Mon, Oct 21, 2013 - Page 8 News List

[ LETTERS ]

Dog training without force

An editorial in the New York Times recently reported that neurologist Gregory Burns has trained rescued dogs to enter an MRI scanner without anesthesia. I do not know what is more surprising: that he was able to get a dog to remain perfectly still for 30 seconds at a time amid the booming sounds of the MRI machine, or the results of his exams.

The former point is not surprising at all to anyone familiar with modern canine training techniques. Using positive reinforcement, aka force-free methods, a dog can be trained to do just about anything. In fact, the New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals made headlines last year after training rescued dogs to drive a car. Using positive reinforcement methods, dogs are guided to perform desired behaviors and rewarded for success.

Many “trainers,” whose techniques are based on dominance, pack theory and intimidation, continue to defy over 20 years of research debunking these methods. In contrast to positive reinforcement, their approach sets the dogs up to fail the training. The inevitable “mistakes” are “corrected,” often through the use of physical force or psychological intimidation.

Sadly, there are still many high-profile dog trainers and rescuers who use these harsh methods. Taiwan’s most active dog rescuer still advocates dominance, using your foot to physically assert humans over dogs (a euphemism for “kicking”), and using your hand to physically simulate biting a dog. Most disturbing is that these rescuers use the term “rehabilitation” as an excuse for their harsh techniques, when in reality “rehabilitation” is simply teaching desired behaviors to replace undesired behaviors.

The startling MRI results found similarities between dogs and humans in the caudate nucleus, part of the brain that is associated with anticipation of enjoyable things.

“Many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions [and more importantly the] ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child,” Burns said.

Burns also suggests that his MRI results should change the way humans treat dogs. As emotion-experiencing sentient beings, dogs ought to be treated more like children and less like property. It is well past time to abandon out-dated dominance training techniques and implement science based, humane force-free methodology with both our dogs and our children. Indeed, the methods used to teach a dog to drive a car or voluntarily get an MRI have been proven effective in curbing things like aggressive behavior, which is a popular justification for “rehabilitation.”

Some in the public defend these brutal trainers, citing the lives they have saved, or the years of experience they have, ignoring the fact that no amount of experience doing the wrong thing will make it right.

Taiwan has banned teachers from corporal punishment, and students’ education and well-being has benefited accordingly. It is time for Taiwan’s canine rescuers to follow suit.

John Fleckenstein

Taipei

Ma’s style of intimidation

In the latest issue of Next Magazine, (壹週刊) there was an article claiming that a chief in one of the national security agencies was frequenting prostitutes once every three days while also keeping several secret mistresses, and revealing the details of intimate telephone conversations between a female legislator and the minister of interior.

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