Anyone who hangs out with dogs and their owners has probably heard this or similar comments a million times-“My dog is dominant, he ignores our commands and plays too rough with other dogs.” To the general dog owner, this statement seems pretty normal, but to researchers studying social hierarchies in animals ranging from lions, to macaque monkeys, to bulls, the statement is likely to solicit a pause followed by a “huh?”
Scenes from a Saturday morning cartoon? A twisted scheme of some sort? Neither of the above. It’s the assigned mission at the August 2000 Advanced Operant Conditioning Workshop (a.k.a. chicken training camp), taught by Bob Bailey and psychologist Marian Breland-Bailey. Nine animal trainers from the U.S. and Canada, including myself, are here to meet the challenge. We have five days. Sounds like a joke, but it’s serious business. We’re here not just to train chickens. We’re here to learn the intricacies of a universal mechanism of learning called operant conditioning.
“The client, an elderly couple, had a 6-year-old male, neutered Rhodesian Ridgeback that was aggressive to dogs” describes Dr. Jennie Jamtgaard, an applied animal behavior consultant and behavior instructor at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “They had watched Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan and seen Millan place aggressive dogs in with his group of dogs and then hold them down on their sides or back if they were aggressive. So they brought their dog to the dog park and basically flooded him [immersed him in the aggression-inducing situation].”
Haicheng, China, 1975. A massive earthquake hits. Buildings are demolished, roads destroyed, but thanks to an evacuation several hours earlier, thousands, possibly tens of thousands of human lives are saved. The Chinese claimed they’d predicted an earthquake within hours of its occurrence. Their forecasting system: animals.
On an episode of “It’s Me or the Dog,” a show on Animal Planet, British dog trainer Victoria Stilwell tackled the problem of a bull terrier that exhibited mounting behavior. The first solution was to send the dog for a time-out when he mounted. However, the mounting was so severe that the trainer finally recommended neutering, which solved the problem. This case raises two questions: What other behavioral issues can neutering help address, and what is the rate of success?