Sunday, July 18, 2010

Seeing it their way

This weekend, I attended a seminar with Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., CAAB. The “CAAB” after her name means that Dr. McConnell is a behavior specialist who works clinically with dogs who have behavior problems. (The difference between a behaviorist with a Ph.D. and one with a D.V.M. is sort of like the difference between a psychologist with a Ph.D. and a psychiatrist with an M.D.) She is a great public speaker, and if you are interested in this kind of thing and have a chance to go hear her, I highly recommend the experience.

Dr. McConnell spoke about why we have reason to believe that dogs have many emotions similar to ours. She showed some fascinating pictures and videos of canine body language and talked about how to interpret it. And she worked with two dogs, demonstrating both classical and operant conditioning as tools for helping fearful dogs become more comfortable.

One specific part of the day serves, for me, to illustrate some skills I’d particularly like to learn, and they weren’t dog training skills. McConnell showed the audience video recordings of a dog with a resource-guarding problem being trained using an aggressive dominance-based approach. Resource-guarding dogs don’t like to give up their possessions. My dog doesn’t much like to give up his toys either, but he never growls or tries to bite when I take them away, and that is the difference between a dog who has a resource guarding problem and one who does not. So the danger when you’re working (or just interacting) with a dog like this is that you might get bitten.

Now, this was an audience of dog people. We all knew a lot about dog body language (and had learned more over the course of the previous few hours). As we watched the video, we were all flinching repeatedly, anticipating that the dog was going to bite, based on his body language. The woman in the video clearly wasn’t seeing what we were seeing and did not perceive any danger, even putting her face next to the dog’s mouth several times (yikes).

There was a lot going on in this bit of the seminar. First of all, a lot of trainers and behaviorists would have taken the opportunity to mock the woman on the video for her lack of understanding of the situation. There is one dog trainer whose book and seminars I otherwise very much enjoy, but who seems unable to refrain from shaming the clients she works with when they appear to know less about dog training than she does. Instead, McConnell emphasized what a good job this woman had done. She did exactly the right thing: she took her dog to a trainer, and she followed the trainer’s instructions to the letter. She was the ideal client. It would be very easy for someone who knew more to get caught up in anger about how an inappropriate training method was making things worse for the dog. It is so important, and so difficult, to instead see things from the other person’s point of view, and this was a great example of doing just that.

Secondly, rather than just focusing on teaching us about dog body language (preaching to the choir), McConnell repeatedly pointed out specific ways in which the general public tends to miss some messages that dogs give us. It’s rewarding but not useful to just fine-tune the abilities all day of a group of people who are already self-selected to be pretty good dog trainers. It’s much more useful to help them learn to see what the problems are in the community of dogs and humans around them. Maybe if more dog trainers knew what information the public was missing about how to read their dogs, they would do a better job of instructing people who come to puppy class. (I am not bashing trainers! Lots of them do a spectacular job. But we can all do better, because too many people get bitten, even by their own dogs.)

McConnell’s well-known book, The Other End of the Leash, tries to help people see things from the point of view of their dogs. But she is also good at trying to help people see things from the point of view of other people, and that’s invaluable. Hmm. Where should I go to school to learn that skill?

(For more on McConnell, try her books, The Other End of the Leash or For the Love of a Dog, or read her blog. You can also download old episodes of her radio show, Calling All Pets, to listen to her demonstrate her lovely verbal judo, in which she is able to basically tell callers that they are completely mistaken, without in any way making them feel bad.)


  1. Same topic, slightly different angle:

  2. Mirror neurons are super cool! I would love to watch that video. IF ONLY MY UPGRADE TO LUCID HAD NOT BROKEN FLASH. I'll get it fixed soon and watch the thing then...