Philosophies of Dog Training
In the beginning God created jackal and fox, dingo and wolf. Then man came along and created the bulldog, the golden retriever, the Lhasa Apso, and the Dandie Dinmont terrier. No one can be sure exactly where one creator left off and the other started, but a few scientists have guessed at how it happened. One of the most compelling guesses comes from Konrad Lorenz, a founder of ethology, the comparative study of animal behavior. In the beautifully wrought first chapter of his book Man Meets Dog he imagined a timid, bedraggled band of human beings—hunters and gatherers—struggling to escape predators on some fearsome prehistoric plain. The tribe has recently moved into new territory, and the wild canines that usually follow it, hanging back at night just beyond the campfire’s glow, don’t seem to have come along. As a result, the people are suffering. Once contemptuous of the canines, they are beginning to understand that the animals, though annoying, served a useful function at the campfire, warning with their ruckus when a saber-toothed tiger approached in the night. Now that the people must stand guard for themselves, they have not been getting much sleep. They walk wearily, seeking a safe place to set up camp. Suddenly they stop: a welcome sound is in the air—one of those lost canines is howling in the distance. The leader of the tribe—his forehead a bit higher than the others’—takes a portion of their meager food supply and, over the objections of his uncomprehending fellows, executes what Lorenz called a “stroke of genius,” one whose “meaning in world history is greater than that of the fall of Troy or the discovery of gunpowder.” He faces the source of the sound and throws a bone. Thus begins the domestication of Canis familiaris, the pet dog.
That people and dogs have got along so well since then is largely attributable to the character of those wild canines. To put it bluntly, they must have been a lot like us. For one thing they probably lived in well-organized social groups that were remarkably similar to those of the human hunter-gatherers to whom they became attached. The wolf, which is generally considered the dog’s wild ancestor (though scientists have quibbled on this point; Lorenz, for example, had the jackal in mind when he wrote the above scenario, though he later thought better of it), travels in a pack that is roughly comparable to a slightly extended human family: a mating pair, a generation or two of their offspring, and a few related adults—aunts and uncles, if you will. Mating pairs seem to stay together for life. The pack has a pecking order, with an “alpha” male (not necessarily the mating male) at the head. It hunts cooperatively—rare is the lone wolf that can bring down a moose—and divides its labor to a small extent, as when a mother joins the hunt and leaves another adult behind to care for her pups.
This social structure requires a good deal of communication, for each individual must know its place and its role in the society. Wolves have elaborate means of expressing cohesion and affection, and they maintain their positions as leader and followers through ritualized gestures of dominance and submission. Many wolf gestures are quite similar to those used by people. An alpha wolf returning to the pack after an absence is likely to be encircled by several wolves and greeted with a great deal of affectionate nuzzling, as a daddy or mommy might be received at the end of a long business trip. A male wolf asserting his dominance may behave like a lout picking a fight in a saloon: he may scowl, pursing his lips and furrowing his brow, and stare directly into his adversary’s eyes. In response the adversary might submit by looking away, by “smiling” sheepishly—pulling back the corners of his closed mouth—or by slinking away with his tail between his legs. Such signals are not universally understood among animals, not even among higher mammals. Konrad Lorenz was convinced that dogs and cats have no inherent understanding of each other’s body language, even though to human eyes their signals seem quite similar. He also pointed out that one reason we consider bears so unpredictably dangerous—inclined to lash out with no apparent warning—is that the bear’s face is thick-skinned and has little expressive musculature. Bears are not able to communicate facially to the extent that dogs and people are.
In addition to using signals similar to ours, dogs may be intelligent enough to learn some of our signals from us. One of the most prominent and prolific writers on canines, Michael W. Fox, who is the director of the Institute for the Study of Animal Problems, the scientific arm of the Humane Society of the United States, has observed that the canine “grin” often seen by pet owners may be learned from human beings: this expression, in which the dog’s lips are pulled up and back, exposing the teeth, is remarkably similar to a human grin, and in Fox’s experience dogs use it to communicate only with people, never with one another. Another expert has suggested that an ability to learn human facial expressions may account for the oft-repeated observation that pet dogs come to resemble their masters.
Though an experienced observer can tell a lot about a dog simply by looking at it, the communication more commonly goes from person to dog. One reason for this, certainly, is that our language makes us lazy, insensitive to the nuances of posture and expression. Another reason may be that the dog’s extraordinary sensory equipment enables it to pick up signals that people don’t even know they’re sending. Dogs have been known to detect sounds as high in pitch as 60,000 cycles per second (the human limit is about 20,000), and they are apparently able to make fine distinctions among human words. Lorenz told of an animal psychologist named Sarris whose three German shepherds could respond reliably to commands made by name from another room; their names were Aris, Paris, and Harris. Of course the dog’s sensitivity to sound is not nearly as impressive as its legendary sense of smell. A large dog’s olfactory region—the nerve-packed membrane lining the nasal cavity, over which inhaled air is drawn—is about fourteen times the size of the comparable structure in a human being. Investigators have found some dogs that are able to detect sulfuric acid in concentrations of 1:10,000,000—less than a drop in a hundred gallons. This acuity explains why dogs are so adept at finding lost children, hidden explosives, and smuggled drugs, and why pet dogs always seem to be sniffing at each other or at the ground. Smell is to them what sight is to us—their chief means of experiencing the world. To say, as people sometimes do, that “a dog can smell fear” may be more than merely a metaphor. Perhaps as we learn more about the physiological causes of our mental states and the chemical signals we give off—pheromones, as the biologists call them—we will learn that dogs can smell a whole range of human emotions. That would come as no surprise to legions of pet owners. One dog trainer I know claims that his German shepherd can read his moods better than he can himself. “If I get out of bed in a bad mood,” he said, “the dog knows it before I do, and I can see it in the way he acts. He tells me.” The dog’s sensitivity to body signals, combined with its inherent desire to follow a leader, probably explains the ability of certain people miraculously to “train” a dog within a matter of minutes. Evidently, in their posture, their movements, their tones of voice, and perhaps even in their perspiration, these people simply exude the aura of an alpha wolf.
The canine, then, was highly qualified for the position of man’s best friend. And its on-the-job training started as soon as it accepted its first free meal; that’s when human beings began selecting, though unconsciously at first, the characteristics they found most useful and endearing. Chief among these is a kind of persistent infantilism, or a lack of development of adult characteristics. Traits that change or fade as a wolf pup grows to maturity persist through adulthood in domesticated dogs. In some breeds of dog these include physical characteristics—shortened muzzle, floppy ears, domed skull—but characteristics of behavior have doubtless been more important. For example, wolf pups, like dog pups, are friendly to strangers and highly dependent on their elders; these traits diminish as the wolf pup grows into a wary, independent adult, but in the domestic dog they persist more or less through life. We like our pets tractable and cuddly, and over thousands of years we’ve selected the ones that remain that way. (Incidentally, this phenomenon of persistent infantilism, sometimes called neoteny or paedomorphosis, is seen in other domesticated animals—for example, the domestic pig and cow. Michael Fox has pointed out that it is also seen in human beings: in some respects we look and act a lot more like baby apes than like adult apes.)
Of course, we haven’t quite succeeded in making our dogs as tractable and cuddly as we might wish. In fact, as our society becomes increasingly urban and our cities increasingly strange, our best friend sometimes seems to be turning against us. Consider this classic pet-problem scenario: A modern Mom and Dad, perhaps remembering the dogs of their own happy childhoods, stop in at a shopping-mall puppy mart to pick up a surprise for the kids. Believing that dogs are essentially alike, they intend to choose one of a convenient size and an agreeable color. But their plans change as they are won over by an adorable male puppy, one that pads up fearlessly to check them out while his litter mates cower in the corner of their pen. Mom and Dad feel that this dog has chosen them. So they bring him home, and the children give him a name. Let’s call him Rambo.
All goes swimmingly for a few months, save for the usual problems of soiled carpets and diminishing interest on the part of the kids. Then one night, while the maturing puppy is eating his dinner, the youngest child wanders into the kitchen and makes a move that looks to the dog, seeing it out of the corner of his eye, like an advance on his food dish. Responding less to the child than to the genetic legacy of his hunter forebears, Rambo growls his most menacing growl—as a feeding wolf might do in such a situation, even if the interloper were higher in the pack’s pecking order. The child recoils in terror, and Rambo goes back to his dinner, having learned a new way to avoid the stress of mealtime interruptions. The next time this sequence occurs, the child runs to the living room and complains to Mom and Dad. When Dad goes into the kitchen to investigate, Rambo tries the technique out on him. Dad, knowing little of dog behavior but feeling certain that retaliation would only make things worse, also retreats, giving Rambo another valuable lesson in how to influence people. Eventually, through numerous repetitions of this exercise, the dog expands his territory until the entire kitchen is his at mealtime. And, having had much success with the growling technique, he samples other tricks from his bag of genetically organized aggressive behaviors, baring his teeth, snapping, and—when those fail to produce the desired result—biting. The children’s pet has become a menace.
Perhaps TV can help. There’s Barbara Woodhouse, the Julia Child of dog training, waving jauntily and striding confidently into the living rooms of America, dressed in her English-lady uniform of blue sweater, plaid skirt, and no-nonsense shoes. Mrs. Woodhouse—it wouldn’t seem right to call her anything else—is a savvy animal trainer, to be sure. Her experience is long and varied, including work with horses and cows in addition to dogs. She has trained many animals for the movies, and she wrote a couple of good books before becoming an international media celebrity. And just look at the way the dogs mind her! They seem to obey almost instinctively. That they return to their mischievous ways as soon as she hands the leashes back to their owners only proves that she is someone special.
With Rambo blockaded safely in the kitchen, Mom and Dad bask in public television’s reassuring glow. This is going to be easy. Mrs. Woodhouse is full of advice, and Dad is taking notes: Hold the leash over two fingers of the right hand. Not three fingers, two. Give the sit signal with two distinct arm movements, and enunciate the command in separate syllables accordingly: “Si-tt.” To praise the dog for doing well, scratch its chest gently with one finger—don’t rub!—and say “What a good dog”; drop the pitch of your voice on the word good. Remember, there are no bad dogs (except for the obvious cases of mental derangement), only inexperienced owners. And we’re going to fix that.
Next day Mom goes out and picks up the correct sort of choke chain—the links are not too big, not too small—and when Dad gets home from work he takes Rambo out for his first lesson, notes in hand. The notes say that a good firm jerk on the leash can make a nervous dog confident, so Dad summons up his merriest tone of voice, cries “Walkies”—the word Mrs. Woodhouse prefers to “Heel”—and sets out with a decisive, confidence-building yank. Rambo confidently bites him on the leg.
By this time Rambo is nearly a year old and has assumed in our hypothetical household the same position that he enjoyed among his mates in the pet shop: he is top dog, alpha wolf, the leader of the pack. Unless they are content to live with this situation—which a surprising number of people seem to be—Mom and Dad now stand at a crossroads. One way leads to the local animal shelter. The other leads to a live, in-the-flesh dog trainer. We already know what happens at the shelter. Let’s see what we can learn from a few trainers.
TWENTY-NINE DOG OWNERS, twenty-nine dogs, and eight or ten onlookers are gathered in the training area in front of Bill Koehler’s house in Ontario, California. It’s a Saturday morning, and Koehler’s son Dick is conducting the fifth session of a ten-week beginners’ class in dog obedience. Bill Koehler (his last name rhymes with dealer), who is seventy-one, began teaching such classes in 1946; during the war he was a civilian trainer at the War Dog Reception and Training Center, in San Carlos, California, and later he made a successful career in what he calls the “picture-dog” business, training and handling such dogs as Roy Rogers’s Bullet and the stars of the Walt Disney movies Big Red and The Shaggy Dog. Now the family business consists mostly of group classes, and Dick Koehler, who is fifty-two, runs nearly all of them—Friday nights at a dog club in Fontana, Monday nights in the parking lot of a pet-supply house in Colton, Tuesdays in San Bernardino, six and sometimes seven classes a week, thirty or forty dogs to a class, 800 or 900 dogs a year.
Bill Koehler used to operate a kennel here in front of the house. It’s in an out-of-the-way place in one of Ontario’s industrial districts, so close to the tracks that some people have to struggle to be heard over the sound of a long passing freight. Not Dick Koehler; he has voice to spare. He’s a rugged-looking man, with weathered skin, graying dark hair, and a big belly hanging over his belt. With a leash in his hand he is nimble. He sometimes paces while addressing his students, and he sometimes calls them “people,” as in “Now, people, there’s something I want to show you. Who has a dog that’s heeling wide?”
To heel properly, a dog must walk at its handler’s left side, changing pace as necessary to keep its ear about even with the handler’s knee. A dog that heels wide is straying too far to the left, allowing too much distance between itself and the handler’s leg. If the dog is on a leash and wanders to the far side of a fireplug, the fault can be annoying; if it wanders to the far side of, say, a toddler or a senior citizen, the consequences might be more serious. Dick Koehler is going to demonstrate a cure.
A four-by-four wooden post is planted firmly in the yard, extending three or four feet above the ground. It’s called the heeling post. Koehler accepts a leash from one of his students and walks the volunteered dog, a female black Labrador retriever, toward the post, allowing her to heel wide so that she will pass by one side of the post while Koehler passes by the other. As soon as he can see that the dog will err, Koehler locks the leash tight in his hand and picks up his pace slightly; as he passes the post, the dog is pulled rudely into it, her head pressed firmly against the wood. She squirms and struggles, looking for a way out. Koehler keeps moving forward; the pressure on the dog’s neck lets up only when she manages to free herself by backing around the post.
Now Koehler returns to the starting point and sets off a second time. Again he walks purposefully toward the post; again he gives the Lab enough leash to hang herself. But this time the dog is having none of it. As the two approach the post, she appears to have been grafted to Koehler’s knee; she has no intention of letting anything come between her and her master. Koehler makes it hard for her, angling toward the post so that she will have no room to pass with him. At the last minute she stops and lets him walk ahead, and then follows him on the correct side of the post. Students and onlookers laugh appreciatively.
The teacher addresses his class: “How many of you, when you were little kids, stuck a hairpin in an electrical outlet?” Pacing, he surveys the raised hands. “Couple of you. How many times did you do that?” Single raised fingers. “One time. How many of you have ever held your finger over a burning match? How many times did you do that?” Pause one beat. “It doesn’t take long, does it? Okay, your dog is capable of figuring out a simple mechanical problem—if you bang your head against a post, it smarts. It doesn’t take much. The dumbest dog in the world is gonna bang his head against the post maybe three times.
“Now, if you noticed, when I went past the post with the dog the first time, I maybe even speeded up a little bit. I want to give that dog the privilege of learning that when you bang your head against the post, it smarts. That’s his God-given right, to learn information like that. Don’t take it away from him. There are people in the world who would be kindly, and actually end up punishing their dog, by coaxing and getting to the post and losing their nerve and not allowing the dog to learn that when he sees that post coming, he better duck behind the handler and get out of the way.” Pause. “You understand that?”
Now the students line up to try it for themselves. Bill Koehler, who is watching the lesson with me and wants to be sure I get the point, has supplied me with a stopwatch and told me to record the total time each dog spends in the trapped, hung-up position on the wrong side of the post. I’m also to record the number of passes each dog makes before it catches on. Here are my results from a sample of eighteen dogs: one dog failed to learn the lesson after the third try; one learned in three tries; six learned in two; six learned in one; and four could not be induced to run afoul of the post in the first place. No dog spent more than eight seconds total in the hung-up position on any one try, and most spent only three or four. Bill Koehler’s interpretation of this data is that most dogs can figure out the relationship among dog, handler, leash, and post within a few seconds, and many require only one trial. It’s an example of what Koehler calls “single-experience learning,” and he offers it as proof that dogs can think.
Koehler likes to show the heeling-post exercise to psychologists. He sees them as the enemy, as inexperienced and overeducated fools who labor to obscure the obvious—that dogs and other animals are capable of reason—with the gobbledygook of stimulus and response, operant conditioning, instinct and reflex. “I always ask, when I give a clinic, if we have a psychologist or a psych major present,” he told me. “You have to stake your shrink out, always.
“I had one psychologist cry,” he said proudly. This was at a clinic in Elgin, Illinois. Before demonstrating the heeling-post exercise he questioned her closely on what the dog would do according to accepted psychological theory. “I made her commit herself first. I pinned her down on every definition. You have to do that with psychologists—they’re like weasels.” Then he walked a dog around the post a couple of times and pressed the psychologist to explain its behavior without resorting to the concept of thought. “Tears were streaming down her face,” Koehler said. Had he just confronted her with the bankruptcy of her life’s work? Or had he reduced her to tears by the sheer force of his badgering? Either is possible, I think. He’s an opinionated and combative old cuss, but he makes a good case for himself.
BILL KOEHLER MAY BE THE ONLY person in the United States whose name stands for a method, perhaps even a philosophy, of dog training. The Koehler method, laid out in detail in a successful series of books that began appearing in 1962, is known all over the country—practiced in some places, vilified in others. Of course Koehler does not mind the controversy; it is, he told me, a “marketable commodity.”
The Koehler method starts with a walk. The dog wears a common choke-chain collar (universal choice of the trainers I’ve met), attached to a fifteen-foot cord that Koehler calls a “lunge” or “longe line.” (One Koehler-method instructor in my area calls it a “lounge line.”) The handler may not tug on the line to indicate the direction he intends to go in; rather, Koehler insists, the line must be slack, lest it become an unwanted means of communication between handler and dog. Verbal communication is also forbidden at this point. To those who cannot resist coaxing their dogs or pleading with them, Koehler suggests tape over the mouth. The handler should pay the dog no attention whatsoever. His task is simply to choose an objective and walk toward it, holding the line firmly enough and proceeding with enough conviction to ensure that the dog has no choice but to come along. Whether the dog “plows a furrow with his fanny or saunters at your side,” Koehler instructs, “do not permit him the victory of stopping you before you reach your objective.”
The purpose of this exercise, which takes up the first three days of Koehler-method training, is to persuade the dog that the handler is going to go where he pleases, and that if the dog wants to know where that might be, it must watch the handler. Koehler contends that speaking and tugging on the leash only convince the dog that it doesn’t need to pay attention. If the handler announces his every move, the dog may feel free to pursue its own interests between announcements. Koehler says, “A dog is an intelligent creature—intelligent enough to see that if the human is going to pay all the attention, the dog doesn’t have to. There are lots of people who work as seeing-eye humans for dogs that can see perfectly well. Seeing-eye humans do all the thinking for them.”
These three days of noncommunicative walking are preparation for what may be the most important event in the Koehler program. If all goes well (Koehler promises it will), the fourth day brings a fundamental reordering of the relationship between dog and handler. The handler begins by devising a temptation that is certain to appeal to the dog and disrupt its attentiveness—the neighbor’s cat, a pile of hamburger, an open gate. Say it’s an open gate.
“Now, equipped with the longe,” Koehler has written, bring the dog from confinement and approach the open gate as head-on as the layout of your area permits. . . . If your dog fails to see the invitation, stop at least twenty feet from the gate until he alerts to his opportunity. Lock both hands tightly in the loop of the longe, and offer him Godspeed and the full fifteen feet of slack. As he moves toward the gate, hold your line-grabbing hands to your chest like a ball-hugging halfback and drive hard in the opposite direction. You should be going at least eight miles per hour to ensure follow-through for the dog’s abrupt stop and complete reversal. And there is a reversal, unless you mush out and slow down. Let the unchallengeable force of your momentum carry the dog at least eight feet in your direction so that the lesson has the maximum significance as well as impact.
Can you picture this maneuver? What Koehler refers to as the dog’s “abrupt stop and complete reversal” other people sometimes call flipping or dumping the dog; of the eight feet that the dog is “carried in your direction,” half or more are likely to be traversed in midair. It is a rude surprise, which is exactly what Koehler intends. Just a few repetitions of this, he claims—three minutes, more or less—will effect a dramatic transformation in the dog’s behavior. “The third time, you’ll feel like you lost a fish.” The dog will be watching your every move; indeed, with its extraordinary sensory abilities, it will seem to anticipate your every move. Koehler promises that by repeating this exercise over a period of time with a wide variety of progressively more tempting distractions, one can eventually persuade the dog that when it is in a training or obedience situation, it must watch the handler at all times, especially when tempted by something else.
Some see this technique as cruel or unnecessarily rough. Naturally Koehler’s perception is different, and he claims that the dog’s is too. If one uses a fifteen-foot line, he says, and takes care to give the dog plenty of slack, the dog perceives its “abrupt stop and complete reversal” not as a fate visited upon it by the handler but as something it has brought upon itself. Think of an oak tree, Koehler says. A dog may light out for the gate once, or it may try running full-speed into an oak tree once. In each case it quickly learns the consequences of its action. Now, Koehler asks, can you imagine a dog running into the tree a second time? Does the dog hate the oak tree? Is the oak tree cruel? If the dog does charge the tree again, does it deserve to get a lump on its head? Koehler insists that the longe exercise is every bit as impersonal. Moving eight miles an hour in one direction after the dog has taken off in the opposite direction is not a technique for punishing or correcting the dog: at this early stage of training, Koehler says, he wouldn’t think of correcting the dog. “But I’m gonna remember the cake in the oven and I’m gonna run to see if it’s burning.” If the handler presents the exercise without emotion or malice, the dog will perceive it that way, just as it accepts the neutrality of the oak tree. That, Koehler says, is why the technique is so much more successful than the common method of yanking on the leash and asking or ordering the dog to come along. The common method is a contest of wills—master against dog. The Koehler method is a matter of fact—dog against the oak tree, dog against the laws of physics. Were you to infer from this that dogs have more respect for oak trees than they have for their masters, Koehler would smile and say that you’re beginning to get the idea.
THE CONTEST OF WILLS does have a place in the Koehler method. Indeed, it becomes central as training proceeds beyond the first, fundamental steps. The special relationship between people and dogs is made possible by a small miracle of transference: a dog is willing to accept a human family as its pack, a human master as its alpha. But in the wolf pack the master’s job is open to new applicants. Rudolf Schenkel, in a famous study on wolf behavior, wrote that “every mature wolf has an ever ready ‘expansion power,’ a tendency to widen, not a personal territory, but his own social behavior freedom, and to repress his ‘Kumpans’ [the other members of his pack].” The Koehler method assumes that the same is true of domestic dogs —that deep within its canine heart every pet wonders if it might not be better suited for the job of alpha than the chump who currently holds the position. Occasionally—the Koehlers would say constantly—a pet dog will try its luck. It may challenge the owner’s authority by simply disobeying, or in extreme cases it may mount an actual physical attack.
The Koehlers and many other trainers therefore see their work chiefly as a matter of establishing the proper dominance hierarchy—placing the dog at the bottom of the household pecking order. The classic means of asserting dominance is the simple “leash correction,” a decisive upward jerk on the leash which momentarily closes the choke chain around the dog’s neck. (If the chain is arranged properly, it will fall open again immediately after the pressure is released.) To this some trainers add a technique or two borrowed from the alpha wolf. Konrad Lorenz claimed that he persuaded a self-reliant chow to accept him as its master by leading the dog on long excursions into unfamiliar territory, as the alpha wolf would lead his mates in a hunt. The Monks of New Skete, a group of Eastern Orthodox religious who breed, board, and train dogs in upstate New York (and who have published a well-regarded book called How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend), recommend that pet owners assert dominance with a method they call the alpha-wolf roll-over. The trainer grabs the dog by the scruff of the neck and rolls it onto its back, into one of the classic postures by which an inferior wolf submits to its betters. The monks also counsel pet owners on the use of eye contact to communicate affection and disapproval.
Trainers say that such expressions of dominance are desirable from the canine viewpoint as well as the human—that although dogs will test their masters, or challenge them for the leadership position, all dogs are most secure and confident when their places in the social order are firmly established and enforced. According to this reasoning, being the alpha wolf is less important to a dog than having an alpha wolf and knowing with certainty who it is. This may be why some dogs seem to go to pieces when separated from their masters. It is also the rationale behind Barbara Woodhouse’s contention that a skittish dog can be made happier and more confident by a few firm jerks on its choke collar. “Jerk ’em and love ’em” is the way Mrs. Woodhouse puts it.
The Koehlers begin to rely heavily on the common leash correction as they move into the standard beginning exercises—sit, lie down, heel, stay, and so on. They also employ a couple of tricks picked up from the behavior of nursing bitches. To say “No!” or “Knock it off,” the Koehlers use the word out, which they claim mimics the guttural snarl used by a mother to reprimand her young (for example, as Dick Koehler says, when a puppy “bites too hard on the faucet”). To control an aggressive dog in extreme circumstances—in other words, to stop a fighter or biter—they sometimes “hang” the dog by its collar, literally letting it twist in the wind. They say that mother dogs discipline their puppies in a similar manner, taking them by the scruff of the neck and holding them, sometimes shaking them, in midair; Dick Koehler says the method is effective because dogs fear the “loss of environmental control” that they suffer when their feet lose contact with the ground. If hanging fails, the Koehlers sometimes resort to what they call the “tranquilizer”—a piece of rubber hose, reinforced with a wooden dowel rod, that is used to strike the dog on the muzzle, between nose and eyes.
Most conscientious trainers who use these techniques—and many, perhaps a majority, do—try to be fair with them. Most would tell you that though it is proper to correct a dog for failing to obey, it is not proper to correct it for failing to understand. If you want to teach your dog to sit, for example, you must begin by gently guiding the dog into position while saying the word sit, and you must continue doing so until you are confident that the dog understands what is expected of it; then and only then are you justified in making a leash correction if the dog fails to sit on command. The Koehlers subscribe to this standard. Bill Koehler’s books state it clearly, and Dick Koehler emphasizes it in his classes. Both also say that the most extreme forms of discipline are appropriate only for the most extreme cases of aggression—biting, fighting, and other pursuits that are likely to land a dog in the local gas chamber. Here again, they subscribe to the common standard. But the Koehlers have the reputation of being rougher than most trainers; in some circles the mere mention of their name causes heads to shake and eyes to roll.
One reason for this reputation is that what the Koehlers consider the inevitable consequence of an errant dog’s mistake—the indignity a dog is likely to suffer at the heeling post or on the end of a longe line—looks to a lot of other people like an unwarranted correction. Another reason is the frankness with which Bill Koehler writes about the nuts and bolts of dog discipline. Many trainers know how to use a rubber hose, and when it is likely to be effective; not many feature such information in their books. But the biggest reasons, I suspect, spring from Bill Koehler’s convictions about what dogs can do and what training should be. Koehler thinks that dogs are smarter than most people will acknowledge. He also thinks that most training problems are matters of disobedience, not misunderstanding. The two convictions are surely connected. Koehler thinks that if a dog fails to sit on command after a few training sessions—and many do—it can only be because the dog is getting uppity. Not only is it smart enough to understand what is wanted, it is also smart enough to feel contempt, and crafty enough to express it. Koehler has written:
Of the many ways in which a dog can demonstrate his contempt for a deficient master, the “sit exercise” is one of the most expressive. By simply waiting for the second, third, or fourth command, or a number of nagging tugs before sitting, he can show his disdain. To add emphasis, he can sit sideways, his eyes and mind focused on something more interesting than his master, who by now is happily misconstruing his action as obedience.
Such response to a sit command is similar to the action of a child who, when told to sit on a chair, flops down on the floor. To say that the child’s response denoted respect and the exercise of good qualities of character is ridiculous. To construe a dog’s delayed, inaccurate response to command as character-forming obedience is laughable.
Koehler believes that the refusal to perform usually stems from a lack of respect. He contends that dogs can be confused, upset, or perhaps even angered by a tentative or unjust handler. What they respect, indeed require, is authority, assurance, and fairness. This is another reason why Bill Koehler forbids tugging on the leash and pleading with the dog for cooperation. One decisive correction is far kinder, he says, than “nagging a dog into neurosis.”
Another difference between the Koehlers and some other trainers is the degree to which they stress reliability and off-leash control. The Koehlers are not content with a dog that will sit on command nine times out of ten, or with a dog that obeys only when a leash keeps it close to its handler. They strive, Bill Koehler says, for “the kind of obedience that can save a dog’s life,” a level of control that will stop a dog dead in its tracks when it is about to do something dangerous—take off after a moving car, for example, or attack the toy poodle next door. For this reason among others, Bill Koehler derides those who use food tidbits in training, the practitioners of so-called positive or inducive methods; he calls them “cookie people,” making no effort to hide the contempt in his voice. To train a dog solely by means of positive reinforcement is to ask for trouble, he says, because the dog’s world is full of positive reinforcers —toy poodles, moving cars, and hundreds of others. A dog must learn to obey when no pleasure accrues from doing so; sometimes the only motivation that will work is respect for (some would say fear of) unpleasant consequences.
To ensure that this motivation will work even when the dog is off the leash, the Koehlers use a couple of implements designed to convince the dog that the handler is ubiquitous or omnipotent—able to administer corrections when he appears to be out of reach or even out of sight. One of these implements is a “throw chain,” a short length of chain similar to that used in choke collars, doubled over and fastened in a way that makes it a convenient throwing object. After a dog has learned to perform the standard exercises on the leash, the Koehlers use the throw chain to wean it off the leash, directing it at the dog’s backside if the dog fails to come immediately when called. Later they add a “light line,” a length of fishing line that, Bill Koehler has written, “should be very strong, very long, and very light: so strong that your dog couldn’t possibly break it; so long that, regardless of [the dog’s] great speed and your slowness, you would have no difficulty in grabbing the trailing end [if the dog were to bolt]; and so light that its weight and length would be almost imperceptible.” The idea is to persuade the dog that it can be reeled in at any time; it can never be certain of being beyond the long reach of the handler.
IF YOU CAN IMAGINE THESE TECHNIQUES being practiced on a group of thirty more or less contentious dogs, by a group of thirty more or less exasperated dog owners, in a public place like a park or a pet-shop parking lot—flying chains and flipping dogs and jolting leash corrections and people yelling “Ouut!” at the absolute top of their lungs, with now and then a snarling dog suffering a loss of its environmental control—then you can imagine the sort of public-relations problems Bill Koehler has encountered in more than forty years of dog training. He once showed me some faint scars in his fingertips and told me this story about how he got them:
“I was in Griffith Park, in Los Angeles, and this person, who wasn’t even in our class, brought a Dobie”—he means a Doberman pinscher. “Honest to God, it had bitten seven people in a week, including a policeman. There was nothing wrong with the dog, but the dog had controlled its owners, see, and had gotten unstable, because he had no authority figure at all. So they handed me the leash, and the dog tried to take me. I mean he was out to get me. So I took him airborne. Well, the women—we were working on a basketball court there in Griffith Park, and the women had all piled their purses together, at one end of it. And I backed up holding the dog—did you ever step on a pile of purses? Man, you go down! So I went down on the cement, see. He was going after my face, but luckily I kept a hand on the collar, and then somebody grabbed him—I couldn’t get up because there were purses all around. There was a guy over on the tennis court, when I had the dog hung up, and he said, ‘What are you tryin’ to do, kill that dog?’ A big old guy playing tennis. And what I said to him I wouldn’t repeat even to another man. I think one of the things I said was, ‘Come on over—you handle him.’ This always shuts them off. But it just bugs you when you’re trying to do something for people, with an animal, and one of these wincers doesn’t understand.”
By the time Koehler began writing books, his contempt for the wincers—or the “humaniacs,” as he sometimes calls them—was so finely developed that he decided to take the offensive. When I read his first book, I thought I was reading the second or third, so combative was its tone; I assumed that I’d lost track of a book somewhere and that Koehler was answering its critics. In the first chapter he goes after psychologists, tidbit trainers, the authors of other dog-training books, and—most vehemently—the “kindly” people:
They range over most of the civilized world; generally one or more will be found close to where dogs are being worked. They often operate individually, but inflict their greatest cruelties when amalgamated into societies. They easily recognize each other by their smiles, which are as dried syrup on yesterday’s pancakes. Their most noticeable habits are wincing when dogs are effectually corrected and smiling approvingly at each other when a dozen ineffective corrections seem only to fire a dog’s maniacal attempts to hurl his anatomy within reach of another dog that could maim him in one brief skirmish. Their common calls are: “I couldn’t-do-that—I couldn’t-do-that,” and “Oh myyy—oh myyy. “ They have no mating call. This is easily understood.
When I asked Koehler what he was so angry about, he assured me that he was not answering any critics when he wrote that passage. It was a preemptive strike. “See,” he told me, “I think most people are sane, and I wanted a way that I could alienate all the nuts and get the mentally sound people to read my book.” On another occasion he made me laugh out loud by announcing, “I guess the nicest thing that could happen to you is to enjoy the enmity of the incompetent.” This is another reason Bill Koehler has a bad reputation in some dog-lovers’ circles: he baits his adversaries. He takes an almost perverse pleasure in shocking them.
He can’t help himself. “See, I love dogs. Believe me, I’ve slobbered over more good and worthless dogs than almost anybody. Yesterday morning I was bawling like a baby because I had to have an old dog put down. But you know, sentiment is one thing, but there’s a time for logic, too, in the training of dogs and every other profession. I suppose that every doctor who’s had to open the abdomen of a child felt some sorrow for that child, but he also felt a responsibility to take whatever drastic steps were necessary to try to save the child’s life.
“I’ve run a survey, from Cape Town, South Africa, to Regina, Saskatchewan, and in this survey I ask the people who are attending my clinics a simple question: If they were a social menace, and if they had their choice, would they rather be put to sleep in a black box or be knocked cold? And from Cape Town all the way to Regina, I’ve never run into anyone who would rather be put to sleep permanently than knocked unconscious, if it took that.
“I think these humaniacs are the worst damned enemies that dogs and other people have. . . . A lot of this stuff sounds so nice—‘We love our doggies.’ Cripe. They don’t really love ’em, they love themselves, and they love their image of being such kind people. And I’ll tell you this, when their dog gets killed unnecessarily from running out in traffic, they’re very apt to go the whole route and put a little box edged in black in Off-Lead magazine or one of those: Terdle, 1979-1982.’ And the poor dog would be alive today if they had vertebras instead of Jell-O.”