Table of Contents
Featured Inuit Dog Owners:
Scott & Terry Miller
Nunavut Dogsledding Association
Update: No Resolution in Iqaluit
Season's Greetings from Toadhall
The Homecoming, Part II
The Russian Connection, Part II
Meeting Ken Pawson and Kevin Walton
The Ted Fox ISDI Foundation Fund
Two Years in Antarctica
No Click and Treat for ISDs!
All Breed Kennel Club Registry
Could Scott Miller's left hand be reaching into his pocket for that hidden clicker? We don't think so!
by Janice Dougherty
Occasionally, I do read non-dog literature, but dogs are always waiting in the wings of the stage of my consciousness. Recently I was reading Genome by Matt Ridley who made reference to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, written in the 1920’s, but rediscovered by my generation in the ‘60s, as describing "a terrifying world of uniform, coerced control in which there is no individuality. Each person meekly and willingly accepts his or her place and obediently does the tasks society expects of him or her." The book described a world where "alphas and epsilons were not bred, but are produced by chemical adjustment in artificial wombs followed by Pavlovian conditioning and brain washing, then sustained in adulthood by opiate-like drugs." Aldous Huxley's genius was to recognize how hellish a world in which nurture prevailed would actually be.
My immediate thought upon reading those lines was of the current fashion in dog training/behavior management of using medication like Prozac or Clomicalm and clicker & treat training as the only [politically] correct answers to an owner's inability to manage the animals that they have chosen to acquire and raise. This currently recommended approach attempts to circumvent the responsibility of the owner to develop a balanced, complete, natural, working relationship with the dog, establishing him/herself as worthy in the dog's world. It removes the owner/trainer from a hands-on approach and partnership to a distant, automaton-like reflex, where the owner's hand is reduced to a mere dish where the reward pellets are delivered. Will the animal respond? Yes, under certain circumstances, but that's not really the point. When income depends on the client's payment for absolution from any hint of incompetence, the prescription is geared toward keeping those checks and those pharmaceutical contracts coming. Compare, if you would, the differences in the behavior section of the old Merck Veterinary Manual (6th edition, 1986) with the new, "enlightened" one (8th edition, 1998). Dr. Moreau (excuse the additional science fiction reference) would be proud.
Perhaps I shouldn't come down too hard on Pavlov or Moreau, since I have on occasion used both instruments and food in my corrections, directions and rewards (and herbal tonics for anxious dogs on the 4th of July). But the great bulk of my interactions - producing no hand shy individuals - with my dogs for the past 31 years have been limited to my bare hands, my postures, my voice, and occasionally my teeth. It is an honest, dynamic relationship with no trace of brain washing. I prefer to think of it as an interspecies brain connection. As it was pointed out by author/trainer Carol Benjamin many years ago, when I do give food at meals or just because, the dogs are often so glazed over and drooled up that they can barely control themselves or attend to the verbal cue.
At a September meeting with ISD owners for a couple of days in Connecticut, I was "baited" with a question about clicker training. The fact is, I explained, if I were a zoo keeper in charge of taking routine blood samples from, let's say, a rhinoceros, I would probably use a Pavlovian signal and reward combination to maneuver the rhino into position for the sampling without requiring repeated sedation and stress of capture. In such a simple, structured, controlled environment, it would be preferable. But the dogs we live and work and travel with have a much more intricate, intimate relationship with us. And our interaction needs to be more natural than that which hinges on clickers, target sticks and a bait bag ever at the ready. Imagine what it would be like to train a team of, say six to twelve ISDs individually and then in group form with clicker training. How would one efficiently train a less preferred change in direction, or tightening up a line or ignoring a distraction in the "on by"? What if you're out on a camp-out and run out of dog food?
Veterinary Technician magazine published a very thorough, two-part article on Clicker training (July & August, 1999). The conclusion was that the eventual goals of this training were to teach the owner proper timing, and to limit babble, to create a reflex response by the dog, and to eventually wean both away from dependence on devices and food. Other readings I've pursued from animal behaviorists suggest that this type of training is best suited to shy, nervous dogs that need their confidence built up (Dr. Ron Polsky's old newsletter). Yet there are those with other primitive breeds who feel that since their strongly instinctive dogs don't easily or readily honor their wishes, and seem to resent their directions and control, the only recourse is to use food training to achieve any pleasant, positive results. Perhaps they just can't stomach the implications of being dismissed by their dogs as inconsequential, that their authority and/or affection just don't count. To protect and justify these bruised egos, some will then smugly recount their degrees in animal behavior or their dogs’ show ring performances as proof of the correctness of it all.
During my recent Connecticut holiday, I had the opportunity to observe an ISD whose individual history would probably make a neurotic, cowering lump out of most "civilized" breeds. But this dog (and he was no youngster) was still open to new ideas, evaluating new relationships with people and dogs and living conditions. He was adapting. He maintained his dignity with new people, was observant, discerning and only reserved at first but not spooky, shivery, timid. He was a survivor. I observed sincere affection to his current owners. Are ISDs "bomb proof"? The close biological interface between the immune system and the nervous system suggests that an individual, who can withstand physical challenges, can also better withstand mental challenges. This is part of the unique, primal, but not readily measured strength of the Inuit Sled Dog that we are committed to preserve.
So, what about the applicability of click & treat to ISDs? It is my opinion that it could be suitable for children, elderly and others who would have a hard time earning and keeping the dog's respect. However, it's protection of these vulnerable ones is limited. Ken MacRury pointed out in his Master's thesis that the evolution in children's activity from playing with puppies to formal schooling and playing Nintendo, has had a major impact on the socialization of ISDs in their original environment. Further, I do not believe that click & treat is even halfway adequate for the primary owner/trainer/driver/ manager to rely on such a one-sided (half-assed?) relationship. Reading about its purported superiority, the contrast is routinely made to "punishment-based" behavior training. Odd! What experienced dog person does not present a rewarding as well as a demanding side when interacting with his/her dog(s)? How else can you create clear feedback and communication? Traditional methods of training and working with dogs, whether they are sled dogs, livestock dogs, hunting dogs, police/military dogs, all seem to have used a balanced, fully dimensional, natural method of BOTH reward and encouragement combined with corrections or unpleasant consequences to inappropriate action. You are allowed to say "No!" While there are some cultural variations, the concepts are clear and consistent. A fully fleshed out, balanced approach is what is most natural and therefore easiest for the dog to understand. There are no social living species that do not have some form of dominance hierarchy. Click & treat alone, withholding treats as the only negative, leaves the status of the players unresolved, and therefore open to testing - not a good thing.
Another problem I have with the click & treat approach is that it is being marketed as a panacea, a single solution to all problems. This may not be its proponents’ intention, officially, but it is in fact what is coming across to the dog owning public. At the same time, the public is being told that since dogs are domesticated, that they do not understand rank and its obligations. This is the same problem with the popular use of the halter type head collar. It is an attempt to avoid dealing directly with the source of the problem, and for that it is a documented failure. Not that such a device can't be useful. I read where one dog driver used it to correct a dog from chewing his lines by attaching a long cord from the dog wearing the halter to the handle bar of the sled and jerking it when the miscreant acted up: a more immediate correction than stopping the whole team and running up to the dog.
I write about these ideas for the Fan Hitch because in our dealings with non-dog savvy people, law makers, neighbors, people who vote and change laws affecting the sport of dogsledding and the legal ownership of certain breeds of dogs, we must have already thought out our rationale for doing what we do, and be ready with an informed, well considered opinion so as not to be dismissed as Neanderthals (albeit with Pleistocene dogs). And in our dealings with modern behaviorists, we need ammunition. While they have finally, begrudgingly admitted that different breeds have different behavioral tendencies, they are unwilling to accept other than their own orthodoxy as appropriate. There is the idea that tough-minded dogs are only tough because they were treated poorly as pups.
I would be interested in hearing from sled dog people who have dealt with this issue in discussions or in practice. As "Uncle Elmer", Mel Fishback Riley was clear that at certain select times, the dog(s) should be "scared" of their owner/driver. Is a puppy ever "scared" of his mother when she disciplines it? Does that scar the puppy for life or make it more deferential to legitimate authority and better adapted to the politics of life?