Monday, 26 January 2015

What is an "Obedient Dog"?

Everyone knows what �obedience training� is, it�s the process of teaching a dog to reliably perform a behavior when you give them the cue to do so. But this doesn�t actually mean you�re training a dog to be obedient, even though it�s often described as him �obeying your commands�.  Some trainers baulk at such authoritarian language, because it is suggestive of a hierarchy, which is a highly contentious concept.  

Without the concept of a hierarchy, however, the idea of an obedient dog means nothing.  

The definition of obedience is to submit yourself to commands given by someone in authority.  On this definition, you can�t be obedient to somebody without holding them in authority - the authority doesn�t have to be a person, but it has to be elevated, like the law or moral principles.  

So, an obedient dog is a dog that dutifully does as he is told to do by someone he recognizes as an authority. Without the authority relationship, there can be no obedience. But this doesn�t necessarily mean teaching the behaviors we now call �obedience training� are impossible to teach a dog, merely that the process should rightfully be called something else.  

Two analogies 

The most common example of human obedience training is in the military.  A commanding officer asserts his authority over his platoon by instilling them with respect for his authority.  The private is expected to obey her commanding officer, not to ask �what�s in it for me?�  If the commanding officer had to remind her that she was being paid for her service every time she told her to drop and give her twenty, the private would no longer be called obedient because she was not obeying for the sake of the authority relationship.  Not to mention being charged with insubordination.

Drop and give me the ball! 

In the opposite way, a worker might obey his boss's demand that he stay later with his team to prepare for an important deadline, but the worker is only doing so insofar as it makes his life easier in the long term. Maybe he�ll look for a better, faster way to accomplish whatever the boss needs so he can go home earlier, even if that means not technically doing what he's been told. In this case, we can hardly say that the worker is being obedient, acting for the sake of the boss's authority.  A better description would be "savvy"; knowing when to keep his head down and hoping for a raise come Christmas. There is nothing insubordinate about a worker reminding himself that he is here because he is being paid, or about his boss reminding him of this.  This is because in this case, there is no need for submission to authority simply because it is authority. 

Is training a dog more like a commanding officer and his private, or like a boss and her worker?  Both models are in use by professional trainers and pet owners, but only the latter has traction in the "force-free" community.  We are told that our dogs should want to work with us, and that we should make it so that our dogs want to do what we ask them to do because they have a history of enjoying doing that thing, then in a way, we are not developing obedience, we are building willingness, memory, and reliability. 

If we use the analogy of �paying� a dog his �salary� to work, then we�re effectively precluding the idea that our dog is being obedient.  He�s being savvy, like the worker. Even if sometimes you withhold his paycheck or give him less than he expects, the fact that he is expecting a reward at all means he is not acting for the sake of you as a perceived authority figure. 

Should we reject the concept of obedience? 

Do we need our dogs to be obedient at all, given that we have an alternative model? This is a question for more experienced trainers to answer with evidence; all I can do is give some criteria to meet if we are to reject the notion of obedience with no loss of function.  If we can teach them to do everything that an �obedient� dog does, but in the spirit of willing co-operation rather than dutiful submission, then we haven�t lost anything by losing the concept of obedience.  

If, however, there is a point where our dog is not willing to co-operate, and is determined to do something we don�t want him to do, then we might find that we do have a need for the authoritarian model of obedience after all.  The question of whether �obedience training� should be renamed, and the idea of the perfectly obedient dog retired, hinges on whether there are moments where only the imposition of one�s will on a dog is sufficient to attain compliance.  

Friday, 9 January 2015

"My Dog Ought To Sit"

Owners of dogs with problems are often confronted with the charge that they just haven�t done a good enough job of training their dogs.  Sometimes, the owners themselves believe that if their dogs were less stubborn and more obedient, they wouldn�t bark and lunge at joggers, or charge the door when guests come around.  The perceived failures of obedience in their dog leads them to feel resentment and guilt. In short, many people see all dog behavior problems as obedience problems, and are liable to blame the owner and the dog for having them.  

A Misconception

This tendency to see frightened and/or aggressive dogs as poorly-trained dogs is actually symptomatic of a deeper misconception about how we should see the dog-human relationship. As humans, we exist in a world of agency, responsibility, promises and obligations, and we�re liable to try to impose as much of the model we live in on how we relate to our pets.  But in fact, allowing our human-centric focus on what we owe to each other to creep into what we expect from our dogs can lead to frustration on both sides. 

The key is in how we understand just one simple word: �ought�.  When I say, �when I tell my dog to sit, my dog ought to sit�, what I mean by this shapes my whole understanding of our relationship.  As I�ll explain, the appropriate way to understand �ought� precludes the kind of resentment that�s so toxic to our lives with our dogs.  This is why such an abstract enquiry is, I hope, useful work. 

Two Kinds of Ought 

When I say someone ought to do something, there are two ways to understand �ought�. One is statistical: �when I toss a coin, it ought to land on either heads or tails�.  The other is moral: �when you make a promise, you ought to keep it�. 

The difference is important because moral �oughts� are related to what the philosopher P.F. Strawson calls �moral emotions� like resentment and guilt.  We feel resentful towards someone, Strawson contends, when they fail to fulfil an obligation we believe they have towards us.  We feel guilty when we become aware of our own moral failings.  Lying, stealing, humiliating and breaking promises are all examples of failures to meet our moral duties, and all of these things make us feel resentful towards others, and guilty when we do them ourselves.  

When I say, �my dog ought to sit when I tell her to sit�, it could sound like a moral ought.  If we believe that dogs can be deliberately spiteful or can fail to respect us, it certainly sounds like we�re saying that failing to sit means failing to fulfil the obligation to sit.  So it makes sense, on this logic, to believe that a dog that doesn�t sit when a skateboard passes by, or won�t lie on a mat when guests come over, is worthy of our resentment. 

However, it�s a lot more profitable and parsimonious to see �my dog ought to sit� as reflecting a predictive, statistical kind of ought.  An ought that does not depend on imputing bad character to our dogs when they fail to do what we ask of them.  A coin ought to land heads or tails, but very rarely it will land on its side.  My favorite tea is oolong, so when I visit a tea shop I ought to choose oolong - but sometimes I�m in the mood for genmaicha.  When a dog is under pressure, the likelihood of what ought to happen actually happening will go down.  Seeing �ought� as purely practical means we don�t resent our dogs for failing to perform as we expect - if any frustration or guilt is in the picture, it is us feeling bad for not setting our dogs up for success.  

It�s All Semantics, Anyway

Often in debates with trainers and behaviorists, the charge of �it�s all semantics� is levelled at anyone trying to clarify the meaning of key terms.  I hope to have shown that there is a lot of unpacking to be done even within a single, non-technical word, and that this conceptual work can shed light on how we see the world with our dogs.  The better we get at understanding the underlying concepts at work when we talk about dogs and dog training, the more effective our communication will ultimately be.