“Robotic Dogs?”

By Lynn –

A big argument of the positive-reinforcement-type trainers against the use of certain tools, particularly the e-collar, is that it will create something known as a Robotic Dog.

Aside form the fact that there already is a vast array of robot dogs, I would argue that, despite the outlandish goals of alchemy and other false sciences, there is no way we can transform a living, breathing metabolizing being into a mass of wires whose components communicate solely with 1s and 0s. Not to mention that simple robots were the icing on the cake for my generation when we were children: there were various animals that made noises, shuffled forward/backward and did those cute little backflips. One of my most coveted toys was GoGo, a little Maltese-like dog with wheels on her feet, and when you pressed the switch on the end of her leash, she would wheel forward with her legs moving so as to give the appearance of a live dog walking. Pull the switch back toward you and she would walk backwards. I recall wanting one quite badly in kindergarten when they first came out, which probably gives you some idea as to my current age.

Digressing from the obvious, though, I have found that a lot of people misunderstand their current usage of the term. Hence, the purpose of this entry.

While I am no IT expert, I understand the most basic unit of a robot is a computer, which makes it function and move and do all it’s robot-y things. The purpose of a computer is to create output from something that was originally input. At a basic level, I press a key and a letter appears, much as what is happening as I write this. Or, I input a set of numbers connected by a multiplication sign. What comes out is considered a product of those two numbers. In a more complex example, if I place a DVD in my player and press the “close” button, I expect it to load properly and either a menu to appear or a movie to start.

To give the robot more of a living analogy such as what I’ll be getting to with dogs, I’ll move it along and go for a wider definition. Input from one source translates into output by the receiving entity: therefore, when I am told to clean the kitchen, my actions include (but are not limited to) clearing the table, washing the dishes, drying them, putting them away, sweeping the floor, and wiping down counters and cabinets. When I ask a professor for help with a concept that I don’t quite understand, that professor goes to any length to make sure that I learn said concept in a way that will benefit me.

And finally, to bring it to dogs, when I say “Sit,” I mean “Sit.”

Of course a reputable dog-training company already took that slogan and made it into their corporate name, so I mustgive credit where credit is due.

The problem comes when you say any command, what is expected other than the right response?

Input, output.

Even the most peppy clicker-trainer mainlining Prozac, who has a dog on the end of a leash wearing the latest “humane” “no-pull harness” or headcollar or whatever newest gadget out there is promoted to be “pain-free” and “gentle,” can tell the dog to sit. As long as the dog knows what is expected of it and understands the connection between the verbal command and the position it is to assume, the dog will sit.

Input, output.

Robotic, no?

The issue comes whenever any type of “traditional” training tool comes into the picture. Now, they say, we are talking about jerking, choking and shocking dogs. What horror!

Without going into detail about how we are not all but whooping our dogs into a submissize urinating frenzy, the positive folks seem to conveniently ignore the part of the argument that actually involves their training efforts, too.

I am still using the same commands as they. I am using rewards as they do (though not the same type; I prefer a toy or praise to food). I am teaching dogs to be well-behaved, same as they do. I don’t see why they should have any issue with these facts.

I’m just adding the option to reinforce my commands with a correction should I be blown off in favor of something more motivating than my rewards. After all, when I say “Come,” I mean “Come.” I’m not giving the dog permission to go chase the bunny out of the yard, but the problem comes when the bunny is more stimulating (fun?) than me and whatever treats, praise or toys I have in my hand for the time being.

I’m sure the positive-only folks would agree that, when I say “Come” I most certainly want the dog to come to me. What makes this any more robotic than what would otherwise happen in a lower-distraction environment?

Here’s where it gets a little fishy.

My use of an aversive to enforce a command that my dog has been taught and knows in every other situation is only a way to help my dog understand that I mean what I say. After all, if I do not help with chores around the house, my consequence is that I have to start paying rent to live at home. That’s a pretty harsh consequence for someone who doesn’t earn enough to pay rent for anything short of an efficiency in the worst part of town, so I choose to pull my weight, except when I’m on the computer writing blogs such as this one. (Hi, Mom!)

How robotic am I!

Were I to let my dog run off and chase the bunny rather than “Come” to me, I suppose some (although who, I can’t imagine) would see it as my dog having a “free-spirit,” along with the desire to “be a dog,” or maintain her status as “guardian of the yard.”

Absolute piffle to all 3 notions.

My dog’s “free spirit” comes through her freedom from the leash and within the boundaries of the theoretical behavioral “fence” I have built for her through respectful and trustworthy training.

My dog’s ability to “be a dog” is demonstrated through her choices made while free of any influences, including myself, the leash or her training collar. It is also shown through her job both as a pet and a therapy dog, not through her prey drive or ability to chase local fauna.

My dog’s “guardianship” of the yard is only a ploy. My yard is mine, and if I say that she share it with various wildlife, then that’s my rule and final stand on that matter. After all, I certainly don’t enjoy sharing my government with types who take bribes and play to where the money is rather than listening to the will of the people…but no one’s yet told me to start organizing a revolution to clear them out (and even if told, I am most definitely not the right person to start such an event!).

Simply put, I want my dog to obey because she wants to, and not for any other reason.

Unfortunately, even the act of obeying any and every command I give is robotic.

“Sit.” Dog sits. “Down.” Dog lays down. “Heel.” Dog comes to heel.

What difference does it make if the dog was trained with a clicker, a training collar or a toy, especially so if the enthusiasm is more than obvious for knowing that it is doing the Right Thing?

Robotic, indeed.