Category Archives: Philosophical Dog Discussions


How Calculus is Taught

Ca\int_a^b f(x)\, dx.lculus is taught,  at the earliest, in high school (in Canada).   How is calculus taught?  In kindergarten (or preschool) we learn numbers, and perhaps to add and subtract (1+1 = ?).  By Grade 6 or 7 we’ve learned more complex math; division, multiplication, some algebra, geometry and maybe basic trigonometry (SOH-CAH-TOA anyone?).  By Grade 10 or 11, we’ve learned algebra, probably Trig (y=x^2 + 4x + 4; y = sinx).  Calculus in Grade 12.  Understanding algebra and trig  is essential to learning calculus.  Hence the slow progression of learning (12 years!!!).

How Calculus isn’t taught

Once learning numbers and reciting them once, we don’t immediately start adding and subtracting.  Once succeeding in adding and subtracting once, we don’t move immediately move to multiplication and division.  Once succeeding once in multiplication and division, we don’t proceed to algebra.  Once succeeding once with geometry, we don’t proceed to trig.  Once succeeding once with algebra and trig, we don’t move right to Calculus.

Put another way.  Once learning the basics of a chosen field (say Biology) one doesn’t move right to polymerase chain reactions (replicating DNA in a lab).  Understanding basic units of Cells doesn’t immediately mean DNA replication is understood.  “But you know about DNA!”

We wouldn’t teach children, or even adults this way.  Yet….

What Does This Mean for Dog Training?

Going too fast. I have been guilty of asking for too much too quickly (I’m sure most professional trainers would also agree too). Humans are in a hurry. We want results NOW (even more so in the last century). Dogs have a different schedule and a different mindset –“What do you want me to do?” (Do I have the skills to do that right now?) and/or “*Why* should I do this now? (“Am I getting paid, and/or is what I’m already doing better?”)

“What do you want me to do?”

Teaching what you want away from distractions first is essential.  Before complexity, basic behaviour is needed.

“But he knows how to sit!”   — could you do your job in the middle of the Superbowl (or The Grey Cup, for people who like real football  -3 downs, 110yardsx65 yards and bigger balls – I’m not biased….).  Probably not, or at least not well (unless you’re a professional football player or mascot).

Dogs are asked to do this… a LOT.  When there are many distractions around, focus becomes difficult.  Most dogs who fail likely don’t have the skill set yet to deal with the distractions.  Teaching them to work around the distractions is part of building complexity and “proofing”.  To work in the real world, dogs need to know how to work around the different aspects of the real world.  Understanding what a carburetor is doesn’t mean you can rebuild one.  Some dogs though may have appropriate skill sets and may not participate for other reasons.

“Why should I do it?”

Let’s say you could do your job in the middle of the Superbowl; you paid $250 for these seats  by the way.  Now someone puts your work in front of you.  You’re watching the game, why should you do it now?  Not much motivation to do it for free.  Now they offer you $1000 dollars.  Motivated now; still only $750 and you will miss the game?  How about $10,000 if $1000 didn’t work?

A hungry teenager isn’t likely going to pay attention in class (want of food > want of Emily Dickinson).  An overly full party goer isn’t going to be tempted by a plate of nachos but might enjoy a nap (Sleep > Food).  A rampaging, happy tummy toddler isn’t going to care about a sandwich or a nap when the swing set is waiting (Fun > Food or Sleep)!

Dogs require appropriate pay  as well,  Once proficient around distractions payments may not need to be as valuable, but in order to maintain their desire to do a behaviour they need practice and at least occasional payment.

And this means…?

Training to fluency could look like this sequence:

  1. Learn Sit in the House
  2. Learn Sit in the Backyard
  3. Practice Sit in the Backyard when the squirrels are running around on the fence
  4. Practice Sit in the Park when no dogs are around
  5. Practice Sit in the Park around other dogs/people
  6. Practice Sit in the Park, after play with other dogs
  7. Practice Sit in the Park, right before playing with other dogs

Sit could easily be replaced with Recall etc.

I’ve been guilty in the past of “assumption of knowledge”.  Consider the following sequence:

  1. Learn Recall in the House/yard
  2. Ask for a Recall in the park, during dog play

This is very much like asking that 5 year old to solve the area under a curve.

The Paradox

Before we teach our dogs Calculus, they need to learn the steps involved from learning numbers through addition, multiplication, algebra and trig.  Training is faster if we follow steps in increments rather the equivalent of going from constructing paper airplanes to designing the Concord.

Leashes in off leash parks

Children as a Mirror – The Great Water Fights!

Let’s imagine Joe, Frank, Bonny and Cathy.  All these kids love to play hose water fights. Joe and Frank both tend to hold one other child down and blast them in the face until someone intervenes, or the child starts crying.  Bonny and Cathy blast every other child in the face whenever they get the chance.  All have been told in the past that this is not acceptable, but continue.

Their caregivers have had enough.  Joe and Bonny caregivers decide the best way to deal with this is to strap the children to a chair.  However, their chairs are close enough to their hoses that if they really want to, they can still reach over and grab their hoses.  Once in a while Joe’s target is in range and Joe tries to blast him in the face with the hose.  Bonny occasionally just grabs the hose and blasts children as they pass by.  Each is scolded each time they lash out, but are still kept tied to their chairs and close to their hoses.

Frank and Cathy’s caregivers however take a different route.  When they target another child, they are given a warning to stop, if they continue they are taken out of the area, away from their fun.  If they do stop, they can continue to play.  After a few sessions of loosing  out all their fun, Frank stops targeting his one child  and Cathy begins to avoid squirting other children in the face.

Joe and Bonny, despite getting reprimands, still continue to target other children inappropriately.  Frank and Cathy learn that if they target children under any circumstances, all their fun ends.

Now, to another 2 children.  Johann and Greta hate the water fights and are scared of all the other children as a result.  Johann’s caregiver decides that the best way to help him deal with his fear is to drag him around and let him get blasted.  He yells and charges at other children when they approach, and he gets reprimanded.  He doesn’t pay attention to the reprimand because he’s too scared to understand.  Greta’s caregiver decides that she needs to spend time away from  water fights and the throng of kids and takes Greta to a professional Therapist, who helps Greta deal with her fears of water fights and other children.

So what about dogs with leashes in off leash parks?

What do these analogies have to do with leashes in off leash parks?  The above are very similar to 1) Bullies  (dogs that single out one dog and torment them); 2) Socially inept dogs (dogs who don’t handicap play or play too rough with nearly everyone); and 3) Fearful dogs.  Fearful dogs need a special protocol and the safety of being away from fear triggers during most of their rehab, so a fearful dog shouldn’t be on leash (or off) in an off leash park for some time, if ever.

Allowing dogs on leashes in an off leash park does them disservice without a coherent, solid plan to help them learn how to play in an more appropriate manner.  Indeed bullies and the inept shouldn’t even be in an off leash area until they have proven that they can control some of their impulses with a few well padded dogs first (dogs that have enough experience to deal with any outbreaks) .

Bullies and socially inept dogs while training may drag a leash.  Constant supervision is important so the instant they go too far they can be wrangled and taken out of the park (time-out as correction).  Leaving and going home will have even more impact (huge penalty).  Solidifying these rules in the dogs mind requires consistency.  During the beginning of training, they shouldn’t be in off leash parks.

Putting these dogs in situations where they will fail is unfair to them.  Putting them in situations where they have a chance to succeed however, is important.  When they have a real choice, they can succeed but those choices  should be heavily biased toward success and not to failure.

But don’t they need to be around other dogs to be social?

Socialization means positive experiences.  If a dog continues being frustrated or scared, the experience is not positive.  If the dog gets worse, the experience is not positive.  Only having the right tools to interact in a way that allows all a positive experience should we consider something beneficial.

Dogs don’t have to be friends with everyone, nor do they have to be social if they don’t choose.  Some excited dogs forget manners when excited.  So is it fair to put them into situations where they will fail?  They don’t fail because they want to, they fail because they don’t have the tools to control their impulses.  They have trouble controlling their impulses because 1) a bullies target is close by, but can’t get to them to fulfill impulses; 2) everyone around them is having fun and they want to have fun too; and/or 3) they’re surrounded by animals scaring the heck out of them.  I don’t believe these situations are fair to these 3 types of dogs.  We can’t force an animal to socialize.  Putting them into situations where they are frustrated is not likely to improve frustrations or reactions.

So what do you do?

As a professional trainer, and currently a dog walker as well, I believe our responsibility is to ensure that if a dog is a Bully, Socially Inept, or Fearful, that those issues need to be dealt with before off leash areas are introduced.  When these dogs lash out at other dogs, either from frustration (1 and 2) or fear (3) other dogs often react in return.  There is no measure of fairness for any of them.  Dogs who were targeted now look like little hooligans if they bark or bounce around the dog on leash and the dog reacting often continues to display and gets yanked around because he’s on a leash.

Leashes can be in an off leash park but should be used sparingly and under supervision with a goal to removing them in time.  I use leashes on puppies, and closely monitor them.  Dropping a leash on a puppy and letting them frolic around without supervision is not a valid use of a leash.  Bullies and the socially inept need work outside off leash areas before they get a chance to play in those parks.  At first, they will be on leash or dragging the leash once inside.  As stated above, if they have an oops, they loose out on further chances of play.  As they get better, these oops moments happen less and less.  They succeed,  they learn and they are happy.

We have to remember that currently Dog Training and even more so Dog Walking are completely unregulated industries.  Anyone can hang a shingle out and call themselves a Trainer or a Walker.  Make sure that the professional you choose can give you good, scientifically backed reasons for their actions.  Be your dogs advocate.

Using Energy in Dog Training

Cellularrespiration.JPGUsing Energy in Dog training? Numerous mystic words can be found when dog training is discussed; words like  “Energy”, “Dominance”, or “Pack Leadership”.  Talking of “Energy” is problematic.  Like it or not, I use energy.  Not “Energy” as others might use, but energy nonetheless.

(“Cellularrespiration“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Basics of Energy

Cellular Biology gives us the understanding of basic energy in animals (as well as plants, fungi and some bacteria).  All of these use the Kreb’s Cycle to produce basic energy to power cellular processes.  The net process of these reactions is ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate).  ATP is used by cells to power other processes. Extrapolating from that point backwards, where does the energy  come from?

Sugars are converted to smaller compounds which form primary metabolic units needed in the Kreb’s Cycle.  Proteins, Lipids (fats), and other carbohydrates are also mostly converted to sugars.  Sugars, Lipids and Proteins come from food.  To survive all animal cells need inputs of oxygen and food.  Extrapolating forward, food provides energy which then flex muscles and fire neurons.

The Larger picture of Energy

Food powers cellular processes needed for cellular life  and thus the whole organism.  Other types of energy are either a subset of this energy, or mystical “Energy” that cannot be measured, is non-existent, or used to cover up the actual method of training.

Everything in a multi-cellular organism requires the basic processes  powered by food to live.  In order for an animal to move, think, digest, sleep, breath etc. they need food.  Cellular energy is the basic unit of all other energies in an organism.

Neural impulses function off this energy.  They fire muscular contractions, which also use cellular energy.  So to get a dog to sit, the first need is food to power the impulse and then the contraction.  Oxygen is delivered from the blood, which is created in the bone marrow (cellular division requires cellular energy) and the blood is pumped by the heart, a muscle that requires cellular energy to contract the muscle fibers.  All in all, animals need food to function.  Fear, pain, discomfort, enjoyment, fun and love  (to name a few) require, at a basic level, cellular energy.  Other types of “Energy” cannot provide an animal with the ability to move, think or even digest.

“Energy” usually means some mystical connection between trainer and dog.  Is a possibility of ESP, Telepathy or other mystical force real?  Science cannot and has not in 3000+ years measured or proven the existence of these mystical forces.  Usually other means are being used being used involving food, discomfort or even pain.  Using the term “Energy” does a disservice to pet parents attempting to determine the method best for their pet.

Training with Energy

So animals needs food to survive.  Use of food seems to make the most sense in training.  Not only is food something an animal needs, but most animals actually like food!  (a built in evolutionary advantage-if you don’t like food, you don’t survive)  Shunning food, for training shuns the very energy dogs need to survive.  Denying food for training should lead to a question.  What is being used to motivate the dog?

Motivation is important.  Organisms seek to survive, procreate and thus pass on their genes.  One key aspect to survival is getting food.  Another key aspect of survival is avoiding danger.  These are the main forms of motivation – getting good stuff and avoiding bad stuff.  Most talk of  “Energy” is a mask for the later, rather than the former.  Motivating with bad stuff has bad potential side effects.

Covering up bad side effects with a term sounding comforting should be considered irresponsible at best, negligent at worst.  Imagine a teacher saying that they use their “Energy” to train 5 year olds not be bullies; they then attach a noose around Johny’s neck and yank every time he kicks over someones sand castle.  They claim they aren’t hurting the boy, because he’s respecting their “Energy”.  They neglect to mention that the real (physical) energy they’re transferring could actually damage Johny’s neck, not to mention physiological trauma.  Such a teacher would at the very least be fired.  This is not uncommon in dog training however.  Being aware of what is actually being used as a motivator is important.  Using Energy in Dog Training?  Use food.

No One Way To Train Dogs.

Positive Training Myth
Positive Training is not “one type”.

Dog owners, and even novice trainers are often befuddled by all the information about on dog training.  The Science is Misdirected, obfuscated or misunderstood.  Some professionals doll out the misinformation as fact.  A lot of solid, scientifically sound information often getting overrun by the din of the poor.  One of these misunderstandings is over one single line; “There is no one way to train dogs.”  The implication being one group of trainers uses only one method to train dogs, while the other side uses all methods.   While Force Free and/or Positive Training (FF/PT) methods suggest only use of one method available in modern dog training, in practice and theory, Balanced Training seems to use only a small sliver of available tools used in 21st century dog training.

Modern Dog Training

Previous centuries did use the science of Training, but not with the nomenclature of the science.  Folk knowledge was passed from generation to generation.  Modern dog training uses Operant Conditioning (“If I do X, then I get/avoid Y.”) and Classical Conditioning (“If X happens, then Y follows”).  Also available and understood by good practitioners is management (enuring dogs can’t rehearse undesired behaviours) and antecedent arrangement (ie. ensuring the environment isn’t overpowering training).  They are not always mutually exclusive.

Management and Antecedent arrangement are often fundamental to make Operant conditioning work well.  Not removing chances to perform old “bad” behaviours and not dealing with competing motivations sets the dog up for failure.  Asking compulsive gamblers to attend gamblers anonymous meetings in the middle of a crowded casino is a recipe for failure.  Asking a chronic shoe chewer to play with a different toy while a flock of shoes is around is also a recipe for failure.  Throwing an arachnophe into a dense, spider filled jungle, without preparation before hand, is a recipe for failure.  Making a dog encounter a stressor to stop a reaction is a recipe for failure.

Classical conditioning always occurrs in the background of operant conditioning – (“Pavlov is always sitting on your shoulder.” – Bob Bailey).    Ask a dog to do something; they get it right, and get a good thing starts adjusting emotional states positively.  They begin to think the asking means something good will happen.  The opposite is aslo true.  If asked, they don’t perform, and something bad happens, association with that bad thing can occur (or sometimes with the person asking, or some other thing in the environment – fear is fickle!).  Understanding science helps counter these effects or use them advantageously.

The Divide

Good, competent Force Free/Positive Reinforcement practitioners use all of these mentioned and understand when to use one over another.  They do not rely on just one portion or method.  They do however, avoid the use of aversives in operant conditioning.  Meaning they do not employ or avoid fear, intimidation or pain.  Mostly this is an ethical choice, and increasingly is being backed by solid, current science; although pain and fear may work, the side effects can be to detrimental, and are avoided.

Balanced training uses operant conditioning.  Whether just by the use of the associated language, misunderstanding of scientific fact, or from lack of knowledge,  little outward acknowledgement of other  modern training principles.  When dealing with most aggression, the answer is “deal with the behaviour.”  “If we don’t do X, the dog will die”/”If we don’t use X, we won’t get a good recall”  In order to fix the behaviour, they need the behaviour to happen.  This means putting the dog into stressful situations, then correcting the dog;  corrections often of an aversive, punitive nature.  “Pavlov is always sitting on your shoulder” here means dogs can potentially associate  aversives with the trainer, the stressful trigger, or something completely unrelated instead of the actual behaviour.  This does not mean that balanced trainers do not use food, fun, play to achieve some of their goals.  They seem to use operant conditioning without apparent consideration of the possible side effects.  Arguments against management and antecedent arrangements  are often prevalent in balanced training.


“You can’t arrange real life” is sometimes true; but as much as possible practitioners can seek out situations where arrangement is possible until the dog understands – then the situations become manageable by the dog in time.  Learning how to deal with a problem with more than one tool available is what any good trainer in the future will do.  There are times when management is necessary, and sometimes the only recourse such as walking a truly aggressive dog with a poor mouth only with a muzzle.  Trying to deal with just the aggression, with no management is poor, and dangerous, practice.  Arrangement ensures success is more likely with both operant and classical methods.

Eliminating aversives does not make operant conditioning weaker, but increases the potential welfare of the animal by eliminating negative shifts in emotional states.

What does it all mean then?

You take yourself to the doctor.  She mentions that the cut in your arm is infected.  She elects and strongly encourages amputation!  This will ensure that the infection doesn’t spread.  You will be back at work in a few days with no other physical harm.  Antibiotics or possible psychological effects are mentioned. We all know that this is silly, but the analogy is not far off from what some people experience.

A broad base approach proves there is only one way to train dogs – Force Free and Positive Reinforcement Training currently, while a narrower approach encompasses dangers and potential negative welfare states for dogs.  Systematic, scientifically sound training with standard procedures for the most common behaviour modification is essential.  Eliminating, or managing potentially harmful outcomes increases positive welfare states.

Trainers become trainers partly because they want to be good to dogs.  Lacking correct, science based learning though, this can be corrupted or misused.  When this happens, welfare can  suffer; counter to what was actually intended in the first place!

So what are owners to do?  Ask questions.  Make sure clear, concise answers are given.   Something akin to this.    Currently no legal regulatory body governing exists for dog trainers; anyone can hang out a shingle and do nearly anything to your dog.  Advocate for your dog; if you don’t like what is happening, or you wouldn’t practice that way yourself or on any other animal or child, stop the training.