ethics

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single combat

At the risk of alienating colleagues on both sides of The Great (and Largely Imaginary) Divide, here are some brief and unapologetically provocative thoughts on the recent adventures of our industry’s most over-exposed personalities.

I briefly considered naming this piece, Two Things I Am Having Trouble Getting Excited Over, but feared that wouldn’t be catchy enough. And really, the number one priority of any top-tier trainer has got to be maximizing eyeballs, am I right?

Cesar Millan

Let’s talk about the pig episode first. For anyone currently living under a rock: first, let me congratulate you on acquiring some truly enviable real estate; second, feel free to find the video on Youtube or rely on my description. It shows a TV entertainer and self-styled aggression guru performing an ill-conceived and poorly executed stunt involving some pigs and a dog with a history of attacking them. A pig gets bitten. There is some blood, and some squealing.

Is it hard to watch? That’s subjective, but I would have to say no, not compared to a hundred other things I’m forced to watch, like Donald Trump making a sickeningly plausible run for president.

Is it animal cruelty? I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve read the California statute and would call that a stretch. It seems pretty obvious that the injury to the pig, while stupid and unnecessary, was the unintended result of more than one serious miscalculation, not of malice or even insensitivity. The real crime was National Geographic legitimizing this nonsense by packaging it as cutting-edge behavior work.

Speaking of errors of judgement, it’s been apparent for some time that the balanced training community, in so far as one exists, may have made its own regrettable miscalculation in hitching its wagon to Millan’s star. Designating the charismatic savant originally marketed as the Dog Whisperer as balanced training’s patron saint and prime-time champion has arguably spawned a generation of trainers focused on branding and showmanship ahead of knowledge or technique. 

Should Millan be forced off the air? I’d rather people simply stopped watching, but if the consequence of this particular bout of ineptitude happened to be the end of Cesar 911 or even the end of an already lengthy career, I could certainly live with that. Because as much as I find the outrage over this specific incident somewhat misplaced, Millan remains someone I cannot bring myself to defend. He bought into his own myth on the ground floor, and the rest is history.

That said, let’s not pretend it’s really about the pig. Last time I checked, there was a whole show on TV about killing pigs, not to mention the genuine atrocity that is modern factory farming. The disconnect between the standards of welfare we insist on for our pets and those we quietly tolerate for our food animals, even when they are the same animal, is infinitely more unnerving than the worst things Millan has ever done. And I will add that the worst things Millan has ever done do not compare with the things truly abusive trainers do on a regular basis.

victoria stilwell

On to Victoria Stilwell and the bite she incurred while filming police dogs in action for her latest television project. Video of this event is unlikely to surface, but based on the scant information available, it is apparent that Stilwell was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s unclear if there was handler error or not, if there was error on the part of Stilwell or not, if the dog was well-trained or poorly so. It’s also unclear who was actually responsible for orchestrating events or for keeping Stilwell and others safe.

Stilwell’s first public move after sustaining the bite was to blame the dog’s handler, an accusation she has since stepped back. To my mind, adopting the guise of a dog training expert in such a context signals a measure of personal culpability, but falls short of explaining the public fit of schadenfreude incited by this all-around inglorious incident.

To wrap one’s head around that, one would need to remember that Stilwell has made a career of capitalizing on our industry’s political divisiveness, and has not been at all shy about vilifying whole classes of trainers as lazy and abusive based on no less scant information. And one would need to remember that like Cesar Millan, she was never a real dog trainer prior to being cast as one on TV.

So, the conspicuous murmuring that karma was at work as much as the Malinois who tagged her, while certainly unkind and admittedly unprofessional, is also really easy to understand. In other words, it’s not actually about the pig. It’s about the longstanding and entirely righteous resentment many career trainers feel at having been publicly chastised by an actress who never walked in their totally unsexy shoes.

the take away

Neither of these events can reasonably be taken as an indictment of any existing training method. In the first case, there was no identifiable method; in the second, no training was occurring. If either speaks to anything, it’s to the collective folly of our adopting a pair of non-trainers as the champions of our competing methodologies.

The idea that either ever represented the pinnacle of our profession has always been a pretense, and neither has frankly been a good ambassador. If Millan permanently distorted the concept of balanced training into a faith-based bravado-fueled affair reminiscent of rattlesnake handling, then Stilwell surely planted the enduring suspicion that positive reinforcement trainer was synonymous with poser. 

For the record, I hope that Stilwell recovers swiftly, that Millan retires quietly, and that neither ever headlines another dog trainer conference. Meanwhile, I hope the rest of us can tear our eyes from the spectacle long enough to realize we have a great deal more in common with one another than with either of them.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2016.

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Originally published in IACP Safe Hands Journal, Spring 2015.

Behavior seems to be the hot trend. From leash reactivity to separation anxiety to resource guarding and other aggression issues, trainers are confronting behavior problems right and left. But what is behavior work and behavior consulting, compared to traditional training? Who is qualified to do it, and what does it involve?

Whether one is forced to handle behavior cases by necessity, or eager to market oneself as a behavior specialist, it pays to be informed of current and emerging professional standards, and to familiarize oneself with the essential elements of a responsible approach.

Keeping up with industry jargon can be challenging, so here’s a basic behavior glossary:

behavior: anything an animal does, often in response to a situation or stimulus.

behaviorism: the theory that behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings, and that disorders are best treated by altering behavior patterns.

behavior modification: the use of empirically demonstrated behavior change techniques to increase or decrease the frequency of behaviors, including positive and negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment, and extinction.

animal behaviorist: someone with a graduate degree in a related field (like zoology, ethology, biology, or psychology) and post-graduate certification. He or she may be certified by the Animal Behavior Society as an Applied Animal Behaviorist or CAAB.

board certified veterinary behaviorist: a veterinarian who is certified in the specialty of Veterinary Behavior.  Board-certified specialists are known as diplomates or DACVBs.

behavior consultant: a professional working with animals to solve behavioral problems. Behavior consultants may or may not be degreed or certified, but should pursue extensive and ongoing education in animal behavior and training. Recognized certifications include CDBC and CBCC-KA, awarded respectively by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.

Bottom line, if you don’t sport a PhD or a DACVB, best not call yourself a behaviorist. Nonetheless, it’s wholly advisable to pursue a broad education in canine behavior and to highlight your qualifications as a behavior consultant.

So, what should a behavior consultant bring to the table, and how do successful consultants approach real cases?

Assessing Problems

Every case should begin with some manner of assessment, the accuracy of which will depend largely on history taking and observation skills. A good history teases fact from fiction. “My dog often barks at men that approach us,” is useful data. “My dog hates men!” is unhelpful speculation. Keen observation is equally critical. If concern exists over behavior around a new baby, one should be prepared to recognize subtle signs of stress, avoidance, or predation.

The consultant should also be ready to identify if basic needs are being met. Adequate diet, exercise, and medical attention should be prerequisites to any training or behavior modification program.

A Structured Approach

The solution to every behavior problem, regardless of intensity or complexity, will involve some combination of the following three components. Their relative priority may vary from case to case, but all deserve serious consideration. A truly comprehensive solution will typically involve all three.

Environmental Management: Limiting Unwanted Behavior Through Environmental Controls.

Managing exposure to environmental triggers is often a critical first step in changing behavior. All behavior is functional on some level, including problem behavior. Whether the goal is winning attention, persuading a stranger to retreat, or defending a resource, dogs will generally do what works.

By limiting opportunities to engage in unwanted behavior through environmental management, we prevent those behaviors from being reinforced, as happens each time they work as expected. This breaks the cycle of unwanted behavior and opens the door for teaching your dog what to do instead.

Good management will immediately reduce stress and/or conflict, without being unnecessarily intrusive. The need for management should decrease over time, as alternate behaviors are consistently reinforced.

Obedience Skills: Teaching Alternate or Incompatible Behaviors

Many common behavior problems are essentially “default” behaviors, things dogs do naturally in the absence of being taught otherwise. Teaching and reinforcing incompatible behaviors is frequently key to the long-term solution of behavior problems.

This requires considering what one wants the dog to do and focusing on training those behaviors, ahead of focusing on what one wants the dog to stop doing. Practical alternative behaviors may include basic obedience skills, or any other skill the dog might fairly be expected to master under moderate to high levels of distraction. For example, a dog that lunges at other dogs on the street might be trained to heel, while a dog that jumps on visitors might be taught to sit for attention.

As with environmental management, one should generally seek methods that are minimally intrusive. Strategies focused on suppressing behavior are avoided when other effective solutions exist. Good obedience training also helps build relationship and communication, the benefits of which extend far beyond specific behavior goals.

Classical Conditioning: Counter Conditioning and Desensitization

To avoid the need for eternal management and also help the dog on a psychological level, it’s sensible to invest in conditioning a better emotional/physiological response to known triggers.

Classical conditioning, or respondent learning, involves altering reflexive emotional and physiological responses, either by repeatedly pairing relevant stimuli with something pleasant or valuable, or through careful exposure that gradually desensitizes the animal over time. An example might involve pairing proximity to children with cooked chicken or gradually acclimating a dog to children via regular exposure at a safe distance.

The result is a decrease in the perceived need to behave aggressively, fearfully, etc. This can dramatically increase the likelihood of the dog making good decisions on its own in unexpected situations, even when guidance is lacking or management breaks down.

In limited cases, one may choose to condition an avoidance response through pairing a stimulus with something aversive. Snake avoidance training would be one example, as would be pairing an aversive with attempts to ingest something dangerous like rocks or tennis balls.

LIMA Principles

Even with a sturdy framework in place (our three problem solving components), designing a humane and effective program that is both comprehensive and individualized can be daunting. Given the many options that exist, it’s useful to have some guiding principles for choosing the best strategy.

Understanding LIMA principles and their practical application is considered a basic competency within the field of behavior consulting.

LIMA requires that trainers and behavior consultants use the “least intrusive, minimally aversive technique likely to succeed in achieving a training objective with minimal risk of producing adverse side effects.” [1] In practice, this means achieving results while minimizing cost to the learner and risk to any involved.

Following LIMA guidelines has additional advantages, beyond minimizing risk. They focus the trainer on respecting his subject and maintaining learner control, promote clarity in problem solving, and prevent abuse.

To be clear, LIMA does not dictate a positive reinforcement only approach. It does challenge the trainer to think outside the box of merely suppressing unwanted behavior, and to develop the skills to address behavior problems without undue reliance on deprivation, pressure, or punishment.

Emptying the Closet

Solving serious behavior problems, especially those involving aggression, should not be left to intuition, attributed to mystical factors, or performed impromptu while narrating into a camera. Success is rarely a function of charisma or the product of daredevilry, any more than effective obedience training ever has been.

Behavior may be the new black, but rest assured, no need to to flock to the runways or pay exorbitant sums for those head-turning logos. While trend seekers gawk at outrageous collections, others are quietly organizing their closets, editing their wardrobes, and shopping strategically.

A rational and responsible approach to behavior may not draw looks on the street, but it also never goes out of style. 

1. [Steven Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Vol 3]

 

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Yesterday, the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers revealed the electronic collar survey it spent the whole summer developing.

It boasts a total of 16 questions, mainly geared toward gauging opinions on electronic collar training.

A brief letter accompanying the survey described its purpose thusly:

The board of directors is in the process of reviewing the Dog Training and Behavior Practices Policy and investigating a motion prohibiting the use of Electronic Training Collars by our certificants.

In an effort to develop a stronger position on this sensitive topic, the CCPDT has issued a survey, and will be holding a call for supplementary materials through October 20, 2013.

Measuring Perceptions v. Measuring Facts

The push to develop a “stronger position” on electronic collars apparently came together at the CCPDT’s May Board meeting, spurring the creation of a task force chaired by Vice President Shawn Smith and announced in the July 1st issue of CCPDT’s newsletter.

One might ask how an uncontrolled, anonymous survey will effect the policies of an organization nominally committed to science-based practices.

Or why more legitimate steps to gather information about current electronic collar equipment and training practices are not being taken.

Of course, the CCPDT is not merely soliciting random anonymous opinions. They are also looking at science, including all available literature on electronic collar training.

And that would be entirely sufficient if the goal of the task force were to determine whether graduate students should be allowed to use electronic training collars in pursuit of their behavior science degrees.

But that’s not the question under consideration.

It’s whether certified professional trainers should be allowed to use them, which would seem to call for an investigation of how certified professional trainers do use them (or at least might, if they weren’t continually discouraged from educating themselves beyond the most politically correct tools and quadrants).

Why has there been no call for case studies over the several months since it was decided that the CCPDT should “develop a stronger position” on electronic collars?

If the goal is to assess whether, or under what circumstances, pro trainers are using these tools humanely and effectively, you need to examine their methods and results, not just those of a tiny handful of graduate students.

Like it or not, the entire known body of scientific literature on electronic collar training is meager in volume, myopic in scope, and mainly outdated. In addition, most studies have inarguable (and widely acknowledged) methodological weaknesses.

Science begins with observation, not opinion polls. If the CCPDT intends its policies to have any weight or legitimacy beyond that faction of trainers who want electronic collars banned no matter what, it needs to make a good-faith effort to collect relevant information on current electronic collar protocols and practices.

Instead, we see the CCPDT focusing its energies on measuring perceptions.

So, in the context of developing a stronger position on electronic collars, does ”stronger” mean better informed or simply more radical?

Take the survey and decide for yourself.

NOTE: The below survey is intended exclusively for dog training and behavior professionals. If you do not work professionally with dogs, either as a trainer or behavior consultant, please do not take the survey.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/CCPDT_ETC_Survey

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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As you might imagine, dog trainers are not known for their love of humanity.

They love dogs, or even animals generally. They love the challenge. They love the craft. But they do not necessarily love you, the client. And if it helps at all, they don’t love each other any better.

Add to this a decade of dog training “reality” shows that tend to mislead the general public as to what it is we really do, how long it really takes, and what the result should finally look like.

Should it come as any surprise to us when a client confidently orders up a side of spaghetti with her risotto? [Yes, another cooking analogy.]

Still, dog trainers stew endlessly over having to cope with such random and occasionally distasteful expectations, and frequently suffer offense when our labor or advice goes unappreciated. Meanwhile, our clients wind up feeling underserved or disappointed, because at the end of the day, either their personal wishes were not honored or their needs were simply not met.

Recently, a question was raised on several trainer lists regarding the ethics of squaring a client’s perceived needs with what the trainer deems appropriate to offer, including whether it’s somehow harmful to our profession to discount our usual services in order to meet a client’s stated budget.

Various strategies for resolving this conflict were offered up, some of which will appear in an upcoming feature on Professional Ethics in the APDT Chronicle (part 4 of series by Marjie Alonso).

The discussion brought to mind what an architect client once told me. In his negotiations with clients, he explains that every project has three major variables. These are cost, quality, and scope. He then explains that one may control any two of those, as long as one sacrifices control over the third.

This encourages an honest and practical discussion of priorities, as you can imagine. And of course, the architect reserves the right to pass on any job that offends his personal sensibilities.

I think in an ideal world, a trainer’s negotiations with his clients would run along similar lines. There would be transparency regarding different options, and the opportunity to engage in a frank discussion of priorities and costs.

Maybe we end up substituting crab for lobster or serving up a smaller portion; maybe we convince the client to splurge after pointing his attention to the bliss being enjoyed at surrounding tables; maybe we even pour a free cocktail to make up for not serving the Cesar salad.

And if despite our best efforts to cajole or educate, the client insists on a side of french fries and a bottle of ketchup with his seafood risotto, we can always send him along to the nearest MacDonalds.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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[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.

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