Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Why Can't a Dog Be More Like a Gold Fish?

An article on an online publication called Shotgun Life set off a few notes of skepticism as I was reading through it this morning.  In fact, the first sentence in the piece was a three-note caution:

Dog trainer extraordinaire Robert Milner wants to ask sportsmen a personal question: Would you discipline your own children with a shock collar?

Let's start with the first three words: "dog trainer extraordinaire".

With that kind of wind-up I expected to be knocked out by someone with massive credentials. According to Mr. Milner's own bio, however he put himself up as a dog trainer after he had "trained 2 dogs which became Field Champions."

Just two dogs? And these were Field Champions... where, and under what club or standard? It's not said, and I note that no dog training titles are given though a number of (apparently) very good "how to" books by Mr. Milner are noted. So he's a dog trainer. But extraordinaire? In a world chock full of professional trick trainers, obedience trainers, dangerous dog rehabilitators, schutzhund trainers, SAR experts, Belgian Ring award winners, repeat world champion title holders, bomb and drug dog trainers, sheep dog trainers, sled dog champions, military dog trainers, etc., I consider training two dogs in a single field event a thin portfolio.  Is there an International Gundog League Retriever Championship title back there? A US Retriever Championship win?  Not that I can see.

It seems Robert Milner went to the UK in the mid-1980s, imported some good retrievers, proclaimed these dogs different and better than anything in the U.S., and began cranking out 300 puppies a year.

After a decade of doing this, he sold his business "to focus my attention on my Commercial Real Estate Business."

Eh?  That doesn't sound like a dog training operation to me; that sounds like a commercial breeding facility that was very nearly a puppy farm.  And, apparently, it was not too strong a business, as it was in liquidation in 1999.  Alarmingly, it sells dogs at 6 weeks off age.

And what about the rest of that first sentence?  

Milner is comparing children to dogs. 


This kind of thinking is the #1 reason so many dogs are screwed up.

Dogs are dogs and should be accepted as dogs. Dogs think differently from people, same as a hawk thinks differently from a mouse. This is Dogs 101, and surely Mr. Milner knows it?  I am certain Mr. Milner does not give his children rabies vaccines, and does not punish his own dogs by taking away their allowances. Does he put his children on a leash? Does he ask them to dive into cold water to retrieve dead ducks with their teeth?  I bet not!

More revealing is the fact that Mr. Milner seems stuck three decades in the past. He seems to think modern e-collars are the old one-button "shock collars" that existed in the 1960s and 1970s.

They aren't.

Surely he knows this?  Does the interviewer not know this?  Which got me to wondering:  Is this a real magazine profile, or a paid on-line ad that is masquerading as a professional profile?

As for the question Mr. Milner asks: YES I would use a modern e-collar on my kids.

In fact, I have. 

The way I showed my son how to use an e-collar on his dog was to place an e-collar on him. My son could not believe how mild it was, and how effective it was at getting attention and communicating at a distance.

I find it amazing that Mr. Milner says he had never heard of clicker or rewards-based training until after the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

  Where was he?

Karen Pryor's book, Don't Shoot the Dog, was published in 1984, and has been a best-seller for over 15 years. Mr. Milner says he had never even heard of clicker or rewards-based training before October 2001? How could that be?  Rewards-based training was old when Montague Stevens used it to train his bear dogs in the 1880s!

And does Mr. Milner not know that Ms. Pryor kept her own dog in her yard thanks to an Invisible Fence shock collar -- the very kind of thing he now decries?

Does he not know that Ms. Pryor's clicker training was so ineffective on her own dog that she could not walk her own ancient Border Terrier off-lead in the woods?

Did he miss the fact that B.F. Skinner and Marian and Keller Breland did not make their fortunes in off-leash dog training, but instead worked with prey (not predator) species in tanks and cages (not in open-field situations)?

How could he miss this?

And then it all snapped into place: Mr. Milner says he is intentionally seeking out low-drive dogs that have as little instinct and as little internal motivation as possible.

He says that "selective breeding can produce dogs amenable to positive-reinforcement training."

He notes, approvingly, that in England "a dog that is too hot for field-trial preparation is often placed in a new home".

Right. I get it.

Mr. Milner is telling us that he is looking for dogs that have as much drive as a gold fish.

When he finds this kind of dog, there is very little internal code to suppress.  It's Karen Pryor's timid Poodle in the woods, rather than her game-obsessed Border Terrier.

Got it!

This book can be yours for only $70. The reviews are free!

Mr. Milner is saying that if he can find a dog descended from goldfish, rather than wolves, it will be much easier to train because everything can be "pure positive" since there will be few, if any, self-rewarding behaviors that might prove an inconvenience and a true training challenge.  I get it!

And what a clever marketing frame Mr. Milner has created for himself!

His essential message is that he has the "secret knowledge" and that his "special imported dogs with magic temperaments" are straight from the land of Harry Potter.  Step right up and put your money down!  It's a very good marketing pitch.

And it might even be true.  These dogs may really BE easier to train.

And, to be clear, I have no doubt Mr. Milner can train a dog to meet his needs, and that they will be fine for the modest work that most retrievers do in a real hunt season.  Dogs are very plastic creatures, and few creatures are more phlegmatic and biddable than a Labrador Retriever puppy.

What's remarkable is not that Mr. Milner can train such a dog or that he can write a book on how to do that.  What's remarkable is that Mr. Milner apparently has so little knowledge of other breeds and other dog training regimes, and that his methods are so dependent on very low-drive dogs.

If his system fails, you throw out the dog. That's what he means when he says "a dog that is too hot for field-trial preparation is often placed in a new home".

Mr. Milner decries the "forced" and "coercive" retriever training that he used to teach in the late 1980s and early 90s, and now his pendulum has swung entirely in the opposite direction.  There appears to be little middle ground.  With the zeal of someone who has just discovered a new religion, he is convinced this new God can explain all -- and never mind any and all evidence to the contrary.   And remember, when this  new form of training fails, you get rid of the dog, you do not change your training regime.

The failure is not in the trainer or in the training, but in the genetics of the dog.  The dog is "too hot" -- too much Canis lupus familiaris and not enough Carassius auratus.

As for modern e-collar dog training, I am somewhat amazed that Mr. Milner knows so little about what it is, or how to do it.

But I supposed, I should not be too surprised.

If you are 15 years late coming to clicker training, why would you not be 15 years behind the rest of the world when it comes to modern e-collar training?

As always, use whatever tool and method you want to train whatever dog you want, to do anything you want. A lot of things work, there is no "one size fits all, and I am all for whatever works for you.

That said, if you are a dog trainer making grand claims, you might want to make sure your story passes the laugh test. Victoria Stilwell and Karen Pryor fail in that regard, and I think Mr. Milner's own story fails in that regard as well.


tuffy said...

..way to ignore Nature and the fact of one's own incompetence; never challenge oneself or one's dog and never learn. not to mention the destruction of a perfectly good working breed. breeding out motivation can be super destructive (especially in inexperienced hands) and often comes with other breeding defects like immune system disorders (see Golden Retrievers).
buy a gummy dog instead, or a guppy.

Gina said...

Every time I mention that I believe there is a place for electric collars, especially in the training a competitive field retrievers, someone will point me to Milner. He seems to be training companion hunters, not dogs who compete at the Master Hunter or Field Trial level. At least, those dogs aren't mentioned anywhere on his site that I've been able to find. You'd think if he'd trained a dog to "champion field dog" (whatever that means), he'd have it front and center.

When I mention *that*, the response typically is that if you *must* use an e-collar to train for high-level field competitions, then those competitions should be illegal.

It's essentially the same argument I get about snake-proofing. If you can't protect your dog with snake-proofing/e-collar, they you shouldn't go into areas where there may be snakes. And/or your dog should never, ever be off-leash.

I live in Northern California. There have been rattlesnakes in my backyard, idiots, and there certainly are on all the trails in this area. Where I walk my dogs off-leash because it makes them happy.