Becoming Dog Smart

This week’s blog is an excerpt from Linda Case’s newest Science Dog book,

Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog.”

I grew up in an animal-loving family. As a young child, I had an auspicious start to pet ownership with Beany the Bird, a parakeet who I trained to fly from his cage to land on top of my head. As a pre-teen, Shelley the Sheltie joined our family, followed shortly thereafter by my horse, Hickory. (Clearly, alliteration and I share a long history). I trained Shelley in 4-H and competed with her in 4-H dog shows and AKC obedience trials. By my teen years, my mom was training and showing her own dogs, first a Belgian Tervuren named Tina and eventually a succession of Border Collies. We shared many years of traveling around the east coast and Midwest together to dog shows, training seminars and conferences. I have wonderful memories of those shared adventures and of our love of dogs. I would not change a thing.

Well, okay. I might change one thing.

I started training dogs in the early 1970’s. In those years, established dog training methods involved choke collars, corrections, and very generous use of the word “NO!.” Another popular aversive was that throat-clearing, grandpa-in-the-bathroom, “EEHHHH” sound.

REALLY? WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR INVENTING THAT?

These methods were standard and accepted training practice, originally developed by military trainers during WWII.

Never look ’em in the eye: Here are two examples from those early training years. When I first began training Shelley in 4-H, the club leader strictly informed her budding group of young trainers that we must “never look our dogs in the eye.” Rather we were instructed to stare out into space, at a spot located somewhere above the dog’s head. I guess the premise was that my sweet and gentle Shetland Sheepdog would suddenly revert back to her wolf-like ancestor and launch for my throat should I make the error of making eye contact and thus challenge her status. A few years later, I attended a weekend seminar with my mom in which the presenter, a nationally recognized obedience competitor, instructed his students to yank on a long lead attached to their dog’s choke collar, immediately after yelling “COME!” The collar correction was intended to ensure that their dogs came running as quickly as possible. This was a time during which dogs were assumed to be in a constant battle for dominance with their owners, negative reinforcement and punishment reigned in dog training, and the use of food was viewed as bribery or even worse “cheating.” Luckily, just a few years later, around the mid-80’s, things began to change for the better for dogs – and for trainers.

Thank you, Karen Pryor: After finishing my undergraduate degree, getting married, and adding two Golden Retrievers to our family, Mike and I spent four pre-graduate school years moving around the East Coast as Mike completed his ROTC commitment to the Navy. (They had very generously paid for his engineering education at Cornell, so he owed them a bit of time in return). During our time in Massachusetts, I was lucky enough to become friends with a group of dog trainers who were as passionate as I was about dogs and training. We would meet regularly to train and walk our dogs together in area parks. One day, one of these friends excitedly showed up with a new training book in hand. This book was “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor. We all read it. Devoured it, really.

As dog trainers, we never looked back.

The era of reward-based training methods had begun. Karen’s book was based on the science of behaviorism, encouraged positive reinforcement and strongly discouraged punishment. She promoted using food treats as a primary reinforcer and introduced the concept of using a marker word as a conditioned reinforcer. Karen’s seminal book and those that followed caused a paradigm shift in thinking and led to the development of an entirely new philosophy of dog training. Out went confrontational and correction-based methods that assumed dogs must be dominated to be trained and in came a gentler, kinder approach to training that also happened to be firmly grounded in learning theory and the behavioral sciences.

Animal rights, animal consciousness and social cognition: The changes of the 1980’s were followed by another remarkable development – this time in the academic world. After decades of being completely ignored in almost all fields of scientific study, the domestic dog was suddenly becoming a hot topic for scientists in a host of disciplines. It began with programs in canine and feline nutrition (upon which my own graduate studies centered), and was rapidly followed by studies of the evolutionary history and domestication of dogs, by new examinations of canine behavior that challenged previously accepted dog-as-wolf archetypes, and most recently, with studies of the dog’s unique talents in social cognition and emotional complexities. Although not focusing on dogs per se, the 1990’s also witnessed the serious philosophical consideration of animal consciousness, animal welfare and animal rights at universities around the world.

Collectively, these many areas of study expanded our understanding of and appreciation for the inner mental lives of non-human animals and directly challenged many long-held beliefs about how we should view and treat other animals, including dogs. While in graduate school and later, when teaching at the university, I read and studied the work of these scientists and philosophers. I brought their studies to my students for review, for group discussions, and as examples to practice their critical thinking skills. More personally, the evidence for complex animal minds and the arguments for changes in the ways that society has traditionally viewed animals had the effect of further modifying how I lived with, trained, and cared for my own dogs.

AutumnGold: In 1989, Mike and I built a dog training facility on the land adjacent to our home and opened AutumnGold Dog Training Center. I had just started teaching in the Companion Animal Science program in the University of Illinois. I taught undergraduates during the day and obedience classes at our school in the evenings. In its early years, when we were still competing in obedience trials, AutumnGold offered both competitive obedience classes and basic manners classes. Today we employ a group of talented trainers and instructors and teach classes that are primarily designed for pet dog owners. These include puppy and adult manners classes, a set of dog sports (for fun) classes, and a series that we call “LifeSkills” for teaching behaviors that promote harmony between owners and their dogs and help dogs to be well-behaved and comfortable in many situations.

STUDENTS REINFORCE DOWN/STAY AT AUTUMNGOLD

This new book,  “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog is a product of my years owning and developing classes for AutumnGold, teaching, researching, and writing about dogs during my work at the University of Illinois, and training, living with and loving a long succession of beloved dogs. It focuses on solid, scientifically acquired knowledge about dogs and attempts to dispel many of the prevailing myths that continue to persist, even among professed dog lovers. It is also a testimony to just how far we have come in our understanding of and empathy for the amazing dogs who are in our care and with whom we are privileged to share our lives with. I hope that you will enjoy reading this book as much as I have enjoyed these many years of training, learning, and writing. Happy Training!