Most of us are familiar with the saying, “The ends justify the means.” When I hear this phrase, it is usually being used in a derogatory fashion. A kind of scolding that someone is doing something unethical or cruel and justifying their actions by saying “But see? The end results were good for everyone.” or something like that. The saying is attributed to 15th century philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli and his political book “The Prince.” Interestingly that common saying is more myth than fact. What Machiavelli actually says is “For although the act condemns the doer, the end may justify him…” In fact, Machiavelli devotes considerable writing to exploring that the “means” do matter and that they should be chosen carefully. He also considers that the “ends” do not always provide adequate justification regardless of the outcome.
If we look at this from the perspective of dog training, it’s easy to see the parallels. “As long as my dog sits when I give the command, does it matter how I trained it?” The ends justify the means. To me, that illustrates the unfairly simple interpretation of Machiavelli’s original idea compared to his detailed exploration in his book “The Prince.” In particular, I think this concept of what “the ends” (or the goals) are deserves much more discussion. The results of what I do with my dog training might look very different depending on the context I want to consider.
Let me tell you about a conversation I remember having while working with a student at an agility class. She was pushing on her dog’s rear end and shouting “SIT!” very close to the dog’s face. I suggested to this woman that there might be a better way to get her dog to sit. The rest of that conversation went something like this:
Me: So what is it you are trying to do here?
Student: I just want him (the dog) to sit.
Me: Where do you want him to sit?
Me: Where is it exactly that you want him to sit? In front of you? Off to the side? Where ever he is when you say sit?
Student: I want him to sit at the start line.
Me: How does your dog know where the start line is?
Student: Well, I guess I have to show him.
Me: How long do you want him to stay sitting?
Me: I mean, do you expect your dog to continue sitting even if you walk away?
Student: Yes. He should remain sitting.
Me: Until when?
Student: Until I say it’s ok to get up.
Me: Do you want your dog to be happy about sitting?
Me: Do you want your dog to feel good about sitting because it will lead to something good or do you ask him to sit as a punishment?
Student: Oh. I never thought about that.
That’s often how it goes. Our goals are very simple. We just want the dog to do the thing we ask. The difficulty is that very often we are not as specific about what we want as we could be. If this woman were training for competition obedience we could also have discussed whether or not it was ok for the dog to sit straight or rolled onto one hip, where she wanted the dog to be looking, and where the dog should be positioned in relation to her. When it comes to the behaviours we teach our dogs, it can be very easy to take a lot of the specifics for granted.
When we leave the specifics of what we are trying to teach our dogs out of our training plans, the remedy is often to “fix it as we go.” You teach the basics of a behaviour and when you find yourself in a situation where you need some extra specifics for that behaviour, you improvise something to try to add the new dimension to the behaviour. In my experience, this process can create its own problems over time.
The long and the short view
Many years ago I was learning how to do Mark and Reward training with my dog, Tiramisu. She was an eager learner and learned very quickly with a clicker and some treats. By the time she was 6 months old, I had taught her nearly 20 different tricks and behaviours and she was a very eager and enthusiastic performer. But then I wanted to start working on teaching her to “Stay” in a sitting position as I prepared her for working in Agility. Suddenly all of that enthusiasm I had built by teaching her all of her other behaviours actually became a disadvantage when trying to teach a “Stay.”
You see, my short term goals for each behaviour was to get a precise set of movements and have them performed speedily by Tiramisu. The teaching process that I had used had inadvertently taught her something else – “When in doubt, do SOMETHING…it might get a reward.” So when it came time to teach “Stay”, there was an unforeseen problem – if I paused to wait for her to “Stay”, Tira would assume that she should DO SOMETHING to get a reward. We eventually got through teaching Tiramisu to “Stay” but I certainly made the job harder for myself with the training I had done when she was young.
The truth of it is that I wasn’t smart enough to recognize that there was more learning happening with young Tiramisu than just the individual behaviours I was teaching. There was a whole set of specifics relating to our day to day interactions that I wasn’t considering when creating my training plans. So while I certainly achieved my end goals for the individual behaviours (I was quite proud of them, in fact), I had neglected some longer term goals that I hadn’t even considered.
Putting the cart before the horse
Most dog training starts out with good intentions. We decide what we want the end results to look like, we choose a training method that makes sense to us, and we start working with the dog. And very often, the process of training itself will bring up issues and specifics that we hadn’t considered but that need to be addressed. In those cases, it is common to improvise; to just make up something on the spot to address this new thing that we want. This is where just trying to get the results we want can get us into trouble.
There is a term in aviation – “Get-There-Itis.” It describes when pilots become so determined to reach a destination that they will take inadvisable risks in bad weather because they think they can “get there in time ahead of the storm.” I think dog trainers can fall victim to a form of this. We begin training a behaviour with our dog and we put that behaviour into practice only to find that we need more or less of something. Rather than stepping back and thinking about how we want to train the behaviour in the context of everything else that we are working on with our dog, we just push ahead with something that will “fix” the immediate problem we’re having. We just want to get the behaviour. A kind of “Get-the-behaviour-itis.”
“Fixing” behaviour as we go along can create something I call “Behavioural Whack-a-Mole.” I improvise a training solution to “fix” a problem with a behaviour only to notice a week or so later that one or two new problems have come up. So I improvise more “fixes” to get the behaviour right with the same result – more new unexpected problems. The difficulty here is, I think, a combination of the time it takes for behaviour effects to develop and a certain amount of unwillingness to see the problems because of “Get-the-behaviour-itis.” By the time we can step back and see the whole picture, we have to untangle a string of “fixes.” Fortunately, dogs are forgiving enough that we can just start the training again from scratch. Frequently these issues are referred to as a “Poisoned Cue” and the dog learns all over again with a different cue.
The best solution is to avoid the problem
I think we need to be very clear in defining our training goals, the “ends” so to speak, before we look at the best means to achieve our goals. I learned a hard lesson with Tiramisu about encouraging her to offer me behaviours quickly in hopes of earning a treat. It forced me to adapt my training style to accommodate her impatience and it prevented me from being able to teach some behaviours because I simply couldn’t come up with a way to teach it at my dog’s preferred learning pace.
I have a young dog now. We’ve been working together for about a year and a half. This time I started with some larger goals for my training instead of just focusing on individual behaviours. I wanted a patient learner. That meant that I needed to adjust my success and reward rate to accommodate my dog’s frustration threshold and try to keep her optimistic while still encouraging her to try to learn new things. I wanted a resilient learner. I know I am going to make mistakes in my training and so I wanted a dog who will not react negatively if we try different approaches or new things. That meant that I needed to teach my dog that variety and novelty were good things and not scary.
I had to change my perspective. Focusing on short term goals may have gotten me some success but it also came at a cost. Taking the time to work out longer term goals for my life with my dog meant more planning and a more careful approach to when and how I chose to train my dog. At least in my case, I did not use the “end” results of my training to justify the “means” or methods I used. Instead, my clearly laid out goals pointed squarely to the best means to achieve those goals. The lesson for me is that the immediate gratification of “getting my dog to sit” (or whatever the trick is) will fade very quickly if the training I used to get there creates unintended behaviour problems later. It took a while for me to change my perspective but my training goals with my dogs are very different today than they were 5 or 10 years ago. And that seems to have made a world of difference for me and my dogs.