The Danger Of Reductionism


dog training

One of the many strategies recommended by conventional dog trainers to help a dog overcome fear of new people is to counter condition the dog by having new people approach and give the dog treats. This is not a strategy that I personally employ very often and here is why:

Let’s put it into a human context. Let’s say that I have reason to believe that strangers are untrustworthy. Along comes this new person, who approaches uninvited and says “Hey Tyler, come hang out over here…I’ll give you a dollar ;-)”  The offer of a dollar is unlikely to make me feel comfortable with this new person, or to earn my trust. In fact, it triggers warning signs in my mind because it’s a little reminiscent of the “Free Candy van”…It’s a little creepy.

Now, let’s say instead that I was in the same room with this person, only instead of trying to bribe my confidence, he recognized that I was uncomfortable. He gave me my space and went about whatever it was he set out to do. Or perhaps he just sat down, enjoyed some quiet time to himself and let me do my own thing. Maybe he occasionally glanced at me, acknowledging my presence in a non-confrontational way, and then again gave me the space I needed to feel free from threat.

In the first example, the seemingly innocuous act of trying to give me a dollar only added to my discomfort. It indicated that there was an expectation of me, a type of social pressure. The person was trying to pull me in, but that act of pulling only gave me something to push back against.

In the second scenario, there is no pressure. The person showed through his behavior that he understands, and he is ok with the fact that I need some space. There is no expectation, and that lack of expectation creates an opening that I can freely choose to explore.

I want to take the second scenario further, but first, let’s go back to using a dog for the example, with the “I” being the role of the stranger.

So, the dog is nervous, and I am in the same room, but have been giving space and zero expectation. The dog’s natural social curiosity may motivate her to explore and experiment. She may come closer, pause, and then move away. Eventually she comes within several feet and air sniffs. As more time passes she begins to become neutral to my presence.

From here, one of two things may occur over time (sometimes this takes hours or even several sessions over several days).  Perhaps at this point, when the dog chooses on her own to approach and come near, I casually and without saying anything, toss a treat on the ground, and then go back to whatever I was doing. After several repetitions of this, the dog begins choosing to hang out near me as I toss treats in her direction. The kernel of a bond is formed.

Alternatively, perhaps I notice that the dog really wants to go outside, so I open the door to let her out. She walks over to a tree to sniff. After she passes, I wander over to the same tree and have a look around. The dog shows interest in a stick, so I pick one up and give it a toss, in a way that shows that I share the dog’s joy for sticks. What I am communicating is that I am interested in the same things that she is, and am willing to follow her lead and engage in the activities that she chooses. I am not interested in changing her behavior, I am trying to learn more about her and understand her.  

If the dog is a real foodie, the option of tossing some treats (when she is ready and has approached on her own), has a decent chance of working. “Treats! I LOVE treats!” This dog exclaims.

But not all dogs are so enthusiastic for treats.  Some dogs like to sniff, some enjoy walks best of all, some like sticks, etc…

If we look at dogs as simple input/output machines in the purely operant sense, it seems like the typical counter conditioning techniques should work. But there is danger in reducing dogs to this simplified view. We should not ignore the fact that, like humans, our dogs think, feel, get angry, get lonely, have motives, instincts, trust issues, attachment issues, angst, and the whole colorful spectrum of emotions. To be fair, even the second scenario that I have outlined is a form of counter conditioning, but it is one that takes into account the dog as a unique individual. It honors the dog and gives her the sovereignty to let us know when she is ready to engage. It respects the uniquely dynamic qualities of dogs that have given us humans the privilege of evolving alongside them for tens of thousands of years.

While I personally think it is important for us trainers to have a firm grasp on the science of dog training, let us not allow ourselves to become too far removed from the spirit of simply being with a dog, striving to understand each individual for what makes them unique, showing compassion through our actions, and letting our heart guide us.

-Tyler G. Muto


What is Balanced Dog Training

What is Balanced Dog Training?

balanced dog training

A rescue group that we work closely with recently asked me for an article defining balanced dog training, the following is what I sent to them:

In it’s simplest form, Balanced Dog Training refers to any approach to dog training or behavior modification which involves the use of both reward based techniques, and aversive consequences. In other words, the trainer shows the dog that their choices and behaviors can result in either pleasant or unpleasant results. Although this sounds like a relatively straightforward concept, to fully grasp modern balanced dog training it is important to understand a bit of dog training history.

Decades ago, dog training was conducted far differently than it is done today. The old-time dog trainer primarily employed methods that involved the use of a fair degree of force to teach the dog how to respond to commands. In essence, the dog’s only motivation to listen was to avoid substantial discomfort and stress. What made this approach particularly problematic was that force was being applied to the dog before she knew what she was supposed to be doing. She was charged with figuring out the correct response, while undergoing significant pressure and stress. In addition to what today seem like the obvious moral and ethical issues with this approach, training conducted this way was wrought with undesirable side effects.

In the 1980’s dog training saw a major shift, dog trainers began borrowing from the fields of exotic and marine mammal training, where the use of force is simply not possible, and began training dogs through the use of reward based techniques, shaping and capturing desirable behaviors, and reinforcing them to increase their probability. Several books were published promoting these kinder techniques and denouncing the “old school” use of force. Before long a movement had begun of trainers who were determined to train dogs through the use of rewards exclusively, without any aversive tools or techniques. This excited the dog training community, after all, no one enjoys punishing dogs and the prospect of never having to use punishment again was extremely attractive. Although this was tremendously beneficial, and dog trainers as a whole are now capable of accomplishing far more with rewards than we ever thought possible, in due time, many dog owners and trainers realized that this idealized vision of dog training didn’t quite hold up in the real world, and not everything could be accomplished through the use of reward-only techniques. The biggest challenges arose when dealing with problematic behaviors, maintaining consistent responses when rewards aren’t present, and maintaining reliability outside of the classroom and in the real world where various distractions are competing for the dog’s attention.

Over the last 15 years, a more moderate approach to training evolved. Many of us trainers realized that to overcome the limitations of reward only training, some amount of aversive pressure is necessary. However, we also recognized that to avoid the unwanted side effects, and to maintain a level of respect and consideration for the dog’s emotional and psychological well being, we need to be careful and thoughtful about when and how aversive pressure is used. Many years of thought, practice and experience, along with significant advancement in the fields of behavioral science and psychology, have resulted in a modern approach to dog training that is both compassionate, and reliable.

In this modern, balanced approach to training, we begin a dog’s education through the use of rewards. Dogs learn new behaviors through goal driven learning that is both enjoyable and effective. The dog is allowed to gain an understanding of the training exercises without concern about making a mistake. If and when more reliability is needed, unpleasant consequences are introduced into the training program in a careful and thought-out manner to ensure that we avoid the problems associated with the crude techniques of the past. One of the most significant advancements in this area was the realization that before we use any tool such as a training collar to “correct” a dog for disobedience, we first need to make sure that the dog has an opportunity to learn not only about the training exercise, but also about the tool, meaning the dog must learn that what we call “pressure” is something that they can control and avoid through their actions. Most commonly we do this first with a leash and training collar. Through this process the dog learns all the various situations in which pressure may be applied, and the various behaviors that they can rely on to remove that pressure, and this is all done with a low intensity so the dog has the opportunity to learn about the tools without any stress. After many repetitions the dogs begin to view the leash pressure as simply another piece of valuable information, which allows us to help them navigate the world and earn rewards and praise. Only once this has been accomplished do we then use the tool in a more motivating way as necessary, to prompt the dog into appropriate choices, or correct them for willful disobedience. This process not only helps us reduce the need for punishment, but also help to ensure that if punishment is applied that the dog knows exactly why it happened, and what they can do to avoid it in the future.

If this sounds a bit technical, well, that’s because it is. Good dog training, really good dog training is complex. The concept of punishment should not be approached carelessly, and the oversight of a qualified professional is always recommended. Although there may be other variations of this approach, this is modern balanced dog training as we apply it at my training center K9 Connection. It is a way of approaching dog training and behavior that is both fair and compassionate, while also creating real world reliability that is achievable for the everyday dog owner.

-Tyler G. Muto

Who’s To Blame

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When I was in college, I used to play a lot of billiards. It was never for money, always just for fun, and therefore we used to joke around a lot.  Every now and then when one of my friends was trying to sink a particularly difficult shot, I would stand behind the pocket that I knew he was aiming for and do something silly to try and distract him. Sometimes I would be successful, and he would miss, resulting in a dirty look from him, and a maniacal laugh from me.

I recently heard a great quote,

“If the shooter misses the mark, it’s not the target’s fault.”

In the above circumstances, clearly it’s neither shooter’s fault nor the target’s fault but really the fault lies with the bearded guy standing behind the pocket making odd faces, and ridiculous dances.

I do however; want to take a moment to discuss how this quote may relate to dog training. Training dogs is in its essence an act of one species attempting to communicate to another species in a language in which only one of them is fluent. Of course this point in itself can be debated, as good dog trainers try to utilize movement and body language that the dog can inherently understand. However for the moment let’s assume that what we’re referring to are verbal commands of which the dog has no previous or innate knowledge.

In such a situation, the human being can also be referred to as the speaker and as such as the “shooter”. The dog may also be referred to as the listener, or as such the “target” of the communication/speech.

“If the shooter misses the mark, it’s not the target’s fault.”

I’m fortunate to be in a position where my career allows me to travel the country and work with many dog trainers from various walks of life. In doing so I get to utilize my powers of observation quite a bit. All too often I see humans give a command, and a dog attempt compliance however making an incorrect choice. The result of which is the human delivering a correction.

The key element in this scenario is that the dog was trying. He wasn’t being disobedient; he was attempting to do what his handler wanted. He misunderstood the requirements, he didn’t understand. The communication did not land as it was intended, the shooter missed the mark.

It may be worthwhile to take a moment at this point to define some terminology. Namely the word ”correction”.  I will be the first to admit, that in different contexts, I often mean different things by this word. So for the sake of this discussion, when I say correction, what I mean is something that is significantly aversive to the dog. Something beyond a mild communication that informs the dog of an error. I mean rather, something of the significance that it could have an adverse effect on the dog’s attitude. This can be different for different dogs. For many dogs a sharp snap on a leash and training collar is enough to make them feel that they have transgressed, for other dogs such as my dog Lobo, a stern ”No” has a more significant emotional impact, than any physical correction that I could offer.

In my opinion, when training dogs the responsibility falls on the human’s shoulders to make sure that the dog understands what is being said, and when that fails to be the case, to be sensitive enough to recognize that it is our job to change something about our own behavior in order help the dog along. In other words, is the speaker’s responsibility to communicate clearly and effectively, if the listener does not understand, it’s not their fault.

I do believe that there is a time and a place for such corrections when training dogs to be responsible members of our society. I do not believe that in the context of obedience training, particularly when the dog is attempting to comply even though they’re making an incorrect choice, that such corrections are warranted. This is not to say, that a dog should not be told that they have made a mistake. And it is not to say, that a mild amount of pressure could not be put on the dog to guide them into the correct choice. But there is a significant difference between mild pressure that simply communicates, motivates and guides, and the type of correction that causes an individual to feel that they are in trouble or that they have transgressed in any serious way. In most cases I find it beneficial to praise the dog for their good efforts, before re-attempting the exercise while this time making an adjustment to the way I deliver my communication.

I would be willing to bet, that if many individuals pause for a moment when they were struggling with their dog, they would often see that the dog’s mistakes were the result of a failure in communication. In other words, the shooter missed the mark.

Before you curse the target, re-adjust your aim.

-Tyler Muto

Communication Breakdown

By Josh Moran, K9 Connection Lead Trainer

View the original post on the Barefoot Dog Trainer blog 

ímynda sér ef enginn vissi hvernig á að tala tungumálið sem þú talar, og þú gætir ekki skilið tungumál þeirra.

If this were the case, your life would undoubtedly be excruciating. Not being able to get your point across, and not being able to understand the rules of where you were living would cause immense amounts of anxiety, stress, and fear. Unfortunately there are hundreds if not thousands of dogs who live their lives this way.

Living with dogs has never been about down stays or recalls just for their own sake. Living with dogs has always and always will be about communication. And obedience training is one of the most important parts of communicating with your dog. Having a clear set of guidelines and rules about how the two, or three, or six of you should live together is essential to a good relationship.

More importantly, having a way of guiding and coaching your dog who cannot understand the environment around them in the same way you can, not only helps them create harmony with you and your family, but it keeps them from getting themselves into trouble or dangerous situations.

Setting a foundation built on communication leads to a lifetime of enjoyment with your dog. And prevents many unwanted problems from manifesting in your dogs behavior.  Start with teaching them how to behave on a leash.  And I don’t mean just walking. I mean make sure your dog can sit idly with you outside, no tension on your leash with a relaxed mindset. The idea is to get your dog to the point that anywhere you go, your dog can look to you for advice and information.

Teach yourself to listen to your dog, and teach your dog to listen to you. When your default mindset is communication, living with a dog becomes a vastly more substantial and rewarding relationship.

Self Discipline

When I was roughly 5 years old my mother asked me if I would like to take karate classes.

My answer was flat out “No.”

About 6 months later I saw the movie “The Karate Kid,” and suddenly I had a change of heart.

I took my classes pretty seriously for kid. I climbed the ranks, competed at championships, and by the time I was 12, I earned my black belt, the youngest at my school.

I learned many important things during this time, and none of them had to do with fighting. If you were to ask me today, the most important thing I learned was self-discipline.

Merriam Webster defines self-discipline as “correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement”. It often involves controlling one’s emotions, actions, impulses and desires. An extremely valuable skill for a young man to learn.

When I hit my teenage years I discovered girls, skateboards, and cars among other things; and my karate lessons seemed boring in comparison. I quit.

The discipline I learned carried me through many difficult situations and decisions, and helped form the adult I became. When I was 27, I had an itch, I needed martial arts back in my life, so I began taking Kung Fu classes.

When I was searching for a school, I had a particular vision of what I wanted. Again, it had nothing to do with fighting skill. I missed the discipline. I found what I was looking for at the Gold Summit Martial Arts Institute. My teacher, Laoshi Markle is strict in the most traditional sense. She is knows exactly what she expects from her students, and she accepts nothing less. She will not hesitate to scold someone for offering less that their best effort, and compliments are hard to earn. Because of this I find myself working just as hard to please her as I would my own father (I recently completed a class on one foot because I had a sprained ankle), and on the occasion that I receive one of her compliments it fills me with a sense of personal satisfaction that lasts for the remainder of the day.

What she knows is something essential, that great teachers have known throughout the ages. Her firm clear teaching, carefully doled out praise, and clear expectations have taught us to keep ourselves in line. The more advanced students never need scolding, they practice self-discipline.

Now, on to dog training. I am a firm believer that dogs can and do learn self-discipline. Not only that, but the vast majority of problem dogs that come into the K9 Connection dog training center have none of it. Most problem dogs that I see have never learned to regulate their own impulses, emotions, and actions.

This often is a function of either no training, or ineffective training. Many dogs, without learning that negative consequences can result from certain behaviors, never learn to temper their actions; they see no reason to.

If, when I first stepped into Kung Fu class, I saw that Laoshi ran her school following the only praise and reward style of teaching, I would have turned around and left, immediately. I knew that I would only reach my fullest potential with a teacher who will be firm when necessary, even if it is unpleasant in the moment. I crave the balance of reward and consequence, it makes her praise more appealing and it assures me that I am getting the feedback I need to grow as a person. Laoshi isn’t abusive; she never hits us or insults us. She doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear, but she will always tell us what we need to hear.

Your dog craves this balance too. Structure and discipline can help a dog reach a state of peace and fulfillment. Instinctually, I think both you and your dog already know this.

Dog training can be a lot of fun, but it may not always be fun. Sometimes a dog needs to learn to do things that he may not really want to do. We work him through it. These are the moments that develop self-discipline.

There are times when it is preferable to create a situation where the dog wants to do what you are asking. You can add incentives like treats or toys to make the dog enjoy the process. To me however, an equally important part of training is seeing what happens when the dog doesn’t necessarily want to do what you are asking. Will they do it anyway? Will they use self-discipline without there having to be something external ‘in it for them’ such as a treat or toy?

One of the main exercises I use towards this goal is the down-stay position. Not the typical “stay for two minutes and you’ll get a treat” that the average training class teaches. I purposely ask the dog to do this when he knows there is no treat involved, and the minimum I require my students to strive for is a half-hour stay. During this time frame, the dog is going to have many impulses to get up and do other things, but I want to see him begin to control those impulses.

Essentially I want him to think twice before he acts, a habit that can carry over into every other aspect of his life. How great of a skill is that, think twice before you act, can you imagine?

-Tyler Muto