The Problem in Animal Training Is Not Technique but Attitude

Roger Abrantes and Cocker in Tulsa.

When you train your dog, your horse, your cat, your guinea-pig, you shouldn’t be thinking of science. You should be yourself, the science already a part of you as second nature (photo by Lisa Jernigan Bain).


Some years ago, I created my seminar “The Brave New World of Dog Training—Science with Brain and Heart,” which turned into “Animal Training My Way.” As the seminars progressed, it became increasingly clear to me that the crucial problem in today’s animal training is not technique but attitude.

“The Brave New World of Training—Science with Brain and Heart” was my attempt to deal with the following questions: Can we combine science with affection? Can we turn our dog training into a scientific exercise for our brains and a caring adventure for our hearts? Can we be efficient and affectionate?

Of course, it is possible to combine brain and heart, science and affection. What we can’t do is to drop it all in the same pot and cook it until it becomes an unrecognizable and tasteless mass—more or less as an Englishman cooks vegetables.

Science itself needs brain and heart. Staying in the culinary jargon, making science without the brain is like cooking an omelet without eggs, but using science without the heart is like cooking it in a lukewarm pan. The science, we study, and we ponder. When we’re done, we integrate it in what we are. The heart, we use to apply it all after it became an integral part of us, to be who we are.

It’s all a question of attitude. You can have the best technique of all and the most advanced gizmos in the world and yet to no avail if your stance, like an invisible leash, holds you back. And you can show poor technique and possess no gadgets at all and be immensely successful if your attitude is correct. I’ve witnessed it numerous times, from the Tibetan mountains to the rice paddies of the Mekong—people who knew nothing about learning theory, had never seen a training aid, yet living in perfect harmony with their animals.

When you train your dog, your horse, your cat, your Guinea pig, you shouldn’t be thinking of science. You should be yourself, the science already a part of you as second nature. You should be in control of yourself, relating to the animal you face as a living organism, an equal, a creature you meet for a brief moment in space and time. Then and there, you’ll discover that what we call things matters little; that gizmos are unimportant, and techniques irrelevant. You’ll relax, and you’ll appreciate the relationship, not the training, not your achievement, for you’ll have ceased to fight your craving for order and control. You’ll have realized that life is disjointed, and you’ll take it as it is.

Your training will improve dramatically because you’ll have joined them, those animals you train, horse, dog, cat or Guinea pig, never asking for meanings nor seeking justifications, craving neither for gratifications. Then, you’ll be one among many with the one and particularly unique value of being yourself, the proverbial ripple in the ocean—and that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it?



Animal Training My Way — The Merging of Ethology and Behaviorism by Roger Abrantes.
Animal Training is the craft based on Animal Learning and Ethology that deals with the modification of the behavior of animals. This book is about making simple things simpler but not simpler than necessary. It’s about knowing what you want and what you need to get it. It’s about training animals, changing their behavior and creating harmonious relationships, but it’s foremost about training ourselves and changing our behavior.
Click to read the online flipping pages book.

Facts and Morality: Tail Docking and Ear Cropping—is it Right?


Whether something is morally right or wrong depends on what you and I or anyone thinks, and it is not imposed on us by any scientific discovery. We need to distinguish between science and morality, between descriptive and normative statements.

Science is a collection of coherent, useful and educated predictions. All science is reductionist and visionary in a sense, but that does not mean that all reductionism is equally useful or that all visions are equally valuable or that one far-out idea is as acceptable as any other.

Greedy reductionism is bound to fail because it attempts to explain too much with too little, classifying processes too crudely, overlooking relevant detail and missing pertinent evidence.

Science sets up rational, reasonable, credible, useful and helpful explanations based on empirical evidence, which is not connected per se. The connections happen via our scientific models, ultimately allowing us to make reliable and educated predictions. A scientist needs to have an imaginative mind to think the unthinkable, discover the unknown and formulate initially far-fetched, but testable, hypotheses that may provide new and unique insights. As Kierkegaard writes, “This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.”

People Saving Animals

Whether something is morally right or wrong depends on what you and I or anyone thinks, and it is not imposed on us by any scientific discovery.

Morality and science are two separate disciplines. I may not like the conclusions and implications of some scientific studies, I may even find their application immoral; yet, my job as a scientist is to report my findings objectively.

Stating a fact does not oblige me to adopt any particular moral stance. The way I feel about a fact is not constrained by what science tells me. It may influence me but, ultimately, my moral decision is independent of the scientific fact. Science tells me men and women are biologically different in some aspects, but it does not say whether or not they should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. Science tells me that evolution is a consequence of the algorithm “the survival of the fittest,” not whether or not I should help those that find it difficult to fit into their environment. Science informs me of the pros and cons of eating animal products, but it does not tell me whether it is right or wrong to be a vegetarian.

If you think that the safest is to base your moral stances on factual events, you are walking on moving sands (and, probably, committing a fallacious appeal to nature).

Ear crop.

Cutting off parts of the body of an animal for our vanity is and will always be wrong for me independently of what science may discover.

Let’s say someone asks you, “Why do you believe tail docking to be wrong?” If you answer, “Because it inhibits the dog to communicate adequately since dogs use their tails to communicate,” you are getting into trouble. Say again, the same person asks you,  “Why do you believe ear cropping to be wrong?” You cannot answer, “Because it inhibits the dog to communicate adequately since dogs use their ears to communicate,” for upright ears allow the dogs to display more and easier detectable expressions than drop ears (though no study has proven that cropped ears are better to communicate than uncropped).

That is the hidden danger we run when using matters of fact to validate our moral statements: we may easily run into inconsistent argumentation. Even though seemingly that does not bother some, it certainly bothers me and other fellow thinkers with a certain degree of intellectual integrity.

You could avoid this problem by answering, ”Because I don’t like to cut off parts of an animal.” That would do it because nobody can argue with what you like or don’t like. Even if you neuter your male dog (which means cutting off the testicles of the animal), you are still off the hook because you can say, “I did it, and I don’t like it.” There is no logical contradiction in doing something without liking it. It is only logically contradictory if you infer the premise “we only do what we like.” “I don’t like diets and I’m on a diet” is perfectly all right. You may have a goal, which requires you to do things you don’t like.

Another aspect of this hidden danger of basing your morality on facts is that if science uncovers some new fact relevant to your morality, you’ll be compelled to change it. One moment right, the nest wrong applies to scientific theory, but not necessarily to morality.

For example, if I use the seemingly good argument, “for me, it is wrong to inflict unnecessary pain and distress to any living creature, independently of species,” my morality is at the mercy of scientific discovery.

Thus, the only way I can make my moral rule stick appears to be the subjective argument: for me, it is wrong to cut off parts of an animal’s body because I don’t like it. And if science uncovers some painless, undistressing procedures of docking and cropping, so be it. I still don’t like it and won’t do it. Period.

Happy Golden
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