Saturday, 5 March 2016

"Relationship" and training shelter dogs: not a good fit

There are obvious problems with the statement that �relationship� should be the lens through which a trainer�s methods are judged, which I�ve mentioned in previous posts. Here, I�m going to focus on pure pragmatism. 

I spend most of my time around dogs at a local shelter, where I�m part of a group of volunteers who work with our more challenging guests. Although I love developing bonds with these dogs, when I�m training a shelter dog I pay absolutely no attention to whether I believe the dog likes me, or whether I like her, or whether we�ve even spent time together before. In every case, with every dog, I try to apply the principles of learning theory with a strong focus on counterconditioning and positive reinforcement for desired behavior. In short, relationship is completely irrelevant to how I choose to train dogs at the shelter, and moreover, I believe it ought to be irrelevant. 
"You don't have to say you love me, just have a treat in your hand"
One reason relationship can�t matter is time. We don't know how long a dog will be in the shelter and I'm lucky that the shelter I volunteer at has a high turnover. A dog could be with us for weeks, or just a few days. A frightened, highly reactive dog needs behavioral modification right away, starting with feeling safe in her environment. So, we need something that will work without a relationship.  

Training methods always have to be safe for the human, and have as small as possible risk of harming the dog. When a dog comes in as a stray or a surrender, we don�t know what kinds of associations that dog has made in the past. Some dogs are fearful of the leash, or human hands - I once had a rescue dog that was completely petrified of newspapers. Adding extra adrenaline to the mix by punishing a dog that�s also liable to panic at certain triggers is a perfect setup for unpredictable aggression. 

A shelter dog also needs the kind of training that can be replicated. Not relying on relationship - or perception of relationship - means shelter dogs can be trained by all the volunteers with the skills to do it. And that training can be passed on to the owners and extended through other trainers. 

The dog's adoptive family needs to have tools to reward good behavior and discourage what they don't want before a relationship is formed. Otherwise, the dog is more likely to be returned. Training based on operant conditioning uses a well-established set of principles that can be applied by multiple handlers with no special connection to the dog, and it's also less stressful than using pressure or punishment. Besides, nothing fosters a good relationship like learning and having fun together! 

When rescues and shelters are looking for trainers to help with their more difficult dogs, they should ignore any mention of "relationship" as a justification for the methods they use. The ethical principle at work here is that if a concept is used to justify doing something, like the concepts of relationship or of "knowing one's place in the pack" are used to justify compulsive training, the justification only applies so long as that concept is relevant to the situation. If there's no family pack, and no relationship, these can't work as justifications. 

Shelter dogs should be protected by asking the questions Jean Donaldson proposed last year
  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right?
  • What exactly will happen to her when she gets it wrong?
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
Trainers should be able to answer these questions without reference to relationship, or trust, or what the dog ought to know and believe. If they can't, their methods are not suitable for short-term work in shelters or rescues.

At the shelter, we are more like teachers than family members. It's our job to teach the dogs in our care like a good educator would teach a student; not by relying on power dynamics and compulsion, but with clarity and kindness. Think summer camp, not orphanage!

No comments:

Post a Comment