Sunday, September 01, 2019

Disney Dog Training and Contrived Controversy



Fifty-five years ago, Walt Disney filmed a movie called Big Red featuring a show-bred Irish Setter that wanted to hunt, and a contrived crisis about dog training between an older English-speaking Canadian (played by Walter Pigeon) and a younger French-speaking orphan who wanted to teach the dog using "gentler" methods.

The movie begins at a dog show at the Montreal Kennel Club where Big Red wins first prize and Walter Pigeon's "kennel man" is instructed to spend as much as $5,000 to acquire Big Red -- a cash equivalent of over $35,000 in today's dollars.

In the next scene we see the improbable situation where a show dog has been bought by a shooting dog man, and the shooting man with show dogs also has many breeds rather than specializing in just one.

We then get introduced to the orphan, dressed in beautiful clothes and dripping in pancake makeup, who slurs grade-school French.  Welcome to the wonderful world of Disney!

Finally, we learn that just one month after being acquired, Big Red is supposed to go to the Westminster Dog Show in New York where, if he wins, he will be "the best dog in North America, perhaps in the whole world" and his cash-value will then double.

As the movie rolls forward, we see the horror of aversive training techniques -- Walter Pigeon cuffs the dog under the jaw so that it will hold its head unnaturally high in the show ring.

Of course the boy is shocked -- this is abuse!

But Walter Pigeon explains, setting up the essential conflict of the movie, that "a dog is an animal, he is governed by conditioned reflexes.  Dogs are not people, they do not have human reactions, and the only way to handle them is with a firm voice and tight lead."

And with that -- all of two seconds of training done with horrible timing -- Walter Pigeon gives up on the dog for the day. "We'll try again tomorrow" he tells the kennel man.


Walter Pigeon explains to the Orphan that Big Red is a "bench dog" and that "his kind are not used for any practical purposes any more" because they were bred for looks rather than work.

This little scene is designed to reinforce our dislike of the older man, who has just said he bought a useless dog at an extravagant price solely to make money.  This is, quite obviously, the antithesis of  good red-blooded American values.  And besides, Big Red is not useless!

Welcome to Disney, where every story is a morality tale.

The movie takes obvious plot twists and turns as it progresses, with the poor Orphan Boy somehow becoming an expert trainer in less than a month (a miracle!), and the fellow with the expensive shotguns and kennel full of dogs, somehow not knowing his ass from his elbow.  And yes there is the obligatory run-in with a mountain lion, with Big Red and the Orphan Boy saving the day.


What's interesting about this story, from a historical point of view, is that it shows how long the  battle between "abusive" trainers and "gentle" trainers has been going on.

In fact, working dog men like Montague Stevens were training dogs with food long before the parents of Karen Pryor or Victoria Stilwell were born. 

Food rewards as a dog training method are older than Jesus, and it's hard to find a 19th Century book on dog training that does not talk about the practice. 

But you cannot train everything with a food reward, which is why God gave porcupines their quills, and skunks their spray.  The real world is full of consequences of all kinds, and they are not all positive, are they?

The dog trainer who was actually used in this movie is none other than William Koehler, who is often demonized as an abusive trainer simply because he did not shower his dogs with biscuits and then turn around to whine that they were now all fat. 

This is not to say that all of of William Koehler's techniques would be saluted today.  Long lines?  Yes. Tossing a light choke chain at a dog?  OK.  But Koehler also saluted the idea that with some dogs a very powerful aversive, done once, was less cruel that mincing about with half measures for months.  Was Koehler right?  The bull in the pasture that does not test his electric fence says "maybe."  But do most dog trainers really need to use strong aversives?  The answer is no.  Most dog owners are pet owners who will never see their dog running free off leash, and most are training dogs starting as puppies, before bad behaviors have been deeply ingrained because they were (unintentionally) rewarded for years.

Koehler, of course, did run his dogs off-leash and unlike so many in the world of dog training, he did not start by training fat suburban dogs owned by owners too lazy to walk them. 

Like so many dog trainers of his era, Koehler started off in the military in World War II where the dogs acquired were almost all large adults and given (read abandoned) to the military because they often already had discipline and temperament issues. And yet, in the military, a dog that does not obey a command can cost lives, both human and canine.  To this day, the U.S. military uses very strong aversives for certain parts of its training regime.  When a bomb-detecting dog is told to "stop" this is not to be taken as a suggestion!  A dog that barks while on patrol can kill an entire platoon.

Yes, most military dogs "will work for Kong" and other toys and small rewards, but these dogs have also learned  that there are certain never acts, and some of those (such as barking on patrol) may be counter to their internal code.

The year that Big Red came out, William Koehler published The Koehler Method of Dog Training which became a staple of AKC obedience competitors.

A variation of the "Koehler method" of dog training was brought to television in the late 1970s by Barbara Woodhouse, who featured basic Koehler methods in her own book, "No Bad Dogs."

Of course, most people who opine about Koehler today have never actually read a Koehler book, and have no idea that he trained dogs in Hollywood or that he trained dogs for this "anti-abuse" movie in particular.   When they do look to defame Koehler, they generally do so by quoting from the very end of one of his books -- and leaving out the fact that this section is very clearly labeled as one that is only to be consulted when all else has failed and the next stop for the dog is the gas chamber. 

Death before discomfort?  That's the rallying cry of a lot of "pure positive" dog trainers today, who are only too willing to declare a dog untrainable if they cannot get it to changes it ways with nothing more than a few cubes of cheese.

Did William Koehler believe in unearned rewards, or effusive baby talk to dogs?  No, but neither do most sensible trainers.

Did William Koehler prance about in a dominatrix outfit while showering dogs with biscuits and screaming at their owners?  No, but neither do most sensible trainers. 

William Koehler was a balanced trainer.  He knew dogs needed exercise (as can be seen in this movie), and that for a working dog there were few more powerful forces at work than the code that explodes (as can be seen when Big Red pings on birds when out in the field with the Orphan Boy). 

Koehler also knew that in the real world of off-lead dog work, a dog that obeyed only some of the time had a higher-than acceptable chance of ending up dead. 

That's still true today, whether the dog is an explosives detection dog in the Army, a police dog in Detroit, or a companion dog that escapes the yard in California.

William Koehler worked with dogs for 50 years, was employed by Walt Disney for 20 years, and over the course of his life he trained more than 25,000 dogs according to his obituary.

Compare his record with anyone else, and you are likely to find his credentials and experience without peer. 

Does that mean you have to train your dog the Koehler way?  Of course not!.  Train your dog any way you want.  But do everyone a favor, eh?  Admit that William Koehler had a long and remarkable career training very happy dogs (as did other Hollywood dog trainers, such Rudd Weatherwax, the trainer of Lassie), and that William Koehler was dealing with a lot of dogs that were not Labrador retrievers, that were not puppies, and which required a performance standard a little bit higher than "sometimes he'll do it if he feels like it and I have his toy or a chunk of cheese."

1 comment:

Carter Denton said...

Koehler was a dog trainer, not a posturing TV star.