The Weight of Training & Behavior Modification
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
When we are frustrated, we are more easily reeled-in by flashy marketing, charismatic personalities, and promises of quick fixes, even if what’s being offered is sub par. That’s because frustration breeds desperation. Many salespeople and marketers seek out and leverage that desperation. They call this approach hitting the “pain points.” Pain points are the negative things in your life that marketers make you feel even more deeply, in order to sell you something. By leveraging your suffering, they drive pain point based sales. This is why a ton of money may be easily raised by, for example, dog rescues who show you sad photos and tell you sad stories about suffering dogs. It’s also why animal protection charities who achieve their mission through education and prevention—refusing situations that lead to need for rescue—tend to have a harder time raising funds: It is exponentially harder to fund an organization that offers ways to prevent animal suffering than it is to fund one that shows you the suffering not prevented, to motivate you to the angelic action of a "lifesaving" donation. Sadly, both the method and the result is exploitation that serves the needs mainly of the exploiter.
It seems natural to fall prey to the beautiful—those visions of easy solutions to suffering. Emotions draw us to fantasy, whereas reasoning draws us to reality. The reality is that great results rarely come from quick, easy actions.
When our pain points are poked at, we are at risk of acting on emotion; we’re not in an analytical, reasoning state of mind. Fear, anger, frustration, et cetera can lead us to make irrational, even dangerous decisions. This is true not only for humans, but for dogs too. It’s one of the reasons we attend to a dog’s emotions in order to address behavior concerns.
So what constitutes worth and reliability? Consider a huge money-making industry: weight loss. We might be drawn to purchase a weight loss product or service if we are told it works fast and is easy. Before and after pictures—which help motivate purchases by showing those fantasy successes—seem to promise a solution to our sense of desperation. And yet, only about 10 to 20 % of those losing notable weight maintain that success for even a year. The other 80 to 90% gain it all back, and often more. Would you consider this a worthy, reliable product or service, then? Especially since in many cases, over time we see a worsening of the original problem rather than a lasting resolution, in a critical thinking mode we may realize that it isn't worth our money and efforts.
The principle holds in other industries too, including the dog training and behavior modification industry. It is why we see people leaving their beloved dogs in the hands of strangers with quick-fix training businesses, “boot camps,” or other magic pill promises. Such offerings typically employ aversives—shock, choke, force, intimidation, coercion, and/or fear-leveraging practices—to get your dog to behave as desired. Why? Because the only way to change serious behavior issues quickly is by temporarily suppressing the behavior. Suppression is unhealthy. And unreliable. Think of suppression as a sort of hiding behavior, burying it, but leaving it with fear-based motivations, the claws that will eventually dig the behavior back up.
Suppression can happen in an instant or short time, like Hide & Seek. Resolution, like Red Light-Green Light, happens incrementally. Resolution requires expertise, patience, and care. Quick fix dog training services appear magical but in reality are incomplete because suppression is temporary.
Just as many weight loss offerings work by suppressing behavior rather than resolving the cause of the behavior, dog services that reject slow, careful, methodical, anti-aversive processes merely suppress, not resolve, behavior. Suppressed behavior will eventually return. (Assuming, of course, that the dog avoided developing another devastating condition, the depressive state that tends to arise in what is often called "learned" helplessness, as a result of the suppression-based training.)
As Steve Jobs said, “Details matter; it’s worth waiting to get it right.” We must commit ourselves to the details of care, patience, time, education, preparation, and methodical anti-aversive processes that are humane as well as effective in lasting behavior modification, so that we don’t have to find another program all over again down the road, our dogs and we having suffered for nothing.