As Easy as ABC

Two young children sitting at a wall-mounted easel, drawing on white paper with markers.
Wall-mounted easel (made by Kustom Kitties Canada)

This image illustrates a principle that is true for good teaching: provide the learner with an opportunity to perform a natural behaviour in a context that is preferred.

Young children like to draw on walls. Instead of punishing a child for doing a self-reinforcing behaviour that is very natural, why not create the conditions to help redirect that behaviour to a desirable location? Provide a wall mounted easel, a place to hold art supplies, and a couple of chairs.

This image illustrates the power of using antecedent arrangements to influence behaviour. (Antecedents are the factors that influence a behaviour before it occurs.) To change an undesirable behaviour, good teaching involves understanding what factors are causing the undesirable behaviour and then setting up the environment to encourage a preferred behaviour — a behaviour that can then be reinforced with attention and praise. The new behaviour is more likely to be repeated again, and the old behaviour is less likely to be repeated because it has become less reinforcing.

It’s as easy as ABC (Antecedent — Behaviour — Consequence).

Good Dog Trainers are Good Teachers

Good teaching — whether it’s teaching children, adults, or dogs — starts with A) an understanding of the learner and B) a desire to be kind. Good teaching (and dog training) requires clear communication, creating conditions so the learner can succeed, and being able to support the learner in the learning process. Gone are the days when students were strapped, swatted with rulers, or forced to stand in the corner or wear a dunce cap. Society no longer accepts this type of treatment of students, and years of good science proves how detrimental this is to the learner.

The dog training industry is changing to reflect this as dog training and behaviour professionals are catching up to advancements in teaching excellence. Dogs deserve the best in dog training.

An experiment

I understand that dogs are not children and that there may be some major differences in what people believe is appropriate, ethical, moral, and legal when raising and teaching children as opposed to raising and training dogs. However, it is interesting that if one looks at history, it wasn’t so long ago when there were very few laws protecting children; and if I recall what I read many years ago from a book about the history of animal welfare laws (its title escapes me because it was so long ago), I believe that the first animal welfare law in the USA (to protect horses) was enacted before child welfare laws. And one of the arguments to create child protection laws was the fact that surely there should be at least the similar protections for children as there were for horses.

It’s common to see posts by professional dog trainers who are very vocal about using shock collars, prong collars, etc. and often these trainers are very vocal in their opinions against force-free training/trainers. As an experiment in understanding the mindset of trainers who think differently from me, read a long post by an established and I’m sure very talented trainer. As I read the long post and the comments I couldn’t help but think about how the trainer’s words and the comments by the supportive dog owners might sound if they were used to describe children instead of dogs. Might those who expressed those beliefs about dogs, dog training, and dog trainers change their minds? Would the change reveal underlying biases, leaps in logic, contradictions, and cognitive dissonance of the writers and the readers?

Here is an example of a paragraph I revised. The original was from a trainer who promotes the use of shock/prong/choke collars. The trainer was outraged by the “stories and propaganda” that was being spread about these training collars.

“Leather straps and rattan canes have been the most common recipients of this bad press. And sure, you could definitely mess up a child with either of these tools – if that was your intent – just like you could with any object. But I see far more messed up kids who show up in my school who have parents who refuse to let their child be strapped or spanked.

I acknowledge that the people who expressed these opinions might not hold the same thoughts today — people are allowed to change their minds. We are all doing our best based on the information we have at the time.

I find it interesting to look back at the struggle to get corporal punishment removed from public schools — the resistance and the time it took — and compare it to what is happening in the dog training industry. I suspect that the momentum is building in North America, as it did in Europe years ago.