And then, in an image imprinted on my brain like a lithograph, Cosby let out a whimper and turned 180 degrees away from the drama in the center of the ring. He lay down, placing his huge, soppy head flat on the dirty asphalt. Meanwhile, I remained motionless, frozen by the scene unfolding in front of me. The Basenji was still hanging in midair. He was running out of oxygen, turning blue in the lips, but still screaming and frothing at the mouth. By now Mark looked equally desperate, angry and out of control—eyes wild and spittle flying from his mouth as he continued to yell.
I took one look at Cosby, saw the wisdom in his choice, and walked away, shaking; I shook until I got home. I called Mark the next day and asked for my money back. I never got it, but here’s what I did get: an invaluable lesson in how never to train a dog. That day was a perfect illustration of everything that is wrong with compulsion training. It only works some of the time, and when it doesn’t, people and animals can get hurt. It forces animals to be defensive, and it creates defensive aggression in many of them. It never tells the animal what we want him to do, but rather, waits to punish him for not doing it. It teaches an animal not to think for himself, but to avoid doing anything until told, and to be afraid of trying out something new. Most importantly, it destroys the relationship we should be striving for with our best friends. Friends don’t try to strangle each other, and they don’t punch each other in the face when they don’t cooperate.
After leaving the class, I did my best to train Cosby on my own. He wasn’t the best of dogs, but he wasn’t the worst either. Years after Cosby died, I saw Ian Dunbar talk about “Lure/Reward” training and champion the effectiveness and benevolence of positive reinforcement. I didn’t have a dog of my own then; I was studying communication between handlers and working animals for my graduate research, and had attended his seminar to add to my data. I expected to get information that I could use for my research, but I didn’t expect the weekend to solidify and expand my understanding of what a relationship between a person and a dog could be. As I watched Dunbar teaching happy and exuberant puppies to sit and lie down, I replayed the scene of Mark and the Basenji over and over again in my mind.
I began to watch the handlers I was working with (over a hundred of them, from race-horse jockeys to drug-dog trainers) and noticed how cheerful and encouraging some were, and how others were loud and forceful. I observed how quickly the animals learned when they were trained with positive methods, and how consistently they responded. I saw how many dogs and horses looked nervous and afraid around their trainers, and how the anger in the trainer’s voices overwhelmed everything else.
Although I never would have predicted it, those lessons led to a life dedicated to improving relationships between people and animals. It’s a life that owes a tremendous debt to all the special people who have taught me so much about animal behavior, from Ian Dunbar and my major professor, Jeffrey Baylis, to many of the people highlighted in this issue. But most of all, this is a column for Mark, whoever and wherever he is, because it was he who burned into my soul the dark side of our relationship with dogs and, irony of ironies, made the bright side so much sweeter.