Those of you that have been following this blog for a while, may know that my passion for animals, behavior, and training first came from my background as a competitive horseback rider. When I had to take a break from riding, and my horses, for a few years, I found comfort in the world of dogs and dog training. It was an easy transition, as there are so many similarities between the two species.
Both dogs and horses are intelligent, athletic animals. They both have a strong tendency towards communication via body language. Both are powerful animals, with a fight-or-flight tendency that gives them the potential to be destructive, but only in self-defense. Perhaps most importantly, both are animals that have evolved to develop close relationships with humans. Because of this, most possess a tendency toward companionship with humans, if not a strong drive to please them. Anytime I give a riding lesson and the rider faces a frustration, I always remind them that our horses rarely willfully disobey, especially if we make the right choice easy. If they are not responding to our cues, it is best to assume a miscommunication on the part of the human partner. Of course, if you are reading this, you probably also know that to be my approach to dog training.
Because of these tendencies, I largely have always applied force-free tendencies when training either species. While we do use our bodies to cue our horses (as well as tools such as leg aids and bit pressure) the best riders will recognize that they will never be able to overpower a 1,200+ pound animal. Attempting to be forceful or aggressive with a horse will only result in a frustrated animal, that may or may not react by lashing out.
Due to the similarities I see, I will often read articles that apply to one of the two species, and stretch it to apply to training the other. I find this to be a great way to gather fresh or unique approaches and ideas. With that goal in mind, I came across this article last week, and quickly shared it on facebook with an affirmative description. Let me share with you my gut reaction.
The article discussed the perils of ‘spoiling’ our horses. What resonated with me was reflective of two important theories I apply to animal behavior.
1) Animals thrive with structure, discipline, and training. They want to know how to please us (or at least, how to earn what they want) and so we teach them ‘right’ from ‘wrong’. We create anxious animals when we change the rules or never train them to begin with, because they will exist as though they never know when punishment or praise is coming. If you know me, you know that I love to take my dogs on exciting adventures, let them sleep in the bed, and consistently supply them with the newest toys, but I also spend lots of time training them to ensure that they understand what my expectations are, and make them work for their rewards. I can confidently say that because of this approach, our pups are some of the happiest and most secure dogs I have come across.
2) One fatal flaw (literally) I often encounter in other pet owners, is that they try to show their affection to their pets by form of food. Please do not confuse my criticism as being directed toward those that practice force-free training, and make their pets work for their rewards, while maintaining a balanced diet! Instead, I am referring to those pet parents that insist on feeding table scraps regularly, and ignore the signs of weight gain in their animals. Maybe it comes from my own fixation with healthy eating, but when I see people overfeeding their pets, or feeding them inappropriate items, I can’t help but picture it as literally poisoning their friend!
Don’t just take my word for it! You may or may not recall the invaluable research done by Purina, which produced undeniable results supporting the benefits of an appropriately-portioned diet in dogs. The study took place over 14 years, and compared 48 purebred labrador retrievers from seven litters. Paired within their litters according to gender and body weight, the pups were randomly assigned to either a control group (fed ad libitum during 15 minute daily feedings) or a lean-fed group (fed 75% the amount eaten by the littermates in previous group). All dogs were being served the same balanced, nutritionally complete diets, which started as a puppy variety, and later evolved to the adult formulation, for the entire duration of the study. The only difference was in the quantity provided.
Any guesses as to the results? I’m sure you can hypothesize where I am going with this, but the actual results were even more astounding than I expected them to be!
- The median life span of the lean-fed dogs was increased… but by 1.8 years, or 15%. In the lean-fed group, the age at which 50% of the dogs had passed was 13, compared to 11.2 in the opposing group.
- By age 10, only three of the lean-fed dogs had passed away, as opposed to seven of the control dogs. At the end of the 12th year? Only ONE control dog had survived, in comparison to 11 of the lean-fed dogs. 25% of the lean-fed group lived to see 13.5 years of age, while none of the control group achieved that mark.
- Additionally, 50% of the dogs in the control group required treatment for chronic conditions at 9.9 years of age. In contrast, the median age for the lean-fed dogs was 12 years. This group had lower serum triglycerides and triiodothyronine, as well as healthier insulin and glucose use.
Think about your dog; your sweet best friend, partner, and confidante. Imagine them aging, slowing down, becoming hard of hearing. As hard as it may be, picture yourself preparing to say goodbye to them when the time comes… in that moment, what price would you pay to guarantee you a few more years of your time with your dog, free from pain and the difficulties that old age brings? I would be willing to bet that no price would be too great. But this study shows us that we need pay no price… to ensure more years of time with our dog, as well as a significant reduction in health problems and associated vet bills, we must simply maintain portion control in our pet’s diet. It makes those nightly tablescraps seem a little less innocent, doesn’t it? Of course, occasional indulgences are not my complaint… but we must keep in mind that when we are responsible for the input of calories in our pets, we must be cognizant of the effects of our decisions. By overfeeding them, we are literally shortening their lifespan.
While those are the visceral responses I had to the article, a friend of mine, whose opinion on the topics of animal training I greatly respect, had a different reaction. Her reactions were not my initial perspective, but I could not agree with them more. I think it is so interesting that two people who have largely similar approaches to the subject (she also shares an equestrian background, as well as an animal sciences degree, an affinity for pitties and force-free dog training… and we are the same age!) can have such different gut responses to the same topic. This was our conversation:
J: I agree that untrained/”spoiled” horses can be very dangerous – but I’m not comfortable with thinking my horse is “disrespecting” me. To me, this article weighs very heavily in human emotions, and does not seem to address other sources of bad behavior: fear, anxiety, nervousness, insecurity (just like dogs). The “too many treats” argument is often used against reward-based positive training, and, while I agree they shouldn’t be overused, I think that primary reinforcers like food can go a very long way in getting an animal – any species – to change their emotional response to things and therefore their behavior. Thanks for the thought provoking article!!
S: Completely agree J! I wasn’t thinking about it from that perspective… I would never want to reinforce theories that refute force-free training, so thanks for sharing that perspective. Maybe I should have applied that philosophy a little more in my mind before I shared this. I guess what struck me about this article is the fact that humans often anthropomorphize our animals’ behaviors… not wanting to train them or correct them because they worry about ‘hurting their feelings’. I am a strong believer in the fact that happy animals are ones that know what is expected of them, and are corrected when they stray outside of their expectations (not forcefully!) and rewarded when they make the right decisions. I believe that the best animal owners / handlers /etc train their animals to clearly learn ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ so to speak, by making the right choices easy to achieve, and the wrong ones more difficult. Does that make sense?
J: Yep, totally. And I’m completely with you on the not over-anthropomorphizing the behaviors of our dogs (animals) to justify letting them get away with something – that is one of the only things Caesar Milan and I agree on. In sort of but not really the same vein, a big thing I am learning with all the books I am reading lately is that if an animal is not responding to our cue (often quick to be labeled as stubborn!!), it is our job as the trainer to look at how we can improve our communication. Does the animal *really* know what we are asking of them? Anyway, positive trainers often get the wrap that we’re big softies, which is a shame because our animals have a ton of boundaries and expectations, they’re just not upheld in the traditional ways (“let’s make it worth your while to do what I want” vs “do what I want, or else!”).
One difference that my friend has from me, is that she has been a part of the blogging and advocating thing longer than I have, and she has more formal, applied experience with dog training. I think that while we largely share the same views, she has developed a clearer position that she applies any time she approaches a topic. I am still working on developing my approach and perspectives, as well as learning to check myself before I choose to support or criticize an article, group, etc. Do you know that you readers and your comments are a huge part of that learning process for me? So let’s hear it… what was your first reaction to the article? Any similarities or differences to the perspectives that my friend and I had? Can’t wait to hear from you! (PS- As a reminder, I am a big fan of intelligent and respectful debate!)