Animal Exuberance

Silence Is Not Always Golden

In the right dose, frustration can be a powerful motivator. (Too much frustration, of course, can kill motivation. As many a playwright knows, the most reliable recipe for compelling drama has three ingredients: high stakes, high obstacles, and high hopes. The challenges that lie between a character and whatever she's intently pursuing need to be mighty but not insuperable, or helplessness descends and the story deflates.) One of the strongest motivations powering this blog is my frustration with some of the core tenets of "positive" training and my corresponding desire to bust them open and look at their innards.

"Reward what you like and ignore what you don't" is terrific training advice, especially as a corrective to correction-based methods. Most or all of us are natural-born critics, with a strong tendency to focus on whatever is threatening or unpleasant. (The evolutionary advantages of this tendency may also explain the disproportionate and unpredictable power of punishment to alter our perceptions and behavior: some lessons we're lucky to learn even once.) Few of us have much intuitive sense for the way that truly unproductive behaviors - actions that have no payoff - will extinguish on their own. So the reminder to "focus on the positive" does us intellectual good, just as the shift from grudging resentment to grateful appreciation does us spiritual good.

Let's not forget, however, that ignoring behavior works (when it does work) as a form of negative punishment. Behaviors that are responsive to the "ignore it" approach are behaviors that have previously been reinforced by attention; if attention hasn't built up the behavior, the absence of attention won't extinguish it. Furthermore, a dog who is highly sensitized (either in general or in a specific set of circumstances) to the relative availability of his owner's attention may have a more difficult time than an emotionally resilient dog weathering its deliberate withdrawal. Thus the question of whether "just ignore it" is in every circumstance the most compassionate and productive response to behavior we don't like remains open even in the context of training a non-verbal animal.

"Ignore what you don't like" can be truly crap advice when we're talking about how to conduct ourselves in dialogue with our highly verbal human peers. As a species, we are at least as dependent as dogs on social support, and our high degree of enculturation makes us much more sensitive to the symbolic elaborations of acceptance and rejection. Dogs read body language; they don't read theater reviews (or blog comments). Dogs don't talk behind your back, and they don't damn with faint praise. They'll never tell you that they found your inept frisbee toss "really interesting!"

With a bit of mutual trust, humans can negotiate conflicts as straightforwardly and good-naturedly as dogs most often do. But (unlike dogs) humans can also play psychological Twister and pretend there's no conflict at all. The universe would be perfectly harmonious, some people don't quite tell you, if you would just shut your trap and stay in your designated corner.

Semi-hypothetical situation number one: I'm watching Sunday afternoon action at Jimmy's Sports Bar, sharing a table with an assortment of other more or less rabid football fans. Philip Rivers, quarterback for my beloved (and sadly benighted) San Diego Chargers, completes a gorgeous long pass to Malcom Floyd. "Yes! You go, Philip!" I crow.

A man in a Bears jersey shakes his head. "Rivers? I can't stand that guy. Never stops with the mouth. Just shut up and throw, dude!"

"He loves the game!" I protest. "He's a total kid out there, and he trash talks like one. You know his worst swear word is 'golly'?"

"Whatever, the guy's a punk."

"You've got Cutler for QB and you're telling me Rivers is a punk?"

"Yeah, yeah. Point taken."

Now, if this hypothetical Bears fan had the presumption to think it was his job to train me to stop saying nice things about Philip Rivers, or to stop saying anything at all, he'd be making a hash of it. For me and him and most of the people who gather at Jimmy's, this kind of superficially contentious exchange is good fun and strong reinforcement. We're there because we're all still kids at some level, still deeply invested in "meaningless" games, and we'll keep going back as long we find our right to our ridiculous passions respected.

Semi-hypothetical situation number two: during lunch at a conference of "positive" trainers, I wonder aloud whether the use of physical pressure is uniformly aversive. "It seems crazy to me not to use the leash as a tool for communication, not to teach a dog that it could be rewarding to move in the direction of gentle pressure when so many of them are 'self-applying' huge amounts of pressure whenever they see a squirrel or cat or another dog. What do you all think?"

Silence descends. Someone leaps to a new topic. Someone else emails me a few days later to thank me for raising questions that she's also wrestled with but felt uncomfortable airing.

Everyone at this hypothetical table (save the gal who never stops with the mouth, yours truly) has been effectively trained by the "positive" technique of "ignore what you don't like." They've been punished by silence into silence.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

We all need to decide for ourselves when, how, and with whom to air our disagreements. We need to respect the decisions that others make about whether a difficult discussion will be worth their time and worth the risks that all conflict entails. But I'm revolted by the idea that we should treat exchanges with people whose views don't mesh perfectly with our own (i.e., everyone) primarily as training opportunities; I emphatically reject the notion that we should work to suppress the expression of their unwelcome thoughts through the deliberate withdrawal of our attention and engagement.

This version of "positive" seems positively poisonous to me, and I think it's both symptom and source of a lot of unacknowledged fear in communities that are meant to be supportive. A fear of conflict drives its unhealthy suppression and generates more fear: I could be shunned if I mention the elephant in the room. Or even the mouse.

We seem as a culture to be abandoning the practice and art of civil but rigorous dialogue. When we retreat to our (shrinking) camps, we may preserve a fragile peace for ourselves, but others suffer for our silence, sometimes literally.

That's what I think, anyway. What about you?