the kid is!

The dog does not care if this kid has a degree, or a piece of paper bought from a for-profit self-credentialing service.

The dog does not care if the BBC could have, or should have, gotten a better or more experienced trainer.

In the end, the dog simply dealt with what was put right in front of it.

And here's the interesting part: though what was put right in front of it was a bit clumsy and done too fast, and would be inappropriate for a larger dog, this kid did get change from this dog using classical operant conditioning and without any violence being done to the dog at all.

Funny how that little fact seems to have been missed!

Gina, of course did not miss it. She writes:

I think the biggest issue is that he made the [Cesar] Millan hissy noise. It provokes a Pavlovian response in the OC [operant conditioning] world.

I have a piece going live on the new site soon.

Victoria Stilwell has offered to fly home for free to "fix" the problem.

The dog, who was so "safe" before the family wore Wellies in the home, has now been rendered truly dangerous, apparently.

Right. Gina gets it right -- again.   As for Victoria Stilwell, you can read about her solution for a biting dog here.


Viatecio said...

If the rest of the dog world (that knew what it was doing, that is) gave rebuttals like that to the brainless filth spewed from the mouths of empty vessels, there might be some hope that people might finally see that they're being duped when it comes to real-life problem solving.

You're absolutely right about that guy in the video, and honestly, at that age I probably would have been the same way. Right idea, wrong execution (or at least execution that could be nitpicked the same way), even if there were results.

I'm intrigued that this lady, while not invoking the operant conditioning quadrants, never bothers to ask (or at least you don't mention it) where you get THREE legs of OC. I've gotten few understanding, knowing looks when I mention it, and they almost always crinkle their brow and recite "But there are 4!"

PBurns said...


Three legs.

You know what's wrong with four legs?

A four legged chair is unstable unless all four legs are the same length (i.e. have the same value).

You know what's right about a three legged chair?

A three legged chair is always stable, even on rough ground.

That's why milking stools have three legs.

The three legs of operant conditioning are:

1) reinforcement (treats, play, etc.);

2) punishment (voice corrections, leash corrections, etc.), and;

3) extinction (no reaction from behavior, desensitization).

Now, can you start adding legs by splitting the three things named above, and claiming they are separate legs?

Oh sure.

I have a table upstairs with six legs ... but THREE is what you can actually remember, which is why we have the A-B-Cs, do-re-mi, and father-son-and-holy ghost.


Quick: Name the Four Freedoms without looking them up. You will get three right, but probably not four.

Most humans (the hairless ape) can remember three things, but too many have diffulty remembering four.

And three is what Skinner brought to the table.


seeker said...

Hey, if it works don't worry. Okay maybe a little, but he's young and will learn finesse. I doubt Cesar was as good as he is now at that age.
The dog was obviously in charge of the house. The youngster showed the womem how to become assertive to their darling without spanking or hurting him. Good Job.
A lot of people don't like this method, they want clickers and somesuch. But a JRT needs a strong personality. A spoiled one needs assertive interaction.
The boy will probably be called back several times until the women step up to the plate. But all and all some progress was made.

Debi and the TX JRTs.

Gina said...

This is the direct link to the story I did on this:

compcat said...

I learned that hissing noise from "The Accidental Tourist" in 1988. I assume I have Dave McMillan to thank for it.
Well, that and some research that shows specific types of sounds are universal in animal training across human language. (Not hissing specifically, but types of sounds, like short and sharp vs long and low).

I've found hissing useful since I was a kid to break an animal's concentration on something else.

Millan has pretty much ruined that with the stupid poking crap.

Seahorse said...

I had a good laugh reading your WWE-like wraslin' on the topic on Face Book this morning. Were you short on coffee this morning? You seemed to be having trouble suffering fools gladly.

Seahorse ;)

PBurns said...

I have a general dislike for pile-ons and lynch mobs, especially when they are a contrived crises (as here) ginned up by people for no other purpose than to generate traffic to their blogs, or to sell services, magazines or books. So yes, in situations like that I have a low tolerance for fools. This kid did no violence to this dog (and what he did worked!), but the pile on lynch mob of "pure positive" know-nothing was very intent on doing violence to this kid. Some irony there! But of course a lynch mob is a lynch mob, and it all feels right and righteous until they come for you!


Seahorse said...

I admire your defense of "the kid", as I, too, saw not too much wrong with what he did. I also admire your spirited stick-to-it-ness in these stupid internet wars. When I die I truly hope I don't look back and wish I had the time back I spent in doing like-minded "work" on the internet. I try to do less of it lately as the tide of shit is high and never-ending. BTW, it was a slog to find a trainer local to me that wasn't all-clicker-all-the-time-positive-only-living-in-their-fantasy-worlds. The world is hard sometimes, and I'd rather make clear, CERTAIN corrections than mourn the loss of my dog under a car tire. ClickClickClick.