Monday, September 07, 2009

Bitework & Society

I know it's late and I should just let this go, especially after I posted today about avoiding reactivity. ;-) But I am really disturbed by this.

Someone asked online about bitework and safety. Is it not true, it was suggested, that bitework training creates a dog which will more readily bite a human aggressively and inappropriately?

I get this question a lot. A LOT. And most of the time I just answer it and move on. But what made this one different was that someone answered talking about me, not in a good way, and suddenly the question shifted from rational to emotional.

But I shall try to answer rationally, still.

Let me ask this: Has it not been suggested that playing tug, chase, wrestling games, and/or feeding meat, feeding human food, feeding raw, etc. all will create a dog which more readily bites a human aggressively and inappropriately? Don't we all know (at least, I hope we do!) that none of these things will in itself create aggression?

I do not argue that bad bitework training is abominable and potentially dangerous. You will never hear me defend bad training. But good training is just that -- good training.

Both my bitework-trained dogs also tested successfully for therapy work. Picture my dog lying on the ground, surrounded by mentally-handicapped children who are shrieking with excitement. One boy, flailing his arms because he's not sure how else to express himself, steps on my dog's ear. I move to intercept, but my dog lies quietly and calmly makes eye contact with me as if to say, "No sweat, Mom, I understand that he doesn't know what he's doing." And this is the same dog who scared off two creepy guys late one night with a minimal show of aggression, escalating no higher than necessary to make them move away.

This is stimulus control. This is good training. This is the same concept that means my martial arts practice itself never made me more likely to mug someone.

I'm sorry if I sound defensive. Some bitework trainers have been called awful things. I wrote earlier today that aggression was a sign of fear; we can be reactive because we ARE afraid. We have been told we are not welcome in communities, we have seen legal attempts to ban our sport. Positive bitework trainers have been called liars because some ignorant folk think bitework must include abuse. We're afraid because no matter how many times we explain and even invite others to come and watch for themselves, we see people prefer their base fears to learning something new -- and it's a real risk to us and our dogs.

It's as if someone attacked freestyle because it is so inherently unnatural for a dog to do those things, it must be psychologically abusive to train them. It's as if someone protested that flyball dogs must inevitably develop into a danger around children with bouncy balls. What if your dog suddenly, classically conditioned by the fun of flyball or agility, jumped over a fence or ran in front of someone and tripped them? What if a trained herding dog tried to gather a bunch of kids? These sports should be banned! I hope you think this sounds ridiculous; trust me that this is what anti-bitework worries sound like to a good trainer.

I'm not defending that creepy guy torturing a panicked dog into biting anything that moves; that guy would create a monster even if he were playing at flyball or freestyle. I'm talking about real training. We try to protect the public and ourselves; occasionally our club politely rejects an inappropriate dog and/or an incompetent handler. We don't want bad things to happen, either. We're dog lovers, too!

One time, I left my Shakespeare (that's the one who's worked with thousands of kids) with someone else for a moment. While I was away, a handicapped child (unnatural body movement) who was on crutches (even more unnatural movement and visual intrusion) wanted to greet the dog (who had never met him) and pinned him in a corner (the person with the leash wasn't attentive to situation). What did my bitework-trained dog, the one allegedly with lowered bite inhibition and a conditioned reflex for aggressive behavior, do when trapped before this very unnatural, unpredictable, grasping and clutching kid? He just barked. I heard him, came and saw what was happening, and was able to intervene.

There are an awful lot of dogs who haven't had bitework training who would have responded more aggressively. Why didn't the predictions of bitework opponents come true here? Some might even argue that Shakespeare was able to more accurately assess a true threat and/or the total stimulus package to cue biting, so that he recognized this was not a time to bite despite his acute discomfort; I don't know. But you won't hear that discussed by those who have already decided that bitework is necessarily dangerous.

Bitework is the pit bull of dog sports; wonderful fun if known for what it should be, but scary when viewed vaguely from a distance through a filter of preconceptions and bad examples.

I have long maintained that I will be happy to introduce my bitework-trained dogs to anyone interested. (It's telling that NOT ONE person telling me bitework must be bad has ever accepted an offer to meet my dog or view our training, even via video.) Please, don't just declare my dog's greatest love to be a menace to society and to dogs. Don't make false claims that legitimate bitework training creates a more dangerous dog. Please trust that I love my dogs dearly, and I would never risk them by putting anyone else at risk.


I have been a bad trainer. While writing this, I was focusing primarily on the negative comments regarding bitework and me personally, even though there were also positive comments.

More, the vast majority of people I've met and spoken to about bitework have listened with interest, asked intelligent questions, and accepted that it's valid training with real benefits. I didn't write about their reasonable questions, assessments, and conclusions; I reacted only to the relatively limited unwanted and threatening behavior. Bad trainer. Yes, reactivity truly does come from fear!

I'm going to attempt to be a better trainer now. I will leave the post up, because what I wrote is still true, but I want to specifically thank all those who have listened, questioned, and cheered good training even in this sport, even though it isn't your own. I should listen more to you and less to the few naysayers. :)


Anonymous said...

You really need to eat some chocolate and take a warm bath.

Laura said...

/laugh/ I probably do. :)

Laura said...

Went back and looked up where we've done this before. :-) Does freestyle get this kind of flak?

Casey Lomonaco, KPA CTP said...

Great entry, Laura! I agree that Schutzhund is probably the most misunderstood of all dog sports.

It is also probably one of the sports (along with hunting) most typically dominated by traditional training schools and methodologies.

Sometimes I think people associate Sch training with harsh corrections and shock collars which contributes to the bad reputation of the sport.

Also, some people think dogs should never be encouraged to bite in any context. I personally don't see much difference between teaching a dog to bite a sleeve under stimulus control and teaching a game of tug - its all a game to the dog if you're doing it correctly.

It's exciting and inspiring to watch folks like you and Daniel de la Rosa (another CTP) working dobies and malis through great Sch performances with a clicker.

Anonymous said...

Given the amount of time we spend teaching the dog to "out," it could be argued that our dogs are safer than others. They have been trained to let go when told, as opposed to hanging on because it's reinforcing for the dog.

themacinator said...

i think there's a couple things going on, or negative comments from the same camps, that i've seen. (thanks for the nice comment on my blog, btw!)

in the online pit bull circles that i travel in, there's historically been this sense that Absolutely Positvely No Mouth of Any Pit Bull can touch anything remotely resembling the skin of a person or the Pit Bull Must Die to preserve the image of the almighty perfect pit bull. this, coupled with the general misunderstanding of schutzhund, like the thought that it's all about bitework- uh, ob? tracking? leads to a huge amount of people turning off from it. as more rescue people turn to sports, you can see the correlation, since there are so many pit bull people in rescue. i used to be one of those anti people, but i have this ability to see shades of grey, AND to listen to multiple things. Diane Jessup was one of the early people saying wait- there's more to the story, and she's a controversial figure.

the second part of this is that, in my opinion and reading, and i'm sure you're much more versed in this, newer dog sports are generally practiced in a more humane/modern way of thinking, like Casey said. like you wrote about doing foundation work in play drive, it's my understanding that the "Good" trainers, like you, continue their work in play/prey drive and teach with clickers, and modern methods, rather than a more traditional, conservative, defensive mode. i'd much rather see a dog working a sleeve because it's prey/play than because it's terrified, which i've seen plenty of video of. i've met way too many "wannabes" who i think are actually not wannabes- they are breeding some nervy-ass dogs for protection and/or schutzhund because that's how they train. this would turn me off, too. breeding a confident, stable dog who can ALSO do therapy work is an awesome way to turn people onto the reality of modern schutzhund.

i bet you guys have some of the most stable mals and dobes out there right now. it's so sad what i see in these breeds, in the name of "guardian breeds" or "protection breeds." i'd love to see more therapy dobes, but mostly i see basket cases :(

keep it up- you'll win people over slowly but surely. and you're right- it IS the pit bull of dogsports :)