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Book Review
Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson
Review by: Kate Connick, Dec. 2002

Widely heralded, Jean Donaldson's The Culture Clash is probably worth reading, in spite of its flaws. Considered a must-read for those interested in behavorist approaches to dog training, the book suffers from a confused organization, self-contradiction, and plain sour attitude. It's not that the author doesn't present some useful information. She simply doesn't do it in a particularly palatable fashion.

Donaldson's central thesis is a plea to stop viewing dogs anthropomorphically and to train them using behaviorist principles. She points out that dogs are social predators with limited intelligence and natural drives that make them very different from human beings. She asserts, quite sensibly, that holding dogs to human standards of cognition and morality sets up dog owners for inevitable disappointment and frustration. As well, "We set (dogs) up for all kinds of punishment by overestimating their ability to think." As a result, she relies on a model which reduces dogs to Skinnerian input-output boxes, enhanced by predatory and social needs. She applies simple principles of classical and operant conditioning in training dogs.

Donaldson sums up her approach to training as follows, "Because behavior is under the control of consequences, obedience is about providing consequences to the dog." So simple and so potentially empowering for a pet owner. Sadly, she mars the delivery of this information with her utter disdain for nearly everyone. Her contempt for colleagues who train in a different manner, for predacessors in the field of training, for pet owners, and seemingly for the reader himself is palpable. It is very difficult to take anyone seriously when they appear so disrespectful of all others.

For example, regarding the historical roots of dog training, Donaldson offers this, "The original trainers were military men training German-bred German Shepherd Dogs. This combo did okay with strangle collars, though, I would argue, not half as well as they would have done with clickers and sliced hot dogs. But they got away with it." I can just picture some hungry soldier on a battlefield, with a fistful of greasy hotdogs, click-clicking as the enemy has him in the cross-hairs. I wonder if he'd "get away with" that for long.

I'm not sure who the intended audience of this book is, because the author routinely refers to the incompetence of both pet owners and "hack" trainers. Donaldson's disdainful, outright snotty attitude is the book's greatest flaw. Had she stuck to her method, she would have had a solid book, but the presentation perverts the content. I have had clients tell me that they refuse to read past the first chapter, because the author's tone is so unnecessary. And unnecessary it is.

In the event that it appears that I am overstating this, here are a few examples from the first chapter alone:

"When are we going to put to bed once and for all the concept that dogs have a 'desire to please'? What a vacuous, dangerous idea."
"I once spoke to a traditional trainer who poured scorn on the use of food as a motivator. The line he trotted out, which still makes me wretch even to this day, was 'if you use food to train, the dog is doing it for the food and not for you.' ...This man's dog, trained by avoidance with a strangle collar, was supposedly doing it for him because the only positive reinforcer was praise... If you opt to not use positive reinforcement, you end up, like they all do, using aversives and announcing that your dog is doing it for you. Pathetic."
"Notions like dogs rushing through doors ahead of their owners or pulling on leash to exert dominance over their owners are too stupid for words."
What deranged mind came up with the notion that a dog would understand, let alone exert dominance by preceding his owner out the front door?"

It's all fine and good to have strong opinions and disagree with others, but the continual venting is wearisome. Her melodramatic use of terms like "strange collar" or "execution" of dogs becomes laughable and overshadows the book's content. She overstates things so wildly that her point is often lost, and her credibility as a dispassionate author or practitioner goes out the window. Her tirade against punishment includes a peculiar rant about the criminal justice system, for example. She then argues that punishment has only a temporary effect, that aversives are too difficult to correctly employ, and that aversives emotionally overwhelm the animal. She sums up her feeling about choke collars as follows:

"It is a sad comment on human-dog relations when we claim to love dogs and then attempt to behaviorally lobotomize them with thousands of leash jerks in the name of 'obedience.' The bland, behaviorless animal many people bond to so strongly can scarcely be called a dog."

The reality is that there are plenty of traditionally trained dogs who are not like this, and dogs are not uniquely feeble and unable to accept aversives. She even contradicts herself when discussing training "chops," noting that the most important factor in successful training is clear feedback, including "punish(ing) lunging and pulling very quickly and cleanly." When I read authors who rail about the horrors of punishment, I can't help but feel that I am reading more about the author's emotional baggage than about the method per se.

Odder still is her awkward and unconvincing distinction between punishments and no-reward-markers (NRM's). In reality, many dogs perceive the latter as a verbal punishment. She even uses it essentially as a punishment, with her correction for blowing a recall being chasing after the dog and screaming like a banshee. She admits, "The response will be an extremely tentative and shell-shocked looking one." Is this any less aversive than a jerk on a long-line? I point this out, because the author whines long and loud about the horrors of punishment, yet she herself uses them.

Donaldson's training approach relies on a clicker, lots of food, and tug of war games. Those who have dogs without high food or toy drives might find her approach lacking. She presents standard lure-reward methods, and the basic obedience exercises are explained well. Break things down into achievable increments, reward, and build from there.

The training chapter appears at the end of the 6-chapter book. Behavior problems are discussed earlier, although neither a table of contents nor an index provides a clue as to exactly where to easily find this information. The book's content sometimes seems to lack a logical, cohesive flow.

Donaldson does have some good thoughts, and her dicussions of socialization and training chops are particularly well done. Sadly, so much of the book's content is marred by her surliness. This book would have been so much better if she'd taken a deep breath and omitted the over-the-top emotion. It's still worth reading, I suppose, but it's not nearly the book it could have been. Most readers will prefer a book like Pat Miller's The Power of Positive Dog Training which is similar in perspective but without the misanthropic mood.

Note: This book is a reference recommended by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers for trainers interested in preparing for the Certified Pet Dog Trainer examination. It is listed on their website as one of the Top Ten Best Books for both dog owners and dog trainers.

bonebone bone
Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson.
Published by James & Kenneth Publishers, 1996. ISBN: 1888047054

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