How lessons from a beaten elephant should change dog training forever

Do you watch dog trainers on television?  I do and one of my favorites is Victoria Stilwell, host of the unfortunate title, It‘s me or the dog.

What I most admire about her training principles–and actions–are the positive techniques she employs.  She has said, “We must stop dominance-based and punitive training methods.”  I completely agree.

Yet, I continue to meet dog trainers (and other animal trainers too) who are adamant that the trainer must assert himself/herself as a dominant force able to immediately punish the animal physically.

B-4-Devi - Asian elephant

Devi (little princess), a 30-year-old Asian elephant raised in captivity at the San Diego Zoo exhibiting “rocking behavior” (animation), a rhythmic and repetitive swaying which is unreported in free ranging wild elephants. Thought to be symptomatic of stress disorders, and probably made worse by a barren environment, rocking behavior may be a precursor to aggressive behavior in captive elephants. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few years ago, there was a horrific scandal at the San Diego Wild Animal Park regarding an elephant that had been beaten into submission with axe handles over several days while she was chained and screaming.  The handlers claimed that without this kind of physical discipline, more keepers would die, that this was the only way to show this disobedient elephant who was boss.  Sound familiar?

Following the uproar from the community, San Diego announced that their standard training methods for elephants would be immediately modified and modeled after those used with killer whales.  Essentially, positive reinforcement and operant conditioning would guide every training action.  Physical discipline would be replaced simply by the elephant keeper withdrawing attention, a sort of time out.

Skeptics laughed saying that “elephants are not cocker spaniels who can be bribed with a biscuit.”  Dominance-based training had been used with elephants for thousands of years.

But, the skeptics were wrong.  Using positive reinforcement methods with San Diego’s most intractable elephants proved otherwise. The difference in response from the elephants was so stunning that no one who has witnessed this can possibly still defend training through dominance and brutality.  Can we do any less for our beloved dogs?

But we do.  I’m sorry to say that dominance-training is very much part of the standard practice in dog training, even among those who should know better. Let’s stop it NOW.

For more information about the San Diego Wild Animal Park elephant scandal:


Additional References:

(1)        French, Thomas (2010). Zoo story.  Hyperion, N.Y., p. 116.

(2)        Stilwell, V. (2011, Dec. 23-25). Pet peeves of dog experts: Accentuate the positive., USA Weekend, p. 11.

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3 Responses to How lessons from a beaten elephant should change dog training forever

  1. Deborah Byrd May 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    Why do people believe they have to be dominant over anything? You get so much more out of a partnership. Is there any feeling better than your dog doing something and looking at you with wonderful that say did I do that right, do I get a treat. Scatching my chest will work also.

  2. Harold Besson May 25, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    Hi — I was appalled to read the story of the elephant. I’m a trainer and this story made me think about my own training (mostly Rotweilers and other large dogs). I’ve tried using only treats to get or change behaviors but I need some help. People tell me that when they bring the dog home, he or she reverts to the same problem behavior. Any advise you could give would be appreciated.

  3. Dr. B May 25, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    Hello Harold,

    Your question is timely. One of the finest dog trainers in the world — international champion Pat Brown-John — has kindly offered to address the issue of training on our blog. She’ll discuss the issue of training using only treats, and why that doesn’t always work. Look for her response in the next few weeks.

    Dr. B

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