Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Human Element

This is Denver. Who knew it was possible to be in Denver and be so far away from mountains? *sigh*

Nursing and dog training have more similarities than you'd think. Nothing prepared me for nursing as well as working in an animal shelter: the heartbreak, the joy, and the down right dirty disgusting. Because of my education as a nurse, I can better look at much of the new research and training methods with dogs from a critical analysis standpoint. I spent last weekend in Denver studying a concept called “motivational interviewing.” This is exciting for me not only because the information will benefit my patients and coworkers, but also because of its implications for my dogs as well as my dog training students. It's impossible for me to pin down a two and a half day workshop into a few blog posts, so here's a few of the highlights.

Tough Love Doesn't Work
Motivational interviewing started as a way to help drug addicts stop using. It's evolved as a tool to improve positive outcomes in many medical areas from addiction to chronic disease management to medication compliance. Motivational interviewing stems from a pivotal moment in addiction counseling when providers realized that tough love does not work. Tough love is the process of sitting someone down and telling them what they're doing wrong. In dog trainer lingo, it's positive punishment. What the psychologist found that tough love did do was created shame, generate excuses on the part of the subject (I know it's bad for me, but . . . ), and damaged the relationship between counselor and client. It damages trust and security in the relationship. Ranting does not change behaviors.

This realization occurred in mental health over twenty years ago. In general medicine and in dog training, though, tough love is still common practice - not only toward dogs, but also toward their owners. As dog trainers, we know a great a deal about the use of punishment. One of the most important considerations with the use of punishment is that punishment will always increase anxiety. As dog trainers, we need to ask ourselves if we can afford to increase anxiety in a given situation – not only with a particular dog, but also with our clients. Telling someone, “You're wrong,” or using a negating word like, “That's great, but . . . “ it is often just as damaging as giving a dog a poorly timed correction.

The Free-Will Problem
The shift from tough love and punishment into motivational interviewing and positive reinforcement was caused by the fact that we can't force people to do anything. I know that as a nurse, I cannot make a patient take their medications. This is a huge relief to me: I am not responsible for that patient taking their medications. That patient ultimately has that responsibility. Once I surrendered that responsibility to the patient, it relieved me of a great deal of pressure. Many dog trainers that I watch seem to have difficulty because they operate on the premise that they must fix the dog/owner problem. In medicine, we call the need to fix problems the “righting reflex.” When we encounter resistance to our efforts to fix a problem, our first impulse if often to try and force the issue.

The difficulty with using force is that people have free will. If God could not keep Adam and Eve from eating the fruit, what makes me think that I can force any other living thing into the decision I have chosen for them? I am not God.

This is a particularly difficult concept when it come to our relationship with dogs. Here, the use of punishment and management have created the illusion that we can make decisions for the dog. The truth is, these tools allow us to limit a dog's choices. Force merely suppresses the choices we don't want; management removes the opportunity to make a decision at all. It is still the dog's decision to pick a behavior that works for them. If a dog is motivated enough to get something, using punishment will cause them to find another way to get what they want. That's not to say that I never use punishment or management with a dog. I simply acknowledge that in high-value situations, I will not be able to out-stubborn my dogs. If they want something badly enough, they will find a way around me.

"Go ahead. Argue with me. 
I have ALL day to think of ways to get around you. 
Best of luck getting what you want. "

Engaging in a wrestling match with a patient or a client or a dog is exhausting, and I simply don't have the energy for it. Luckily, just because I cannot make a person or dog make the decision I approve of, this does not mean that I am powerless.

The Dance
Half the battle of behavior change – for dogs and for humans – is identifying the true problem in a situation. In order to be able to do this, I have to be able to set aside my own preconceived notions about what the problem should be. For example, people often ask me how much leash tension is okay when you're teaching your dog loose leash walking. My ideal is no tension at all. My response to the owner is, “How much pulling is acceptable to you?” If it's not an issue, let's not invest our energy in fixing something that isn't broken. (Note: if I'm worried that the dog will damage their larynx pulling, I will bring that up – but ultimately, the decision about how much tension is acceptable is a decision that the owner must make on their own.)

The same applies to dogs: I do not get to decide for a dog what their core concern is. If you're having trouble identifying what is motivating a dog, keep this in mind: dogs aren't concerned about their behavior. It does not bother Maus to growl at people. Maus's core concern is creating space between him and people so that he doesn't have to interact with them. If I don't find a way to address this base concern, he will find another way to get what he wants. I may eliminate Maus's growling, but if I don't address his desire to move people away, he will find another way to get it done. For a dog with fear-based issues such as Maus's, the next decision he makes may be to move people away with his teeth instead of his voice.

In contrast - while there are many people who are motivated to address their dog's core concern - these people seem to be in the minority. The majority of people I see are primarily concerned with changing their dog's behavior. They want their dog to stop screaming at other dogs. They want their dog to stop growling at people. As trainers, acknowledging the core concern of the human must take place before we can address the dog's core concern. We do not have any enduring effect on another person's dog. That responsibility is in the hands of the owner. Most people love their dogs and want to help them, but that may not be as important to them as stopping the immediate behavior. As trainers, this is important information for us to see because unless we address the person's most important concern, we will not be able to move forward and help the owner to help their dog.

Once we see the discrepancy between the dog's core concerns and the owner's, the human response is to jump in and educate the owner. See problem = fix problem. The righting reflex kicks in. I'm not saying that the education isn't important. But the righting reflex presumes that we have the information that the owner needs to fix the problem, and this premise can be dangerous. I know a lot about behavior modification and the core concerns of dogs. What I do not know is this specific dog. The owner is the expert in their own dog. They are the ones who see the behavior (although they may not always know what they're seeing), and who know how the dog will react. If I come into a case and see a fearful dog who growling at people, awesome! I know that counter conditioning works really well for dogs like these. But I need to draw on the owner's expertise as well. Is it all people? Gender specific? Only people with hats? These are questions that I would need to have an intimate understanding of this particular dog to be able to answer, and I simply won't have that information if it's just me and the dog in an hour long assessment. Luckily, I have an expert in this dog right at my finger tips. What we need is an exchange of expertise.

More than knowing their dog, people are experts in what they themselves are capable of and willing to do. Owner motivation is the first step in canine behavior modification. I can do a lot with counter conditioning, but if the owner isn't interested or motivated in learning the technique, then all the education I can provide will not be effective. It may be that in this situation, management will be a better solution. If an owner has a strong desire to use a method that I am uncomfortable with, and they make the decision to pursue this method in understanding of all the expertise I have on the matter, then this may be a client that I should refer out to another trainer. Preferably one who is experienced in the technique the client wishes to pursue. I cannot force someone to make the decision that I want; the responsibility for their decision lies with them. On the other hand, I am not required to do something that I am ethically opposed to. I cannot help every person. I cannot save every dog. This does not make me any less of a trainer (although if I'm referring all of my clients out to other people, I may want to take a sincere look at what I'm doing).

There is often a disconnect in teaching dog training between the owner, the dog trainer, and the dog. I believe this disconnect is caused in part by the trainer's core motivations. Most dog trainers went into the field because they love dogs. This is a fine motivation to have - it's what got me where I am. But it's a little like going into nursing for money: in the long run, it's not what's going to keep you happy day after day. In both cases, you need to love people. I cannot train someone else's dog to lifelong reliability; that is up to the owner. I need to set the owner up for success. Relationship is important, and if you're going to help the dog, you need to help the person first.

We spent several hours during our seminar on the subject of relationship building between provider and client - far more information than I could summarize in an entire blog post, let alone the last few paragraphs. What I took away was the importance of being genuine and caring in your teaching. Here's my cheat: when uncertain about how to approach a client, ask yourself, "How does this show the person that I care about them?" It's easy for us to show we care about dogs, but people listen and take the advise of teachers who care about them.

The End
Teaching is more than dumping information from one brain into another. It's as gloriously complex as the people - and dogs! - involved. Treating people as obstacles to be worked through is as fruitless as treating people as diseases and not as individuals. The human element adds the excitement of the unexpected. I've never taught anyone anything and not learned something myself in return. Personally, my goal in teaching is not to act as a database of knowledge; the knowledge I have is common enough if you know where to look for it. Instead, I wish to inspire. Inspiration can carry astronauts to the moon, pirates to treasure, zombies to clicker training, and owners to a more intimate understanding of their dogs. My knowledge is limited; inspiration is infinite. All I have to do is encourage it. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow this was SUPER powerful! I clung to every word! I have 3 rescued golden retrievers. Two of which are reactive dogs in their own way. I also work in the field of education, and as a teacher of children, I completely related to this post. Thank you SO much for sharing all of this information. I learned so much :-)