I’m out of town again, speaking at the Virginia Public Library (that’s in Minnesota, not the east coast) and spending some time with the dogs in a cabin on a lake. Knowing I’d be gone, and that July is my designated summer break, I looked for a blog to re-post. I found this one from October, 2014 that uses one of my favorite stories from my youth as an introduction to the concept that kindness and positive reinforcement in animal training is not a new concept at all. Here it is:
Here’s my proudest moment in life (so far): It’s 1967, when the idea of women wearing pants was still a tad radical. But “pants suits” had just came out–dressy outfits that put trousers on your legs instead of a skirt, even for evening wear. I worked as a salesgirl in a boutique in Scottsdale, AZ, and bought myself the yummiest orange, corduroy pants suit that you could imagine before it even hit the rack. The jacket was lined in orange silk. It was gorgeous.
I decided to wear it to the San Diego Naval Officer’s Club, having been invited to a special dinner there by my boyfriend and his best friend who was in the Navy. I got as gussied up as I could, tossed my long, dyed-blond hair over my shoulders and walked with Doug and Don into the lobby of the San Diego Officer’s Club. An older woman behind the reception counter stopped us immediately. She said, her mouth looking as if she’d just sucked on a lemon, “Women are not allowed in this building if they are wearing pants! This is a respectable establishment!” Nothing we could do or say could change her mind.
The boys and I walked back out to the parking lot and stood by the car, disappointed and frustrated. I didn’t live in San Diego, and had driven eight hours just to come to this event. I didn’t have a skirt in my suitcase and it looked like we were going to miss an expensive dinner, already paid for. As we were about to get into the car, I had an idea. Pants were not allowed? Okay, fine. So I took them off.
My jacket came down, well… just far enough. Barely. We three walked back into the Officer’s Club and strode past the stunned-face woman, now so shocked that she was literally speechless. Doug walked behind me while I walked up a long staircase. We discovered the dinner was a buffet, so the boys brought me my food. I can’t say that I had a good time at the event, but the look on the woman’s face was worth it.
And what might this have to do with relationships between people and animals, you might ask? The answer to that is in an article I just read in Natural History magazine, about Who Invented Trousers by Adrienne Mayor. It turns out that trousers were worn by both men and woman who spent much of their time on horseback, while the Greek men wore robes (with no underpants). The Greeks “derided the barbarian’s trousers as “…effeminate, a sign of weakness, mocking them as ridiculous..” Thus, skirts were manly and pants were effeminate. Ah, how times change.
And so they also do in training animals. In 360 BCE, the Athenian cavalryman Xenophon wrote On the Art of Horsemanship. Here is a translated quote: “The one best precept — the golden rule — in dealing with a horse is never to approach him angrily. Anger is so devoid of forethought that it will often drive a man to do things which in a calmer mood he will regret. Thus, when a horse is shy of any object and refuses to approach it, you must teach him that there is nothing to be alarmed at, particularly if he be a plucky animal; or, failing that, touch the formidable object yourself, and then gently lead the horse up to it. The opposite plan of forcing the frightened creature by blows only intensifies its fear, the horse mentally associating the pain he suffers at such a moment with the object of suspicion, which he naturally regards as its cause.”
My point here is the importance of remembering what a fickle species we can be, and how cultural mores and acceptable techniques are fluid. That relates as much to dog training as anything else. The militaristic style of dog training had its origin in the military in the early part of the 1900’s, and spilled over onto the family dog, such that the first “obedience” classes I went to were run by an ex-marine. He told us that we had to be the alpha. To “wear the pants in the family,” as it were. In the first class he gave a Basenji on a choke chain a hard snap for not sitting the instant it was told. When the dog growled in response, the trainer hung it in the air–the dog choking and snarling–while the rest of us watched in horror. (I was there with Cosby, my Saint Bernard. We left, literally shaking. Both of us.)
Oh how times have changed. At least, in some places, in some ways. Old habits die hard, but if someone suggests to you that using kindness and primarily positive reinforcement is a “new” or “liberal” technique, remind them that in many ways, punishment is the newbie on the block. Good trainers have been respectful and compassionate for centuries. You’re just keeping up the tradition. Good to remember, yes? I’d love to hear about your first experience with dog training (or any other species) and how it reflects, or contrasts, your perspective now.
Here’s one more blast from the past: This is a picture of me taken by a well known actor when he was moonlighting as a photographer while trying to break into the business. It was taken the same year as the story above. I was doing some modeling and needed a set of photographs for the agency to use to drum up jobs. So… what famous actor took this photograph in Phoenix, Arizona in 1967 or ’68?
First correct guess gets a free book of your choice!
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Well, not on the farm now, on the road again with Jim and the dogs. Another heavenly week meeting good folks at a library–this time the Virginia, MN Public library, and hanging out beside a cool, northern lake.
Because I’m not home, here’s one of my favorite photos of Willie, taken by Nils Schlebusch. I just love the expression on Willie’s face.