Training tools and Fashionism—an anthrozoological view

Animal training, especially dog training, did not have (per se) significant changes over the decades.

Having their origins in military roots, even today the training is done in their vast majority in groups, in line or circle formations, where everyone must perform the same procedures mechanically in the same timeline, so dogs are considered “obedient”, like a production line it is.

Adding models based onLupomorphism and Babymorphism, generally well accepted in society because always give us a sense of power and control, discrediting the need for individual and adapted training to the needs and limitations of the individual, together with a natural communication to create a relationship with another species without the need of coercion or enticement, giving more emphasis to us and not to tools.

This generalization of procedures creates a social mentality fueled by lack of knowledge (purposeful and commercially necessary) on the subject, lack of civism and delinquency with the law (loose dogs, uncollected waste, among others), all for an “obedient dog” and all the rest is wrong, in a kind of passive nihilism if we think that according to our internal statistics (Denmark) with families with dogs indicate that the dog spends an average of 21 hours closed in a house, and the little time he has to be really a dog (in its essence of species) and to be able to investigate the external environment is used only for “obedience”, to walk in heel position, to be often forced to perform exercises that are not needed in his life but which are mere caprices of exhibitionism and human “disobedience”, with the dog only submitting itself as the only way to remain alive in human society… but (as everyone says) we love them.

The generalization with the use of theories, techniques and materials is dangerous and criminal because families place the life of a member (albeit from another species) to the “expertise” of a person who is supposed to be a professional. Families will always adopt what they are taught in a massive way, regardless of the effects this may bring to the dog.

On the other hand, these ramifications of “error-free training” have spread to other areas where the dog is used as a pure object or working tool. Dogs are used in excuse of the benefits for the human. The survival of the species is pending its usefulness, now camouflaged by a social awareness and embellished with the most beautiful photos and words. With the premise of its use for a social good, we do not even think of important details such as (1) the lack of training of the “professionals” in the area, (2) the economic factors involved, (3) subjects through several well-publicized “studies” that announce the benefits of dogs to human well-being, thus creating a mandatory need. However, I continue asking why there’s not a single welfare study on animals used for social purposes? Ignorance has an anxiolytic effect on reality and controls the crowds, thinking outside the herd is increasingly a social challenge that moves us slowly away from the ecosystem we so much claim to defend.

I introduced in 2013 a concept in my studies and practical work, in order to classify and organize the current reality of nonhuman animals use in society in an anthrozoological context: The Fashionism.

Fashionism is a model suggesting that nonhuman animals are used according to social, economic and cultural interests and tendencies, which may be temporary or permanent.

Fashionism is now much more present in main areas at pet world. We live in an “all-in” era to achieve the goals of these trends, where the dog has to do a certain task for humans, regardless of which way can be taught for it.

I also divided it into “Technical Fashionism”, a concept exclusively applied to animal training and which I will publish in a scientific journal and technical manuals from the Ethology Institute.

Together with philosophical thinking concepts (usually Contractarianism, Utilitarianism and Animal Rights), it is possible to make a deep coherent reflection on the necessity and usefulness of the use of certain materials. I also have extensive research on this subject and how I introduced them and applied them in practice to animal training since 2008. It will be published in full in a scientific journal and technical manuals of the Ethology Institute.

These reflections also make us ponder the use of the word “training” for what we actually do. I consider this word to be “popular” and, depending on the perspective and the area where it is addressed, it may make sense to use it. For example, from an ethnological and anthrozoological perspective, I do not agree with this use because we address the natural needs of a species. From a psychology or sociology perspective, training can be something useful and necessary because it is indirectly interconnected with an individual’s social integration. Both are correct, it all depends on how we approach the subject.

Recent discussions, mostly at the dogmatic level, want to define the best materials/tools used in training, as if only in that way can be defined as a good interspecific relationship. There are several studies (see references) that demonstrate the effects of both materials used and their implementation techniques, as well as official positions of world organizations condemning or recommending the use of others, among other scientific facts that allow us to understand, update and make conscious decisions about what we are doing.

However there are some points in behavioral modification that are totally distorted and sometimes unknown by the professionals due to the social need to show results, to give guarantees as a way to create a necessary status for marketing purposes, to use socially accepted words or to say what people want to listen, always with the timidity of saying that there are situations that will take a lot of time and require a complete change of routine of the person, or situations where the incapacity and/or incompatibility of the owner with the dog is the only possible diagnosis, because dogs (and other pets) are also sometimes used as a way of trying to compensate a void in people’s lives, result of a previously negative personal living situation. Therefore, the individual needs and limitations of each dog are not respected, much less studied or understood.

Each dog has its own time, fitness and limitation. Individualizing and not generalizing is a favour we make to ourselves as rational beings.
We need to know what we want to teach to the other species, why we are teaching if it is really necessary to waste the time and energy of both to teach it, and how to teach with an individual and adapted training session program with the correct signs and consequences.

The danger of generalization of tools or techniques is governed by the non-respect of the individual and situation. Behavioural modification must be individual and adapted, and there are some principles of learning theory about reinforcers or inhibitors that we should know:

  • A reinforcement is anything that increases the frequency, intensity, and/or duration of a particular behaviour, when presented (+) or removed (-) simultaneously or immediately after a behaviour takes place.
  • An inhibitor is anything that decreases the frequency, intensity, and/or duration of a particular behaviour, when presented (+) or removed (-) simultaneously or immediately after a behaviour takes place.
  • The “+” does not mean good or bad nor “-” does not mean bad or good. Reinforce does not mean being good or bad, or an inhibitor means being bad or good.
    Reinforcers and inhibitors are always subject to three distinct conditions: The individual, the behaviour and the moment.
  • The effectiveness of reinforcers and inhibitors also depends on their intensity, the way it is given and the present situation. What is a reinforcement in one situation may be an inhibitor in another and vice versa.
  • If the dog remains with a behaviour or increases it, the trainer is by definition applying a reinforcement and not an inhibition.
  • If a dog remains with a behaviour or decreases it, the trainer is by definition applying an inhibition and not a reinforcement.
  • An aversive causes avoidance of something, a situation or behaviour through the use of an unpleasant or punitive stimulus. Thus, by definition, any kind of material or technique can be aversive as long as it causes discomfort or avoidance to the individual. By the way, the correct term (by definition) for that purpose should be “coersive”, not “aversive”.
  • There are four ways to increase one aspect of behaviour: (1) reinforce the behaviour, (2) do not inhibit the behaviour, (3) produce opportunities to show the behaviour to, (4) do not reinforce behaviour incompatible with the behaviour you want.
  • There are four ways to reduce an aspect of behaviour: (1) inhibit the behaviour, (2) do not reinforce the behaviour (extinction), (3) prevent opportunities to show the behaviour to (forgetting), (4) reinforce a behaviour incompatible with the behaviour you want to decrease.

Author’s personal note:
I do not need the support of the science to not provoke fear, intimidation or pain when I am communicating with other species, to force them to do anything because there are results or guarantees for humans to be presented or by other justifications that demonstrate our limitation of knowledge. It should be intrinsic. I do not use and will not use tools whose sole purpose is to create pain and feelings of discomfort for the dog, for more personal and professional sacrifices I can continue to make.

I reject the rhetoric of “I wanted to see how do you act with an aggressive dog”, because during my entire practical professional life I passed from K9 military training to training to both social extremes training sides and I deal with any type of situation with the full awareness of my technical and ethical limits, and great individual respect for other species. I have made my decisions and reflections based on my experience and science, we will always be eternal students.

I invite everyone regardless of training philosophy to try to communicate with a cat or a horse the way they do with dogs, they will realize that we are perfect ignorant cowards by using intimidation and coercion with a species considered the most domesticated and social to the humans.

On the other hand, a training based on 100% reinforcements or 100% inhibitors is something technically impossible, biologically unnatural (relation of the costs x benefits of the organisms) and a mistake to all that believe it and can make with it slogans, marketing campaigns or using argumentum ad verecundiam. Simply turning your back on the dog to stop jumping is by definition a negative inhibitor if the behaviour decreases. If the behaviour continues or increases, it is by definition a reinforcement. It is not the reinforcers or inhibitors that are good or bad, it is a question of an updated knowledge, a management of the present conditions and establish our limits. “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.” – Daniel Boorstin

If you arrive in this paragraph with any reluctance or doubt, congratulations. I recommend you read carefully again the topics above and all the references at the end so that you can understand it from a scientific point of view. And I also recommend you to research further beyond this, always with the doubt present and never be influenced by groups or mentalities, the animal training is half science and half art, we can only learn science, the rest … is what makes the difference.

When we are doing a professional work, we should have as solid knowledge support by scientific references (and not idiotic references easily found on the internet) that will allow us (or not) to adapt our way to interact with other species. The choice of how we want based our relationship with animals its exclusively ours, we just should not be hypocritical or incoherent about what we do/say and never deceive ourselves with euphemisms or social fallacies.

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Autor: Roberto Barata

Ethology Institute Tutor and administration staff member; Instructor and Researcher in Applied Mentoring and Anthrozoology in Animal Behavior and Training field.