Saturday, August 17, 2013


No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.-Albert Einstein

In the last blog I disclosed that doubt is perhaps my best trait and then discussed some aspects of what science is in a general sense.  Now I want to explain how doubt is the most important part of science and for many of us, the most fun.  When we look at experimental science, or research that is done based on direct experiment, we have a formula to use to determine if information is valid or not.  It is called the Null Hypothesis[1].  The quote above sums up the principle of the Null Hypothesis or the “null “quite nicely.  If you can disprove the null, then you have evidence that supports a theory.  If I want to learn something using the scientific method, then I need to make a few notes about what I want to know.  A common statement by force free trainers and clicker trainers is that force free training is the best training.  How could I learn more about that?  Let’s start with how I talk about it.  Notice that I don’t say that I want to prove that force free training is the best, but that I want to learn more about that.  If you try and prove something you can get a lot of supporting evidence but you cannot categorically say that there is never an exception to the rule.  On the other hand, if you state your question in the form of a null, by saying that force free training is not the best way to train a dog and then set out to disprove your null, you have stronger support for your argument that force free is the way to go.

Unfortunately, most dog trainers are not scientists.  They don’t understand that you cannot prove anything; you can only disprove things and achieve any degree of certainty.  As I write this I remember struggling with this idea in university.  I remember that I couldn’t figure out why you had to go through this round about way of determining if a fact was valid or not.  Leaning on science to support what you do can make you feel like you are justified in your actions without a thorough examination of what you are actually doing.  Few dog trainers actually have any scientific training and this means that we are seeing more and more trainers throwing around information and calling it science all the time.  At the moment of this writing, we have no studies that disprove the null hypothesis that force free training is not the best training.  We also don’t have studies to disprove the null that force based training is not the best.  We see a lot of trainers sharing blogs, articles and bits of information to support their pet ideas, but very little evidence to refute the null hypothesis of what they want to do.  This means that although there is a lot of science behind the training and learning that is being done, there is very little understanding of that science and that is a big problem!

One of the popular pieces of information that is making the rounds at the moment is a “study” done by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the United Kingdom about shock collars[2] and why they ought to be banned.  Blogs abound referring to this “study”.  In science, remember that we do research where we formulate a null hypothesis, we develop an experiment to try and disprove the null, and we make a conclusion.  If the conclusion is robust, we send that research off to a relevant scientific journal.  The journal will send the study out to several scientists to read and review and then it gets sent back to the original researcher with questions, and then it goes back to the journal and THEN if the people who read and reviewed the research feel that the information is sound, the study will be published.  In this way there is a series of checks and balances to ensure that the research is sound and the results are reliable.  The next step in the process is that a separate scientist can take the method that the original scientist used and try and confirm or refute what was done the first time.  Science is a process of gathering knowledge and then testing it.  If the results aren’t repeatable, then the results are not terribly robust.  The study done by DEFRA is just that; a study.  It has not been through the process of being submitted to a recognized journal to be juried, so no second set of eyes have looked at this study to find out if it is valid or not.  When a study is done by an individual or a group, but no one looks at the data to see if their conclusions have problems with them, then the study is not terribly credible.  It is at best a data set that can be interpreted various ways.  Never the less people who have an agenda to not use punishment are pointing at this as though it is a great supporting argument against using shock collars.  Until a second set of eyes evaluates the study, it really isn’t valid in terms of supporting or refuting anything.

This information about how science works should help you to follow along some steps when evaluating the information you are given about the science of training.  We now know that science is the collection of knowledge, based on agreed upon definitions that help us to learn facts.  Facts are gathered together to form theories which are observable trends that have been repeated many times.  When a scientist wants to study something, they should form a null hypothesis, develop an experiment, carry out the experiment and then send their results to a journal for a second set of eyes to examine what the first scientist has studied.  If the experiment refutes the null hypothesis we have good evidence that the null is not true and we can use that information to support or refute ideas about the subject matter.  If the null is not refuted, we can say that more research needs to be done, and we need to find another null hypothesis to test to support what we want to find out.  Finally, the study if it is found to be valid is published and other scientists can repeat the research and either get the same results or different results.  When a student does the research in the hopes of getting a masters degree or a PhD, then the process is the same except that usually instead of submitting their work to a journal, they submit it to their university and their advisory council examines them and if their research is valid, they get their degree.

Science is a process.  Perhaps the most important part of the process is the part that people are the least comfortable with; challenging the information they are given.  Doubt.  Doubt is a good and treasured friend to a scientist because it makes you ask important questions about what you are seeing, hearing or observing.  When you are given information that is obviously not true, that you can observe is not true, then doubt creeps in and you start to think about what you are seeing and experiencing.  When what you are being told doesn’t match with your experience, you can start to look at the research itself and see if there are any problems with either the method or the research or the process of review.  In this way, when we are told things that are based on research and studies, then we can analyse the information and figure out if it is actually supporting or refuting what we are being told.

Teasing out validity when you are reading about the science that underlies training is like solving a puzzle.  Approaching all information with doubt, and asking if the source is credible and if the research and if the researcher followed good protocols and if the research actually applies to what you want to know is both an interesting challenge and an important step to perform before you accept information.  Photo Credit: Ashwin Kharidehal Abhirama /

Dog trainers use science, but often they don’t use the doubt part of the process very well.  Doubt needs to be your best friend when you are looking for scientific support for the practices you do.  You have to understand the process and a bit more in order to be effective.  The final piece to the puzzle that dog trainers need to learn about is how to evaluate the science they are reading.  Now we have to look at what has been done in a study to see if it is a valid piece of research at all.  Let’s start with the sample size.  If I wanted to know if jackpotting, the practice of giving a reward that is qualitatively better than other rewards in the training session will increase performance.  This is just exactly what was studied by a masters student recently. 

At the University of Texas, Kirsty Lynn Muir studied “The Effects of Jackpots on Responding and Choice in Two Domestic Dogs”.[3]  For dog trainers, this study would be really helpful if it were valid.  Many of us use larger than normal rewards to reinforce especially good iterations of a given behaviour.  Looking at this study we start off with some problems right in the title.  There are only two subjects being studied.  This means that although this research may be true for the two dogs studied, it may not be true for dogs in general.  I doubt that two dogs would be enough dogs to convince me that every dog would be the same.  I have three dogs at home.  Two of them are German Shepherds and one of them is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.  If I randomly selected two of them and selected both German Shepherds and then extrapolated the data to say that ALL dogs in the world were German Shepherds, you should doubt that this is credible.  When you are looking at a study, you need to make sure that enough dogs were studied to give us a big enough sample size to decide if the results of the study could reasonably be expected to represent the information they are supposed to represent. 

Another problem in this study has to do with the definition of a jackpot.  Most of us use a higher value reward to reinforce better than average iterations of behaviours.  In terms of the study they wanted to standardize the responses so that the research could be replicated.  Instead of using a criteria for better than average, they used a definition of jackpot that doesn’t match how most dog trainers think of jackpots.  The definition they used was “a jackpot is a one time within session increase in the magnitude of reinforcement”.  Hmmm.  This is not how I would define a jackpot.  I would define a jackpot as a “higher than average VALUE of reinforcement paired with a higher than average LEVEL of performance”.  There are problems with my definition from a scientific perspective; I have used words that are subjective, not objective.  When you look further into the study, it turns out that the jackpot was given on a fixed schedule of reinforcement (a well defined term in the world of Applied Behaviour Analysis) and the increase in the magnitude of the reinforcement was not paired with a better than average performance.  Given that the increase in the magnitude of reinforcement was not paired with anything that the learner did differently it would be hard to say that based on the definition, they were studying how I use a jackpot.

When the definitions that are proposed in a paper don’t match the information you want to know, then you cannot say that the study supports or refutes what you wanted to know.  Never the less, this paper has been circulating on Facebook refuting the effect of the use of jackpots in training.  The researcher didn’t study what we all wanted to know, and since few dog trainers are actually reading more than just the abstract (a short paragraph describing the research and the conclusions), then it looks like we might be using science to refute the use of jackpots.  When you find out that you are using a study to refute something, you need to know what they actually studied, and if they studied enough subjects to really give us the information that we want to know.

This sort of study, an experiment, needs to follow rules in order to be useful.  When the sample size is too small, then you won’t get good results.  When the definitions don’t match what you want to know, then you cannot use the information in the study to support or refute what you want to find out.  Then you have to look at the research itself.  In the study cited above, the sample size is too small to be considered robust information, and the definition of what they were studying doesn’t match what most dog trainers are doing.  This means that when a dog trainer quotes this study to tell their readers or students not to do something, they are basing their evidence on some pretty shaky information.  What it doesn’t mean is that jackpotting is a good thing to do or not a good thing to do.  The jury is still out on that one.

After carefully reading through Kirsty Lynn Muir's study on jackpotting we still don't know if jackpotting is helpful or not; her sample size was too small to tell us if what she saw applies to all dogs, her definition is not equivalent to the definition that most dog trainers use when they talk about jackpotting and the way that her experiment was designed didn't associate the reinforcement of greater magnitude wasn't associated with a better than average iteration of the target behaviour.  Scientists spend a lot of time discussing and comparing their interpretation of studies, and this is an important part of good science.  Analyzing, evaluating and then comparing our thoughts to those of others is an important thing to do when you are doing science.  This is becoming an important part of being a dog trainer, and understanding how science works helps people to understand that disagreement is not the same as an attack on the other person's opinion.  Photo Credit: Graƃ§a Victoria /

The final thing about studies that we need to touch on here is how to tell if a source is credible.  Just because it is written on the net doesn’t mean that information is valid.  Even THIS blog about science is just my interpretation of what I learned in university about how to interpret scientific information, and I am talking only about how to interpret experimental research; there is much more to the picture than I have included here.  Not only do we need to know if the person who did the research is credible, we also need to know if the journal or University that reviewed the research is credible.  If I do a study, and publish that on my blog, then I have given my readers a starting point, but my blog is not as credible as say an article published in an academic journal such as Nature or the International Journal of Biological Sciences.  When you are being presented with “science” in training, then use doubt to confirm if the information is valid or not, and if it supports or refutes the author’s bias.

Before leaving the topic of how to evaluate research papers, it is important to add that scientists compare notes, disagree and discuss what they are reading all the time.  Evaluating what you read should not be an unpleasant or undesired activity.  It is an important part of doing good science.  


Thursday, August 8, 2013


Imagine what it might be like to live in a completely behaviourally random world.  You go to the cafe and order a latte, and the cashier asks for your hat and coat.  As a cooperative citizen, you give it to the lady who throws it in the trash, as she calls out “NEXT” and turns her attention to the person behind you in line.  You move down the counter to pick up your latte, and the barrista, comes out from behind the counter and grabs you and begins to waltz you around the Salvador Dali cafe and throws open the door and turfs you out onto the sidewalk.  On the sidewalk, a bear in a business suit offers you a Rolex, cheap from inside his waistcoat and when you say no, he pulls out some flowers and hands them to you and approaches someone else on the street.  Still wanting a latte you go back into the store, only to find that it is now filled with pink balloons and you cannot make your way to the counter.  After much struggling, you catch the eye of the cashier and mention your latte and she says “no latte today, m’dear, only champers and cheese” and hands you a plate of candied almonds.  Nothing you do can change the maelstrom of activity you have found yourself within.  How would you feel?

Living in our world as it is depends on understanding things like the rules of the game, that gravity controls what floats and what doesn't and who people are.  When things stop being predictable, then it becomes very difficult to learn what to do.  Salvador Dali had a talent for showing this concept visually in a playful and interesting way, never the less, few people would want to play checkers on a board where the pieces persist in falling through the board and where time expands and contracts independently of what the players do.   Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

When we work with dogs, they are forever looking for the way through the maze; the way to control their environment, the rules of the game.  There are lots of games you can play and learn the rules through experience, and training is one of them.  Yesterday, I worked with a lovely young terrier who is trying to figure out the rules.  When she barks, she wants attention, and as a youngster, it worked well.  She can make her person do all sorts of things by barking.  Not wanting to disturb people, her person will come in to her and pick her up, or give her treats or tell her to be quiet or point a finger at her or tell her to lie down.  Like trying to order a latte in the Salvadore Dali cafe, everything changes at every step of the game.  So how can we make training an experiential fun game for the dog?

Think about games and activities that you have learned through experience.  If someone invites you to play Scrabble and you have never played before, it might run like this.  Your opponent will give you a hint or a clue or a starting point.  Perhaps they will start by giving you a tile tray and some tiles and ask you to make some words in your tile tray without showing the words that you have found.  Then your opponent will put down some tiles and the board and explain how the scoring works.  Then it is your turn and you can take your letters and place them on the board to make a word that intersects the first word.  You do this and your opponent scores your word for you and then it is his turn again.  He makes a word that intersects a word on the board and you work out the scoring together.  Turn by turn you learn the rules of the game, what strategies work and which strategies are ineffective.  This is exactly how dogs learn when we train using operant conditioning.

Coming back to my terrier friend (she really is a friendly dog who is just trying to make sense of her world), what we set up for training was a contingency that allowed her to learn some rules through experience.  The first thing we did was use a tether to limit where she could go; we set up a playing area so to speak.  Then we clicked and treated to remind her that the game was starting and give her some information about the game and how it would work.  Then we used four basic rules; if she was quiet, her person would stand close to her and wait.  If she was barking, her person would take one step back for each bark, until he got to the far end of the room.  After barking started, if she were quiet, her person would come back one step at a time.  If she lay down, her person would click and treat.  At first, she didn’t know the rules so she did a lot of different things to see what would happen.

When she barked, her person would step back.  This frustrated her and so she barked louder.  When her person was about twenty steps back, she stopped barking and he stepped forward.  Then she barked again and he stepped back.  For about five minutes, she learned how her behaviour affected the behaviour of her partner.  Then abruptly, she lay down.  Her partner came in and fed her a treat.  And she barked.  He backed up.  She stopped barking and stood up.  He stepped closer.  She lay down, he gave her a treat.  A very simple, but very predictable game, in which she controlled the behaviour of her partner.

This is how I think the best training works.  The trainer decides on the game for the day.  The trainer decides on what the contingencies are.  Then the trainer allows the dog to work out the contingencies.  The dog gets to decide if he wants to play or not and if the trainer has done his job well he has set up rules that make sense to the dog and the dog wants to play.  In order to do this we have to understand some things about the game and about the dog we are working with.

If I have a dog who LOVES liver, but doesn’t love cheese, then it doesn’t matter what I want the dog to do, cheese is not going to help him to learn the rules of the game.  Likewise if the penalty is something the dog doesn’t care about, then using that as a penalty isn’t going to work.  If in the scenario that I presented above the dog was afraid of the handler and barking made him go away, the dog would learn that barking resulted in something he wanted and he would do more barking.  I see this all the time in training.  The person thinks that their dog should like something, and they offer it as a reward, and the dog when working out the rules figures out that he will get something he doesn’t want to have if he does a particular behaviour.  This isn’t about the dog not wanting to play your game; this is about the dog not wanting what you have to offer. 

Sometimes the task we are asking the dog to do is of no interest to him.  If we ask a herding dog to go sit in a boat and retrieve ducks, no amount of liver is going to make that as fun for him as taking him out to herd sheep.  In the best training the activities we do with our dogs are of interest to the dog.  That said, there are always parts of the game that we might not enjoy; I hate setting up the board in Scrabble, but if I don’t do that part, I cannot do the part that I like doing.  Manners are an example of activities that your dog must do in order to get to do things he likes better.  Behaviours like greeting with four on the floor, taking treats gently, and keeping quiet are all behaviours that the dog must learn in order to be able to do things like playing agility, herding sheep or retrieving ducks.  Teaching good manners allows us to do more fun things with our dogs later and also allows us to establish that the dog doesn’t live in a random world where nothing he does affects the world he lives within.

Luring is a tool that I often see in the training game that can be quickly and dangerously misused.  Imagine if in my Salvador Dali coffee shop, the cashier kept holding out that latte that I wanted, but I could only get it by following her around.  I might tolerate a lot of Rolex selling bears and pink balloons to get my lattte, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy the experience a whole lot more.  Luring should be only used with caution and with respect for the dog.  When a novice trainer discovers that he can make the dog sit by holding the lure over the dog’s head, it is a short and dangerous step to using the lure to get the dog to do things he might consider otherwise risky.  Consider the dog who is not confident about getting onto a piece of agility equipment.  The trainer puts the lure on the equipment, and the dog is then in a conundrum; he can get the treat, but he isn’t learning to control his environment any longer.  He is conflicted because he wants the treat, but he has to do something that he considers dangerous to get that treat.  He doesn’t learn to play the game as much as he learns to balance the conflict between what he wants and what he doesn’t want to do.  Luring is even more dangerous when it is used to get the dog to interact with people or dogs he isn’t sure of, because he may at that point become aggressive.  Luring, properly used tells the dog how to position his body, but that is all it should be used for.  If the dog is concerned in any way about what you want him to do, pairing the thing he is concerned about to the thing he wants is a much safer bet than making his interaction the contingency that results in a treat. 

Luring is a tool that can lead the dog into the Salvador Dali Cafe.  It is best used to help the dog understand how his body ought to be positioned, but if it is abused and used to coerce the dog to do things that are uncomfortable or risky, then the dog loses control over how he interacts with the world and then he can end up in situations that don't make sense to him or that actually put him at risk.  In general, targeting can achieve the same results, with fewer risks.  Image credit: simsonne100 / 123RF Stock Photo

As soon as worry comes into the game, then it is not fun anymore.  Then it is time to play a different game; a game that will allow the learner to figure out that he is safe and that the world is a good place to interact with.  When the dog is worried the game should simply be “see that scary thing?  It produces treats”  This game is great when it is played with the frightening thing far enough away that the dog can cope with his fear.  Only when fear dissolves can you switch back to a game of “if you interact with the thing you are worried about, you will get a treat”.

When we think about training as a game, we can set up a series of rules and outcomes that the dog can be successful at.  Teaching dogs to be confident is contingent on the dog being repeatedly successful.  If the dog is successful over and over again, the dog starts to think that he can do many more things than he used to be able to do.  Perhaps the worst thing we can do to our dogs is create a random world where they cannot control what they live with.  Overwhelming dogs with repeated conflicts or failures results in a dog who lacks confidence and who doesn’t want to participate in training games.  If your dog feels like he is living in the Salvador Dali coffee shop, don’t be surprised if he stops participating in the training game, or if he becomes tense or fearful or anxious.  Just writing about the Salvador Dali cafe is difficult because none of it makes sense and there is no control over the outcomes.  When there is no control over your world, learning is inefficient and upsetting and pretty soon you have a dog who just doesn’t want to participate any more.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


 I went to see Blackfish this past weekend.  What a fascinating film.  This documentary is about the Orca Tillikum, and what has happened to him.  There are a few periods of his life that I think are particularly relevant to dog trainers, especially when it comes to handling more than one dog at a time.  There is a right way to do that and a wrong way to do that, and understanding what happened to Tillikum can help us to learn more about the right way to work with multiple dogs at the same time. 

The short version of Tillikum’s story is that he was abducted (yes, I am going to use that word, and yes, I realize that I am biased!) from his pod or family when he was between two and four years old; I think the film claims that he was four, but he could have been a little younger.  He was brought to Sealand in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada where he was housed in a small net structure with two mature female whales.  At night they were herded into a small indoor pool so that animal rights activists couldn’t cut the net and let him get away.  They used a very unusual training procedure on him in the hopes of training him to do tricks, and then he killed a trainer.  Sealand was closed down and he was sent to SeaWorld in Florida and several years later he was somehow or another involved with the death of a drifter who may have climbed the fence and gotten into his pool with him overnight.  In 2010, he dragged another trainer down during a show and killed her.  In part at least, the documentary claims that Tillikum was psychotic from the weird training process that was used on him in Vancouver.

I am not a marine mammal trainer, and I don’t even play one on TV, but I do understand training very, very well.  The first vignette I want to examine involves what happened to Tillikum at Sealand in Vancouver.  The treatment that the film described Tillikum experiencing in Vancouver was NOT training.  What they did was to set this whale loose in their tank with two unknown females, and if he did what the trainers asked the other whales to do on cue, they all got fed a treat.  If he didn’t, none of them got anything.  In order to get them to go into the cramped smaller enclosure at night, the whales were all food deprived before they were put in, and fed only when they were all in for the evening.  On the surface, this sounds like something that might work.  When you dig deeper there are some serious problems, and they are common problems I see when people try and get multiple dogs to do things in groups.

The experienced whales were able to do the known behaviours, and when the trainer cued them to do those, they would hear a bridging signal (a whistle) and they would get a fish.  So whale A is cued to jump up and touch a target, and if she does that she hears the whistle and she gets a fish.  So far so good.  Along comes Tillikum who doesn’t know the behaviour and when the trainer cues target touching and the female whale touches the target, but Tillikum doesn’t, no bridging signal and no fish.  It doesn’t take long for the experienced whales to figure out that when Tillikum is around, fish are scarce.  This frustrated the experienced whales.  What happens when learners are frustrated is that they are much more likely to be aggressive.  In whales, the females are usually in charge of how things happen, and the males live on the outside of the pod and do what the females want them to do.  In an ocean with lots of room, if a female whale asks a male whale to get out of her way, there is a lot of space for him to politely do that.  In SeaLand, there was not much space, and thus, when Tillikum didn’t get out of the way, the female whales started to gang up on him and harass him and rake him with their teeth and ultimately, injure him on a regular basis. 

What the trainers seemed to hope was that by rewarding the whole group for satisfactory performances, Tillikum would fall into line and do what the other whales were doing in order to get fish rewards.  This is where the whole thing falls apart.  For the most part training happens on an individual basis.  In order for groups of animals to learn to work together, each individual must first learn his part.  Working groups of animals mostly relies upon each animal learning his part in the event separately and then integrating that into the whole.  Tillikum had no idea what the trainers wanted so he could not get the right answer.  When he didn’t get the right answer, the other whales got penalized by not getting the reward in spite of their best efforts.  Further to this, the whales were being food deprived for part of the day in order to get them into their overnight holding tank.  This meant for grouchy whales, and what resulted was two adult female whales ganging up on an adolescent male whale.  This was not an environment that would foster learning and this was not a training plan that would result in specific behaviours increasing.

I often see owners of multiple dogs making similar mistakes.  If one dog misbehaves, all the dogs in the household miss out on an opportunity.  One case I particularly remember was a woman who would only exercise her dogs if all the dogs had behaved well all day.  If at 4pm any of the dogs had misbehaved over the course of the day, she just wouldn’t take any of her four dogs for a walk.  Interestingly, most of the days that walks happened were days when she had been out of the house for a significant portion of the day so that she could not record any transgressions.  What this resulted in was a houseful of dogs who all needed more exercise than they were getting and who were thus always anxious, frustrated and getting into mischief.

If the documentary is correct in how they describe Tillikum’s training, then whomever was in charge of his training plan didn’t understand the mechanics of teaching groups of animals to perform together.  There are some situations where animals can be hooked together and forced to do the same thing at the same time and the novice animal will learn from the experienced animal.  This happens for instance when a naive or novice horse is hitched into a couple with an experienced horse in order to learn to pull a cart.  The first horse learns what to do because doing what is incorrect is uncomfortable.  Negative reinforcement is the tool that the horse experiences that makes him fall into line and pull the cart.  Quite simply, if the horse doesn’t pull in tandem with the other horse, his harness will pinch and pull and be uncomfortable.  He is most comfortable by matching what the other horse is doing.  The same is true of sled dogs who pull in concert with one another, and hounds that run in braces; the more experienced dog sets the pace and it is uncomfortable for the naive dog to resist.

Most of the time, when you are teaching a skill, each individual must learn that skill to fluency before you can put the animal into a group to perform in tandem.  This is especially true when you are using positive reinforcement techniques.  You can sometimes effectively teach animals to work together using negative reinforcement if making a mistake is uncomfortable for the naive learner, but this can create problems too; frustration on the part of the experienced animal can lead to aggression between the animals or towards the handler.  Image credit: anilah / 123RF Stock Photo

So why didn’t Tillikum just figure out what the trainers wanted him to learn and then all the whales would have gotten their fish?  The first part of the problem lies in the set up of the training scenario.  If there were a way to set up negative reinforcement so that the whale was more comfortable and less annoyed by choosing the right behaviour, then he would have learned quickly and efficiently how to behave so that he got what he wanted.  Instead what they did was withhold the reinforcement from the whale who got the right answer, and give Tillikum no feedback about what was desired.  It didn’t take long for the other whale to notice that the best predictor of a lack of reward was Tillikum.  At that point, the experienced whale started to harass Tillikum, further decreasing his likelihood of getting the right answer.  In short order the older more experienced whales were routinely harassing the source of their problems; Tillikum. Training became little more than a part of an elaborate hazing of the  youngest and least experienced whale.

I have seen this exact scenario play out when a family gets a second dog.  The first dog knows that he has to sit before his meals.  If the second dog doesn’t know how to sit, and the family decides that the rule is the rule, then the dog who doesn’t know the drill doesn’t get any feedback about what is expected and the dog who does know the drill gets to wait a long time before the end of the ritual comes along.  It doesn’t take long before the first dog realizes that there is a much longer delay to dinner when the second dog is around and then I get a call telling me that although the first dog accepted the second dog in the beginning, there are now problems.  

This leads of course to the question, “How should be train two animals?”  The answer is deceptively simple.  Teach each dog the target behaviour individually.  When each animal can perform the target behaviour fluently, get the two animals to perform the behaviour together.  Make all reinforcers contingent on correct performance of the behaviour to begin with and then increase the difficulty until the contingency is performing the behaviour correctly on cue at the same time as the other individual.  In real life, this might look like this.  You teach the old dog to sit for his dinner.  You get a new dog.  In a separate room or at a separate time, you teach the new dog to sit for his dinner.  Then you bring both dogs into the room and ask them both to sit for their dinners and you feed them as they are successful (it is best to do this with a second handler to help at this stage).  When both dogs are quickly sitting when asked, then you can put the food down only when both dogs are sitting.  Easy peasy.  Frustration is minimal, and success is fast and reliable by not jumping ahead and skipping steps.

The place where I see this fall apart the most often for people with two dogs is leash walking.  If you are going to leash walk one dog, why not two at once?  Often the first problem is that the older dog doesn’t have good leash skills to start with.  If the experienced dog isn’t very good at the behaviour, the naive dog isn’t going to magically figure out the drill.  The second problem is that giving feedback in the dynamic environment of the average neighbourhood street is really difficult and rarely successful.  Trying to do this with two dogs is just an exercise in frustration!

The next part of Tillikkum’s story happens when he kills a trainer in Vancouver.  Tragically a young woman who was working with him was dragged into the pool and drowned.  Information about how this happened is sketchy at best, but the reality is that when you have an animal who is being kept in inadequate facilities (three whales in a small pool and even smaller holding tank for 30% of their lives is not enough space for these large seafaring mammals), who is being food deprived part of the day (the only way that they were successful in getting the three whales into the holding tank was to withhold food for many hours before they were put in for the night), and who is being mentally frustrated, aggression is not an uncommon result.

Neither one of these dogs has good leash skills, and walking them together is not going to help either of them learn to walk nicely on leash.  Notice that the Boston Terrier in front is showing whale eye and a pinned ear and a tightened mouth; he is frustrated and if the other dog harasses him, it would not be a surprise if there was an aggressive incident between the two dogs.  Image credit: digitalduck / 123RF Stock Photo

I have seen this in family pets too.  When the dog isn’t getting sufficient exercise, when he is crated for too many hours a day, when he is harassed by the other dogs in the home, when training is inefficient and unfair, then dogs can become aggressive and hard to handle.  Often this starts out with the first dog harassing the second dog, but this can evolve over time into the second dog becoming aggressive to family members.  This is one of the reasons that I always recommend that families bring both their dogs to an obedience class when they are in the process of adding a second dog to the home; this forces you to spend individual time with your dog, and avoids a lot of big problems.  When you are adding a dog to the home, each dogs will need to have their needs met, will need individual attention and will need guidance and boundaries to help them be successful when they are learning the new ropes of having both dogs in the home.