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The Danger of the Average: Part One

As a dog trainer, a significant part of my career focuses on methodology. At some point I had to make some decisions on what sorts of dog training methods I would be using to teach clients, what methods I wanted to learn more about, and which methods I would avoid. I spent a lot of time thinking about what made the most sense to me; I want to be effective, and create procedures that clients can easily follow. The most important thing to me is that the methods I use work across the board, with minimal adaptation, for all dogs. This is important to me because my goal isn’t to teach an owner how to train one specific task with one specific dog. I want to impart enough information that someone could apply this to their next dog without having to think about whether this method is appropriate for this new dog. Is it possible? Absolutely, but it requires us to think beyond what I am calling “the average dog”.

What is the Average Dog?

The definition of average is a mathematical one, reached by dividing the sum of a set of values by their number in the set. So, if we added up all the dog personalities in the world, and divided them by the number of dogs, we have our average dog. Ok, so that doesn’t really make sense, but let’s think about the most middle-of-the-road traits that we see in an average dog population. The average dog isn’t overtly afraid of sights, sounds, or other stimulus. He is friendly with people and dogs, and likes to play, but not obsessively so. He is interested in the world around him, but isn’t overcome with a desire to chase and/or kill prey. He learns new skills easily, but not so quickly as to outthink his human. His energy needs are moderate. He listens to Top 40 Hits.

This bell curve represents the dog population as a whole, and the area colored green hypothetically represents our average dogs. I didn’t do the math, but the green area is smaller than the combined area on either side. That would mean a larger population of dogs falls outside the average than within it. Our training methods should serve the dogs on the far ends of the spectrum as well.

I’ll admit, as a dog trainer, I don’t see many average dogs in my career, and when I do they are generally puppies working on basic manners or learning one of the sports I teach. Most of the dogs I see are on one end of the spectrum or the other. When I do come across those average dogs, it helps me to understand how certain punitive dog training methods have persisted; these dogs can take it. I’m not saying that I condone it, but quite honestly, average dogs can handle getting pretty intense corrections without much evident fallout in their overall temperament or affect. These are the dogs that allow traditional, punitive training methods to persist, because they appear totally fine with whatever comes their way, and are socially motivated enough to change behavior based on that information. Here’s the thing – When you set up systems of learning around the average individual, you are going to fail every other individual on either end of the spectrum.

What Happens When we Train to the Average?

The risk of using punitive or aversive methods might be small for the average dog, but it can be quite large for dogs on both ends of the bell curve. The problem is, it’s hard to tell how a dog might respond to a training tool or method before applying it, so you are taking a risk in going down that path to begin with. Some of the common “side-effects” I see from punitive methods include increased aggression, arousal, and/or anxiety, refusal to engage with training, and creating negative associations with innocuous stimuli. Again, just because we don’t see these effects in every dog does not mean that it’s a sound training method. Dogs are incredibly resilient, and just because some dogs can take a correction without having any sign of these negative effects doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some fallout, and it also doesn’t mean that it won’t have a huge affect on the next dog. What I do know is that using reinforcement based solutions focused on building a relationship of communication and trust between the dog and handler will work well for all dogs, so to me it’s not worth the risk of the potential fallout when we have other options. Using methods that work for dogs on the ends of the spectrum will work faster and more easily for average dogs, so there’s really no argument for using punitive methods on these dogs.

I will talk about the inclusive approach I use, as well as trusted resources on training methods that fall in line with the most current evidence in animal behavior and training research in my next post.

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