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"On Good Behavior" -- Premiere Column

   In the mid 1970's, I began working for a small humane society in Oregon. I had little experience with animals and  even less experience with the realities of pet overpopulation. Each day I answered phone calls from pet owners who wanted advice about how to fix their pets' behavior problems. The most common types of problems were  chronic barking, digging or jumping on guests -- simple problems for which I had no simple solutions. Another type of call came from owners who wished to release their pets to the shelter. Our policy was to tell the owners that the  shelter should be used as a last resort and that they should keep the animal if possible. After a very short time I realized that there was a clear connection between these two types of phone calls.

 I remember one particular call that radically changed my attitude about our shelter policies. I spoke to a man who was angry because his German Shorthaired pointer had destroyed over $1000.00 worth of drapes. I attempted to  persuade him to work through his problems and keep the dog. His reply pointed out the weakness of my position.

"If you are so sure that I should keep him, can you tell me how to stop him from doing it again? Are you willing to  pay if he ruins the next batch of curtains?" The man added that advising someone to keep such a pet without telling him how to fix the problem was ridiculous and naive. To make matters worse, the man had adopted the dog from  the shelter, several months before, based on the assurances of a very mistaken shelter worker -- me.

Months of listening to the same stories from different people taught me several things. First, rather than being  indifferent or heartless toward their animals, the majority of people who gave up their pets did it out of desperation. Most of them had turned to the shelter as a last resort after attempting one or more behavioral remedies. Clearly,  the first step in solving the problem of unwanted pets lay with teaching the owners how to humanely modify their pets' behaviors. All I needed to do, I reasoned, was read a few books about behavior modification, roll up my  sleeves and get to work.

My first steps in learning about animal behavior seemed to lead to a dead end. First, I read every dog and cat book  I could find. I also read scientific works about behavior modification and talked to experienced trainers. I kept finding "solutions" that were uniformly impractical, inhumane or nonsensical. One book recommended a cure for  chronic digging that included filling one of the holes with water and then submerging the dog's head. Another book suggested shooting a BB gun at the dog when it barked. I was ethically opposed to anything so obviously violent  and realistic enough to see that even someone with perfect timing could make a tiny error and injure the animal. I had come to a crossroads, of sorts. I decided to search beyond traditional obedience training to find methods that  could not possibly injure an animal - even accidentally.

Another obstacle in my attempt to learn about animal behavior was that the experts didn't seem to agree about  even basic concepts. Worse, when they did agree, it often seemed to contradict my own experience. For instance, many authorities suggested that scent is the primary cause of many behaviors. Book after book cautioned that dogs  will bite you if they detect the odor of fear, yet I spent many fearful moments handling vicious dogs without being attacked. I discovered that visual signs, such as eye contact or touching a dog at the shoulders, are far more likely  to trigger an attack than scent. It was not that the experts were wrong, they had simply not seen the entire spectrum of dog behavior. Following a traditional approach to dog training seemed like a limited path.

 In contrast to conventional dog obedience training, there were many examples of trainers in different disciplines who seemed free of traditional rules or expectations. I had seen marine mammal trainers who could get a 600  pound sea lion to gently kiss a small child. This type of behavior had not been taught using choke chains or shock collars, but with toy clickers and food rewards. I once saw a herding demonstration, where three border collies  fetched a group of sheep from a distance of over 100 yards. The herdsman used neither harsh words nor a leash. His control was so refined that he could move each of the dogs, by name, a few inches at a time.

 The previous examples of humane and effective training are not isolated. Sheepherders in New Zealand use dogs to herd sheep at distances up to 1000 yards. The U.S. Navy has trained both dolphins and seals to perform patrol  duties at distances ten times that far. Trainers at the Brookfield Zoo , in Chicago, recently taught a female Orangutan how to nurture her baby. She had been born in captivity and had never learned from other Orangutans  how to be a proper mother.

Though these examples of training all differ from traditional forms, they are quite similar to each other. The  connecting thread between them is their focus on primarily positive reinforcement to shape successful performance, rather than corrections for failure. Even though these various types of trainers use different terms to describe what  they do, their proper use of reinforcement is consistent.

It should not be surprising that pet owners can benefit from the knowledge of these "super trainers". Teaching a dog  to lie quietly while having his nails trimmed is not so different than teaching a dolphin to lie quietly for a medical examination. Sheepherders whose dogs respond to the faint sound of a whistle can give us insight into teaching a  dog to come when called.

Over the past 20 years a growing number of trainers and behaviorists have turned their skills toward expanding the  methodology of training and behavior modification. New forms of training such as dog agility competitions rely on trust between the dog and handler. Trust can only be built with positive reinforcement. Service dog trainers  routinely teach dogs to respond to people who are physically unable to force a dog to be obedient. These innovative techniques offer real advantages for pet owners as well as proffesional trainers.

 Examining these new and exciting applications for training and behavioral control is one of my goals for "On Good Behavior". While we are all interested in correcting misbehavior it is important to celebrate the entire spectrum of  what dogs do. Be sure to stay tuned if you would like to examine how a breeder's whelping box can inadvertently make puppies harder to housetrain, a standard dachshund who learned to help his owner clean the fish tank by  gently removing the fish with his mouth, and why dogs should never be taught to ask for bon bons at the movie theater.


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