Coming out of the cave – Plato meets Pavlov (and Skinner!)

OK, before I even get started here, I will provide you all with a critical bit of information:

This post will be a little “out there” for many of you.  If you’re not into Plato and philosophy, I recommend you check out one of my many other considerably less obtuse blog entries.  Also, this might be a lengthy entry so grab a beverage or a dog belly to scratch.

One of my favorite courses in college was Philosophy.  My professor was an absolutely incredibly interesting woman, so I ended up taking a philosophy class with her, an ethics class, and doing a philosophy honors individual study project.  One of my (many) favorite readings from this class was Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Allegory, I’ll give you a brief recap and encourage you to check around online for lots more information or to read the Allegory yourself.

In the Allegory, Plato likens those who are unaware of his Theory of Forms to prisoners in a cave.  These prisoners are physically restrained in such a manner that they may not turn around but are restricted to staring directly ahead at the wall of the cave and can be assumed to have no other experience of the world.  Behind the prisoners is a parapet, upon which marionette puppeteers walk.  Behind the puppeteers is a fire, which casts the puppeteers’ shadows on the cave wall.  Call it ancient television, if you will.

In the culture of the prisoners, the shadowed display of forms is reality.  The prisoners do not view actual reality, but the only reflection of reality which has been shown to them.

Interesting questions are raised by the Allegory. What if one of the prisoners were to escape?  What if he were to break the chains and leave the cave?  Wouldn’t the first sight of sunshine cause intense pain and discomfort?  A bit of shock, perhaps?  How do you adjust to the realization that everything you “knew” was a charade?  Would the escapee perhaps feel a sense of remorse, or perhaps even humiliation at having been so thoroughly duped for so long?

Taking this a step further, what if the escapee returned to the cave?

Would the escapee’s friends be terrified to see a man’s face for the first time, flesh as opposed to shadow?  What would all of his friends think of his new stories?  Would they think he was insane,  resent him, or consider him condescending?  Would they believe his story or mock him?  Would they reject him?

If they welcomed him back, would he return to stay…could he possibly?  Could he ever be the same again, forget the new, vibrant world he’d now glimpsed, even if life in the new world was more complex, presented new challenges, required the learning of new skills and languages, and may not have been as “easy” as sitting in front of his ancient cave-wall-television?

Interesting things to think about for philosophy and psychology nerds, but what does this have to do with dog training?

In the training world, there is a term called “cross-over trainer” which refers to someone who previously used “traditional training methods” (incorporating the dominance paradigm and physical aversives to “correct” unwanted behaviors and “proof” cue responses the handler deems unacceptable) and has since adopted a modern, positive reinforcement based training technique.

As a crossover trainer myself, sometimes I feel like the escaped prisoner.  Ideas, concepts, and worldviews that had been created and nurtured by my culture were suddenly no longer valid and in fact, seemed a bit foolish once I knew better.  I felt I had cheated myself of better relationships with my dogs and cheated them out of the understanding I so wanted to give them all along.  I also knew that I could never go back to what I’d thought for so long had been the truth about how we should interact with dogs.

Every day, I go back to the cave and visit, in every social interaction I have with someone who owns a dog and indeed with my own clients.  Probably 85% of the people I know call a dog their best friend, and yet maybe only 8.5% of the dog owners I know really understand how their dogs learn and experience the world and social relationships with both conspecifics and humans.  Every day I see those who, like I was, are fed images of reality without being able see a world outside the shackles of unquestioned tradition.

I would imagine that after being shackled for such a long amount of time, one’s wrists would be tender and require careful handling to avoid creating further injury.  Similarly, when pet owners and dog trainers are first crossing over, they require careful handling to reduce the uncertainty and discomfort of such a large change and increase their confidence.  In short, they need an encouraging, patient friend or trainer to guide them through the process of learning these new skills, languages, and cultural mores; kind of like a tour guide.

Every day when I travel into the cave it is with the specific intention of cutting the shackles of bad, outdated information which does not help to create and foster better relationships and training results for dogs and their people.

A dog trainer’s job is to help pet owners as their eyes adjust to the light, their hands to the skills of manipulating clickers and treats, and their minds to the incredibly promising new world of truly understanding and communicating with dogs, living in harmony rather than opposition.  To welcome them into a world where we can actually understand how dogs communicate with us and each other, how they learn and retain information, and how we can communicate to our dogs exactly why we love them so dearly through rewarding the behaviors which make us happy.

I’ll admit my own experience hobbling out of the cave was riddled with confusion, frustration, and uncertainty.  First, I felt embarrassed about being mistaken for so long.  After all, I was a “dog person!”  Moreover, I felt clumsy, and a bit overwhelmed by how much I had to learn.  Learning new skills is challenging, and for trainers of any level skill development is always a work in progress.

Would this “positive training stuff” really work?  Was I ready for an entire reality shift in one of the most important aspects of my life…being the best dog mom I could possibly be?  I owed it to my dogs to squint through the blinding transition and find out.  What did I have to lose?  What do any of us have to lose by trying to be less forceful and more encouraging with our dogs, really?

Granted, this world is more complicated – it’s about minute movements and subtle gestures, the twitch of an ear, a shift in breathing patterns, the transference of weight from front to hind legs, a slight curl of the lip, constant vigilance for ways to show my dogs I appreciate their wonderful behavior and reduce or eliminate opportunities for unwanted behaviors.  It’s also about human impulse control – teaching myself not to react in ways which have become habit for me.

One of the biggest factors which helped me in my crossover journey was a fantastic support network including my trainer, other pet owners going through similar experiences, online clicker training communities, classmates from doggy class, etc.  I suggest everyone find at least one crossover friend or mentor who can validate your concerns and help nurture your confidence in your new skills and understanding.

Stepping out of the cave is always easier with a friend…so grab a cave-mate, a good dog training book, video, or class, a clicker and a bait bag and get ready for an entirely new world of adventures with your favorite dog.

If your friends think you’re crazy, be patient with them.  The shackles can only be cut when the prisoner decides to escape them.  Showing them a well-trained, happy, working partner in your canine best friend, a glimpse of the wonderful reality of positive training is like tossing them a key to the handcuffs – and putting the opportunity for change within their grasp.

Trust me, it’s worth it.

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