I am attending the Association of Pet Dog Trainers in Bankstown, Sydney.
It is an annual conference where all the dog-lover types get together. There are trainers and breeders, animal shelter and rescue workers. There are people who work with animals for film and television, trainers for service dogs, and people who work with zoo and exotic animals and a handful of veterinarians and vet nurses. What we all have in common is the want and desire to see animals treated well and trained correctly. Positively. I get it, I do.
Let me generalise and tell you they are mostly women; older, with sensible hair, devoid of artificial colour, left to go grey because, well, who can be bothered with hair dye anyway. And it’s probably been tested on bunnies in the first place. They wear sensible slacks and sensible shoes and little or no makeup. They huddle around displays of interactive dog toys like, well, dog trainers.
It’s rare to be in a place with so many other dog-people. Granted, I am used to them, since I am a vet. But being here makes me one of them too. We are a bit obsessed. We are a bit preachy. Changing the world through dog training? Who are we kidding? Yet we persist. Amongst the converted it feels okay to be this excited about an interactive dog toy, and spending money on things a dog really just wants to chew up.
What I discover is that I am on the right track in regards to the advice I give owners with dogs with behaviour problems. I am following a well-worn path, laid down by the likes of Karen Pryor, Jean Donaldson and Patricia McConnell. These animal behaviourists follow a scientific approach. Behaviour is a response to environment. From the smallest to the largest creature – we all learn the same. If we perform behaviour and something good becomes of it, we are more likely to do it again. It’s all about reward.
With the rise of popular dog training shows, that do not follow positive reinforcement, there is a general public perception that dogs are out to dominant and rule the world. But dogs are not seeking worldwide domination – they are just looking for the tasty morsel and the easiest way to get it. They are sometimes scared and anxious, and lashing out at the unfamiliar because they have been unsocialised at critical periods in their development, or else have had a bad experience during these sensitive periods. Have we forgotten that dogs are animals? It seems to me, we often think dogs should be able to get over their distress without recognising that humans have irrational fears themselves where no amount of “buck-up, get over it” rids them of their alarm.
This was brought to light perfectly by one of the speakers, American trainer, Pat Miller. She flashed a series of large slides to the audience of three hundred dog-lovers. The images ranged from snakes to babies, to tattoos and praying mantises. Then she asked us to gauge our response – neutral, positive or negative. She asked if anyone had a very strong negative response to a picture. When it came to the praying mantis a woman sat with her hands covering her face. She was crying and shaking. The image needed to be removed before she could bring her hands down and tell her story. People comforted her as she got through it. She spoke of how, when she was a child, she saw a tree covered in hundreds of them. Perhaps the trunk appeared to be moving? She didn’t know if it was even a real image or something she had imagined. She could hardly speak of it. She was so terrified of the insect that she had sought therapy, which hadn’t been successful, and had once dropped her baby when confronted by the insect on the pavement. Pat Miller’s point was that there was no easy way for this woman to lose her fear. Even though she knew it to be irrational. She had an emotional response on seeing the insect. Something was triggering primal fear, deep in the amygdala of her brain. And this is akin to what dogs are going through when they are barking and lunging at the end of the lead in terror of the unfamiliar. They are having an emotional response. We cannot reach them then. No amount of correction or alternate behaviour training is accessible to a brain running on fear. Our job as trainers, she said was, to turn around the emotional response. Only then could we bring permanent change to behaviour.
So…not so easy.
And now let me tell you about my experience of Bankstown. It was mostly confined to the interior of the sports club. You know the kind of place. It has garish carpet that has had lots of beer spilled on it and still seems to ooze tobacco, even though people are no longer allowed to smoke inside. It has pokies. A section of the sports club is set aside for the glossy gaming machines that whiz and ping and occasionally burp coins. People sit in front of them, transfixed by the shiny baubles, and shove money at them. I guess it is the perfect example of intermittent reinforcement at work. Just like the dog, who sits beneath the toddler’s high chair, knowing that every now and then a treat is falling from above due to the baby’s low skilled cutlery control, the gambler keeps feeding the machine the coins, knowing somewhere down the track the windfall, however puny, is coming. Any minute now.
The ATM in the foyer has a sticker on it that tells punters the chance of winning is less than a million to one, and to THINK! of their families. Perhaps the print is too small.
It is its own whole world inside the sports club; there is a rain forest with brooks and streams and ferns and moss, and a Tuscan village, complete with cobblestones and drying washing from the high verandah window. In the cafe, while having breakfast, an elephant can be heard trumpeting.
One day, beginning to feel the claustrophobia of being inside the club, I decide to walk out into the street. I find myself in Vietnam. The grocers sell Asian vegetables and the meat shops are full of different cuts of meat. The fish shops have no fillets, just whole fish with fresh eyes agog. Old Vietnamese men in loose cotton shirts and long trousers play checkers on street corners smoking cigarettes. Small girls are done-up like princesses with shiny shoes and frill lace socks.
All roads and signs lead back to the sports club. It seems to suck people into its interior. It is cool. The perfect temperature. The drinks are cheap. Filled to the brim. There is entertainment for the kiddies. You can pretend you are really eating in Italy. You never need leave.
I find my spot back in the Grand Ballroom to hear more about the amygdala – the emotional centre of the brain. I love the word. Like Bollywood and Hippocampus. Like mandala and myriad. I think of it like a little hot spot in the brain – making mayhem. I think of my dislike (well come on, it’s almost phobic) to small and large rodents alike. It stems from a childhood experience when a mouse ran up my out-stretched arm, as I reached into a cavernous wheat bin, to fill a tin, in order to feed the chooks. It didn’t hurt me. It didn’t bite me. It wasn’t even that shocking, at the time. It just zoomed up my arm, leapt from my shoulder and disappeared. Now. It is their feet. Scurrying. It is their tails. Their hairless scaly tails. It is irrational. But they give me the creeps and I cannot handle the sight of them, the sound of them, or the knowing that they are nearby.