Apologies in advance for an extremely long post. What follows is the transcript of a talk I gave in November, lightly edited for more clarity and (with luck) a little more grace. The talk was presented with the invaluable support (logistical and moral) of Daniela Iancu and Geoff Peterson of Portland's own Animal Community Talks.
Here's the original video if you're interested and are willing to wade through a sludge of 'aaahs' in the first five or ten minutes:
Here's an open letter written to Buck Brannaman a couple of years ago that makes a good companion piece, if only to demonstrate my will and ability to champion "positive" techniques:
And here's the transcript of the November talk. I hope you at least find it interesting!
Gretchen: Thanks, Daniela. And thanks to you all. Wow. (laughs) This is what I'm discovering about this weird space I'm inhabiting right now – you don't even have to do anything for people to applaud you!
My name is Gretchen Icenogle, and I'm the owner of Bridgetown Dog Training. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of training going on at Bridgetown these days. As you all know something about, even from the flyer for this talk, I was diagnosed early last December with a very aggressive form of breast cancer. My mother had died of inflammatory breast cancer when she was only 48. I was born on her twentieth birthday, making us exactly twenty years apart, and I was just about six months younger at the time of my diagnosis than she was at hers.
So it wasn't a big surprise to learn about a month later that I carried a BRCA1 mutation, the type that Angelina Jolie has made so famous. That helped explain a lot of lousy “luck” in our family. The good news is that my sister is clear of the mutation, which means that my niece is clear too.
In my own case, we went after it with big guns: double mastectomy, five months of chemo, and after that an oophorectomy because I was at high risk for ovarian cancer as well. Finished that all up mid-August, and finally reached the carrot that my husband Peter and I had been hanging out in front of our noses for eight months, which was two weeks on the big island of Hawaii.
At the end of September, we did that, and it was phenomenal. We had an incredible time: hiked the volcano, snorkeled with manta rays and green turtles. I had agiven myself a two-week space between when we were getting back and when I was due to start training again, then had classes scheduled to resume at Healthy Pets Northwest in Multnomah Village – my second home and dear second family for the last couple of years.
But a week after our return, I came down with what I thought ... well, I didn't know whether it was a stroke or a really bad optical migraine, but it arrived in the form of some bizarre visual symptoms and a sudden loss of peripheral vision. When we went to the emergency room, we discovered that it was a metastasis to my brain. Four weeks ago Friday, I had brain surgery to remove a tumor about an inch in diameter. I'll begin a very short course of radiation tomorrow. That will just be one week long, and highly focused on the bed of the tumor they removed.
I was given the option, or actually the recommendation, to do full-brain radiation to try to mitigate the risk of metastases to other places in my brain. Unfortunately, that comes with an immediate cognitive decline and potentially really horrific effects down the line - if you're lucky enough to live six months to a year, there's the possibility that you'd become a vegetable. It can induce necrosis in the brain.
I am really fond of my wits, really, really fond of them. There are some things that ... creative projects, this project ... there are things that I really want to say, things that I really want to get done before I go. Three and a half weeks ago, I was given the proverbial, "We never know. We're always wrong. But six months is a reasonable guesstimate."
The question that was left to me is, what to do with this time? This is one of the things I really wanted to do with this time. All of the energy that I hoped to be pouring into hands-on training and working with individual people and dogs right now is going into actually trying to bring together some thoughts about the experiences I've had in my too-brief time as a trainer.
In particular, the reason this talk is called "Calling All Elephants" is that I feel ... I should say, in addition to my own position in extremis, another big incentive to give this talk is the recent death of Sophia Yin. There's a lot of untapped ... those of you who don't know, Dr. Yin was a veterinary behaviorist who made huge contributions in particular to force-free to gentle handling of animals in a veterinary setting. People who didn't know her well but knew her like many of us did, through her training videos or just through seeing her public persona, were completely shocked by her suicide about a month ago now. There's actually a memorial going on for her right about now I think, down in California.
She was someone who held herself, clearly, to a standard that she personally didn't feel she was meeting. I'm also thinking of a play that my friend Lauren is in right now that's an adaptation of the Red Riding Hood story but set in a high school, a play about bullying.
But really it's about this free-floating shame that many of us, most of us, maybe all of us, feel about some aspect of ourselves that ... there are raw spots that, when they get touched, open up bigger wounds than we know how to close ourselves. What I am hoping to do through this talk and some other avenues ... my blog, actually, is another place where I'm really trying to tackle this ... is how do we build our reserves of resilience?
It's one thing to be ready to rescue each other from those really dark places where we all sometimes go. Those of us who have big, raw hearts, a lot of us in service professions.
Those of you who are not trainers here – many of you are teachers. Many of you are parents. You all have these places where you're trying to nurture another creature's ability to manage itself, its own strong emotions, to instill that kind of resilience that will get us through those really dark times. It's what's keeping me moving through this, the resilience that was instilled in me by my own teachers, my parents, people who have really put a lot of work into nurturing me.
My feeling, my essential sadness about the positive training community lies in my strong belief that it could meet that description of community a lot more fully if we were brave enough to have certain discussions that we're not having. Actually we could be having discussions with people who don't define themselves as "positive," or actively shrink from the label of “positive training,” if we were willing to tackle some difficult subjects.
My hope through this talk is to crack open some of these subjects and conversations, to invite the elephants in the room – all the things that we don't think we're allowed to talk about– I want to invite them out to play. I want to try to talk about a few of them. These are just a few that I've seen hiding unsuccessfully in the corners of a lot of conference rooms.
If you received a note-taking jot form, I'm curious to know ... those are either for your own use, taking down something that you thought you might want to pursue on your own later, or you can leave them.
You can leave a name, email for me. I may not be able to get back to you personally, but I'm really curious about your thoughts, too, and we'll also have an opportunity ... I apologize. This is not my normal teaching mode, speaking to a crowd of you and not, until the talk is done, inviting a lot of dialogue.
Dialogue is really what I feel I'm about, do best, and I look forward, in whatever way is comfortable for each of you, to engaging in that dialogue with you.
I have one specific agenda I should make transparent here. Something I conspicuously didn't include in my credentials is the fact that my professional training came from the Karen Pryor Academy of Animal Training and Behavior.
Leaving that off was a specific choice I made last year, after I had a break with KPA that I will discuss in only very general terms a little later in the talk. So in addition to a general agenda of opening these discussions with people who define themselves as positive trainers, I am sending out, actually, a directed message to KPA, because I feel that their founder, Karen Pryor, embodies compassion, creativity, and honesty in a way that I think the organization has recently failed.
That said, I have great hopes for its future. Ken Ramirez, who has been the longtime head of training at Shedd Aquarium, has become the KPA head of training, and I think he may have the capacity to change the culture there for the better. This, for me, is a time I hope not of making vengeful or spiteful points, but of trying to do good. Where KPA is concerned, I truly count myself a member of the loyal opposition; I believe that organization and many others like it could be so much stronger if they invited true, open dialogue. I just wanted to confess from the start that I do have a specific agenda there, too.
So. My primary inspirations for this talk are death and heartbreak. That's where we start from. (laughs) That in itself is opening a taboo in terms of positive training. One of the things we're supposed not to talk about, or that's supposed to be almost irrelevant, is emotion.
If we're talking about the behaviorist quadrants, if we're beginning with Skinner, we're very specifically not talking about emotion, because by his lights and by any behaviorist lights, anything that is not objectively measurable ... what went in, what came out, how many treats, what were the behaviors? ... you can't talk about it, right? It's all that kind of messy, amorphous stuff in the middle that we don't really want to discuss or that we supposedly can't discuss if our training is scientifically-based.
I think there's a lot that's happening right now in neuroscience and psychology that ideally is going to really revolutionize our sense of training. Many of you may already have a good sense of that already. Jaak Panksepp, up at Washington State University, has done a lot of work on what we now call “affective neuroscience,” the neuroscience of emotion. He's performing a really interesting, what he calls a triangulation. We say, "I can't speak about the internal state of an animal because the animal can't tell me about it. A human can report to me, 'I feel sad. I feel angry.' An animal can't do that directly."
With functional MRIs and ways of getting an objective view of the brain, seeing what is happening expressively, behaviorally, in an animal when that brain state looks very like a human brain state, getting the human to report, "This is how I feel when my brain is in this state," when the animal's brain is in that similar state, we can make some pretty good guesses given our evolutionary history as to what that animal subjectively feels.
Panksepp is mainly talking about mammals, but saying that basically it's a pretty decent guess that if it looks in the brain like rage, if it looks in the facial expressions like rage, if a human with that similar brain scan, similar expression is reporting rage, we're not making a big leap to identify that emotion in the other animal.
This is the kind of triangulation that he's performing, though it looks more like a rectangle, the way I've delineated it. We're cracking that nut, between the subjective and the objective. That's a lot of what's happening with this recent research. He's also just changing the vocabulary. The Skinnerian vocabulary, for those of you who know it,– positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, negative punishment – it's unwieldy to begin with. As I noted in the description of the talk, to try to explain to one of your clients or students, what “positive” means in a behaviorist context is totally crazy-making. It simply means I’m adding something, so “positive” punishment means, "I just kicked you. I added something to the situation that wasn't there before. It's painful, it's likely aversive to you, but it's positive because it's additive."
Similarly, negative reinforcement is the one that a lot of people have a hard time with, but it's a very easy thing to describe in perfectly plain English. It's relief. Something unpleasant was going on and it's been taken away – thank you! That's reinforcing. That makes the animal happy. Panksepp's work is really, I think, very useful in describing a much more potentially nuanced, but in some ways also a much simpler notion of disequilibrium.
Every animal is usually in some kind of disequilibrium, stronger or weaker. A perfectly content animal is an animal that doesn't need to do or to learn anything.
One of the walls that I really want to break down in talking about positive-reinforcement versus correction-based training is this sanctimony around, "Oh, I'm strictly rewards-based."
Purely positive, I'm sorry, it's bullshit. Somebody tells you they're purely positive, run the other direction, because what it means is that they're not reflective. They lack awareness of the nuances in their techniques. We are all using pressure of one kind or another. Let me ask you, if you were identifying different forms of disequilibrium that you might feel, like things that needed some kind of response on your part because you don't quite feel right, what are some various forms that that takes? Just call them out, anything.
Gretchen: Nerves. Anxiety, nervousness? Great, great.
Gretchen: Hunger. Great.
Gretchen: Anger, great. Others? Sadness, yeah, terrific. Any others?
Gretchen: Pain, fantastic. Something that requires a response from you. You're just like, "This is too-"
Gretchen: Cold, great, yes, wonderful. The line that we're making as correction-based or reinforcement-based trainers is one that Panksepp might call ... I don't even know how to pronounce this word ... appetitive, something you're hungering for, something you feel you need. It could be literal food. It could be company. It could be warmth, shelter, although that's an interesting one. Are you seeking warmth or are you escaping cold?
Then there are some others that he, like others, calls aversive, where you're trying to escape something. What we go by in the positive training community generally is an idea that by its nature the motivation that’s driven by appetite is somehow superior to the motivation that's driven by an aversive pressure, so that the pressure of hunger, which is what many of us rely upon as positive reinforcement trainers,is implicitly superior as a form of pressure to a literal, physical pressure.
I do a lot of leash work with my dogs that strongly resembles ground work or rein work with a horse. With my dog, Pazzo, the leash doesn't even go taut and I can lead him in circles around me.
It's so much more efficient than multiple verbal cues or whatever else I might do. It's very intelligible to him, even when he's in a harness. When Michele Pouliot gave an excellent presentation on what she called "The Right Touch" at a Clicker Expo a couple of years ago, it was aimed at “advanced” students – not because the material itself was particularly difficult, but because there was worry about using what is essentially negative reinforcement, because you’re employing a pressure that's getting relief by the movement from the animal.
"I'm pressing you, that gets relieved by you moving in the direction I want." It is technically a negative reinforcement technique. It could be, at its extreme, yanking you across the hall. It's a matter of degree. If it's done in a way that's immediately intelligible to the animal, that the animal can respond to, can choose, it becomes an invitation to reward.
The way that Michele teaches it and that I often do, is just to take the leash and hold it totally taut, then the moment you get a release you mark and reward. It's combining negative reinforcement with positive reinforcement, but that negative reinforcement component is key. What happens is that the animal engages, has a pretty immediate sense of what's being asked, can do it, is willing, and yet technically that would not fall in a purely positive category.
Panksepp can be extremely helpful potentially in breaking down vocabulary that's become really moldy and, again, we're nearly a hundred years out from it. We need to revamp it. He's really interested instead in what he calls, and what he's seen in the brain, as distinct emotional circuits that play out in some predictable ways.
He talks, for instance, about the FEAR circuit, or about the RAGE circuit that’s connected with frustration. Any of you working with dogs who have a real intolerance for restraint have seen the way that leash excitement converts easily to leash reactivity. "I can't get to this thing I really want to get to. That's horrible!" It becomes rage.
Play is something that Panksepp has also done a lot of research into and something that we're learning more and more about as being essential to healthy development, for mammals in particular. You might know him for his experiments tickling rats. That's what he's most famous for. It's hilarious.
They didn't realize how intense the rat's reaction was to tickling until they amped up the rats’ laugh at a frequency that we can't normally hear. He had to turn up the, not volume, but change the frequency in order to hear how delighted they were by the tickling. It’s addictive - they’ll come and seek out the tickling hand. They just love to be tickled. If you’ve got rats, tickle ‘em!
I think this notion of disequilibrium is really key to opening this conversation because what you start to realize is that no animal learns without incentive. Discomfort is the incentive. If we're working with hunger ... I don't know how many of us have told our clients, "Please bring your dog to class hungry. Only give them a half meal." Many of you will probably have to gauge, how hungry can I have my animal be before they can't focus because they're too wigged out, they're too excited about the food?
If you’re dealing in positive reinforcement, you're dealing in matters of degree. You're dealing in nuance. You're dealing with the individual animal and his tolerance for a very specific kind of discomfort.
This is not to say that I'm jumping onto the Cesar Milan bandwagon and I think rib kicks are the way to go. Part of the reason I think that there's a good reason to focus on, to keep our techniques as oriented toward positive reinforcement as possible is that it's a lot easier to practice, to fail, and to find the right target with positive reinforcement than with punishment.
If you're tapping into fear, and particularly if you're tapping into the fear of one's life being threatened... choking, for instance ... To take a recent example, I rarely intervene when I’m just out in the world beyond the classroom, but I saw a family in Hawaii with a dog that they were trying to “get comfortable in the water,” and they had the dog on leash and were all, "It's okay baby," and the dog was just doing this, (motions clawing at the air, trying desperately to get to shore).
I did approach. I said, "Listen, I've worked with a lot of fearful dogs and you're really in danger of teaching your dog to be terrified of the water." It had all to do with the animal's power in that situation. That was exactly what they said, actually. They said, "She's fine when she's off-leash," and I told them that made perfect sense - but right now she's really afraid she's going to drown, because she doesn't have that control. These were not cruel people - they really wanted to do right by their dog, and in just about every way they were doing just that.
The problem is that, when we're dealing with perceived threats to our very lives, we're wired to understand, "I may not get to repeat that mistake twice." It might only take one really clumsy punishment to instill a phobia in your dog. Cesar, frankly, is very practiced at his correction techniques, very effective. I am not and I will never be, because I'm not going to practice them and find that little band of efficacy with an individual dog where I only needed to do deliver the punishment once or twice, and the animal got the lesson, and that behavior was never repeated again.
That's where punishment “works.” I would never be a punishment-oriented trainer in great part because it's so hard to find that not-so-sweet spot. I have a lot more wiggle room working with treats. My dog Kili, I can't use high-value treats with her, because she just wigs out. She just completely loses it, so it's Charlee Bears for her and the meaty stuff for other dogs who are just like, "Charlee Bear? Nah."
I have that wiggle room. I have that play room. Particularly when you're dealing with multiple clients, there are just lots and lots of reasons to orient yourself toward positive reinforcement, but I think it's really important that we not fool ourselves that we are the saints of the training world because that's our orientation.
It's finally a very pragmatic choice. Yes, it’s a choice that is oriented toward compassion for the animal, toward effective training, toward training that doesn't traumatize either the dog or the trainer. But here's no big black line between us and the “corrections” people. We're all dealing with forms of pressure, some of which are a little more manageable than others.
The other thing to emphasize is that disequilibrium is not in itself a bad thing. There's more research going on all the time around what we might call "eustress" as opposed to "distress," particularly with regard to the teaching of small children. “Grit” is a huge buzzword right now in educational circles. How do we develop resilience and grit? We have a lot of twenty-somethings who've been rescued from every failure and really don't know how to handle it.
I got to see a high contrast in grit when I taught briefly at Reed College after a number of years at Portland Community College. People at PCC, a lot of those students, they've encountered failure. They've picked themselves up like, "All right. Here we go." Here's another Sam Beckett quotation I always go back to in my own life:"Fail again. Fail better." All right. Here we go through the rinse cycle again. At Reed, I encountered a dismaying number of students whose parents were ready to swoop in whenever they met some difficulty and, students for whom a failing grade or even a C could be potentially devastating.
Again, this is about resilience. I think another thing that can be problematic in positive training circles is the emphasis on error-free learning. It's not that I think we need to fake out anyone: "Ah ha! Fooled you there." It's not getting into kind of a sadistic relationship with your dog, but building up some frustration tolerance, building up some tolerance for failure is really key to making that dog get to a place of, "Okay, shoot. That didn't work. What do I try now?"
We've got a lot of dogs who've been "purely positively" trained who are extremely fragile and totally lose it when things don't quite go their way. That's actually where I want to go here in terms of the hardest case I ever had and, what it revealed for me, and how it compelled me to speak today.
Let me take one more detour first, just to talk about another unexpected ... a toll that training in general can take on us. That is: getting focused on the behaviorist's perspective of what went in, what came out, what's measurable, can cause our focus and attention to drift from the creature who’s directly in front of us, who's giving us her attention and her hopes.
The hungry dog is thinking, "Oh my god, you've got steak! What am I going to do to get that steak?"
Meanwhile, we're going, "Okay, there’s my stopwatch. Where's my counter? Where's my pen, and I'm looking for ... " This was my training program in part, and one of the things I had some difficulties with, partly because I've got ADD and keeping records of any kind is just a horror to me, but also because ...
One of the quotations I put on your note page is from Martin Buber, a German-Jewish philosopher. ‘All real living is meeting.’ I love that. Buber’s best-known book, Ich und Du, is usually translated as "I and Thou" but the more accurate translation is more intimately "I and You".
Buber speaks a lot about what he sees as a fundamental split. If you're regarding another sentient creature, are you in an "I and it" ... relationship? Well, he wouldn't call that a relationship, basically. You're only in a relationship in his mind if your perspective is "I and you," where the creature who's looking back to you, you recognize in his or her full mystery, capacity. That creature is more than you can really take in or comprehend.
He/she is not an "it" that is reducible, that is atomizable to qualities and sensations. Most importantly, he/she is not a means either for you to buck up your own ego or get affection, but is just another creature inhabiting this place as fully as you are with as much right to his or her own desires, needs, and the rest of it as you are.
I think that when we start to reduce the animals we're interacting with, be they dogs or humans, to what we can "objectively" measure, that we're in serious danger of sliding into an "I/it" relationship. There's a big risk that we start viewing that other creature as a tool for our little victories: "You just got 15 consecutive successful repetitions of that behavior! Woohoo, good for me!"
It's not that record-keeping is implicitly evil, but I think we need to start thinking more about the pernicious effects that a “scientific” perspective can bring in its wake. How the nature or flavor of our regard for another can strongly affect the quality of our interaction and may have the most lasting impact on both parties involved. If you are with another human, and this is where things get, really, for me, kind of shaky in the positive training world - there's a lot of training of fellow humans going on! That's pretty spooky in itself, in ways that I'll get into in a little more detail, but more generally I’d say that just thinking about another being primarily in terms of what you can measure from that being's presentation can take on a moral hazard.
So on to what happens when we have creatures who don't have resilience, who don't have the internal resources to self-soothe, to self-calm. Pema Chödrön, whom I also refer to on your note sheet, there’s a story that she tells, and many others do too. I can't remember the original teacher of this, but the basic challenge is that the world is full of sharp things. If I'm going to be walking on the earth, maybe I'd better cover it all in leather. I'm going to cover the entire world in something. I'm going to just try to take all its edges off, because it's really uncomfortable for me to walk over the surface of this pokey, proddy, sharp world.
Then there's the approach that says instead, you know, I'm going to put on moccasins! I'm going to put my protection on myself! If you don't have moccasins, what you try to do is control the world and make sure that the world is safe for you. And you do that often by shutting other creatures down.
Another place that I think we need to be careful not to lord it over correction-based trainers is in this whole notion that violence and aggression only happen “over there.” Passive-aggression I don't think is passive. I think that's a misnomer. It's covert. It's the kind of aggression that's slathered in nice, so that you can't even respond to it, often, without feeling like a jerk, because, "Why would you take offense at that? I'm just trying to be helpful here."
The form that it usually takes that I ran into in, I think, in one of its most vicious forms ... one thing to take note of is that, if we're thinking in terms of forms of disequilibrium or forms of pain, they generally fall into some pretty clear categories. Most obviously, we've got physical pain. This is the stuff that correction-based trainers are often dealing in. It's the leash pop or the kick to the ribs.
But let me ask you this, would you rather be kicked in the shins or ostracized from a group? I'd take the kick in the shins any day. I was in boarding school in high school... Here's another taboo. I have to say it's fantastic to see a lot of men here, because, frankly, you call a positive training talk and it's usually almost all women. This is a very gendered deal, whether or not we usually acknowledge as much.
When I was a senior at my boarding school, I was a monitor on a freshman hall. I was so envious of my boyfriend who was a monitor on a boys’ hall, because on his hall, when guys had a problem with each other they would wrestle, and it would be done. In my hall, it was all in one room and another room and another room. It was like this awful, pervasive poison communicated by whispers– You couldn't find its source.
Sorry, ladies, but this is mostly to do with our social upbringing and how difficult it is for us to be applauded for standing up and speaking our minds, let alone for speaking our minds in a critical way. Men get to do that all day long, and it's totally acceptable. For us, though, it’s "Oh that bitch. Oh my god. Who the hell does she think she is?"
It's not okay for us, and so we'll often resort to those covert forms of ... it's all nice up here, but what's happening under here is really nasty, sometimes vicious, and a lot of it takes the form of ostracism, of shunning, of just shutting people out and not responding. It takes the form of waiting until someone says something you wholeheartedly approve: "Oh, yeah, that's with the program. That's cool."
There's a "ignore what you don't like" kind of mantra that goes around in positive training circles. It's been spun in more positive ways, like "Wait it out," and "wait 'til you see what you like," but when it gets used by us against each other ... and it really is against, I think it can be brutally destructive. The way it often plays out is this: you are saying something I don't like, so I'm just going to pretend that I never heard that and then respond with exaggerated enthusiasm to the person beside you, "Oh, I love what you just said. Click for you!"
Sorry, Alex, to focus on you, but I want to point out what the rest of you can probably already see, that this is just a bad student right here. (laughs) She keeps saying really inconvenient things, things that I don't really want to talk about or address, but it's really easy for me to just engage with you and with you and with ... "Oh! I can click that, Alex! Yeah, there you go, Alex! All right!"
That Pema Chödrön quotation I have there... Maybe someone can read it from their page, on the recommended reading list. or Alex, could you hand me yours? I'll just quickly, yeah.
I really love this quotation. Pema Chödrön is just an ass-kicker. I'm sorry. She's fantastic. "There is compassion and there is idiot compassion. There is patience and there is idiot patience. There is generosity and there is idiot generosity. For example, trying to smooth everything out to avoid confrontation, to not rock the boat, is not what's meant by compassion or patience. That's what's meant by control."
This is, I'm afraid, pervasive in the positive training community, because it's really about ... there's often a deep discomfort with disagreement, with the thought that ... there's a fear that we can't disagree and still be compassionate and nice, but we can. This can be fun. If we build our resilience for difficult conversations, they can be sport. I think that's the best analogy for them. It's rough and tumble play, and it's actually what we need.
I forget the name of the man who's done a lot of recent research into how much we need play and rough play, play where we discover what our boundaries are, what we can and can't do without getting ostracized. Here you go: it's Stuart Brown. (Check out the fascinating conversation he had with Krista Tippet on her show On Being.)He started out researching psychopaths in Texas prisons. The one common factor he could find among these guys was that they had severe play deficits going way back.
We need this stuff. We need it to build our resilience. In human interaction, particularly human adult interaction, a lot of the form it takes is dialogue. We're like, "All right. Let me throw my ideas up against yours and see what sticks." If we're afraid to disagree, dialogue will not happen. A lot of conversations that could make progress just don't.
What happens when we don't have resilience ourselves, we need to control the world in order to feel safe, to feel comfortable. To achieve that, we sometimes turn into bullies. This is true of dogs as much as it is of people.
Okay, I’m going to try to be as brief as I can just describing this one case that, for me, really crystallized some of these issues.
This was a case that was referred to me by a KPA trainer whom I really respect and admire, someone I've actually never met in person, but we've been in contact through email. I was very honored ... this was a good friend of hers whom she referred to me, a very difficult barking issue.
Christin had a dog, Cassie, a Papillon mix who had a horrible, horrible early life. Christin had rescued her from that. She was a very fearful dog, very attached to Christin. You know that expression, "Once you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Barking was Cassie's hammer. She would use it for everything.
She would use it in defense and she'd use it in demand, which made it a really difficult training case, because as soon as you brought treats or even games into the equation, positive reinforcement to reward her for not reacting to a stranger or to someone walking by, then it switched to demand barking.
It was, "I'm protecting my owner. My owner is my resource and I'm going to guard that resource and I'm going to protect myself by barking you off." A lot of small dogs will use a bark as their primary tool for controlling the world around them, in part because the poor things get swooped down on all the time. It's like, "If I were a Rottweiler, you wouldn't pick me up at the drop of a hat!"
Cassie was like this. Her bark was a very effective tool for controlling her owner, for controlling the environment. And a situation that had been tolerable had become intolerable because a new boyfriend, a serious boyfriend, had come into the equation and it was bark-fest all the time, and it was just miserable.
Christin is a doctor. Her boyfriend at the time was a chemist. They didn't have a lot of time to see each other and all their time ... they were extraordinary in their devotion. Christin's devotion to this dog was stunning to me; it warmed my heart and boosted my faith in a singularly unreliable species. It's Christin and Chris and Cassie, that's kind of an amazing trio. Chris was so game. We tried many, many strategies... we even went as far as the "Glove of Love"- I don't know if any of you have read Nicole Wilde's works on dealing with anxious dogs, but we were really trying ... we went through many dusty drawers in the positive training toolbox. Granted, the thing we needed most that we had very little of was time.
When you've got two people who are falling in love and trying to figure out whether they can make a life together, you don't necessarily have months to figure out, "How about if you two just focus first on training this dog together? You're going to orchestrate all of your meetings, everything that you do together, around what's going to keep Cassie comfortable and happy and keep her from going “over threshold” to barking.
This did not feel, to me, like a reasonable burden to put on my clients. I was trying, running as fast as I could, and I felt that I failed. They just reached a point where they were tuckered out, and I was like, "I'm out of tricks here. We'll see, as you guys go through this for the next while, I really hope that something I've given you will be helpful."
I'd been wading into a lot of what I would term covert aggression on the KPA alumni list, continually running into new and newly painful ways of shutting down conversation on that list that had made me uncomfortable being there. I hadn't been on there for a while. I went on one day, and totally by coincidence, Sarah, the trainer who had made the referral, gave a hypothetical to the group about the case and added something I hadn't known: that the boyfriend had finally had success just giving a hard reprimand to Cassie, just, "Shut up!"
I think it was about like that. It might have been a little louder. As Christin reported, Cassie cowered a little bit, and then lo and behold, she shut up. It seemed to have worked. This was the “hypothetical” posed on the list. I made my presence known, going, "Hey, I've got an interest in this case," letting Sarah know that I'd seen the post.
It was not universal, but some of the strongest, and frankly most powerful, voices on the list - because they belonged to instructors, my own included - came in with, "It's just so sad the lack of dedication that these two have to this dog that they would be willing to resort to this. They haven't even tried medication yet," as if medication were a completely innocuous and predictable intervention. (Oh, let me tell you about the unpredictable power of neurochemical intervention! I have a litany prepared if ever you'd like to hear it.)
Some of us tried to say, "Now wait a minute. This seems a relatively benign application of a pretty mild aversive and it seems to have opened a space for quiet and engagement.” Enough of us spoke up in my clients’ defense that we eventually got the big guns coming down from their mountain to say, "Now you apparently do not understand what it means to be a KPA-certified training partner. You need to look again at the pledge that you have signed, which says, 'I will practice only positive reinforcement'."
I did not originally let people know that this had been my case in particular. But if I thought that exposing my personal investment and vulnerability would decrease the level of what was becoming contempt, frankly, and pretty cold contempt, I was completely wrong. I spoke to what I saw as the tremendous dedication and great heart and compassion of these clients and to my own earnest but finally inadequate attempts to help them out and found very little comfort except in a few brave souls who spoke up on the list in support of me and my clients, of our basic decency and sincerity in trying to do right by everyone involved.
Most of what I received instead was private emails saying, "Thank you for saying things I'm too afraid to say. I love it when you say things on here, because I feel there are things that need to be said that aren't getting said." Just the level of fear on that list was so depressing to me. I came to the wrenching realization that I simply was not welcome in this “community.” I was an outlier and someone who would be happily expunged, so I expunged myself.
I wrote a note to admin asking them not to renew my membership and describing as succinctly as I could my reason for leaving, primarily the disappointment of my hopes of finding a true community distinguished by mutual respect. I took the KPA Certified Training Partner designation off all my professional materials. This was after getting shingles... I was just wrecked. I was really emotionally wrecked. The shingles were probably, in retrospect, a harbinger of the cancer, but stress clearly played a role in bringing them on. I had a highly practiced dog bully on one side, and I had a bunch of covert but ruthless human bullies on the other, is how I felt. I could not find good standing ground between them.
The KPA admin never responded in any way to my note, not even with an acknowledgement of receipt. I'd fallen permanently into the camp of the "best ignored." Wonderfully, however, I have heard more recently from some of the everyday terrific KPAers whom I'd hated to leave, welcome words of strength and support from many after they received a letter I wrote telling of my strange situation. (Big thanks in particular to Shawn K., Sarah O., Dawn G., Mary P., Mary C., and Kiki Y. for invaluable comfort both back in November and more recently. I've missed you and many other great spirits and lively voices on the alum list and over among the "Doggie Angels.") I call it my "lottery letter," because in there I talk about my weird feeling that I’ve won the lottery, in the sense that, "You've got six months. What are you going to do with it?" is a kind of fantasy that very few of us actually ever get to live out. I personally want "them" to say that I lived more in the last six months of my life than most people manage in ten years. That's my aim.
I've been extremely fortunate in where my metastasis arrived. I've got a great big slice out of my peripheral vision and some spatial issues because of some involvement of my parietal lobe that make training, driving, and a couple other things unsafe. I'm just not going to be able to do them effectively anymore. Things just kind of attack me from the left.
And yet, it could have been my frontal lobes. It could have been my motor cortex. I could be paralyzed. I could be speech-impaired ... well, that might be a blessing to many of you if it took out the speech centers! (laughs.) I've been given six months, or more, or less, and I have no idea what's happening next, where this thing is going to pop up... it's just a highly aggressive growth, which is why my prognosis is so dim.
But for the moment, here I am, and here you are. I get to engage, and I get to enjoy. I get to eat pizza and talk with people and just really suck the marrow out of the bone. It is a kind of fantasy.
Anyway, one of the people I sent my lottery letter to was Christin, my former client, and she wrote me back.
My husband, Peter, was there when I read her letter, and I just started bawling, because what Christin told me is that she and Chris are married, and Chris and Cassie are the best buds. The one thing I was tempted to bring today on video is a bit Christin sent me of Chris and Cassie playing this game of tug that they've kind of invented together, where Cassie gets a belly rub getting dragged across the floor. She'll grab this toy, and growl very fiercely while Chris is pulling her around - it's a very sort of "male" game, their “tiger” game as they call it.
And now Chris, who was never really a dog person, very fastidious, didn't like fur, all his friends are like, "What the f--? You're so attached to this dog!"
Does anyone know the reference from the name I’ve given the talk?... I know you know, Tim. What is the title a take-off from? ‘What we don't talk about when we talk about positive training?’
Tim: Tim: Raymond Carver. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Gretchen: What we talk about when we talk about love. That's actually the thing I think we need to bring back into the training conversation. Love, frankly. Plainly, complicatedly. It's an un-quantifiable relation. One of the reasons I can't find the right punishment for my client’s dog - I don't know a client's dog like I know my own dog.
Do I ever tell my dog to shut up? Pete?
Pete: Um, yeah. [Eye rolling and laughter.]
Gretchen: See, I don't do it as punishment, because I don't do it effectively. Punishment is defined as the behavior decreases or de-intensifies. It's defined by the result. I yell at my dog totally ineffectively. I just administer a mild aversive - Buck Brannaman would call it nagging. It can be strong and it's still just nagging as far as Pazzo's concerned, because his love of his own voice is just so extreme that it completely overshoots the aversive of my yelling and renders it totally ineffectual as a punishment. It’s much more likely to rile him further.
The one thing I did for Christin and Chris and Cassie – I didn't feel I could take any credit for what became their success, but Christin very generously gave me some. The one thing I can say I felt I did right was to say, "You two are incredible. Cassie is incredible. You guys are doing a bang-up job in everything that you know to do. I've given you a few more tools and you can see if those work for you, but there's so much love here and so much potential for love."
That was more key to their eventual success than anything I gave them or could give them as a “positive” trainer. I think the main thing I want to impart today, or to call out for, is just a sense of humility, maybe, to say that we need to be careful not to think that we have all the answers to what might potentially solve a problem in a really difficult training case, but also just to recognize the great potential power of a generous regard for another creature, how much good it can do to take somebody in, not simply as a juicy problem and a set of variables – “Okay, I'm going to try this and see what works-" but as a full, living, breathing, complicated, un-quantifiable being who's there in front of you asking for your attention and respect and who will return it if you give it. That, I feel, needs to be the foundation, and the rest is kind of icing. Not to say that there is no distinction between correction-based and positive-reinforcement techniques... I’ve already gone through some of my own justification for employing one over the other. You've probably all got your own. But whatever you're using, that foundation of regard, of respect ... if we feel like we’re seen, really seen, we're already on the path to some kind of improvement, or just to some kind of joy. Take relish in this engagement. If you feel somebody's really taking you in and that you're being heard, there's something positive happening there, positive in the colloquial sense. There's something good going on.
I really want to thank all of you for giving me your attention. I do want to just thank all of you for being here.