Being Wrong is Right by Angelica Steinker, Tampa, FL Dog Behavior Consultant
Turns out that humans have a huge problem– we love to be right. The problem is that this is dangerous and actually causes serious tragedies and even death, according to Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error author Kathryn Schulz. Schulz explains in great detail how planes crash as a result of a pilot refusing to admit he was wrong. And as Schulz delves into the topic you can’t really blame the pilot, but rather punishment. It seems that as tiny kids we are already conditioned to be right. That if you are right you are good and if you are wrong you are bad. Of course this is really not helpful as life consists of a whole bunch of gray areas, situational dilemmas and most importantly of humans who desperately long to never be wrong.
So I need to confess, I have been and am wrong. I was wrong for using choke chains and prong collars on my first dogs, I was wrong when I alpha rolled my terrier and inadvertently caused even more problems. I was wrong when I sprayed fluid in my dog’s face and when I threw shake cans. Frankly when I saw the door to clicker training I jumped through it, I wanted out. I was happy to be wrong because using the aversives did not feel right. But being wrong isn’t always that simple.
Being wrong is not easy. I don’t know why but I feel attracted to being wrong, perhaps it’s the rebel in me, but I see that others struggle and suffer when being even potentially wrong. Maybe it was my childhood conditioning that prompted a strong opposition reflex. For most of us, years of cultural conditioning have programmed us to avoid being different, to go with the crowd and to avoid conflict. Not too long ago conflict was so dangerous that even just triggering one person could cost you your life. The conflict avoiding programming that resulted persists even though the risk involved today for most of us is minimal.
When I am honest I realize there have been things I have dreaded being wrong about. I did not want to be wrong about my marriage failing years ago. I did not want to be wrong about my terriers being really hard to train for agility. I wanted to do agility and so it was really hard to accept that they really did not want to do agility. I was wrapped up in my ego, my want, my joy, my outcome and not considering the truth that one of my terriers had monumental stress issues that made living as a pet difficult and consistently performing in agility nearly impossible. My terrier and I did the impossible. We got an Agility Excellent title in AKC and then I retired him. I agonized about retiring him and then noticed that he was unconcerned, relieved to not be doing agility anymore.
It had been my ego that drove me to do it. I had set goals, I had wanted and not listened to what my dog was saying: hey this competition stuff is not for me. I enjoy doing agility in the back yard and at friends places but this competition stuff is just too much. I had lacked awareness. I had lacked the ability to see his stress so I was blindly making decisions about us as a team. I was wrong. But there were lucky side effects to my bad decision. Doing agility had empowered my scared terrier to become a more confident dog.
Empowerment training is really just good training. If you follow science along its trail of evidence you will find empowerment training. Efficacy, how well a training method works, is not enough. We need to ensure that dogs learn via methods that empower them. James O’Heare has written an outstanding book on Empowerment training which outlines the process of good training. Delving into the book you will find that the road to good training is not an easy one, but is ultimately rewarding to both the learner and the teacher. Empowerment training does not mean that your dog is going to take over your house and that you will be making out your mortgage check to her, it means that your dog will enjoy the learning process. The ultimate compliment to any teacher, an enamored student!
However my being wrong about my first agility dog’s desire to do agility ended up being very disempowering to me. In addition the instructors I was choosing to train with were endlessly motivated by punishing their students. I was told that I should use more deprivation than my dog’s problems were the result of my bad training. I internalized that I was a horrible trainer but could not accept the concept of needing to deprive my dogs in order for them to play a game with me. I felt myself slip into learned helplessness. And again, what I learned was that I had been wrong. Selecting trainers based on fame and their own personal success was not working for me. I learned that I had to be true to my values and find trainers who were aligned with those values. I committed to learning everything that I could about behavior by enrolling in a trade school and reading every book on behavior I could get my hands on. I became empowered. I started feeling pretty good about myself, I started to think that behavior was everything, that I could solve all dog training challenges. That there wasn’t a challenge I could not meet. I rank myself up high and enjoy being in charge. Then it happened again.
I learned I was wrong about dominance. When I first became a professional trainer I told clients they had to do a variety of things to be dominant over their dogs. Turns out two beings of the same species can’t form a dominance hierarchy and that much of the original wolf research was flawed, so my neat hierarchy tumbled. While I did not have the advantage of Barry Eaton’s excellent summary of the scientific findings in Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction. It was the far more technical text by James O’Heare in Dominance Theory and Dogs. O’Heare states that humans are the ones obsessed with rank and power and that the most likely explanation of our desire for control over others is our own need for dominance. A dominance that we have easily obtained, historically speaking, it hit me like a blow to the gut. The neat system I had in place of explaining everything, bad behavior is dominant, good behavior is submissive –was wrong. Suddenly everything was infinitely more complex and I had to reorganize my entire way of thinking.
My terrier’s stubbornness became my challenge at being unpredictable. I no longer had dominance to blame and again I noticed feeling empowered. Being wrong was becoming even more reinforcing. I began asking why is anyone training anything with force?
Functional Analysis of Force
Another problem that I have is that I analyze everything all the time. Maybe it is from parenting too many terriers and border collies but I can’t stop the OCD of thinking about behavior. Learning that behavior is happening all the time I realized this included not just the dog but also the humans. While I thought I was training my dogs, they were also training me, but on an even deeper level the tools I used for training were also having an effect on me. So like layers of an onion I started peeling. If I used a remote citronella collar to punish a dog for barking, the fact that my button pressing stopped the barking was having an effect on me. Behaviorally I was being positively reinforced for punishing my dog. This was something that I found aberrant. Fundamentally it struck me that enjoying punishing another being was controlling and possibly sadistic. A road was not going to be traveling on. Yet I remembered training horses and feeling an awesome sense of power being able to control such a big animal. But power over another being was not going to be my reinforcer instead I chose being a team with my dog. Whether heeling, running an agility course, or throwing a disc I began to build reinforcement history with sharing joy and fun with my dogs. Sharing games and play increased my empathy for all dogs. We were having so much fun, feeling such a powerful connection and exchanging communication, I began to feel a burning desire for all dogs and humans to share their time like this.
Enter empathy, our most affiliative and important emotion. Empathy isn’t easy and it is frequently confused with sympathy, but nothing can be more powerful than empathy, it can literally move mountains when it comes to conflict. When beings feel empathized with powerful bonds are forged. Marshall Rosenburg travels the world bringing his Non-Violent Communication to conflict. Of course empathy isn’t a new idea entire cultures are built on it, i.e. Buddhism. So I started first empathizing with dogs, this caused a lot of problems. Humans don’t always like it when you take the side of the dog. Humans can get defensive when they feel judged and view your training advice as a demand. I was wrong. Empathizing with the dog was not the answer. The answer was empathizing with the dog and the human. Both needed empathy to be able to be heard, to be able to listen and to learn.
Just a Word
Dog trainers are taught to give commands to dogs, and that dogs follow these commands. We are expected to create beings that flawlessly follow the wishes of their masters. One of my favorite words, dominance, had already partially opened my eyes to the potential damage of labeling, but now I was seeing even deeper problems. The word ‘command’ is a powerful label. It implies control, power and dominance all things I had learned to leave behind. The Stanford prison experiment showed normal college students were labeled randomly as prisoners and guards, within a few days the experiment had to be stopped because the guards were seriously abusing the prisoners. The power of a word demonstrated, I began to wonder what happens when people label a dog? What happens when I label a client? What happens when I teach people to give their dogs commands? The words we choose matter, just as much as I had to leave that choke chain and prong collar behind. I needed to learn to choose my words much more carefully. Just using one word, could be wrong, and at times ending tragically for a dog.
Loving Being Wrong
So I leave you with my final thoughts. Being wrong is right. Being wrong is a beautiful thing, it allows growth and learning. I challenge all of us trainers to embrace being wrong. To make a commitment to openness and embracing a dog and client centered approach. To side with compassion and kindness and let all your recommendations demonstrate the love we all share for our dogs.