When I was in Orlando over the weekend, Martin Deeley and I got into a conversation about some of the strange things people believe about dogs.
Trying to provide a helpful framework, I referenced the work of Harry G. Frankfurt of Princeton University, who notes (On Bullshit, 2005) that there is a difference between a bullshitter and a liar.
A bullshitter will say anything to get a rise -- he does not care what the truth is. A bullshitter is a fake selling his wares with whatever story, line or song he thinks will do the job that instant.
A liar, on the other hand, knows exactly where the truth is, never keeps his eye off it, and tries to steer folks far from its edges.
A lot of folks in the world of dogs are bullshitters or, to be more precise, they are squawking parrots repeating ad nauseum whatever humbug they were "told" by someone.. somewhere... sometime.
What's the pay off?
More often than not the purveyor of bullshit is simply searching for that warm glow that comes when he or she has demonstrated that they are a "special" person with a "special" base of knowledge that only those "in the know" share.
You know the type: "their" breed of dog is a rare breed designed to herd fish into nets or scoop puffins from cliffs. "Their" dog food is a boutique brand made from the dried placentas of Icelandic sheep. "Their" method of dog training is so modern and so scientific no one in the world of working terriers, sled dogs, bird dogs, running dogs, herding dogs, or guard dogs is actually using it.
A bullshitter will not provide footnotes, will not have any experience of their own, and almost everything they say will be swaddled in some sort of clap-trap theory.
To clarify, a bullshitter need not necessarily be wrong -- they are simply not very concerned if they are right. Or, to quote Tim Minchin:
You know what they call alternative medicine that works?
The world of dogs is old, and most everything has been tried. If something works in the world of dogs, it's no longer an "alternative" anything -- it's just another tool in the box, to be used if needed, depending on the problem at hand.
The simple fact is that Frank and Rudd Weatherwax, the owners and trainers of Lassie, were training dogs with food, praise and a choke chain long before B.F. Skinner saw his first pigeon or built his first "Skinner Box," complete with electrified shock floor and food bucket.
But of course, no one wants to pay homage to the old. Everyone wants to be "new" and everyone wants to be "special".
Ironically, in this way, we are all the same.
The result is that in the world of dogs, we are neck deep in bullshit.
Am I the only one to have noticed? Of course not!
I bet you too have noticed that pet people seem to be a little more susceptible than most to such complete malarkey as aromatherapy, homeopathy, and fear-mongering about preservatives used in vaccines.
Slap the words "holistic," "natural," or "human grade" on any kind of dog food, and pet people will buy it no matter if it has never seen a feed trial and if it is manufactured by a nameless, faceless third-party company that gets its ingredients from God Knows Where. Beef, chicken, corn and soy are deemed to be "bad" merely because they have stood the test of time, but pumpkin, flax seed, clover and potatoes are deemed excellent because they are brand new and sound great!?
And is it any different in the world of dog training?
Of course not.
Now, to be clear, I am not talking about any one method of dog training. As I have said before, almost almost all methods found in books actually work.
But isn’t that true for human exercise down at the gym too?
And really, is a dog trainer really that different from a personal trainer?
In both cases, the client comes to the table knowing the basics but willing to pay a little money if there is some some sort of "magical solution" that does not involve time, self-discipline, and (to tell the truth) mind-numbing boredom.
Eat less and exercise more? Who wants to do that? No one!
And so the rallying cry of the personal trainer is the same as that of the dog trainer:
- Like me.
- Trust me.
- Pay me.
Both the personal trainer and the dog trainer may claim expertise in a bit of magic not found in a book, but you will have to sign up for the course or buy the system ("a $600.00 value for 3 monthly payments of $39.95") to find out the rest.
And what is this secret knowledge? What is the "secret sauce"?
Down at the gym the personal trainer may be pushing a special diet, or his own recommended rotation of weights, or a certain set of calisthenics.
And will it work?
Sure, provided you put in a hour of hard labor everyday and mostly eat vegetables. If you follow up on that by cutting out the fats, sugar, carbs, booze, cigarettes, and dope, I am pretty sure you can be whipped into shape in 120 days!
And what is the "secret sauce" of dog training? It's pretty much the same.
If you put in an hour a day, every day, exercising your dog, and if you read a few books on well-timed rewards-based training and measured consequences for bad behavior and follow the program every day, I am pretty sure you can transform your dog into a model citizen in 120 days or so.
Of course, neither your personal trainer nor your dog trainer is likely to be as transparent as I have been about the entire process.
And maybe you don't want them to be. I mean if you're going to pay money to get external reinforcement for your lack of internal discipline you may want a little "secret sauce" to hide that fact.
No problem. A lot of personal trainers and dog trainers know this is exactly what you want, and so they are only too happy to whip up a little "special sauce" for you.
Don’t be surprised then if your personal trainer talks about the Gylcemic Index, the Montignac Diet, the I-tal diet or the Kangatarian diet. He or she might talk about cross-training, periodization, plateaus, and isometric exercises.
While pushing their diet and exercise recommendations, don't be too surprised if they also start to demonize or minimize other systems as being less effective, slower, or perhaps "toxic" because they "create too much cortisol."
Remember, it's not enough that your new system works. The old system has to be bad. In most religions, it's not enough that you go to heaven; everyone else has to go to hell.
However it goes, though, one thing is always the same: If you really want a new body, you will have to get off your ass, exercise more, and eat less. Every trainer presents a different set of sticks and carrots, but not a single one of them has ever presented a magic wand.
And what about dog training? It's petty much the same thing.
Whatever dog trainer you end up going to, they are sure to talk about rewards-based training and socialization, fear-based aggression, canine motivation, and timing. The smarter ones will also talk about simple measured consequences to end unwanted self-reinforcing behavior.
While pushing their own brand of dog training, most dog trainers also demonize or minimize other dog training methods, explaining that they don't work or work more slowly, or are "cruel" or "old" or "not scientific" or don't result in a happy, health dog no matter what you may have seen or others may have said.
However it goes, though, one thing will always be the same: If you hope to end up with a better behaved dog you will have to get off your ass, exercise your dog, and spend more time communicating with it in a consistent and well-timed wayevery day.
Exercise, rewards, consistency, timing, consequences and lots of repetition. Though every trainer will present with a slightly different set of carrots and sticks, those are the commonalities and there is no magic wand.
Nothing I have said here should be too shocking. Market segmentation is as old as markets, and "secret sauce" come-ons are as old as cookbooks.
I am not opposed to secret sauce market segmentation up to a point.
All I ask is that people don’t lie.
Don’t tell me a Fruitarian diet cures cancer when Steve Jobs died of cancer after eating a fruitarian diet for years.
Don’t tell me early childhood vaccines are dangerous when nothing has improved the lives of people (to say nothing of dogs) more than vaccination.
Don’t tell me I can eat as much as I want and still shed several pounds a week.
Don’t tell me a toe tap is a kick, or that a leash pop is animal abuse.
Don’t tell me that every Pit Bull is as dangerous as a wild lion OR that Pit Bulls, as a breed, are exactly the same as every other dog.
Don’t tell me slip collars cause cancer or that electronic collars cause hypothyroidism.
Don’t tell me that bottled water is medicine, or that ground up seaweed is a cure for "chronic disease and premature aging."
Don’t claim to be "national research council" when you are nothing more than a vet tech with an opinion.
Don’t tell me you are a "scientific" dog trainer when you do not have a degree in science and do not use every quadrant of operant conditioning or classical conditioning at all.
Don’t tell me you are a famous dog trainer in Great Britain when you do not own a dog at all.
And, above all, don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining!