Stressful training sessions

One of the common topics of conversations I have online and offline is “What is the right training method”. Passions often rise high. Everyone has an opinion of their own. And eventually we are forced to break it off at “each to his own”.

Obviously, as a behaviourist I have an opinion of my own. And here I present it to you. I submit that my views are based on as much science as is available to me. It’s one, I believe holds water when questioned logically.

The environment in which a dog learns is important. And when I mean environment, I mean the attitude of the trainer, the method of training, the equipment used  – all of it. Just like with parenting, pet parenting has to start shifting away from the old school of “spare the rod and spoil the child”, more towards a nurturing, understanding methods.

This puts forth two questions
1. How do you argue that the environment effects training?
2. How do I know if the environment I have facilitates training?

I am reading a brilliant book called “Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers” by Robert M. Sapolsky. I think I will be quoting his book a lot in several of my blog posts hence.  He cites the example of lab mice subjected to stressors like the smell of a cat and being posed with puzzles to solve. Further examination of the scenario shows that the mice don’t have problem doing normal tasks like moving or running. Only puzzle solving is suffering. This is a clear indication that “learning” under stress is inhibited.

Having been part of the Dog Pulse project (www.dogpulse.org), we strapped heart rate monitors to dogs and examined what happened during different activities a dog indulged in and different activities their owners were involved in. It is evident from the project that the dogs heart races up to more than double if you yell around the dog, walk straight up to a dog, bent over a dog etc. the dog’s heart rate shoots up.

Given how subtle changes can shoot up a dog’s pulse, I cannot imagine how much more it would shoot up during things like being in the presence of stranger (trainers), loud yelling of “NO” or even “SIT”, being pulled around by the collar can be so much more stressful, not to forget the other damages it can cause to a dog.

So next comes the question – can a trainer train a dog at all? I believe – yes, possible, but at what cost. I believe, a trainer has a better shot at training the parents on how to train a dog and let them do the learning at home, where the dog is calmer in the presence of his family.

Yes, given some time, the dog could get used to the training center. But if there is a way to do it without stressing a dog, then why not? We claim our species to be the smarter ones. So why not educate ourselves on how to treat the dog, instead of teaching the dog how to do what you want?

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