March 18, 2010

I knew Bill Koehler. Bill Koehler was a friend of mine.

All-time closest-to-my-heart dog movie, and not just because they filmed the mountain lion scenes near our cabin and Dad took us to watch. Also, check out the spray-painted forest floor as the continuity people try to make SoCal's San Bernardino National Forest look like green Quebec. I LOVE THIS MOVIE SO MUCH. Awesome Irish Setters trained by, who else, William Koehler. Click to embiggen.

I'm lying. I did know Bill Koehler, and I admired and respected him, but I was eleven years old when I took my beagle to his Novice Obedience class, so it wasn't like we were friends or anything. I like to imagine, though, that if you'd asked him years later about a kid and a beagle in some class back in the day, he would have said, "I remember them. They got a passing score, didn't they?"

"No agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake." [Daniel J. Boorstin]

We did. Like most Koehler grads, that beagle and I could have walked into a Novice ring the day after obedience class ended and walked out with a qualifying score. Her spirit was not damaged by Koehler obedience. She was a spoiled, fat, happy little hound, as smart as any dog I've known, a beloved family member, an eager hunter, a champ at stealing food she couldn't get by begging, and the Koehler method, at least as it was applied by an eleven year old, didn't change any of that. The class made us both a lot smarter, and a lot closer. I loved it.

I think Bill Koehler was a genius with dogs. He taught every session of the class and worked with every type of dog and every type of handler under the sun. I saw no dogs ruined, no spirits broken, no "learned helplessness" — and I was an observant, kind-hearted youngster. I got the impression that Bill Koehler respected the intelligence and the character of each dog he worked with, and he wanted us to do the same.


"But... but... that thing he did!" Well, yeah. My second dog I trained at home so I wouldn't have to pitch a throw-chain in her general direction. But I took her to a Koehler class after that, and we had fun and she did great.

"But... what about that other thing?" I found something that worked a lot better. Not everything Bill Koehler advocated was right for me and my dogs.


A friend who shows her dogs in AKC obedience overheard the following exchange at ringside at a recent show, where one poorly-trained Novice dog after another was coming to grief:

"What has happened to Novice? The dogs used to do so much better than this."

"Well, yeah! They used to be trained by the Koehler method."


I used a clicker to train my pit bull Bounce [who had no interest whatsoever in retrieving toys or tennis balls] to fetch. After two sessions of maybe fifteen minutes each, two evenings in a row, she would fly to pick up a wooden dumbbell and return it to my hand. If I remember right, I used broken-up pieces of potato chips for treats. Huge fun, clickers.

On the other hand, anyone who says you can train a working border collie to work livestock using a clicker is talking out of his elbow. It simply can't be done with a clicker, for a host of reasons, and anyone who says it can has never gotten a dog around a USBCHA Open course. There are aversives in stockdog training. Sometimes there are rather strong aversives. And there are no food treats, ever — the dog wouldn't take them if you offered. I'm sure you can use a clicker to teach a dog to be obedient around stock, but obedience on stock is for conformation-bred dogs and AKC trials, not for Zamora.


Ian Dunbar says that a puppy should meet 100 friendly people of every size, age, appearance and ethnicity by the time the pup is three months old. I think this is possibly the greatest advice you can give to the owner of a new puppy, and I think if everyone in the country actually did this and did it right, the number of serious dog bites would approach zero. The socialization window slams shut by four months, people. Git 'er done.

On the same topic: the third chapter of Jean Donaldson's book Culture Clash — the chapter entitled Socialization, Fear and Aggression — is possibly the most important thing a first-time dog owner should read.

I'm not saying we should have mandatory classes with reading assignments, or anything like that. [On the other hand, is it a jungle out there or what?]


My sister has an awesome pug. Her pug is spoiled and happy and sleeps on the bed and goes on fun hikes and has her own wardrobe. Lily MunsterPug also sits politely at the door and comes when called. She's perfect, really. My sister follows some of Cesar Millan's training recommendations. She does not, however, poke dogs with her fingers and go "Tzchttt!"


I love when someone tries to defuse a religious argument by saying, "I think we all can agree that there are many paths to enlightenment."

Boom! "You know you're going to hell, don't you? Straight to hell." "Truth, not tolerance! Only one truth!" [opponents pound chests, walk away on knuckles]

Right now, advocates of different dog-training methods might as well be arguing about religion. They look like Oneness Pentecostals and Apostolic United Brethren hollering at each other, "Not Christian!" "Am too!" "Not Christian!" "Am too!" It's embarrassing to watch. Seriously. Not to mention that 99% of the dog owning public does. not. care.

Dogs are individuals. Handlers are individuals. A training method that suits one dog may not suit another. Combining techniques from different methods may work best. Whether disciples of the First Regular Church of Jesus Alive like it or not, there are many paths to enlightenment — and thank God for that. I mean, thank doG.

Cesar Millan: his dog, and his critics. Brent of KC Dog Blog rounds up the usual suspects.

Dog Training Symposium - First of It's Kind, Cesar Millan and American Humane Convene the Event. Its, dammit. Holy Mother of God, check out this comment.

H/T to Calvin Trillin for the First Regular Church of Jesus Alive.


Unknown said...

There are lots of ways to train dogs that work. I just happen to like working with a happy dog, not a confused, utterly overwhelmed, frightened one (and this is what I see a lot on Cesar's show). I'm not saying learning cannot be stressful.

I also like to understand dog behavior. Dogs are not bent on world domination. Every single recent behavioral study on domestic dogs has shown they do not exhibit the type of dominant behavior people tend to think (and certain shows reinforce). I think reinforcing a false premise is a disservice to dogs and our relationship with them.

Heather Houlahan said...

The People's Front of Judea takes exception to your blasphemy.

YesBiscuit! said...

Maybe I'm weird (no comments from the Peanut Gallery please) but I don't think there is one thing ( a big "thing", like religion or dog training - something multi-faceted) that I agree with 100%. So if I say "I like Davy Dog Trainer", that does not translate to "Take any quote from anything Davy has ever written or said and I believe that quote fully, would absolutely do that with my dogs, recommend everyone else does it with their dogs, and will defend it to the death". I don't know when we people became so extreme.

Luisa said...

If L. David Mech ever wrote a comment on this blog, I would just plotz from happiness. Mark Johnson at the most excellent Feral Dog Weblog has had the pleasure: Mech's comment is #4.

Fun fact: the terms dominance, dominant behavior and domination never appear in my post above. I don't think I ever heard Bill Koehler use them.

YesBiscuit! said...

"we people" - I think I intended to choose one or the other, not both.
That post you linked to is too smart for me. (See above.) But I'm going to check out more on the blog so thanks.

Unknown said...

Mark Johnson's post is a good one, and I agree with most of it. I believe dominance is misunderstood and misused. I believe it exists in all social species, but it has been misused and reduced to an ugly, simple excuse for misbehavior (or even friendly behavior) by some folks who apparently must remain nameless.

But does not mentioning the term (which has become a pop culture catch phrase) deny its use as the base model in compulsion training? I would argue it does not.

Luisa said...

Rinalia, I'd say that neither the methods I used to train my beagle nor the methods my sister used to train her pug were compulsion training with dominance as the base model.

I'd say we used occasional corrections in addition to [lots of] praise and treats. As I wrote in the post, "My sister follows some of Cesar Millan's training recommendations." Her pug Lily is the happiest dog on the planet. Lily is not confused, utterly overwhelmed, or frightened.

Again: A training method that suits one dog may not suit another. Combining techniques from different methods may work best.

Paula G From Indiana said...

I own Bull Terriers. The other day we recorded It's A Dog's Life off Turner Classic Movie channel. Coincidentally, we just watched it this evening. The bullies in it were bred, trained and owned by the Koehlers. I believe his daughter and son-in-law are still training and they own Miniature Bull Terriers.

admin said...

Also: "I don't really like Davey dog trainer" =\= "OMG extreme anti-everything-Davey-related!"

Anonymous said...

Oh yes Suzy - "I don't like Davey Dog Trainer and here's why" is most welcome. I love a good discussion with opposing views offered. It's how we all learn. But of course some do take it to the extreme.

Juli said...

I use, teach and advocate positive reinforcement based methods not because they always work better than other methods, but because if you do it badly, the damage is minimal. Punishment works great if you use it well, but can backfire horribly if you don't. I'm in awe of the fabulous punishment-based trainer I've seen, but even her tutoring wasn't enough to make me even marginally good at it. On the other hand, I shamelessly use my grumpy bitch to provide punishment to the other misbehaving animals in my house (ok, she takes it on herself, but I allow it, use it and reward it.)

These religious wars over training methods just keep people from learning about alternatives that might work better for their dog. My parents used punishment based training on me as a baby to teach me to avoid common household hazards, I still remember having much more freedom than most kids my age as a toddler. I don't remember being punished.

boxer said...

Various training methods can work well enough. And much depends on the dogs' and the *trainers'* temperament.