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On Shaping Dogs and Graduate Students

I just finished a shift of stacking books at the library. It is very meditative work as it demands that you focus on exactly what you are doing, and little else. However, I do find time to let my brain wander, something that is not particularly good for me to do these days! It tends to go dark and dismal places. But by the end of my shift I had miseried myself out (there is nothing like shelving hundreds of books on doom and gloom about politics and whatnot), and got to thinking about the parallels between graduate school and dog training. Yes, I know, I’m probably one of the few people who entertains themselves with such thoughts, but hey, that’s me!

I have been training dogs for nealry 20 years now. Border collies, to be specific, although I have dabbled in a couple of other breeds. Until just over five years ago, most of what I knew about training I picked up from a few courses I’d taken, a couple of books I’d picked up, and trial and error. My star pupil was my first dog – Jake – who was brilliant beyond words and could pretty much figure out anything that I wanted him to learn, often despite how I was teaching him.

When Jake died, nearly 6 years ago now, I started doing rescue work with other border collies. That put me in close contact with dozens, perhaps hundreds now, of dogs, most of whom had very little training and nearly all of which had numerous bad habbits. My training methods, which I discovered are referred to as “compulsion” training, yielded poor results and I found myself searching for alternatives. Very fortunately I ended up working with several really brilliant dog trainers who taught me much. And the dogs taught me even more.

Compulsion training involves any means of training in which you ‘compel’ a dog to do something. That can be as simple and gentle as pushing his bottom down to get him to sit, or it can involve much harsher means, such as choke chains, hitting and so on. Regardless of what end of the compulsion spectrum you are at, training this way involves forcing the dog to do what you want. Rewards are often given afterwards as a means of reinforcing the behaviour you want. Indeed, many people use compulsion and corrections to prevent behaviour they don’t want, and rewards to encourage what they do want. A confident dog will usually figure out how to avoid the corrections fairly quickly.

Not all dogs are confident, however, and many have poor self-control. Or some can be confident, but have their confidence ruined through constant corrections. I have seen this happen a lot, and am very careful with my dogs to not dampen their enthusiams while I try to shape the behaviours that I want. Which brings me to another method of training: Shaping.

Shaping involves using strictly positive reinforcement (see, for example the book Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor, or Shaping Success by Susan Garrett). You can prevent the dog from doing things you don’t want by keeping it in a crate or on a leash – which techincally is compulsion since you are physically restraining the animal – but otherwise they do as they wish. You, as a trainer, must set things up to encourage the dog to do the thing that you wish. It is very much about teamwork, an dproblem solving. When the dog does what you want, you instantly reward. If your reward timing is good, the dog will quickly figure out what it got rewarded for and will typically try it again. Typically you start with very small behaviours and build from there. Border collies are great for this kind of training because most will happily repeat a rewarding behaviour forever.

Shaping is tricky and take some getting used to. It also takes some time for the dog to figure it out, and as such, shaping training can start off more slowly than compulsion methods or luring. However, once a dog figures out the shaping game, they start to offer all sorts of behaviours. You can stand there with a treat in your hand and your dog will instantly start to do everything in its repertoire until it figures out what you want. Shaping encourages the dog to try new things, and it is amazing at building confidence.

Shaping training is typically used in dog sports, especially in agility. Agility is a wonderful sport you can do with your dog (of any breed), yet it is totally unnatural for dogs to do it. Sure, some like to jump or run through a tunnel, but how rewarding is it for a dog to run through weavepoles? This is certainly not something a dog would naturally do without human encouragement:

For this reason, and because speed (which is directly linked to enthusiasm) is required for success in agility, people engaged in the sport have worked very hard at finding means of making it fun and rewarding. There is a tremendous amount of very complex and detailed theory on dog training as it applies to agility.

Now sheepherding is a very different kettle of fish. When working dogs on stock, you are working with a very strong desire to work.

If you take a border collie out to an agility field, it may run around and go over a few jumps and through the tunnel a few times. But if you stand still and keep all toys in your pocket, the dog will soon ignore the equipment, sniff around and eventually come and lie at your feet. If you don’t get involved, nothing happens. Not so with herding. Take a border collie to sheep and stand still, and the dog will move the sheep round and round and round and round until they drop from exhaustion. You don’t have to put any energy into the equation, or even be a part of it!

Because of their very strong desire to work, and natural instincts to do so, you can very easily use compulsion methods and still end up with a very keen dog. What I mean by this is that you can yell at, hit, throw things at and othewise use force to get your dog to do what you want around stock. The dog wants to work so badly, that it will take a certain amount of negative correction and still come back for more. Some more than others.

Because of this – I assume – there has been very little effort at really developing postive only methods of stockdog training. Agility is only a couple of decades old, yet there are dozens of books on variations on shaping methods and even more on theories of dog behaviour and positive training. Herding has been around for millenia, yet there are only a few books on stockdog training, and none that I have found offer any kind of systematic underlying theory. And not one advocates strictly positive training methods.

Now what does this have to do with graduate school, you ask? Graduate school, in my experience, is something that you really have to want to do in order to be successful. Ok, you might be able to do an MA simply for the sake of the degree, but I think it is a rare individual who can drag themselves through a PhD without at least moderate passion for what they are doing. Most are quite intensely so. So doing a PhD is kind of like a border collie in a field of sheep. You really, really, REALLY want to do it. And as such, you can endure varying amounts of negative feedback, corrections and enforced control. And some people can endure more than others.

I, for one, have been wanting to do a PhD since I was knee high to a grasshopper. I come from an academic family and it is something I have never considered NOT doing. I came to this program feeling like I was on top of the world, excited for the future, feeling like I had won the lottery and that I could do anything. I wanted this so badly I thought nothing could stop me. But I have seen sheepdogs become so broken from negative corrections or from being so overly controlled that they don’t even want to look at sheep anymore. And similarly, I am at my breaking point with this degree. I am so frustrated and demoralized from being constantly “wrong,” I don’t want to even look at the sheep… I mean the books anymore.

I have seen border collies regain their confidence and interest in work when brought to kinder, gentler pastures and trained with positive methods. So too I hope I can regain my own confidence and enthusiasm. But I will have to find it myself; no one is going to rescue me and retrain me with toys and treats. Guess it’s time to reread my dog training books, and apply some shaping to myself! After all, it doesn’t just apply to dogs…


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