The Quick Fix Fallacy

It would be great if I could wave a magic wand and make all my problems – and all my dogs’ problems – just disappear. But I can’t. And neither can anybody else, whatever they may promise.

There are many dog training sites and dog books out there which promise exactly that, though – quick, one-stop treatment for deep-seated, difficult-to-handle behaviour problems such as fear-based aggression or anxiety. Their "treatment" is almost always a severe punishment, usually administered by means of some or other strangulation device. If that doesn’t work, they graduate to an electric shock collar, and if that doesn’t work, they shrug, say the dog’s temperament is faulty and recommend euthanasia.

Now let’s be clear here: there is occasionally a case for a judiciously applied, well-timed punishment, and the clicker training movement is done more harm than good by well-meaning individuals who swear off punishment completely because it’s "wrong". But what these "quick-fix" trainers are recommending is in nearly every case not punishment, but abuse. If applying physical pain to the dog is your only means of dealing with his problems, and if your only solution if that doesn’t work is to escalate the severity of the punishment, something somewhere has gone sadly wrong. And the worst part of it is that not only do these methods fail to improve existing problems, but they also worsen the current problem and often introduce many new ones. Coercion, as Murray Sidman would say, has fallout.

This is what one of these "trainers" wrote when I challenged him about his opinion of clicker training (excuse the language!):

"You have a GSD that is extremely dog aggressive. Someone accidentally lets your 11 year old Lab out and the GSD takes her to the ground by the neck and will not stop the attack no matter how loud your secretaries scream and cry. What would you do – click your little clicker until the Lab is dead? This happened last week at my kennel and I had to hit my stud dog over the head as hard as I could with a heavy shit shovel 10 to 12 times before he let her go. You people have your head up your ass. Your methods work fine for soft trainable dogs – don’t ever think you can use a clicker on dogs like I work with."

What this trainer failed to realise was that the problem with the GSD was largely of his own making! Abusive physical punishment (this trainer recommends punishments in increasing levels of severity as his sole intervention in behavioural problems) causes fear and anger, and often results in:

  • increased levels of aggression, especially in a dominant dog
  • the ‘only my husband can handle the dog’ syndrome, where the dog is too afraid to attack the person he perceives as dominant, but goes after lower-ranking members of the hierarchy whenever he gets the chance – this is quite possibly part of, but not all of, what this trainer saw with his labrador bitch
  • lack of warning signals because the dog has been harshly punished for them in the past, so he now attacks without warning

The goal of training and rehabilitation in a case like this would be to get the GSD to a point where he could control his own behaviour if inadvertently let out. The chances of success would depend on how badly traumatised the dog is, but many dog-aggressive dogs can learn to overcome the anxiety associated with the sight of another dog, and thus their behaviour. Needless to say, this trainer would not recognise that the dog requires rehabilitation.

An extremely illuminating case history sent to this particular trainer goes something like this:

"Thank you so much for all the advice in your training video. I trained my dog (a male GSD) according to your method and can report a great improvement in his obedience and discipline.

Lately, though, he has started developing an aggression problem and has bitten a couple of people who have visited the house. Please can you help?"

Well, surprise, surprise. Aggression breeds aggression – and this trainer’s methods are extremely aggressive!

I am not trying to suggest that all behaviour problems are the handler’s fault – far from it. A dog’s temperament is a complex, unpredictable mix of genetic and environmental influences. Under the same circumstances, in the same home, one dog may turn out as mild-mannered as you could wish for while another one may become dangerously aggressive.

But without a doubt, aggressive, abusive handling techniques will only make fear and aggression worse, not better, and may even create an aggression problem where none existed before.

Modification of problem behaviours is a slow, gentle, careful business which involves identifying and working with emotional, behavioural and sometimes medical problems. It’s not a quick fix, and clicker training is just one of the many tools in our arsenal. But going through this work with your dog, discovering your own reserves of patience and dedication, and seeing your relationship with your dog blossom, is truly magic.

"He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion."
-    anon.

Leave a Reply