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…
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.