Dognitive Dissonance: How We Humanize Our Dogs….When It Suits Us

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Dogs are undoubtedly man’s best friend.  They provide us with companionship, emotional fulfillment, amusement, even safety – or at least the feeling of it.  In America, we cherish our dogs so much that even saying something like “I hate people, dogs are WAY better” is more of a cliche than a cause for concern.  In a country that spends over $50 BILLION a year on our dogs, there’s no such thing as loving your dog too much.  But are we loving our dogs the right way?

With all of us in agreement on how wonderful and important dogs are, it may surprise you to know that within the dog training community, tensions run high between trainers who adhere strictly to certain styles while giving you every justification under the sun for refusing to learn or use other styles.

Content with what they already know, there’s a weird sense of misguided pride in not having a full toolbox.  There are FOUR quadrants of dog training, but single-style training tends to either eschew entire quadrants, or use them very selectively within a narrow scope.  Balanced Training, however, makes use of all four quadrants, tailoring the amount of each to the dog’s personality and achieving faster, more reliable results.

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Unfortunately, a one sided training approach does a serious disservice to dogs, not only by forcing them into the wrong type of training for their personality, but by convincing owners that they don’t have ANY other options.  When my father and I first started training dogs together, we built our name on actively appealing to owners of dogs who had already been trained but had seen little or no improvement.  Most of our clients came to us from self-styled animal behaviorists or online course graduates with cute  business names like “Pawsitive Pups!” or “Waggy Tails!” or whatever (those aren’t the real names, but close enough)

Seeing how little progress these dogs had made with their previous trainers contributed to a very closed minded attitude that I carried for a long time into my dog training career.  If a dog couldn’t hold a sit for 30 seconds after 10 weeks of clicker training, then clickers must be a waste of time.  And even worse were the stories our new clients brought with them – stories of being told by “Positive” trainers that their dog was too far gone for training and should be euthanized, or their two dogs would never get along and they simply needed to get rid of one.  One was even scolded for not consulting their trainer before getting a second dog.  We took those dogs on with enthusiasm and quickly became known for NEVER turning down a dog.

When it comes to the “Positive Reinforcement” crowd’s unwillingness to use other methods, the usual culprit is a little something called “Anthropomorphism” – the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to an animal.

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Now of course, everyone anthropomorphizes their dog in some way or another.  It can be as harmless as narrating your dog’s thoughts out loud when he’s doing something  funny, or feeling guilty when he looks you in the eye as you leave the house without him – and there’s nothing wrong with that!  However, when trainers judge a training style on whether or not a HUMAN would enjoy being treated that way, it creates an atmosphere of denial and dishonesty.   Anthropomorphism and cognitive dissonance are a very bad pair.

A good example of this is the ongoing debate surrounding punishment in dog training.  Safe, humane tools such as prong collars and e-collars (electronic collars) are as hated as they are misunderstood, and to an extent, I can understand why.  E-collars rarely come with instructions, and I’ve tried all the bargain brands (ON MYSELF) and found them to be way too rough compared to industry leaders like Dogtra and Tri-Tronics, who make AMAZING e-collars.

And maybe it’s not such a great idea to sell them to the general public without any oversight, but in the right hands, they can do amazing things – including saving your dog’s life.  I’ve personally trained hundreds of dogs in Rattlesnake avoidance with the use of an e-collar.  It’s a reliable way to make a dog afraid of a rattlesnake and avoid this:

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Snake aversion training takes a few minutes and is momentarily unpleasant for your dog.  The snakebite photo above?  That’s going to hurt for WEEKS, assuming that dog’s owner can even afford the six to eight thousand dollar vet treatment he’ll need to survive it.

The assertion that we should only teach dogs with methods that we, as humans, would accept being taught with, is what I refer to as “Dognitive Dissonance”.   Dognitive Dissonance arbitrarily draws a line in the sand based on emotion and junk science, and completely ignores and excuses all the other universally accepted things that we do to, and for , our dogs, but that no human would want done to them.  It presumes to know what dogs are thinking and feeling with 100% accuracy, while likening them to our own fragile selves and denying real-world evidence to the contrary in favor of biased behavior studies. It mistakenly proclaims that dogs are weak and sensitive – like humans.

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If you think about a dog’s life, none of it really sounds appealing to a human in realistic terms – and it’s not supposed to be, because we aren’t dogs.  Is wearing a prong collar any worse sounding than waking up in a cold room to discover that some other species cut your testicles off and stuck an RFID chip in your neck?  Would YOU want to eat kibble twice a day for the rest of your life, or wear a harness ON YOUR FACE just to go for a walk?  Would you want to live in a house with animals you can’t understand, doors you can’t open and furniture you can’t sit on?  Oh you’re scared of that thunder?  Here’s a really tight sweater, because, you know, why not?

Dogs are dogs.  That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve humane treatment, or loving homes.  But if  training your dog with a firm hand is cruel on the grounds that we wouldn’t want it done to us, then the very act of owning a dog is cruel by the same standards, and euthanizing a dog because the methods needed to save it contradict your morals is undoubtedly cruel, too.  Let’s stop kidding ourselves.  Let’s be dog trainers again.  Let’s save lives.

Cerberus K9 2016

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6 thoughts on “Dognitive Dissonance: How We Humanize Our Dogs….When It Suits Us”

  1. Amen! Very nicely put. As a balanced trainer, I’ve run into some conflicts with folks over the years. I’ve had people cry and leave my class after correcting a dog that dragged it’s owner into a potential dog fight. I know what you’re saying about people limiting their training methods, and it seems like you run into it everywhere. Frustrating! Rule #1 as a dog trainer-adapt and improvise.

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  2. As opposed to Cognitive Dissonance? I like this post; very nicely said.

    The unfortunate fact is- and it is a wide one- people are lazy. The vast majority of owners seek the ‘quick and easy’ route (or dog trainers honestly wouldn’t have much of a job). That positive punishment is ‘easy’, it often gets the outcome we want Right Now.

    That dog doesn’t come this very second? We’ll just shock it; these are great tools in the educated, conscious hands. Your ‘snake avoidance’ method, for example- genius!

    Unfortunately- more people abuse these tools then not.

    The vast majority of people in general are ignorant. Why else would we breed countless animals for our ever expanding pet industry, all the while millions are being ‘euthanized’ due to lack of resources? Ugh.

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    1. I totally agree with your thoughts on overbreeding. There’s no reason to produce the number of dogs we have. While some training tools are misused by ignorant people, I try not to tie that too closely to people who want or need quick results, and for a couple of reasons. Dog ownership today is very different than it was 50 years ago. Ask anyone over 50 and they probably remember having a dog who roamed the neighborhood and maybe even lived outside. Laws and societal standards simply don’t allow dogs to exist the way they used to – in the grand scheme of dog domestication, the way we are expected to keep dogs changed in the blink of an eye. Dog ownership and suburban living today requires so much more confinement than dogs used to need. Combine that with the fact that households that used to survive on one full-time income rather than two, and we have a way of life that changed far quicker than we could expect our dogs to acclimate to it . We should shun laziness and abusive training, but we cant expect people with full time jobs to forgo dog ownership because they can’t devote 3 hrs a day to training. The positive reinforcement fad, for all its merits, could not have happened at a worse time.

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      1. I think most people misunderstand it. I certainly used to assume ‘Positive Reinforcement’ meant ‘good’- nearly anyone without either a psychological or training background might misinterpret it.

        I didn’t know about cthose conditions so long ago; I am in my 30’s. That is interesting; I think it is that way in many other countries. I remember conditions like you speak on reservation land and down in Mexico (the areas that I visited).

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      2. I too am too young to remember either but I listen to my older clients talking about their first and second dogs and how they were free to do basically whatever they wanted. Its true that other countries are still like that and as a result, those countries have far fewer dog behavior problems and far less demand for dog trainers. “Neglecting” a dog in a vasr rural area where they have freedom of movement is a lot different than neglecting one who is mostly confined to a house or small yard. I live on the edge of the tohono o’odham reservation in arizona, which stretches all the way to the Mexican border. The dogs who roam the res all day are wonderfully friendly and well
        adjusted, and maybe a little skinny by most people’s standards

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