Cheryl May's Book Reviews

The Culture Clash

by Jean Donaldson. Available from Dogwise.

Jean Donaldson has been working as an applied animal behaviorist for the San Francisco ASPCA for several years. A native of Canada, she's been training dogs for 25 years, starting out as a traditional trainer, but later crossing over to newer methods using operant conditioning. Since 1995 she has been working primarily with aggression cases.

With the ASPCA, Donaldson takes the dogs that animal control cannot place in homes. Since the organization has good financial backing, she and her staff have the luxury of working with some animals for as long as six months. A few of the dogs cannot be rehabilitated and placed in homes; but most go on to be adopted.

Donaldson has placed aversives at the bottom of her training toolbox, because she believes there are so many better and more successful ways of dealing with behaviors.

Her first book, "The Culture Clash," published in 1996, created quite a stir in the dog training world. She offended a number of obedience trainers, who still cringe when Donaldson's name is mentioned, because the book says some disparaging things about obedience competition.

Although I participate in obedience competition and training, I confess to loving this book, because it provides so much insight into how dogs think.

She was one of the first trainers to tell us that dogs learn almost exclusively through operant and classical conditioning.

She says, "Dogs are great learners. They can discriminate extremely fine differences in their environment. They have incredible olfactory powers. They can deal with complex social environments. They have a rich emotional life. But they do not think abstractly. They are amoral. They cannot move mentally backward and forward through time. Although they can learn to discriminate the relevance of certain words, they do not understand language."

Using food in training is far less controversial than it was in the mid-'90s when Donaldson was writing this book, but she recalls a conversation with a traditional trainer who told her "If you use food to train, the dog is doing it for the food and not for you." She retorts, "This is still a surprisingly common attitude, especially among green owners and trainers. This man's dog, trained by avoidance with a strangle collar, was supposedly doing it for him because the only positive reinforcer was praise. Trainers who make claims about dogs working 'to please' or strictly for praise seem oblivious to the main motivator they employ: pain."

She suggests that trainers find out what motivates each individual dog and then use that motivation in training. "All animals are motivated by food, water, sex and avoiding aversives. A lot of animals can be motivated by play, attention, opportunity to socialize or get control of coveted resources."

Her chapter on "Socialization, Conflict Resolution, Fear & Aggression" is one of the best things in the book. Here she covers socialization, and provides a "socialization hit list" as a guide for places to go, things to do and people for the new puppy to meet. She says you cannot overdo socialization. "If you have a puppy, bite the bullet and socialize it now."

I'm hoping to bring a new puppy home this summer, and I've already warned friends and family that I will be totally consumed with taking the puppy new places every single day for at least two months after she comes to live with us. I am suspending my normal activities for a flurry of introducing this puppy to her world.

The price for failing to do this is high, as Donaldson notes. She says lack of confidence in a puppy is a major emergency, and she gives her readers the "how-to" to get their pups out into the world to become confident, successful canines who get along with people and other animals.

Donaldson writes with humor. She is opinionated and many people find her slaps at their dog activities offensive. But there is so much great information in the book, it is easy to ignore the opinions with which we might not agree, in order to get the informative parts. She offers effective solutions to all sorts of behavior problems, and explains why dogs do what they do - excessive barking; chewing (everything is a chew toy to a puppy); urinating on the rug (bladder relief); food stealing, and so on.

"Many dog owners wait until they have an entrenched problem before doing anything. The reason is the misguided expectation that 'good' dogs don't do things like steal food or jump up. This is the thinking that has to go. It is a cultural norm for dogs to engage in many of our most despised behavior 'problems,' and therefore the onus is on us to educate dogs," she writes.

She lists the "Top 10 Predictable Behaviors Which Owners Consider Problems Yet Rarely Do Any Preventive Training For":

1) Reflexively pulling on leash
2) Jumping up as greeting
3) Indiscriminate chewing of all matter
4) Eating any food within reach (food stealing)
5) Distress vocalization when socially isolated or confined
6) Interest in members of own species
7) Cannot be handled or groomed easily
8) Fear of strangers/biting strangers
9) Resource guarding
10) Chasing & biting moving objects/rough play with children

She covers how to solve these problems, and then offers an entire chapter on "Nuts & Bolts of Obedience Training" using operant conditioning and a clicker.

My guess is that you will either love this book or hate it. So for that reason you might want to find a copy and borrow it before buying. Those who think of the dog as a thinking, feeling being, but one who is very different from humans, will find much to enjoy in Donaldson's first book.

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