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  • Writer's pictureRain Jordan

The Siren Song of Dog Training

Updated: Feb 17, 2020

In Greek mythology, the Sirens are seductive yet dangerous creatures living on a rocky island. They sing irresistible songs to distract sailors from their intended work and lure them to shipwreck on the Sirens’ coastline. The term “siren song” means an appeal that is hard to resist yet leads to suffering and ruin.

Fantastic utterances tend to get people’s attention. Whether the reason is a longing for a sense of magic in life, the desire for instant gratification, or simply a hope to save time, there’s a reason that in modern times we also call this type of longing the search for a “magic bullet.” Emphasis on bullet.

Qualified, humane trainers don’t use magic bullets to help dogs or their humans. We don’t string them along or endanger them. We pay our dogs for the work they do, just as our employers pay us for the work we do. The most effective payment is almost always in the form of novel, high value food items because just as monetary income is a primary reinforcer for any human worker trying to survive (economically), palatable food is a primary reinforcer for dogs.

We may sometimes hear someone say that a particular dog “isn’t food motivated” or treat motivated. But because dogs require food to live, all dogs are food motivated so long as they are motivated to survive. There are a few possible reasons a dog might refuse to eat a treat or other food item; these reasons have little to do with motivation per se, however. Such a dog might be ill or in pain, overfed, over threshold, afraid of the offeror or the context, or might simply find the specific food being offered uninspiring. It is obvious that feeling full or unwell can reduce interest in food, but what about the other reasons?

The taste and rarity of an offered food affects its value to a dog. Sometimes a dog appears disinterested in food because he has only been offered kibble, or only low quality treats, or the same treat day after day, year after year. Or his favorite treat food hasn’t been ascertained; preference tests can determine his favorite. Outside the contexts described above and below, I’ve never seen a dog refuse to train for the consequence of his favorite primary food reinforcer, also known as a “reward”— also endearingly known in training circles as a paycheck. A great paycheck for a job well done tends to inspire more jobs well done.

Being too close to a dog’s trigger will typically result in the dog rejecting even his favorite high value food. “Over threshold” is a general term used to describe such a situation where proximity or exposure to a trigger heightens distress beyond the dog’s ability to cope. The solution is not to give up on treats but rather to put more space between the dog and his trigger. If the trigger is a stressful environment (even group dog training classes such as those in places like Petco can be very stressful for dogs), move the dog to a less stressful environment. If the trigger is exposure to or intensity of a stimulus, reduce or eliminate exposure to that stimulus.

What if the dog is triggered by the trainer, the training context, or both? What if a dog is afraid of a particular trainer, her methods, or her equipment? Any person who uses aversive methods—e.g., squirting, leash jerking, emotional or physical force—or aversive equipment—e.g., shock collars, prong collars, choke chains—on a dog can become a trigger to that dog since these things scare, intimidate, force, and cause discomfort to the dog. The dog then develops fear &/or other negative associations regarding that trigger-person. That person might then interpret the dog’s refusal to take treats from her as “not interested in treats” rather than acknowledge that the dog is afraid of her and by association her treats.

Sadly, such a dog finds himself stuck in a vicious cycle of suffering from increasingly aversive training interactions; especially because aversives tend to provide instant reinforcement to humans, it may become tempting to slap a shock collar on a dog rather than work through a humane, skillfully implemented program. Claims that shock collars “save lives” persist among those who use them, but studies show an increase of 25 to 40% in aggression and other behavior problems in dogs purposely exposed to aversives, and since aggression and other behavior problems are a top reason for which dogs are euthanized, the lifesaving claim makes no sense.

Dogs who have their behaviors suppressed--whether by electronic collars, prong collars, choke chains, leash jerks, squirting, yelling, scaring, et cetera--often become like landmines.

Most people don’t follow the long-term consequences of actions taken on dogs, just as we don’t know what happens to the sailors a year or several after their shipwreck on the Sirens’ shore.

Classics scholar Walter Copland Perry described the Sirens as the muses of the lower world, observing that “they lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption."

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