Monday, May 23, 2016

Book Review: Shorty and I

I had high hopes for Jean Mueller's Shorty & I: A Guide to Raising Young Herding Dogs in the City, recommended to me as a guide to teaching herding skills like flanks without the livestock I had always considered essential. "You can teach herding training in your living room," they said. "Just ignore the dominance theory training stuff," they said. Well, the book turned out to be 50% personal experience dealing with chronic illness, 48% force-based training, and 2% slightly useful information.
Shorty & I by Jean Mueller
Photo by Erin Koski

The author, Jean Mueller, lives with a chronic illness that often leaves her very tired. She had several dogs with issues she was unable to solve before she got sick, and ended up dogless before Shorty the Australian Kelpie came into her life. This book is basically about how she raised Shorty to be a herding dog when she often didn't have the energy to do more than sit on the floor with him.

Unfortunately, Jean suffers from the same misconception that has haunted dog training for decades. She thinks that dog social structure relies on physically dominating lesser members of the pack, and that silly things like who goes through a doorway first have everything to do with who is the boss in the dog-handler relationship.

Slightly more educated dog owners know that dominance theory was debunked by the same scientist that originally described the whole concept. We know that dogs like to run through doorways because it's fun, and we teach them polite door manners by deliberately teaching them what we want them to do when the two of us arrive at one.

reading to my dog
Photo by Erin Koski
Ms. Mueller teaches door manners by pressing her puppy down to the floor and holding him there until he gives up trying to walk through the door. She believes that this teaches him to respect her as the leader, but actually it just confuses the hell out of him until he finally figures out that she won't manhandle him if he waits at the door. She also forgoes teaching a leave-it cue or anything resembling it, in favor of thwapping her puppy with a fly swatter whenever he tries to investigate anything on outings. She teaches a down-stay by standing on a leash attached to the puppy's collar, preventing him from getting up for 30 minutes or more, until he is resigned to his fate and learned helplessness sets in.

It's worth noting that all of the author's training tips rely on the handler being able to physically overpower the dog. This is one of the major flaws in training based on dominance theory. Her methods really only work on young and malleable puppies, and then only on the really biddable ones. Many adult herding breed dogs are too strong to hold down by standing on their leash, or to shove flat on the floor. Few would tolerate that sort of unfair handling, either.

The bits about herding training are also somewhat forceful, and entirely the opposite of the way my dogs and I are being taught. Mine start by learning the joy of moving stock, and we gradually shape that drive and joy into control. Ms. Mueller teaches her dogs control first, how to approach a toy very slowly and only move toward it when given permission. Again, this is via forceful methods that require the handler to physically overpower the dog and may not be regarded as fair by an adult dog. The only useful thing I got out of this book was the half a page or so on teaching flanks by sending the dog around a large object like a chair with a toy as a reward.

Overall I was not impressed with this book. The title really ought to be "A Guide to Raising Young Herding Dogs in the Suburbs Where You Can Keep Ducks in Your Yard". The bits about the author's illness were moderately interesting, but in general the anecdotes felt like they were stuffed in there to fill out the page count. The author's accounts of her difficulties with previous dogs made me feel a bit sad. The overall message there was not really one of triumph over adversity so much as how you can give up on your broken dog and start over with a new puppy.

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