Eric Goebelbecker is a dog trainer in Bergen County, NJ and the author of the popular blog Dog Spelled Forward.
Eric is also an instructor at St. Hubert’s Dog Training School, a member of the board of the International Association of Behavior Consultants and a regular blog contributor at Dog Star Daily.
VP: You’re an advocate of a ‘Real Man’ paying an honest wage for honest work. Why is this so important in successful training? And why do you think that a stigma of a sort exists in some quarters about trainers using treats?
EG: If you want to train a dog it’s important to understand what a reward is and how it works. It’s also important to understand that training with rewards does not and should not always mean training with food.
One of the fundamental misunderstandings people on both sides of the food vs. no food argument is the difference between a reward and a bribe. A bribe is shown before the behavior and a reward comes after. That simple difference makes all the difference in the world: I can get just about any dog to something with food in front of her nose (unless she’s a resource guarder of course) but get the food out of sight and smell and it’s a whole different ball game, isn’t it?
I think this misunderstanding is one of the first barriers to accepting training with rewards. Some opponents seem unwilling or unable to learn how to do it right, while others have been shown how to do it wrong and resist it with good reason.
The other is the myth of the “Disney Dog” that Jean Donaldson debunks in “The Culture Clash.” So many people believe that once you declare yourself a dog’s owner she should then decide that you must be obeyed, and that any use of food is somehow a compromise. You can build a strong relationship with a dog, but it takes time and it helps to understand that one of the definitions of a relationship is a “history of reinforcement.” Think about the people (and dogs) you voluntarily spend your time with. There’s something reinforcing that keeps bringing you back, isn’t there?
VP: You’re also a big believer in the essential roles eye contact and attention play in successful training. Can you explain their value?
EG: Eye contact is a way to use body language to communicate. Dogs find body postures much more meaningful than spoken language, and creating that simple way to say “I am paying attention to you” is critical to any success. In addition, if you can redirect a dog’s gaze you may be able to redirect her attention. This can avoid a lot of problems and is the first skill I was taught to teach dogs that are aggressive on leash.
If they are given a chance to learn how, dogs love play. It can be as reinforcing as food, sometimes even more. Go to a well run dog park or doggie day care. What are the dogs doing? They’re playing! In the very first week of my basic class I explain and demonstrate how to use play as an alternative for food.
Play also strengthens relationships. Marc Bekoff has written a lot about this, as has Stuart Brown, who popularized the famous “Polar Bear and Husky at Play” slideshow a few years ago.
VP: On Dog Spelled Forward, you talk about pet owners developing their own good leash skills in order to counter on-leash aggression. What are some simple things that dog walkers can do to ease instances of aggression?
EG: Many aggression issues start on leash. Having a tether attached to your neck can be very frustrating, especially if it is associated with pain and/or not being able to get to what you want.
The first thing one can do is make walking on leash be about walking on leash and paying attention to you. Here’s where that eye contact comes in again! Another is to be proactive: pay attention to your environment and be ready to either redirect your dog’s attention or just change your direction of travel. Discretion is often the better part of valor.
Last, focus on what you want and reward it. Too many people focus on punishing the dog for pulling or straying off the path and instead of rewarding her when she walks nicely.
VP: Cesar Milan and his approach to dog training occupy such a prominent platform at the moment. I know that you don’t wholly endorse his approach. Could you speak briefly to the reasons why the notions of ‘pack leaders’ and ‘alpha’ psychology are scientifically suspect?
EG: First and foremost, dogs are not wolves. Over the past decade we have seen more and more studies showing us how the process of domestication has given dogs unique skills for living and communicating with us. They follow a pointed finger, which other primates can’t do, they follow our gaze (something they don’t do with each other) and they read human faces the way humans do (again; differently than they do each other’s.)
“Pack theory” and Millan have us pretending to be dogs or wolves. Pinning them to the ground (which they don’t do to each other anyway,) pretending to bite necks with our hands, eating first, and even, amazingly, spitting in food. (Not Millan, but some other trainers that espouse pack theory.) If dogs are so well suited to communicate with humans, why spend so much time trying to be something else?
Second, wolf packs don’t work the way “pack theory” describes anyway. There is no constant struggle for dominance. Wolf packs more closely resemble family units, and if a wolf doesn’t like the management he leaves and forms his own pack. David Mech, the researcher who coined the phrase “alpha wolf,” has all but recanted on Youtube.
VP: One of the myths you’ve dispelled on DSF is the idea that you shouldn’t introduce a puppy to other dogs & people too soon because she might get sick. I had actually believed that this was a sound precaution with puppies. But it turns out they need that social experience. Are there some other major myths you run into frequently?
EG: I think the biggest myth I see is that placing a metal “choker,” or more properly a “training collar,” on a dog will magically make her stop pulling on leash. The most amazing part is that many of the people that believe this myth will be pulled down the street by their dogs this evening.
Another is a variation on pack theory: that in a multi-dog household one dog must be alpha and that the people in the household must support him or her by feeding first, letting her through doors first, have toys first, etc. Two or more dogs may establish a pecking order, but it tends to be fluid and can often adapt to the situation. People tend to mess up doggy politics and are better off insisting on polite behavior from all of the dogs, and not picking favorites.
VP: You talk of an ‘aha’ moment you had when you were first introduced to modern dog training with you puppy Caffeine. You had petted Caffeine and the trainer abruptly told you that maybe this wasn’t the thing to do. Why was this an eye-opening moment for you?
EG: This was my object lesson in “the dog decides what is reinforcing.” When Caffeine is working or playing (she doesn’t really see the difference) she does not want to be touched; she wants the ball, the tug, or the treat. Being shown that “in situ” had a tremendous impact on me.
I could offer you a piece of the finest chocolate in the world, but it you just finished a half pound steak with vegetables, potatoes, and gravy, you might not be hungry. It wouldn’t matter how good the candy was or how much my feelings were hurt; you’re not hungry.
VP: And finally, any thoughts on the Packers beating the Eagles?
I was never much of a football fan, and Vick pretty much eliminated any enjoyment I could get from the game. I think if I spoke my mind it would make a lot of football fans very upset.
I think next year will be the year for the Devils though.
VP: Thanks for talking with us.
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