A Wiser Concept of Animals; On Training Dogs, Dolphins and Humans

I first met Victoria last year while we were both working on a network reality show that featured dog-owners competing with their respective dog-children for the honor of being top dog. Working on a reality show was a new challenge for me. The pace and objectives are entirely different from clinical medicine. Once I figured that out, though, I got to appreciate what I really love about my profession: getting to take care of some fabulous dogs and getting to meet some exceptional dog people. Prominently among the latter was Victoria.

When we first met on set I was immediately impressed, and not just by her quintessential British charm. Victoria exudes the kind of sensitive and honest, but tough professionalism that is required to be an effective animal advocate. Even better, in my humble opinion, she practices what she preaches. That being the most difficult and pure form of animal training: positive reinforcement. Her training methods and ideas are easily accessible to anyone willing to accept that, without intelligence and sensitivity, we humans are all just confused apes trying to put a square dog in a round hole. Recognizing a kindred spirit I struck up a friendship with Victoria and was very pleased when she recently asked me to share some of my thoughts and experiences on her website.

My animal and veterinary experience over the last thirty-plus years has included almost every species imaginable. From naked mole rats to elephants, sea bass to dolphins, bearded dragons to Hyacinth macaws and tarantulas to just plain dogs and cats. (But no horses, thank you. Too dangerous. Give me a grizzly bear any day over a horse…hey, I’m no fool.) My work settings have run the gamut from marine parks to zoos, exotic animal sanctuaries to movie and television training compounds and, of course, small animal private practice. I consider myself a “dog person” (I currently have five rescued dog-children who let me live in their house.) although I find the label limiting and a little pretentious. All told I’ve worked long enough with many of our planets finer denizens to consider myself a connoiseur of humble pie. So pull up a chair, grab a plate and I’ll cut you a slice that we can share.

The first ten years of my animal education were spent living with a remarkably talented marine mammal trainer. Kathy could train dolphins to do just about anything and they always seemed to enjoy themselves in the process. (As it turned out the only animal she couldn’t train was me…go figure.) Since then my experiences have only reinforced how truly fortunate I was to have had that intimate experience with marine mammal training. It allowed me to begin my career in veterinary medicine with a  solid foundation in animal training concepts.

Needless-to-say, every animal trainer (or wanna-be trainer) I’ve met since then has had to measure up against the standards of an extraordinary marine mammal trainer. I have become (fairly or not) pretty discriminating when it comes to determining what (or who) makes good animal training. It has always disturbed me how easy it is to promote oneself as an expert as long as the people you are selling yourself to know less than you. More to the point I find this to be especially true when it comes to training dogs. Man’s proverbial best friend.

Canis familiaris in all it’s morphological and behavioral manifestations is now known definitively (through DNA analysis) to have descended from it’s most noble relative the wolf. The painful irony here is that in spending thousands of years (some estimates suggest twenty thousand or more) to create the modern dog humans have taken C. lupus and made it into C. familiaris. Taking the species name at face value we all know what familiarity breeds. Sadly for many of our modern dogs contempt is the human reward they get for playing their role as we have created it. This is a subject deserving of its own discussion and I will do just that in the near future.

Short of contempt, however, the most frequent inappropriate human attitude about dogs has its genesis in the long-term association humans have had with our eager and attentive canines and involves a classic human self-delusion. The delusion is that we are all natural-born dog trainers. The actual truth is that we are not. The reason we think we are is based on the domesticated species-specific behavior of dogs which, in this sense, really does them (and us) a disservice. To illustrate my point consider the natural characteristics of the three species I find most fascinating: Homo sapiens (us), Tursiops truncatus (the bottlenosed dolphin a.k.a. Flipper), and Canis familiaris (you-know-who).

Humans, for the purposes of this argument, are nothing more than what Desmond Morris aptly called “Naked Apes”. We are remarkably proficient at complex tasks requiring a large cerebral cortex (higher thought and problem-solving), an opposable thumb and structured communication. We are capable of exquisite creativity, remarkable compassion and a deep appreciation of the natural beauty around us. We are also belligerent, greedy, incredibly speciocentric, prone to remarkable acts of hubris, prefer to dominate rather than negotiate and practically obsessed with warfare as a means to our ends. We are evolving on the surface of this planet as a frightened, overly-fecund species living in a scary unstable landscape that prefers to whack things first and ask questions later. It is quite evident that our species is not nearly a “finished” product as our evolution pushes us inexorably to a higher level of communal (read: global) organization.

Dolphins, on the other hand, have evolved in a remarkably stable and consistent environment (water) with particularly rigid constraints on structure and function. Like us they also have a large cerebral cortex and have strong social hierarchies. But they also exhibit astonishing hydrodynamic and physical capabilities and a communication and sensing system (sonar) that rivals or exceeds anything devised by man. They are, in many ways, more closely approximated to a completed evolutionary product in their environment than we will ever be in ours.

Domestic dogs, contrary to what some people seem to believe, didn’t just scamper out of the woods looking and behaving the way they do. They exist as they are today due to the artifice of mankind. A very long time ago humans somehow managed to hook up with the protypical wolf progenitor and proceeded to create through many, many generations of selective breeding the characteristics that have suited us the best. Loyalty, bravery, good-naturedness, domestic adaptability and, above all else, a degree of devotion to our kind that borders on unbridled sycophancy.

So what does all that have to do with the original point of this essay and what am I really getting at here? Dogs are a great species for any human to interact with if they want to convince themselves that they are a real animal trainer. Their natural obeisance to humans in combination with our natural inclination to be bellicose and physically dominating are a perfect match. How else to explain the plethora of individuals claiming to be able to teach you how to “make your dog treat you as their leader”. Any knucklehead with a leash and a big attitude can do that. In fact if you abuse the leash or use physical intimidation to relate to a dog that is exactly what you are…a knucklehead. And I’m being generous. So what, you may ask, is the proper way to train or relate to a dog?

To get to that concept let’s set the dog aside for a minute and revisit the dolphin. Imagine someone handing you a whistle, a bucket of fish and a stick with a foam rubber ball on the end and telling you to “go over to that tank and train that dolphin to jump out of the water in a particular spot with a perfect arc on cue and then return to you at the side of the tank”.  Not exactly sit/stay, huh? So what do you  do?

The first big step is you have to get past any notion that you are going to make that dolphin do ANYTHING it doesn’t WANT to do. No tethers, no physical contact, no physical or verbal intimidation. In other words, the dolphin naturally doesn’t give a mackerels rear end who you are out on your airy little patch of terra firma. OK, so go ahead and get in the water and try to make it do anything that way. Compared to dolphins you are pathetically inadequate in their natural aquatic environment. You might as well be a rubber duck. And pray the dolphin doesn’t actually harbor any ill will towards you (contrary to the Flipper myth this can and does happen in captivity) for a dolphin can bruise you and break you and toss you out of their watery space in a matter of seconds. Get the point?

The next step is the one at the heart of this whole missive. Find out what the dolphin likes or wants and then somehow figure out how to tell the dolphin what you like or want. Then you make a deal. The dolphin gives you what you want and then you give the dolphin what it wants. You are equal partners in this trade agreement. It has to be win-win. It has to involve positive reinforcement. The only leg up you have (most of the time, but not all the time) is having an idea ahead of time what you want from this relationship. But be prepared to negotiate. Dolphins (like dogs) can, and will, mess with your agenda. And you better abandon your instinct to turn into a mad monkey if you don’t get your way. It won’t work and would only make matters worse. I have seen dolphin and whale trainers lose their cool and they subsequently completely lost the animal’s attention and respect. And that, in animal training, is everything.

How does one facilitate positive reinforcement? The whistle for a dolphin trainer (or clicker for a dog trainer) is called a bridge and connects the animals behavior to the reward or positive reinforcement. (Assuming it’s the behavior you want or maybe just a bit closer to the one you want…the latter being referred to as a successive approximation) The positive reinforcement is a fish (or a belly rub) for a dolphin and some sort of meaty treat (or affectionate physical contact) for a dog. The incorrect performance of a behavior may garner a simple, but neutral, response or perhaps none at all. The fact that dolphins are much smarter than dogs (if not also smarter than you and me) compensates to some degree for the difficulty in communicating our land-based actions with their water-based responses and vice versa. Naturally I am generalizing a good bit, but I hope you get the point.

So back to the original challenge. Have you figured out how to ask that dolphin to do what you want? Did you figure out how to tell the dolphin if it did the right thing or not? How long did it take and how much learning did YOU do in the process. Do you think you could use the same techniques to train a dog? Of course you can. In fact it’s easier because you can communicate more directly and more rapidly with a dog…as long as you do it in a way the dog understands. And they’re really trying because, gee whiz, they want to please us. And if you do get it right, the positive reinforcement helps the dog love the work and retain the lessons willingly and for a much longer time without anxiety or stress. Simply because you got out of your primate head and figured out how to communicate creatively, positively and in a manner that is respectful of that animals species and individual identity. Watch Victoria and you will see what I mean.

The bottom line here, in my opinion, is that if you can train a dolphin the right way you can train a dog the right way. You don’t actually have to train a dolphin, but you have to understand how it’s done. You have to open your mind and heart to the animal you are working with. You have to be kind and patient and never forget that training is a joint effort. You have to believe that the only legitimate goal of animal training is to work together and discover what can happen when a human and a member of another species make magic together.

And in case you were wondering about the name of this blog: “A Wiser Concept of Animals”. It’s a phrase borrowed from one of the most beautiful paragraphs ever written about our relationship with the other animals on this planet. From “The Outermost House” by the early 20th century naturalist Henry Beston:

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

NEXT TIME:  Stress, Animal Health and Animal Training - Part 1

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Positively Expert: Scott Amsel

Scott Amsel serves as the veterinary consultant for Los Angeles-based episodes of It’s Me or the Dog. He has starred in a national Science Diet television commercial, spent hundreds of hours doing no-cost spay/neuter for low-income families, worked on two reality television programs and continued attending to regular pets in private practice.


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