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 trainings are 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 on lupomorphism 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 20 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 have recently introduced a concept to my studies that I am still researching and developing, in order to classify and organize the current reality of dogs’ use in society in an anthrozoological context: The Fashionism.

Fashionism is a model that suggests that dogs are used according to social, economic and cultural interests and tendencies, which may be temporary or permanent. These models create social battles and bring our primitive essence into all the trainers groups I’ve previously rated.

Fashionism is now much more present in many 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.

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 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 favor 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. Behavioral 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 behavior, when presented (+) or removed (-) simultaneously or immediately after a behavior takes place.

– An inhibitor is anything that decreases the frequency, intensity, and / or duration of a particular behavior, when presented (+) or removed (-) simultaneously or immediately after a behavior takes place.

– The “+” does not mean good or bad nor “-” does not means 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 behavior 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 behavior or increases it, the trainer is by definition applying a reinforcement and not an inhibition.

– If a dog remains with a behavior or decreases it, the trainer is by definition applying an inhibition and not a reinforcement.

– An aversive causes avoidance of something, a situation or behavior 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.

– There are four ways to increase one aspect of behavior: (1) reinforce the behavior, (2) do not inhibit the behavior, (3) produce opportunities to show the behavior to, (4) do not reinforce behavior incompatible with the behavior you want.
– There are four ways to reduce an aspect of behavior: (1) inhibit the behavior, (2) do not reinforce the behavior (extinction), (3) prevent opportunities to show the behavior to (forgetting), (4) reinforce a behavior incompatible with the behavior 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 behavior decreases. If the behavior 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 update 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 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 with what we do/say and never deceive ourselves with euphemisms or social fallacies.


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Autor: Roberto Barata

Animal Trainer, Consultant and Instructor; Ethology Institute Tutor; Scientific and Popular Articles Writer; Animal FACS and Pets in Society (anthrozoology) Technical Researcher.