The Power of Negative Experience

This year I received my best Father’s Day gift ever:  the whole family went down to Roy, Washington to visit Ewe-topia.  At Ewetopia dogs get to pretend they’re herd dogs and chase sheep around.  For my Collie-Shepherd mix, this beats even squirrel-chasing, and few things are as much fun for me as watching my dog have a great time. (As I explained in an earlier post, that also applies to other family members but with them it’s very much a hit-or-miss operation.  And when you do get a hit, the excitement level is a couple of orders of magnitude lower than what you get from a dog when all you do is say the word “walk.”)

Yes, I could have done this myself anytime, and I did have to pay for it myself, but it was more fun as a family activity.  Only as a Father’s Day gift would the whole family agree to endure the hour-plus drive each way just to let Buck have a try at sheep-herding.

I also had to arrange the visit myself.  You have to call before your first time, and when I did that a woman answered the phone and talked nonstop at breakneck speed for several minutes giving an information dump, most of which I had no chance of retaining.  But one thing I did catch:  they offered a “makeover” in addition to the sheep-herding.  What’s a makeover?  You tell them whatever bad habits your dog has and they fix it in short order.  How do they do that?, I wondered.

Buck does have some less than endearing habits.  He can be a bully at the dog park:  he loves to attack and intimidate certain breeds of dogs that are a smaller enough and submissive enough that he can get away with it.  And when you take him on a walk on the leash, he’ll pull your arm out of its socket if he sees a squirrel.  And when he’s off leash he comes when called only if there’s not anything else more interesting, like a squirrel, occupying his attention.

Buck has been to a few puppy training sessions, but that didn’t do much for these issues.  We looked into one-on-one training, but that ran around $400 for one half-day session.  So now the offer of a “makeover” for $50, which included the herding lesson which would otherwise be $12, sounded worth a try even if probably too good to be true.

At Ewetopia we found that for the makeover we had to sign a release form that among other things advised that we were consenting to trust the trainer’s judgment even if he had to use “harsh” methods.  That caused some concern.  What did that mean?  What were they going to do to my baby?  I decided with some trepidation to go ahead, figuring that if I saw something I couldn’t live with I’d intervene.

When Buck’s turn came, I was given a choke chain (nowadays the PC term is “training collar”) to replace his buckle collar and a thick braided leather 6-foot leash to replace his 16-foot extendable one.  The trainer, a fairly short, stocky man who walked a little stiffly, introduced himself as Joe.  He took the leash.

The first words out of his mouth were “Sit!”  Buck, who knows what that means but is accustomed to doing things on his own schedule, dawdled.  He immediately got “popped,” i.e., Joe yanked the leash upward.  He kind of got the message, and sat.  Joe began a long monologue about dog training, keeping one idea on the recalcitrant Collie mix who was supposed to stay sitting.

Not inclined to stay sitting, Buck got up again in short order.  Pop!  OK, thought Buck reluctantly, I’ll sit down again.  This was repeated a number of times.  One of the times, an extended “pop” lifted his front paws off the ground and he gave a yelp.  But before too long and he got the message and stayed sitting.

Next was “heel” training.  Similar story.  Get a little too far ahead:  pop!  Get a little too far behind:  pop!  Get distracted and try to say hi to a passing dog:  pop!  Before long the dog who had never heeled in his life was obediently walking at heel, ignoring other dogs, carefully matching his gait and position to the speed and turns of his handler.

The makeover continued by addressing the problem with aggression against smaller dogs.  An accomplice would parade past Buck close by with a pair of small dogs, and when Buck would try to react:  pop!  If he so much as looked at them:  pop!  They would take the dogs behind him and stop for a while right next to his behind, and he was not allowed to so much as acknowledge their presence, on pain of another pop.

OK, then, I wondered, so how are they going to get him to come on command even when there’s a squirrel around?  You can’t pop a dog who you don’t have on a leash.  Joe explained the method:  they put the dog into the sheep corral but without any sheep.  A couple of accomplices go out there with rock bottles.  You go in too and call the dog.  They throw rock bottles at the dog until he comes to you.  Repeat the procedure until the dog gets the message that it’s extremely desirable to go the person calling him.  This sounded a little scary, as I had heard the talk about “rock bottles” earlier, and it evoked visions of beer bottles filled with rocks being bashed against poor Buck’s head.  Turns out the “bottles” are big plastic bottles like you get laundry detergent or bleach in, with only enough rocks in them to make noise.  They’re scary to a dog, but not painful.  You could whack a dog really hard with one of these flimsy plastic bottles and not do any damage.

Joe told a story about how when he did this for one dog owner, the owner’s friend who had come along complained that this was cruelty to animals and unnecessary.  Joe asked her, “well, this works, but can you tell me a better way?”  You can teach a dog the “positive” way by rewarding with petting and hugs and treats, but when he sees a squirrel or a rabbit, no desire or habit of coming based on treats and hugs can begin to compete with the thrill of the chase.  The only effective deterrent would be if the dog assimilates the idea that the consequences of chasing the squirrel would far exceed the excitement.  “If you have a better way, I’m all ears.”  The woman had nothing to say, and the rock bottle lesson continued and from the testimonial letters Ewetopia receives, it appears the method is very successful.

Buck survived all that and learned some new skills, and then came the reward – sheep herding!  Into the corral he and I went with the trainer. (Not Joe, he was no doubt off putting another dog through boot camp.)  By now it was afternoon, and a long rainy day of paws and hooves running around in circles had transformed the ground into mud.  No matter, Buck’s excitement grew as he realized sheep were on the other side of a gate at one corner of the corral.  Then they let the sheep out, and Buck was in dog heaven.  He ran after them, barking and nipping at their sides.  They ran away.  He ran after.  They ran in circles around the corral and he followed in hot pursuit.  The trainer kept up with a long pole that she could use to make Buck back off if he actually attacked them, but he never did that.  He wasn’t herding them to any specific purpose, but he sure kept them trotting around for the full 10 minutes he had allotted to him.  At the end he was a happy and tired dog covered with mud from his belly down.

Nowadays the PC approach to dog training is exclusively “positive”.  We were taught in our puppy training classes that you always reward positive behavior and the worst you do for negative behavior is about 30 seconds or so of “time out.”  We used this for house training, and let me tell you that a house training process that went fairly quickly for other dogs in the past dragged out this time for months.  It was as if Buck was something of a dimwit, but from later experience we know that wasn’t it.

This experience makes sense if you take a moment to put yourself in a dog’s shoes … er, paws.  You get richly rewarded when you pee outside and a mildly unpleasant short timeout when you do it inside.  So what line would your thinking take?  Sure, I like to make Tom happy and pee outside, and that time out stuff is a bit of a nuisance when I do it inside, but after all if I suddenly realize that I really have to go, what’s the big deal?  I have to get somebody to let me out, and who knows how long that might take.  I don’t mind 30 seconds in a dark bathroom that much.  And they give me hugs and treats sooner or later anyway.  I won’t miss one treat or hug and I don’t get one every single time I pee outside anyway. Dogs aren’t dumb and they can weigh pros and cons of their actions quite intelligently.  So with Buck the “accidents” continued.  Then one day I came into the bedroom and there was Buck standing on the bed peeing.  I grabbed him by the collar and yanked him off the bed and hauled him down the hallway all the while screaming at him like a banshee, then with a great heave launched him out the back door.  He got the message quite clearly after that, and at last the long house training ordeal came to an end.

Joe had made a strong point about the importance as well the technique of effective “come when called” training:  if a dog doesn’t learn this extremely well, it could cost him his life.  The squirrel or rabbit could run across a busy street, the dog in hot pursuit forgetting to look both ways first.  Having been brainwashed into accepting the “positive training only” approach, I had few options for preventing this.  The only possibility would be to trap a squirrel, fabricate a carrying case, bring it with on walks, and when I needed Buck to come no matter what, haul out the squirrel and wave it around or get it to chatter.  That sounded like a lot of work and I don’t have an unlimited supply of squirrels and so I never tried it, and in any case even that might not effectively interrupt a chase in progress.

“Positive training” has limitations that those who advocate it do not acknowledge and do not warn you about.  This carries over into the human world as well.  I suspect this is a realization that prompted much of the biblical writings as well.  Moses and the prophets and Paul and the evangelists all realized that you can’t just promise rewards for good behavior, if you really want to be effective you have to promise pain and suffering for bad behavior.  And that’s why they did.  Read Deuteronomy and you’ll realize that every promised blessing has a curse counterweight.  Read the prophets and you’ll see that every misfortune is blamed not on the vagaries of chance but on peoples’ bad behavior.  If your nation has been trampled down by invaders and your capital city destroyed and you’ve been exiled to a foreign land where you’re used like a slave, well, that’s all because you didn’t take care of the poor and defenseless when you were well off, so let that burrow itself deeply into your memory so that you remember it and act differently when you find yourself well off again some day.  Read apocalyptic literature and you’ll see the same pattern as Deuteronomy except it’s moved out into the eschatological future.  The pattern is identical in the New Testament.  Compare Matthew 25 to Deuteronomy.  All of these writers wanted to bring about considerate, cooperative, altruistic behavior among their people or all people, and they realized about people what Joe at Ewetopia realized about dogs:  rewards alone aren’t always enough.  Fortunately for the biblical authors and for the people they wrote for, many people in those days believed the interpretations and promises.  Today most people don’t believe in the same way, and as a result the biblical texts are not as effective as they were.  So how could you accomplish the same ends today?  How do you get people who don’t believe in future rewards and punishments to choose good when they’re strongly tempted to do otherwise?

Richard Feynman in The Meaning of it All, a great little book I highly recommend, addresses this issue as an unresolved question for modern man.  Science has undermined the belief in the metaphysical aspects of religion, he points out, but there is still no alternative to religion for the moral aspects of guiding human behavior; one reason is that:

… as far as I know in the gathering of scientific evidence, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere, anything that says whether the Golden Rule is a good one or not.  I don’t have any evidence of it on the basis of scientific study. (44)

On the other hand, what he calls the “inspirational” aspect, and you might also call it the “motivational” aspect, is undermined by science:

The source of inspiration today, the source of strength and comfort in any religion, is closely knit with the metaphysical aspects.  That is, the inspiration comes from working for God, from obeying His will, and so on.  Now an emotional tie expressed in this manner, the strong feeling that you are doing right, is weakened when the slightest amount of doubt is expressed as to the existence of God.  So when a belief in God is uncertain, this particular method of obtaining inspiration fails.  I don’t know the answer to this problem, the problem of maintaining the real value of religion as a source of strength and of courage to most men while at the same time not requiring an absolute faith in the metaphysical system. (46)

One might say that to get people to behave altruistically (let’s say many of them some of the time and some of them much of the time) requires the equivalent of a trainer and choke chains and rock bottles.  In the Christian tradition, the Old Testament prophets and authors of the New Testament provided these.  But their methods are not as effective today as they once were.  Are there equivalent methods that would be effective in the modern world?  On one level, civic laws perform this function, but for the deeper level of promoting Golden Rule behavior, that’s not the answer.  Like Feynman I don’t know the answer to this question.

(Lest anyone miss the allusion, the title is meant to be a counterpoint to “the power of positive thinking.”  I don’t dispute the truth of the latter phrase, and I don’t necessarily advocate or condone the use of some equivalent to rock bottles for humans, but it is interesting to speculate about how recognition of “the power of negative experience” may have motivated the writing of some parts of the biblical texts.)


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