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Robo-Dogs?

My job is amazing. I get to meet great dogs and great dog people, including dog hobbyists and professional handlers, trainers, groomers, veterinarians and health...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Feb 28th 2011


My job is amazing. I get to meet great dogs and great dog people, including dog hobbyists and professional handlers, trainers, groomers, veterinarians and health specialists, doggy masseuses, even animal communicators! Spending time with these kind of people is probably the most comfortable time for me socially – it’s nice to socialize with other people who feel the same way that I do about dogs. I blushingly admit that I do allow a limited number of non-dog-folks into my social circle (quota = 20?) – frequently, these are the people in my life most convinced that I’m rather insane – “how on earth can you talk about dogs for eight hours straight?”

Hey, that’s how I roll!

While I love and respect my colleagues, for they are the individuals who I’ve often learned the most from, I must admit that there is one trainer behavioral tendency which really steams my beans – implying that their dogs are perfect. I “get” why this happens – I know that, as behavior professionals, our clients expect our dogs to be perfect. I’ve felt this (substantial) pressure myself – I know that my clients expect my dogs to be absolutely perfect, no matter what, in every potential environment, never making a single mistake. Professionally, it’s embarrassing if your dog makes a mistake – jumps on someone, pulls on the leash, reacts fearfully to something (or someone) new in the environment, bark when you’d rather they were quiet.

Raising an adolescent dog who is also a vital part of my business, I’ve been through this a lot in recent months. At first, I was very embarrassed. I wanted to live up to my clients’ expectations of me, and I wanted Cuba to live up to my clients’ expectations of how a trainer’s dog should behave. After some reflection, I realized that his “imperfections” were actually a great gift – my students learned that behavior is in a constant state of flux and that trainers do not have magic wands – my dogs have good days, bad days, and issues that need to be worked through also. These issues are not fixed in a second, a minute, a session, or even a single class – it’s a relationship building process which takes time.

I remember meeting one colleague who was just starting out his business. His rather large dog pulled on leash like a maniac. I didn’t judge, just thinking, “this is simply a training procedure they need to work through.” No big deal. Every dog has issues, training takes time. I was a bit shocked when, a few weeks after I’d been worrying about this gentleman’s shoulder remaining intact and not being dislocated, I read on his blog that his dog was perfect on leash. “I am a trainer. My dog would never dream of pulling on leash!”

While I think that this trainer was trying to market himself, in the process he did himself, his dog, and his clients a disservice via his dishonesty.

My dogs are not perfect. Cuba is an adolescent – he is very near perfect with his leash walking, recall, and foundation behaviors. Still, he likes barking sometimes and needs to learn impulse control. Mokie is nearly six years old. I’ve used her for a LOT of orientations, where she is interacting with untrained humans. Many of them like to pet, scratch, talk to, and give treats to her while she is jumping on them. Because dogs are very good at discriminating and are frequently poor at generalizing, Mokie has learned, “orientation = people without dogs at the classroom = untrained human beings = realistic probability of receiving some sort of reinforcement for jumping on new folks in this context.” My clients see this. I explain why this happens, how hard it can be to control extrinsic factors or people in the environment, and show them how, in this situation, you deal with the behavior – management (tethering), reinforcing alternative, incompatible behavior (sit, down, or “four on the floor”), and removal of opportunity as a consequence for inappropriate behavior (You want to jump? You go in the crate for a few seconds).

Let’s assume you can choose between two dogs:

Dog A: Dog A is a real thinking, breathing, living, emotional creature who has preferences, goals, desires, objectives, and is, as most dogs are, a hedonist. Dog A is typical of most dogs – suck the marrow (fun) out of life, whatever fun means. Dog A is organic but imperfect – she likes to have fun but has occasionally been known to respond to a cue with an “I’ll be there in a minute!” type response. Dog A gets sick sometimes. She has bad days, gets confused or frustrated occasionally.

Dog B: Dog B is a Robot-Dog. Dog B never needs grooming. He never makes decisions for himself. Dog B is mechanical – he doesn’t care so much about relationships, he only does what he is programmed to do. He is not capable of independent thought. He is, essentially, cogs, wheels, nuts, bolts and mechanics covered in fur. Dog B never makes a mistake, but he also never displays innovation, enthusiasm, or creativity. He does what he does because it is what he has been programmed to do.