Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Beep, beep!

A few weeks ago, I got stuck behind a large truck on the highway, a rather unremarkable phenomenon, really, except the fact that I remember exactly what that truck looked like: it was a mid-sized delivery truck, smaller than a semi, but definitely not a passenger vehicle. The truck itself was white, and it was noticeably plain; there was no shipping company name emblazoned on the sides. And, as a large truck, it took a bit longer to get up to speed once the traffic light turned green. I maintained a generous but not unreasonable following distance- two seconds, probably- when it happened.

I got honked at.

At first, I wasn’t sure the beep was intended for me, but when the car behind me- the type and color lost to memory- drove past, the driver’s hand gesture confirmed that I was definitely the recipient. Even now, I have no idea exactly what I did wrong. After all, I couldn’t possibly go any faster without risking an accident.

I know it wasn’t a big deal, but it bothered me because I had no idea what I had done wrong. I was still thinking about this incident several days later when I attended an obedience trial. As I watched the handlers working with their dogs outside of the ring, I saw plenty of collar corrections. Sometimes the reason was obvious- a dog who left the handler’s side to go sniff another dog, for example- but often, I had difficulty figuring out what, exactly, the dog had done to merit a correction.

My feelings about the use of punishment in dog training aside, I just can’t see the point in a correction that isn’t connected to something. What does that teach the dog?

I know from my experience being honked (and gestured) at that the answer is, “not much.” Since I didn’t know what mistake I’d made, I couldn’t change my ways even if I wanted to. I was annoyed that I’d been singled out for no discernable reason, and I had a sneaking suspicion that the driver was crazy. More than that, my memory about the event has very little to do with my offense- whatever it was- and everything to do with the truck in front of me and the location. Even now, driving through that area reminds me of my confusion. Talk about misplaced emotions!

And if I- with my presumably larger brain and more sophisticated cognitive skills- had all that baggage, how in the world does a dog process a similar experience? How does he ever figure out what the desired behavior is? How can avoid a correction if he doesn’t know why he received it? What does he think about his handler, who for all appearances, is acting completely crazy? What weird connections does he make between the annoying and/or painful stimulus and the environment?

I will never deny that punishment in training works. It would be foolish to do so considering that the dogs I saw at the trial were working at high levels. But given my experience on the highway, I do wonder how the dogs figure it out. It must be profoundly frustrating at times, and I have to wonder how they remain sane through it all. Because if I'm honest? I’m pretty sure that if I got honked at every time I drove somewhere, I’d end up taking the bus instead.


Ninso said...

I think this is your best post ever! What a brilliant parallel!

I sat in on a beginning class at an obedience club shortly after I got Lok. The students were heeling their dogs around and around the ring. Sometimes the dogs got popped for leaving position, sometimes they didn't. Often they got popped for no apparent reason. Then at the end of the long heeling drill, every dog got praise and a treat. Huh? I actually lost sleep over the evident confusion on these poor dogs' faces and the shut-down state most of them were in. It still makes me a little sick to think of. Choose whatever training method you like, but be fair to the dog--communicate clearly and consistently.

Jen said...

What a great comparison! Getting honked at is definitely something people can relate to, and the outrage is slow to fade!

I wonder why people think it's so "easy" to train dogs? ;)

Robin Sallie said...

I love the way your mind relates everything to dog training!

Crystal Thompson said...

Ninso, I agree completely with your last sentence. I have seen trainers use punishment clearly and consistently, and those dogs look happy and confident. I have seen trainers use clickers poorly, and those dogs look confused and stressed. Good training is good training, regardless of methods.

I still have a bias for avoiding physical punishment though. I'd rather be confused about why I'm getting cookies and praise than about why I'm getting yelled at or physically corrected...

Robin, I thought you knew my mind works that way? Although it probably helped that the beeping incident happened just the day before the dog show. The juxtaposition helped me see the link more clearly.

Joanna said...

Very insightful post. I will try to remember this story, and may end up sharing it with clients someday. :)