Be More Dog | The human–canine relationship in contemporary dogtraining methodologies

Publishing Author : Justyna Wlodarczyk

Date Published : 2017

 

While contemporary dog training is by no means
homogenous – and ranges from extremes like
Cesar Millan’s popular application of old-style
dominance theory mixed together with some
machismo (Jackson Schebetta 2009; Pregowski
2014), via the by now mainstream application of
behaviourist principles of operant conditioning
with emphasis on positive reinforcement
(see instructional books by Pryor 1984 and
Donaldson 1996) to recent departures from
behaviourism’s almost Foucauldian formation
of a docile body through disciplinary and postdisciplinary
techniques (as exhibited in the
instructional materials of, for example, Sdao
2012) – it is hard not to notice certain trends.
The past decade or so can be characterized
by increased attention paid to the dog’s
emotions, recognition of the dog’s significant
otherness, respect for the dog as a sentient being
(Pregowski 2015) and – as the title of this article
infers – even a certain desire to become more
like the canine partner in result of the process
of training. This is a radical departure from
the traditional understanding of what pet dog
training is. Historically, training has been about
curbing dogs’ instinctive behaviours in order to
replace them with more ‘civilized’ behaviours
that make canine presence acceptable in
an anthropocentric world; it has been – as
Katherine Grier writes in Pets in America – an
endeavour of ‘“raising” an undeveloped mind
into a state of concord with other, cultivated
members of the community’ (Grier 2006:74).
This article analyses this role reversal on the
basis of contemporary instructional manuals
and videos directed at the pet dog owner
and hobby dog sports enthusiast, specifically
through a comparison of the training materials
by two world-class dog agility competitors and
instructors: Canadian Susan Garrett and Silvia
Trkman from Slovenia. While both trainers are
part of the ‘positive training’ camp, Trkman’s
methods, which are hard to separate from her
overall demeanour and interactions with her
own dogs, stand out against Garrett’s strict
behaviourism. In a way, this could be summed
up in terms comprehensible outside the closed
circle of dog-training aficionados not simply as
being more dog friendly but as ‘more dog’. The
agility run is a ‘subject-transforming danc
41
redefinition of training is succinctly summed
up in the title of Michał Pregowski’s article that
discusses the shift away from behaviourism in
contemporary dog training: ‘Your dog is your
teacher’(Pregowski 2015).
THEORIZING CANINE PERFORMANCES
The conceptual framework of this chapter
is indebted to the notion of performativity
of species, explored by Lynda Birke, Mette
Bryld and Nina Lykke in the article ‘Animal
performances’ (2004). Birke, Bryld and Lykke
draw parallels between discourses of gender/
sexuality and animality and suggest that the
notion of performativity, as developed by Judith
Butler (1990, 1993) and later Karen Barad (2003)
in relation to gender, can also be applied to
an analysis of species. In short, Birke, Bryld
and Lykke point to species as performative,
emphasizing the significance of the material
context of the performance. As an example, they
discuss the ‘laboratory rat’ as always constituted
performatively through interactions with the
material context (the laboratory, the scientist)
but also through biopolitical breeding practices:
the rat’s body is shaped in result of breeding
selection to fit the laboratory equipment; more
docile and easier to handle rats are selectively
reproduced and so forth. While their analysis
may not seem groundbreaking, in that the
entanglement of animality with race, gender
and sexuality as well as notions of the cultural
construction of species were explored already in
the 1980s by Donna Haraway – a fact that Birke,
Bryld and Lykke duly acknowledge – what makes
their article a potent source of inspiration for
this work is their emphasis on ‘the concept of
“performativity” [being] useful for analysing
co- or intra-actions of human and non-human
actors’ and their insistence on the material
circumstances of the performance (Birke, Bryld
and Lykke 2004:168).
Haraway’s notion of ‘becoming with’,
developed in her 2003 Companion Species
Manifesto and elaborated in When Species Meet
(2007), is also useful in that it redefines training
from a unidirectional activity in which the
human imposes something upon the dog to an
activity that changes both sides of the training
relationship, creating a new entity and a new
quality. Species is constituted performatively
and relationally, which is never more evident
than in the case of companion animals,whom
we cannot even imagine as existing without
interactions with humans. The trainedanimal
act – even if not formally staged – is
a performance of animality always in relation
to humanity: it is a performance of a certain
kind of bond, or power relationship (or both)
and at the same time it defines this bond. As
I have argued elsewhere, in recent years this
performance has changed from a performance
of wilful submission to one of joyful cooperation
(Wlodarczyk 2016). It is expected that dogs
interacting with humans should look like they
are enjoying themselves; joy can be a skilfully
crafted effect of training.
The change I am trying to pinpoint, the
turn towards ‘dogness’, stems from an
ethical impulse: the desire to incorporate an
appreciation of animal alterity into training
practices. Yet, performances rooted in
different understandings of the human-canine
bond may look deceptively similar. The
question remains: how do we evaluate these
performances? Is it possible to distinguish
a performance rooted in a more traditional
view of the human–canine relationship from
one that is – for lack of a better term – more
progressive? Thinking through a similar idea,
Michael Peterson (2007) coins the notion of
the ‘animal apparatus’, to provide a framework
for taking into account the thematic analysis
of aspects of animal performances, related
to the production of such performances. In
a theatrical performance involving animals,
the animal apparatus pertains to both props
used to teach and later elicit the performance
but also to elements of the stage sets that
inevitably aid in the production of meaning.
Peterson writes: ‘collars, reins, bits, whips, food,
treadmills are part of this apparatus, but so are
lights, wings, and even the very concept of onand
offstage space’ (34). Peterson’s notion can
be extended to performances that do not take
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place on stage: the animal apparatus is present
in everyday interactions with dogs, but also in
training protocols. Such application of theory
developed to discuss theatre performances for
analysing performances of a different nature
is not ungrounded; the multiple meanings of
performance – for example, in art (with theatre
as both a sub-genre and a location) and in sport
– cannot fully be separated from one another.
A recent volume on animals in performance
practices, Performing Animality (Orozco and
Parker-Starbuck 2015), which comes mostly
from theatre-centred performance studies,
opens with a summary of Donna Haraway’s
analysis of canine agility performance. There
actually exists a growing body of scholarship
on agility coming from performance studies.
In Animal Acts, Haraway herself comments on
Holly Hughes’s article on agility by positing
that agility is performance art (2014:31–5). As
Lourdes Orozco and Jennifer Parker-Starbuck
write in the Introduction to Performing
Animality: ‘The context through which Haraway
formulates her ideas around human-animal
relations is not dissimilar to that of the theatre
– it variously includes embodied collaboration,
presence, “actors”, “directors”, training,
theatricalized settings, companionship,
amateurs and professionals; it includes joy’
(2015:1). Conversely, it seems justified to use
Peterson’s ideas to discuss human–canine
interactions off the stage.
Even to the trained eye, a good agility run is
a good agility run: it is fast, smooth, flowing,
rhythmical, precise, accurate and joyful. Yet
an examination of the animal apparatus – or
the material context of the performance and
its coming into being – makes it possible
to evaluate not just the effectiveness of the
performance itself but also the ethical aspects
related to its production. Training materials in
the form of manuals, videos and blogs, as well
as the props associated with them (including
prong collars, e-collars, clickers, crates, toys,
leashes) but also the setting of a video, even the
aesthetic aspects of its composition are, in this
sense, not only part of the animal apparatus, but
also a record of its other constitutive elements.
Thus, a close reading and a comparison of the
instructional output of the two trainers makes
it possible to recognize this new quality that
I see as part of the recent move away from
behaviourist control and toward an approach
that advocates ‘more dogness’ in training.
G A R R E T T, F O U C A U L T A N D R A D I C A L
BEHAVIOURISM
Susan Garrett’s methods have been discussed
by Donna Haraway in Companion Species
Manifesto (2003) and in When Species Meet,
where Haraway grudgingly recounts her almost
total conversion to behaviourism, a philosophy
she used to despise as it applied to the human
world. The figure of Susan Garrett, and her
book Ruff Love, are instrumental in Haraway’s
acceptance of behaviourism. Haraway comes
into the world of dog training full of ideas that
she later deems romantic and describes how
her reluctance wanes as she experiences the
positive results of behaviourist methods. It is
their effectiveness, their scientific grounding
(in Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning)
and the resulting joy with which the dog
engages in the interaction that make Haraway
a convert. ‘The compensations for the dog are
legion’ – adds Haraway (2003:44), admitting
that the approach she is philosophically
somewhat uncomfortable with, at least in the
beginning, has positive long-term effects.
The roots of Haraway’s initial reluctance to
Garrett’s methods may need to be explained.
By the late twentieth century a strict
behaviourist approach to human behaviour was
being replaced with more nuanced approaches
that took into account factors other than just
reinforcement and punishment. Furthermore,
the behaviourist approach in dog training,
although it certainly can lead to enthusiastic
and fast performance, is based on inducing in
the dog the type of self-control that Foucault
would see as characteristic of the regime
of biopower: it is control through desire
rather than through the classic disciplinary
technologies. Foucault writes: ‘power is strong
… because, as we are beginning to realize, it
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produces effects at the level of desire – and
also at the level of knowledge’ (1980:59). The
human member of the training dyad remains
the inducer or shaper of the dog’s desires.
While the learning process is based on the
dog making choices, and being rewarded for
making the correct choice, it is the human
who offers the binary choice to the dog. In
order for the choice to be a simple binary,
the human needs to methodically control the
dog’s environment through leashes, crates and
so forth, to take out the other variables and
make it impossible for the dog to engage in
environmental temptations. In the presence of
a squirrel, the dog can either make eye contact
and get a cookie for this choice or not make
eye contact and whine at the end of its leash.
What cannot happen – if it did, it would ruin the
training process – is the dog actually chasing
the squirrel. In result of the repeated practice of
the methodically prepared training protocol, the
dog ceases to desire the squirrel and begins to
desire contact with the handler.
In When Species Meet (2007), Haraway
recounts how the training protocol advocated
by Garrett helped her dog Cayenne overcome
the challenge of learning to stop in the contact
zone. The contact zone, an actual element of
agility equipment, an area at the bottom of
certain obstacles that needs to be touched (not
jumped over) by the dog with at least one paw,
has a metaphoric quality for Haraway through
its association with the concept developed
by Mary Louise Pratt to define space for the
interactions of various cultures. Yet it is also
very literal. Cayenne is re-trained to stop in the
contact zone through a simple behaviouralist
procedure: if she does not stop in the zone, she
is taken off course and put in her crate. She is
not allowed to finish the course. This procedure
works only if the dog actually desires to
continue running, which Cayenne clearly does.
Haraway’s reluctance to embrace
behaviourism resulted from her wariness
of the type of total control of another being
that this philosophy entails. Behaviourism,
while claiming to open the road to ‘all
positive’ training, does not really erase the
human’s dominant position: it never erases
power. While dominance, particularly as the
term has been used in relation to dogs (socalled
dominance theory) is not part of the
behaviourist vocabulary, the process of training
is still dominated by the human’s godlike
position in relation to the dog’s learning
process. Still somewhat uncomfortable, Haraway
chooses to adopt behaviourism as the primary
method of communicating with her dog because
of its effectiveness but also because of its
omnipresence: the other alternative at the time
being the classic punishment-heavy militaryderived
training, which was never successful
in agility training. However, in the narrative
of agility training with Cayenne Pepper,
Haraway is the student, the apprentice – not the
innovator. She learns, she comes to accept that
that is offered to her, but she does not – so to
speak – look outside the box.
Garrett’s animal apparatus reflects her
commitment to changing the dog’s behaviour
through the control of his environment and
access to resources. The training aids are
numerous and include: crates, head collars
and detailed training diaries. The protocols
she proposes are very detailed and the
consequences presented for non-compliance
are shown as terrifying: if the trainer breaks the
reinforcement criteria just once, the entire effort
could be ruined. The training techniques that
Garrett proposes make it possible to manipulate
the dog’s desires in a way that can make the
dog crave that that he would ‘normally’ (that
is, without training) abhor. This is nowhere
more evident than in Garrett’s procedure for
crate training, presented in a 2007 DVD, titled
Crate Games for Motivation and Control. The
video, filmed inside Garrett’s indoor training
facility, opens with almost unbelievable shots
of multiple dogs running full speed into
their crates. For Garrett, as for many trainers,
teaching a dog to be in a crate is of paramount
importance as the crate works wonders for
controlling the dog’s environment. Yet, for
Garrett, it is not enough to teach the dog to just
comply with being in a crate; her goal is to make
the dog actively desire the crate. She teaches
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this through a very detailed protocol of classical
conditioning that associates the crate with food.
Indeed, the results are amazing and it is hard
to deny that the dogs want to be crated but the
video is also the pinnacle of what some see as
wrong with purely behaviourist training: while
such training can certainly create a very intense
emotional relationship between guardian and
dog, it is also based on highly formalized and
structured interactions in which there is no
space for spontaneity, unstructured displays
of affect and little preoccupation with what
the dog ‘naturally’ wants. In fact, that that is
natural (such as chasing, jumping, barking and
interactions with other dogs) first needs to be
eliminated, in order to be re-introduced, only
under controlled conditions. The dog needs to
learn an almost human type of self-control in
order to be allowed to regain the privilege of
access to canine behaviours.
BEYOND BEHAVIOURISM
As posed in the opening of this article, radical
behaviourism’s hold on agility training
is waning as increasingly more trainers
restructure their training practices in ways
that acknowledge their dog’s canine specificity
rather than impose human standards of
behaviour on the dog. They adapt to the dog,
changing their training and handling styles in
a way that makes them ‘more dog’. Interestingly,
in the world of agility, these are not trainers
who have given up on competitive aspects of the
sport. On the contrary, one of the pivotal figures
in this trend, Slovenian-born Silvia Trkman, also
happens to be one of the top competitors in the
world, winning multiple World Championship
titles with a number of dogs. At the same time,
Trkman constantly repeats that such success
was never her goal and that people ruin their
relationships with their dogs by being too
focused on winning. Trkman’s methods could
best be summed up as: speed, spontaneity, play,
and throwing human ambition out the door. For
Trkman, the appeal of agility lies in its fast pace
and the excitement that this generates in the
dog. Putting emphasis on control over speed –
as classic behaviourist techniques do – would
go against those very qualities that dogs like
about the sport: it allows them to run fast, as
Cayenne’s behaviour in Haraway’s contact-zone
narrative proved. According to Trkman, in order
not just to do well but to experience the full joy
of agility, the handler should embrace those
aspects of the sport that make the dog tick:
running full speed, turning the run into a chase,
becoming more like a dog him or herself.
Trkman has not published any printed books
but she does have a number of training videos
and multiple online articles and interviews,
in which she explains, in a very low-key
manner, how and why she breaks all the rules
of behaviourist training. Her videos are filmed
mostly outdoors, against the backdrop of the
spectacular Slovenian Alps. She is often filmed
training in very casual situations. Out on walks
in the woods, her dogs are seen racing around
her, off-leash, usually as a group. When she is
working with one dog, it is typical to see the
others walking around and engaging in doggy
activities: sniffing, playing or just casually
resting. In her 2011 DVD Ready, Steady, Go!,
Trkman presents her philosophy as ‘work
less, play more’ and run more. In the opening
segment, she says: ‘Agility is just about playing
and running and having fun and chasing and
… running, again.’ She encourages handlers to
embrace the spirit of agility and work with their
dog’s natural instincts rather than against them.
By this, she means foregoing detailed training
protocols and being open to sudden changes.
In Agility Diary Trkman describes a particular
training situation like this: ‘Here I wanted to
teach a reverse figure eight but she [the dog]
had some other ideas, so I couldn’t help but
reward it because I really like her creativity’
(2015). Trkman also advocates trusting the dog,
respecting the dog’s individuality and responding
to it in the process of training. While it may
sound esoteric, there are very specific cases that
Trkman uses to explain what she means. If a dog
cannot handle staying at the start line – a stay is
recommended by most agility trainers to allow
the handler to get into position on the course but
it is also a difficult exercise to teach, because the
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dog really wants to run once they see an agility
course – then Trkman does not argue for retraining
the stay. On the contrary, she suggests
that a possible solution is to forego the exercise
and just run with the dog because, after all, a stay
is not a required part of agility, it simply makes
positioning easier for the human (Ready, Steady,
Go! 2011).
Finally, Trkman’s signature is her running
contacts, an exercise that best exemplifies her
philosophy. The contact zones, as mentioned
previously, need to be touched by a dog with at
least one of its paws before the dog descends the
obstacle. Haraway described teaching her dog
to stop in the contact zone with two paws on
the ground and two back legs on the obstacle,
a procedure popularized by Susan Garrett and
used by the majority of US trainers until very
recently. Trkman’s DVD Running Contacts that
Make You Smile opens with a dedication to her
dog La: ‘an amazing crazy little dog of many
virtues, but self-control is certainly not one of
them’ (2012). Trkman continues by explaining
that she decided to turn La’s weakness (lack of
self-control) into an advantage by teaching her
to run full speed and touch the yellow zone while
running, in full extension. Trkman explains that
her major gratification as La’s partner is being
able to smile as she watches her dog run at full
speed alongside her: ‘We both love to run and
hate to stop’ (Running Contacts that Make You
Smile 2012). Trkman’s running contacts have
met with much criticism from inside the agility
community: other trainers question whether it
is possible to methodically teach the behaviour;
whether her dogs’ performances are not just
a fluke, a stroke of good luck; and whether the
handling of such fast performances is even
possible for the average human. It is interesting
that this minute element of agility training, the
contact-zone performance, has raised so much
controversy. This discussion reveals that the
behaviour of stopping can be interpreted as an
intrusion of the radical behaviourist discourse
of self-control into the sport of agility. I use the
word ‘discourse’ consciously, in its Foucauldian
definition, because, for almost two decades, it
seemed ‘obvious’ to the majority of trainers that
stopping the dog in the contact zone is the only
sensible way to train, even though the rules
absolutely do not require a complete stop; on the
contrary, they reward the fastest performance.
BEYOND AGILITY
Trkman is by no means the only trainer whose
ideas exhibit this new philosophy. Neither
is agility the only activity where this trend
can be noticed: it is an example rather than
the exception. In fact, the desire to not just
understand but even inhabit the canine’s mind
and body can be traced in numerous training
materials or journals related to various training
endeavours. Cat Warren, in her memoir of
training a cadaver (human-remains detection)
searching dog, writes of moments of desire to
get inside the mind and body of her dog in order
to know what the dog knows, to smell that that
is unavailable to the human being or to possess
canine communication skills: ‘We watched
her, trying to learn from her engagement
and disengagement, her covert and canny
manipulation of this emotionally stunted puppy.
We wanted to know what Megan knew’(Warren
2015:10) while the pet owner’s version of the
activity Warren engages in, called K9 Nosework,
stresses in the rulebook that the sport is ‘all
about dogs and celebrating their amazing
abilities’ (K9 Nosework 2014). In fact, many of the
contemporary human–canine activities declare
their goal as strengthening the human–canine
bond and making the guardian more aware of
the dog’s innate needs, drives and instincts.
It seems as if much of cutting-edge contemporary
training is not so much about making animals
behave in ways in which they otherwise would
not, as Paul Patton defined training in his
Foucauldian reading of the training of dressage
horses (2003:83–99), but quite the opposite.
It increasingly is about making humans engage
in activities in which they otherwise would not,
challenging them in unexpected ways, both
physically and mentally. This is evident in many
training memoirs that present the arrival of the
dog as a moment of disruption of the human’s
life and describe its gradual reconfiguration
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in ways that adapt to the canine’s presence.
English professor Cat Warren never envisioned
herself searching for dead bodies, yet her dog’s
exceptional talent and high energy made her
search for an activity that would both constitute
an outlet for his drives and an avenue to make his
scenting talent shine. In popular parlance, this
is what people mean when they say that having
a dog makes a person more active. Such common
knowledge is also confirmed by empirical studies
on the activity levels of canine guardians. Not
all become agility competitors or cadaver dog
experts but the general dog guardian population
is by far more active than non-dog guardians
(Schofield et al. 2005; Cutt et al. 2008).
CONCLUSION
Dog training, particularly the training of pet
dogs, has historically been about curbing their
instinctive behaviours in order to replace them
with behaviours that make canine presence
acceptable in an anthropocentric world. This is
clearly changing, as more people are engaging
in dog-related activities not with the aim of
‘civilizing’ their dog but because they want to
satisfy their dog’s physical and emotional needs
and because they are fascinated with dogs’
otherness. There is strong empirical grounding
for such claims in studies of handlers’
motivation for engaging in training (Farrell et al.
2015; Teodorowicz and Wozniewicz-Dobrzynska
2014) but this is also visible in the performances
themselves and in the training apparatus:
the methods, props, equipment and so on.
If one conceptualizes agility as a performance
of ‘dogness’, then the agility run performs
dogness as speed, engagement and passion.
All good runs – successful performances – make
the spectator experience dogness as such.
Thus, when one looks at the performances of
competitors who train their dogs using different
training philosophies, the difference may not
be striking. True, Trkman is clearly running
faster than most other competitors, even at the
World Championships, but the full extent of
the differences can only be discerned through
a comparison of the entire ‘animal apparatus’.
Once it is taken into account, it becomes
obvious that there is qualitative difference
in how she interacts with her dogs. Because
her approach – an appreciation of dogness –
reflects the motivation of increasingly more
people who engage in dog training, I see this
approach as innovative and believe that the
turn away from radical behaviourism and
towards ‘more dogness’ is imminent in the
dog-training world. It is not a doing away with
power altogether – that would be impossible
– but it is the recognition of behaviourism’s
status as discourse, an expression to forego
full control of the dog’s behaviour, a readiness
to learn not just with the dog but from the
dog. Whether this is also slipping into another
discourse, which I certainly believe it is, is up for
further discussion.
Of course, what I – after the O2 advertisement
– define as ‘dogness’, that is exuberance,
impulsiveness, enthusiasm, sociability and
full engagement in everyday matters, is itself
context-dependent. This is not a timeless and
universal set of features associated with dogs.
Historically, humans have seen in the dog
that that reflected their beliefs about what it
means to be a dog. This has included loyalty
and courage, but always underpinned with the
darker side of animal otherness that had to be
suppressed in order for the positive features
to emerge. The Aristotelian definition of the
human as ‘the rational animal’ has persistently
haunted our interactions with non-human
animals and training offered a way of partially
repudiating the dog’s animality, primarily
through the inculcation in the dog of that that
he was seen as lacking: self-control. What we
can observe in contemporary training practices
is not a total repudiation of the understanding
of animality as lack of self-control but the
revaluation of animality: impulsiveness is no
longer something to be suppressed; rather,
it becomes a quality that humans envy and
wish to emulate. This shift in perception
can be seen as part of the growing ethically
motivated interest in animal otherness that
is characteristic of the ‘animal turn’ we are
currently experiencing.
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