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.