Why ‘how’ we train matters: Notes from the Guide Dog Users of Canada Conference

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A few weeks ago I received a call from someone with a new pup looking for a trainer. Unfortunately she was already convinced that the combination of a choke chain and shock collar was the fastest and best way to get the job done and there wasn’t much I could do to dissuade her so needless to say we did not end up working together. She no doubt found someone who was happy to charge her money for their ability to operate a shock collar and I try not to worry daily about the fear being instilled into her impressionable young pup.

About the same time I was preparing a presentation to be delivered at the Guide Dog Users of Canada Conference. I confess to having distanced myself from Guide Dog training in the past due it its traditionally more punitive bent but I’m happy to report that it’s changing. It was an incredible honour to be asked to speak to guide dog users eager to learn how they might deepen their bond, improve their dogs well being and recognize and reduce signs of stress.

Unlike the aforementioned caller, here was a group of people whose very lives depended on the reliability of their dogs behaviour yet the ‘how’ was still important to them. Although many of us already seem to know this, I still come across too many who don’t so I share with you here 2 recent developments from the scientific community that demand we consider the ‘how’ important.

The first is from internationally renowned neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp. Through his pioneering work in the neural origins of emotions he provides proof  that ALL mammals experience emotions. I have been lucky enough to see him speak twice this year and share with you here the now-famous rat tickling experiment that was at the heart of his research (just try not to giggle along with it):

The second is the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness in Non-Human Animals signed just this past July, concluding once and for all that non-human animals  experience an awareness formerly thought to be exclusively human. OK, so this doesn’t exactly come as big news to anyone who has ever lived with a dog (or other companion animal) but it’s actually been a taboo concept up until now as far as science has been concerned. Not only is it a call for more humane treatment of all animals, it validates the further study of cognition in animals and I’m excited by all the possible discoveries that may lead to.

So, given what we now know – and science can prove – about canine consciousness, there should be no question that we are morally obligated to consider the ‘how’ of training important and work with our dogs in ways that put the least amount of stress on them, both mentally and physically.