Frustration in Training

Just a few days ago I was attempt­ing to teach my young dog to offer eye con­tact when being hand fed her meals.  I was using a marker to help her iden­tify the exact behav­ior required to earn food, but as things often go in train­ing, she was offer­ing a ton of dif­fer­ent behav­iors (lay­ing down, back­ing up, whin­ing, etc.) in an offer of appease­ment and I was hav­ing trou­ble mark­ing just one sin­gle behav­ior.  Sadly it took me prob­a­bly 3 train­ing ses­sions like this to real­ize that I had not suc­ceeded in train­ing her to do any­thing but get anx­ious dur­ing meal­time.  We made mutual deci­sion to change our approach.

Real­is­ti­cally, I have prob­a­bly frus­trated the crud out of a lot of dogs in my life.  Thank­fully most dogs can han­dle a lot of frus­tra­tion before react­ing poorly so I still have all of my fin­gers and my face remains intact.  Which brings me to my next point…

Ken Ramirez kneeling to greed a dolphin

I had the plea­sure of attend­ing a two-day Ken Ramirez sem­i­nar a while back.  Ken Ramirez is the direc­tor of the Shedd Aquar­ium in Chicago and an amaz­ing ani­mal trainer.  His tech­ni­cal skills in train­ing, knowl­edge, and respect for ani­mals is to be admired by all.  Insight from some­one who works with not only pet and work­ing ani­mals but large, pow­er­ful, intel­li­gent marine mam­mals is extremely valu­able.  He started off by telling an enlight­en­ing story from ear­lier in his career about the dan­gers of frus­trat­ing such ani­mals that resulted in one of his col­leagues loos­ing both of his hands in one felt swoop (in front of hun­dreds of spec­ta­tors none-the-less).  For those that work with ani­mals at zoos and aquar­i­ums, frus­tra­tion is a very real and seri­ous emo­tion that needs to be under­stood and nav­i­gated care­fully to avoid tragedy.

Emo­tions like frus­tra­tion, fear, uncer­tainty and the stress they cause are arguably worse than real phys­i­cal pain in many sit­u­a­tions.  Those that work with cows and horses know that the ter­ror asso­ci­ated with falling is often much more severe than fear of phys­i­cal pain.  This is why sports like steeple­chase that ask horses to make blind jumps over large obsta­cles or into water of unknown depth are all the more amaz­ing.  Those that work in shel­ter set­tings know that the frus­tra­tion caused by watch­ing dogs enter and exit ken­nels all day with­out the abil­ity to escape them­selves can lit­er­ally drive dogs mad.

There are many dif­fer­ent means to an end when it comes to dog train­ing but those meth­ods that cause pain to the psy­che, no mat­ter what tech­niques are being used, are often the most dam­ag­ing.  As dog own­ers and train­ers, we must eval­u­ate what effect our meth­ods are hav­ing on our dogs minds, not just what affect they are hav­ing on the behavior.

As for my dog and I, we have found a method that seems to work.  I threw out the marker for this as its asso­ci­a­tion was being pol­luted.  Instead I fed her for still or relaxed body lan­guage with the plan that if she was too frus­trated to set­tle, I would feed her any­way.  It only took a sin­gle train­ing ses­sion like this to see big improve­ments in her out­look.  Now that she is remain­ing calm dur­ing feed­ing times, we are begin­ning to rein­tro­duce the need for eye con­tact and the marker.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply