No pain, no gain
We’ve all heard the phrase. It became more recently popular in the exercise world through the likes of Jane Fonda and her “feel the burn” aerobics routines. But its origins are somewhat further back and frankly of more intelligent design.
Benjamin Franklin, in his persona of Poor Richard wrote this, “He that lives upon hope will die fasting, there are no gains without pains.” And even further back to Robert Herrick who wrote in “Hesperides” that, “If little labour, little are our gains: man’s fate is according to his pains.”
Both statements were sociologically and politically motivated. Both make some very good references to working hard to receive a reward, or results. I agree completely with the philosophical notion of working hard to gain a reward. But I struggle with the theory in practice of “no pain, no gain” when it comes to the training of the mind and body. Partially because the use of the word “pain” referred to “effort” and not to physical pain or the use of punitive punishment.
I will apologize for my references here to the training of canines. I understand there are numerous and varied differences between the training of an equine and the training of a canine. Sadly, it is my only frame of reference. I’m sorry. Disclaimer duly stated.
I trained with a number of great men in the police and SAR world at Camp Atterbury in Indiana. Many of them trained with a lot of compulsion, which is simply a nice way of saying that they used force. Force is a much maligned word and should not be equated with abuse. They were great trainers and I never saw a dog abused or harmed in one single instance there. That is also not the same as saying that their canines did not experience stress, because they surely did. In fact, quite a bit of stress. They made no apologies for creating stressful situations in which they placed their dogs. Their dogs lives were on the line, more importantly, the lives of the men and women who were using those canines, were also on the line.
But there’s always that one person isn’t there! In this case, I wont use his name but we’ll call him Jo-bob… because every stereotype that just came into your mind when you read that name…. fit him like a glove! Jo-bob had about six teeth and it might have been generous to say that he had that many functioning brain cells. Jo-bob wanted to be a cop. Well, Jo-bob wanted the perceived power and authority and prestige of being a police officer, without the extreme commitment to maintaining decorum when faced with adversity and often a heaping helping of stupidity. And this was well before the “black lives matter” nonsense.
Jo-bob’s training methods showed his lack of thought and shallow pool of character and his dog suffered for it. Jo-bob, took literally the notion of “no pain, no gain.” It’s worth noting that Jo-bob’s dog, a well-balanced, well-bred (possibly better bred than his owner) Belgian Malinois, took the “no pain, no gain” concept seriously as well. For the next few months Jo-bob put his dog through a rigorous and painful domination routine. Jo-bob demanded instant acquiescence to his every command and meted out harsh punishments for what he saw as refusals. But Jo-bob’s powers of perception were at most 15 watt and flickering. About the umpteenth time that Jo-bob brought his dog to train, there was a collective groan from the club when he swaggered onto the field. As he began his obedience routine we noticed a marked difference in his dog. He was stiff and mechanical and lacked the high-wire enthusiasm that almost any Malinois owner knows marks that breed. The air seemed almost to crackle with electricity. Jo-bob was blissfully unaware but it was clear to the rest of us that today was going to be memorable. As Jo-bob rounded the final blind to return down the field he sharply corrected his dog to quicken his pace and pull up beside him. As the dog tried to round the corner faster and keep pace with his handler, Jo-bob corrected him again… at this point, let me stop and change the wording here. The dog was already moving to come into a better heel position, so Jo-bob’s punch and jerk was not correction, it was punishment, it was punitive and it was worthless as an informational tool. Had the dog been dragging, not paying attention or not trying, some form of correction would have been warranted, but the dog was in the process of attempting to comply. So as Jo-bob punished his dog for trying, the dog anticipated another punch and jerk and decided to take a more proactive approach. Now, I know some of you wont like what I say next, but you probably needed to be there to see the poetic response of this dog. Without breaking stride and coming into a beautiful heel position, he reached calmly over and gripped Jo-bob’s left hand.
I have put a bite sleeve on and taken a bite by a dog doing protection work. It is a heavy jute sleeve with a stiff anti-compression device meant to protect the arm of the agitator. I remember when I took the hit, my concern was being freight trained and knocked off my feet by the dog jumping at me. But when I felt the full mouth on the sleeve I was instantly humbled by the power, even through the reverse compression sleeve, as it mashed my arm tight. Respect.
When a dog lacks nerve and bites repeatedly over and over, trainers call it “corncobbing.” It is a bad trait. It is basically the dog telling you, “I’m not sure if this is the right thing to do, so I am going to bite and let go and bite and let go until you make it clear to me what I am suppose to do.” Jo-bob’s dog showed no such insecurity. He did not rip at Jo-bob’s hand, snarl or show any other outward aggression. Had there been people there that did not understand what they were seeing, it might have appeared that J0-bob’s dog was simply gently holding his hand and walking him to the finish line. I assure you, he was not.
Jo-bob swore up and down the field and cursed the dog and his mother. He railed in rage against the dog’s stubborn stupidity. One of the men took the dog to a crate at the side of the field. I found it interesting to note that none of us were really worried about handling his dog. We understood. Dog bites are a serious business and should be taken seriously. I do not make light of dogbites but… I am human and pretty flawed, and I admit that the words, “nice dog right there, shame about the handler though.” Might have crossed my mind.
The whole point of this story being that Jo-bob’s infliction of pain did not get him the gain that he assumed it might. I have always strongly held to the notion that if you must inflict pain to coerce your dog (or horse?) to perform, you are doing it wrong and your “training” is faulty! The problem is almost invariably NOT in the animals unwillingness, but in the humans inability to make it clear to the animal what is wanted and/or expected.
In training service dogs we talk about the 4D’s. Duration, Distance, Distraction and Difficulty. Many people have a dog that will sit on command or so they think. But people do not often recognize the subtle cues or in some cases what could be called, “miscues” that they are giving. Sometimes almost constantly giving. Nor do we always recognize what is called situational generalization. I once talked to a woman at the park who had a beautiful Lab. Nice dog, but a little nutty. Crazy for anything that moved, including leaves and stray blades of grass. As our dogs played, she told me that her dog was finely trained and I did not doubt her. That is, until a squirrel, with an apparent death wish, meandered onto the scene. Our dogs immediately raced for it. At almost the same time, we both shouted “down.” And as luck would have it, my dog came to a grinding halt and while she stayed down, she did turn to look back at me with what could only be described as a withering glare. Her dog was gone. The squirrel made a bee-line for, of all places, the road. Fortunately, it wasn’t busy and both squirrel and dog made it safely across! We eventually got the heaving happy mass back on a leash. The dog was thrilled, the lady was shaken, they left for home. I am an average dog trainer, don’t assume that couldn’t have been my dog racing through the countryside. But early on, I was blessed with the knowledge someone far wiser gave me that I should never assume that my dog was fully trained until I could do every task at a distance, under distraction (including suicidal squirrels), through duration and in difficult circumstances with a high amount of reliability and precision. From that point on, I trained my dogs to heel in reverse, through obstacles and to mirror my body position from 10 feet away.
I had trouble and difficulty. As I said, I am only an average trainer. And I suppose you could say I had pain with no gain and I had some pain with gain. I had dogs that seemed disinterested or unmotivated and one dog in particular that I could have sworn had played too long in the shallow end of the gene pool with Jo-bob. But at no time during this training did I assume that the dog needed to be blasted if he refused a cue. What he needed was clear and concise information on what the cue meant and how to go about making the right decision easy for him. That responsibility, the making it clear, was not his, it was mine.
Take the simple cue to “sit.” I had a room-mate with a dog that would come in obediently and sit after each and every potty break. But as I watched her interact with the dog I became interested in the “behavior” that surrounded this cue “sit.” On a walk around the neighborhood one day, my roommate asked her dog to sit. Her dog, Fluffy (I don’t really remember her name) then behaved as though she had never heard the word before. Indeed she had never heard the word spoken out of context. She had never been asked to perform that behavior outside the confines of all her normal and regular surroundings. To the dog’s way of thinking, she hadn’t gone outside to the bathroom, she hadn’t come inside, there was no refrigerator in front of her. All of those things were part and parcel of the cue “sit.” She was lost. She wasn’t being a jerk, she simply had not learned that “sit” meant, any time, any place and under any circumstances. What she did not need though, was pain. She needed schooling, patience, consistency and proofing. What she needed was the trainer to understand and take the lead.
Now, I have used a prong collar, I have used an electric collar, I have used a herm-sprenger and a choke collar. They are all tools. They are all useful tools, when properly understood, fitted and employed. I am, again, not sure this translates to the training of horses, and forgive me (and please correct me) if that is not so. But tools themselves are fairly neutral devices. They do not correct or shape behavior on their own. They can evince great results…. both good and bad. They require human hands and hopefully, human understanding and a considered thoughtful plan of action. Of course a prong collar looks medieval to a human, and herein sometimes lies a problem with the anthropomorphizing of animals.
I had a sled dog team when I was younger and crazier. And of course heard all the stories of “poor dogs left to sleep out in the cold.” My dogs all had boxes but I did not bring them inside or give them heated blankies. Why? Because they didn’t need it. Their core body temperature is well above humans, they have a metabolic rate that supports thermal conservation, and they have a nifty double coat of fur. To treat them as human beings, would have been a disservice to them. They are not human, they are canine. It is a distinctly different thing to look out for our animals welfare, to be proper stewards of those animals in our care; than to attribute to them human characteristics that they will never possess and are not equipped to deal with or process.
One of the things that impressed me about Mark and Miranda and their training, is their ability to understand, assess and utilize. From the spoken account that the horse owner offers when bringing a horse for training, to their assessment of the horse (which may be vastly different than the owner’s verbal information), to the utilization of tools and techniques to continue forward with training. I am lucky if I don’t trip over a lunge line, so to watch a fine horseman who knows precisely why they are doing what they are doing, and the how and why of the tools they are using, is part talent, part art form and a lot of experience.
Early on when my daughter expressed interest in not just riding, but learning to train a horse, I read a lot of books and watched a lot of videos. Some were good, some not so much. I remember distinctly a video by a very prominent trainer showing the how-to’s of a given exercise. I waited for the why, but it never came. To my skeptical mind, this made me distrustful. Either A. you don’t think I’m sharp enough to understand the “why;” or B. keeping me in the dark by giving me only half the information that I need, keeps me dependant upon you; or C. YOU don’t understand the “why.” … None of these options impresses me…. I choose to move along.
Recently a question was raised for Miranda about the progression of snaffle to bridle horse. I am hoping that I can pull it off my ipad, but so far, I have been unable to do so, though I am still trying. I may have to have her re-tell the conversation so that I can place it here, it is well worth listening to. I recognized that this was someone who not only knew how to do something, she knew precisely why each step needed to be reached, and in what order and progression. What the signs were that showed her that a horse “got it” and how and when to move on. The knowledge and use of a tool is very important. That’s a simple enough concept to understand. But I believe that equally as important is knowing when NOT to use said tool. It was clear to me, That I was speaking to someone who fully understood all of that nuance and subtlety. Furthermore, she was not cagey or withholding in her efforts to make it clear to us. She wanted us to understand and had the ability to use cogent examples we could relate to, to explain the process.
I remember the very first time I met Mark Lyon. It was in Nebraska, we stopped at their booth. Though he may never have known it, I specifically asked a question that I never got full disclosure on, from the above mentioned big name trainer. It was not my conscious choice to voir dire Mark, but I had learned my lesson with the big-timey guy who looked a great part but didn’t measure up in the long run. Mark immediately started telling me what they do in this certain situation and inside my little brain I was saying, “do better.” And he did. In fact I have fairly good auditory recall and I can hear his voice when he said, “We want people to understand not only what they are doing, but why they are doing it.”
There is always a window, a doorway, an opening. There is always a way through it. Sometimes it is as simple as getting connected to the right trainer, who understands that you can get a lot of gain and ditch the pain.
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