The effects of shock

I was asked to look in on a client of mine from quite a few years ago, a clever little Schnauzer I had initially been called upon to help with housebreaking issues. It would seem that although his previous issues were long resolved, he had become intolerant of visitors, passers-by and the presence of other dogs. His owner was being assaulted with his daily barking, snarling and rushing at people and had serious concerns.

Since I rarely do private in-home training these days, I was reluctant to make the trip, but based on the client’s particular set of circumstances decided that it was a better plan than to have her come here; it would be easier to duplicate the issues in a familiar environment.

I was surprised when she suggested that I bring “one of those ‘shock collars‘ with me.”

I kind of cringed a bit; the term sets my teeth on edge and I got the impression that her intent or understanding of its use differed considerably from my own.

The only e-collar I had to take with me was my big DogTra 3502 which when put on this little dog would look like some kind of giant goiter. So, along with a couple of light lines, a slip collar and a six foot leash, I brought it to serve for the demonstration. The thought of this little ten pound dog in this huge collar was comical, but in the absence of a smaller unit, I had no other choice.

I had pretty much already framed what I was going to say regarding the electronic collar and it’s uses and much of that follows below. I consider myself a trainer that happens to use e-collars as opposed to a one-trick pony an e-collar trainer, which is why I offer a variety of training alternatives for people inquiring about help for their dogs.

I have always felt that in order to better understand the appropriate use of a tool, any tool, one has to have a fundamental understanding of the learning process that occurred long before the invention of devices. The patterns of teaching and learning that gave birth to ‘science’ and predate ‘behaviorism’ by thousands and thousands of years.

I like to hypothesize that dog training as a ‘trade’ probably predates prostitution as the ‘oldest profession’. Since our intimate association with dogs comes along at the very same rate as their evolution, it’s not a far stretch to theorize about the processes that brought cooperation and understanding between the species.

I imagine that tethering proto-dog was a practice before Bill Koehler, or the folks who predate him; Konrad Most, Will Judy, Hans Tossutti and so on, all the way back past Alexander the Great, writer of the first chronicles of training for dogs to date.

I imagine that our ancestors practiced bribing proto-dog with food, which predates clicker trainers everywhere and since wild dogs were continually under a lot of survival pressure, staying close enough to our fires and traveling with us on our hunts is simply a manifestation of that pressure. This easily predates the recent affectation to the whole operant conditioning movement.

Long before Skinner, Pryor, Dunbar, et al.

It was advantageous for proto-dog to join us on our journey. It was advantageous for us to encourage that association, however it may have actually occurred.  I don’t really know; I’m not that old and ‘science’ is still speculating for the most part.

Most recent scientific findings on the evolution of dog from it’s wild counterpart are still pretty speculative; carefully still trying to pinpoint the exact moment that the two separated on the evolutionary tree. The lack of agreement has hypotheses ranging from tens of thousands of years to as recent as the last 15 thousand years or so.

Archaeological digs of human burial grounds place the dog as a participating member of human society about 15 thousand years ago. The presence of dog remains at these sites are a pretty compelling argument that they coexisted as more than the scavenger proto-dog circling our camps and certainly as actual participants in our daily lives. Most interesting though, the physiology of those remains suggest that the evolutionary shift had already begun to occur from wild animal to domestic dog prior to the evidence offered by these finds.

The rest is still only speculation, but any rational understanding and application of how dogs learn now is a pretty good indicator of how they learned then.

Pressure. Social pressure, environmental pressure, physical pressure.

The dog’s evolution was predicated on the application of pressure, in some form, sufficient to compel continued survival and the resultant adaptation; whether it was the easy availability of the leavings from around our camps and fires, or to follow us on our hunts for the gut piles from our kills. It made survival more accessible to both sets of wary hunters.

Much of our own social structure is mirrored in the social hierarchy of wild dogs. I theorize that our association had a far greater impact on humans socially as a model in cooperation amongst each other as well as across species.

We may well have followed the great packs on their hunts, drove them off their kills, and learned along the way the uncanny ability of wild dog to track and locate game. Undeniably a valuable resource for the struggling human species.

We probably learned quite a few things in our mutual observations and as each species began to tolerate the close proximity of the other, we forged a relationship that transcends our religious beliefs, is stronger than our political alliances and more powerful than our relationships with any other species either known or unknown in the natural world. The presence of dogs in our culture is as old as the story of man.

And it all revolves around pressure.

The pressure to survive. Or starve and die.

The phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” is a pretty accurate description of our ascension from the caves to the high rises of our greatest cities.

As we moved from the hunter/gatherer existence, started expanding and cultivating, our history is peppered with the creation of things that make our lives better, easier and more productive. Discoveries in metallurgy rendered tools and weapons that lasted longer, were more effective and sparked even more invention. Our abandonment of the proverbial ‘stone age’ catapulted us into the modern era. Exploitation of natural resources is almost a sacred covenant for early man. Social friction over those resources coupled with the expectant, exponential growth of civilization created nations, built cities and started wars.

Pressure. And lots of it.

Every nations’s Armed Forces are a direct corollary to this phenomenon. The threat from other forces compel each nation  to create bigger, more powerful weapons.

It’s a wonderful thing. Embrace it, because without it, it is unlikely our species could have survived.

The role of the electronic dog training collar in all of this is simply more of the same. It is yet another device that allows for the manipulation of behavior through the application of pressure, as does any collar or training device manufactured in any form since the stone age.

It’s use is the cause of moral and ethical dilemmas across the globe, with countries banning or attempting to ban their sale, people in violent opposition of their use for any reason and the pseudo-science that had sprung up in the wake of their rapid growth as a training tool for pets.

They are no more a threat to the natural order of things than Trog’s stone-age leash stripped from the sinew of a great beast that tethered his captive wolf cub to the tree just inside the glow of the camp fire.

Now granted, the technology outstripped our early understanding of practical and appropriate uses, but within the last ten years, the understanding of the technology has finally begun to keep pace with new developments in learning as well. The e-collar has the capability of becoming a highly successful, versatile tool that is poised to revolutionize dog training as most people know it.

The same can be said for nuclear power.

Or it can continue to be vilified by pseudo-scientists with an agenda and individuals who would rather emote about dogs and their training than actually learn anything about them. I was going to put a link here, but decided that I would not grace these individuals with additional web traffic. Suffice it to say, if you are a regular follower of this little blog, you know to whom I am referring and if not, a quick Google search for shock collars will lead you to additional information than you could probably stomach need.

The pertinence to my little post is here:

I arrive at my client’s home not to defend e-collars, but to explain their appropriate use. Remember, she had asked me to bring one.

I am greeted at the door by a whirling little Schnauzer, hell-bent on my demise. I shoo him away with a stern look and an advance and he retreats to his owner’s side; his feigned vigilance punctuated by an occasional half-hearted growl of indignation.

We retire to her kitchen where I lay the device on her counter along with my other equipment. Her tiny guardian does everything in his diminishing power to warn me of his presence and the harder I ignore him, the faster he loses interest.

She starts the conversation by telling me how it came to be that she requested the electronic collar. She had referred me about a year ago to a good friend with a highly reactive Malinois. During a particularly eventful visit, the Mal’s owner had recommended that the Schnauzer owner invite me back out. The Mal client suggested she might want to ask about the electronic collar.

Remembering the Mal owner and the dog, I also remembered her reluctance to use an e-collar at all, having been victimized and disoriented by the here-say and anecdotal evidence that surrounds e-collar use. She had only opted for an e-collar as a choice after having been unsuccessful with the alternatives she had tried and was desperate for a resolution to her dogs’ potentially dangerous behavior.

Although quite a few of my clients actively seek e-collar training, I still get a reasonable percentage of inquiries that are either not concerned about method or have never seen an e-collar applied in an intelligent, humane way.

Most of the latter individuals that see the collar in my hand start by saying “You’re not going to put that on my dog!“, to which I respond, “No, I’m going to put it on you, first.”

Trying to unravel emotions from facts is always a tricky thing, and the onslaught of resources perpetuating poor, untested information is as a raindrop to an ocean, but still we try.

Trying to denude individuals of their perceptions regarding use and application can be even harder.

In skilled hands, the electronic dog training device is not a tool of punishment.

Shocking, isn’t it?

I usually start my demo with placing the receiver on to the hand of the client. I hold the transmitter and ask them to tell me when they feel anything. Since I only use DogTra products, this can be anywhere from 1 to 127, depending on the model and the ability to perceive the sensation by the person.

Usually, they respond at about 15 to 20, but I had a young girl, a gymnast, that went as high as 35 before she could even indicate any sensation whatsoever. Her father, a big man, felt the stimulation at about a 16.

I can’t feel it until about a 20, which is within the average range for most people and most dogs.

People are always afraid of what they don’t understand, or what they feel they can’t control and nothing in the world evokes that faster than either fire or electricity. Even though we have successfully captured and harnessed both; one for hundreds of thousands of years and the singular catalyst to our success as a species, and the other for decades whose absence would cripple us as a society if we were to find ourselves without it.

To apply something such as electricity deliberately to an animal, well, that just evokes horrifying images of cruelty.

Understanding the basic tenets of pressure should change all that.

You apply only the amount of pressure necessary to elicit an action which alleviates that pressure. The dog will indicate his awareness of the pressure by sniffing the ground, cocking an ear, looking at his butt, or even as subtle as moving away from the area where the pressure occurred, usually in the direction opposite the source of the pressure itself; the receiver’s position on the dogs’ neck.

Not the images burned into our minds of dogs shrieking in agony, their eyes bulging out of their skulls, their flesh burning. All stuff that folks would like for us to believe; That. Are. Simply. Not. True.

My Schnauzer was a great candidate for training, period. He was attentive and was responsive to the innate mechanism of cause/effect that drives all behavior. He understood pressure.

As the Schnauzer’s owner and I continued with our conversation, it became apparent to me that although she was interested in the e-collar as a training device, her attraction wasn’t one of punishment either. She understood the concept, was eager to learn it’s uses. Her explanation to me as to why was what I found fascinating.

She understood the novelty of applying pressure remotely; that it removes conflict and the opposition reflex that conflict creates. It separates her from the process, her involvement becomes less antagonistic and more proactive.

It does, but it doesn’t. I agree that appropriate use of electronic collars removes conflict, but the owner is still as much a part of what happens or doesn’t based on the timely delivery of command/presence of pressure/duration of pressure/level of pressure. There is no escaping that.

She understood pressure too.

What I found of absolute importance is her recognition of the distinction between pressure as punishment and pressure as a guiding force.

The new scientists could benefit from her emotional detachment and the objectivity from which she approached the issue.

I was, well…  I was shocked!