Friday, May 16, 2014

Book Review: The Culture Clash

The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson is one of my favorite books about dog behavior because it works very hard to dispel myths and misconceptions about dogs that many people don't even realize exist. She begins by describing the myth of the Disney Dog. This is a dog that thinks just like a human, and should "know better" than to do things like chew shoes or knock down toddlers. The Disney Dog knows how to behave itself, and problems with "dominance" or "poor leadership" cause him to forget what he knows.

Photo by Erin Koski
Jean Donaldson, along with every dog that ever existed, knows that the Disney Dog is pure fiction. Like every other creature on the planet, dogs do things that they find rewarding. As Jean Donaldson puts it, dogs recognize "good things happening for dogs". They come pre-programmed with certain instinctive behaviors, along with their own disposition and personality. Everything from housetraining to walking on a leash must be taught, and if the dog does not behave as expected it simply has not been taught well enough.

In The Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson begins by examining why we hold these myths about dogs. As humans we value intelligence, and we especially love to hear about brilliant dogs. This leads us to give our dogs impossible riddles and set them up for failure. We assume that our dogs learn right from wrong when we scold them for what we consider bad behavior, and then when they continue this behavior we assume that they are making a conscious choice to behave badly. Many people also misinterpret appeasement signs (I like to call them "please don't kill me" signs) as guilt.

The internet is filled with pictures and videos of "guilty dogs" that "clearly know they did something bad". To someone with experience in dog behavior, these are always heartbreaking because they showcase so many dogs that have learned to expect punishment. I can credit The Culture Clash for Brisbane's apparent lack of guilt or shame, he does not "act guilty" because he does not feel the need to appease me.

This isn't really a dog training book, so much as it is an owner's manual explaining how dogs work. Preventative training is a big part of the book; so many people try to raise their dogs by teaching them what not to do when they haven't taught them what to do in the first place. Many owners punish their dogs for pulling on the leash, but few begin by teaching their dog how to walk nicely in the first place.

I particularly like Jean Donaldson's explanation of the bite threshold. This is a concept that is explaining via graphs that demonstrate how various stressors add up to make a dog stressed enough to bite. I have used this many times to explain Brisbane's behavior to friends and family. His stressors include noise, crowds, clutter, various people he likes but also gets very excited about, and people walking through doorways. This explains why he is normally ok meeting a new friend on a calm day in an empty house, but can't handle parties.

In the last chapter, the author explains the training theory behind various behaviors like stays and heeling. She begins with a "kindergarten" section for each, how to get started with a dog unfamiliar with the concept, and finishes with a "college" section for gradually teaching the dog how to do it better, faster, longer, harder. Brisbane has a college-level stay in the absence of serious distractions like the mailman or squirrels. (He'd be better at squirrels if I could find them reliably so we could practice.) Foster dog Ulysses has a kindergarten stay, he's just beginning to get the hang of not squirming around when he doesn't get rewarded immediately and continuously for sitting. Uly is a smart boy, he knows I want him to do something and is determined to figure out that thing. He is not used to getting paid for just sitting there and not doing anything. Despite being my dog for the last four years, Ru still has an elementary school stay because I am a lazy dog trainer and he isn't nearly as quick or rewarding to train as my Einstein cattledogs.

I think every dog should come with a copy of The Culture Clash so I wouldn't have to see so many "guilty dog" videos on Facebook.

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