E244: Kim Brophey - "Working Toward Harmonious Cohabitation"

Kim joins me to talk about ethological contributions to behavior problems in our pet dogs, and how her L.E.G.S. system can help us look at the bigger picture when working on these issues.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Kim Brophey here with me to talk about behavior and ethology.

Hi Kim, welcome to the podcast!

Kim Brophey: Hi Melissa. Thank you for inviting me.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to chat. To start us out, you want to just share a little bit about, a little about the current pets you have, and what you're working on with them?

Kim Brophey: I have three dogs right now. I have a dog named Casey, who is a 5-year-old Pyrenees/Newfoundland. I have a 7-year-old I thought was a Papillion mix, but it turns out it's Toy Poodle and a whole bunch of other stuff. But she basically looks like a Papillion, about the same size, a little bit bigger. And then I have what I thought was a Border Collie mix. Turns out he's an Australian Cattle Dog and American Eskimo mix. We didn't know the Eskie part.

Probably it'll send us down the conversation route for today, but compared to a lot of the guests that listen to your show, I'm sure I have a bit of an untraining model to the training model, in that I do a lot of free shaping for practicality, in terms of life with a household of teenagers coming and going and things like that. We do a lot of cooperative care handling. I'd say that's probably our most intensive work and whatnot that we do together. But nothing particular in terms of competition or performance or anything like that.

Melissa Breau: Nothing wrong with that. What \got you started in the dog world? Obviously you've made a career of it.

Kim Brophey: I was the kid who was probably more interested in the neighborhood dogs than the neighborhood kids on some days. I'd love to talk about how I grew up in Atlanta when the dogs were still loose in a major city like that. My childhood was spent surrounded by all these neighborhood dogs that I would follow around and have these relationships with and observe their behavior, and was super-intrigued by them. I think, growing up in the city, it felt like they were some kind of doorway to nature in otherwise a concrete jungle.

I think my obsession started early, and I had close relationships with my family dogs. It's funny, because I said, going into college, "I do not want to be a dog trainer. I definitely don't want to be a dog trainer." Because what I didn't like was the coercion model that was so predominant, especially at that time. Dog training was synonymous with a militaristic approach only in terms of the tools and that technique, and so I didn't want to do that.

I went to college at a school where I was able to get a degree in Applied Ethology. The world of behavior consulting, that whole field, was really being born at that moment. The IABC had just recently been formed while I was in college. The year that I graduated was, I think, one of the first early years of the IABC, and the whole idea of behavior consulting in addition to dog training, so rather than training for obedience, the idea there was training for harmonious cohabitation between human and dogs, and I liked that.

I felt like I connected with it a lot more, and so decided to pursue that and started out in animal welfare and being the executive director of a shelter, getting my hands dirty right after college, and started my business that following year and never looked back.

Melisa Breau: I like that phrase "harmonious cohabitation."

Kim Brophey: I'm sure we would all like to have harmonious with all the species in life.

Melissa Breau: Not just with the dogs.

Kim Brophey: If I could do that for people, too, that would be really amazing.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. You mentioned that as you were coming into this world, it was a time when the coercion model was still a big thing. How did you get interested in the positive side? What got you started down that path?

Kim Brophey: It's a really good question. I think what was really interesting for me is that in that interest of the relationship between the people and the animals, and the potential of that, part of what I studied so much while I was in college was service and therapy dogs, particularly service dogs, because I was interested in what are the bounds of the human animal bond, like, just how close could a human and a dog be?

I was a kid who grew up on Lassie and I was completely intrigued by it. I was like, "I don't care if it's TV; I believe it's possible." And so I got really intrigued in service dog training. At the time, the Delta Society, which is now defunct … what the Pet Partners Program currently is is the evolution of what was the Delta Society. I went to some of their conferences while I was in college and got some of their literature. They were actually one of the first groups to introduce the principles and practices of a more behaviorism model and positive reinforcement model to the dog training world back then. That's actually where I got introduced to that.

And then I started going to Association of Professional Dog Trainers conferences that next year and met a lot of really interesting people, saw a lot of great presenters, which is fun now to say that some of these people are actually my colleagues, who were my heroes when I was in my 20s. So it was a combination of variables in those few years right after and during college.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. It's cool to say that you came up through it all, just as some of this stuff was coming together and some of this stuff was really taking off. Would you say that you've always been a positive trainer? How would you describe how you train today versus how you used to train?

Kim Brophey: I think my aim was definitely always to regard the integrity of the dog. I think that the books that were available when I was in college were largely all over the map. And so, in my efforts to educate myself and learn about methods at the time, of course I found Monks of New Skete and things like that, Barbara Woodhouse, and what was some of the best thinking at the time. It's not like they were bad authors or trainers or anything like that. It was really just what we had at that time. And so I did try some of the techniques in those books with the dog that I had at that time.

It was funny, because I had a really sassy Australian Shepherd was my senior thesis project. To this day I've never met a dog like her. It's just so amazing that I ended up with her as my senior thesis project. But if any dog could roll their eyes and flip a human being off, she was able to do it. When I would try the alpha rolls and stuff like that on her when she wouldn't come when called… I mean, dumb stuff. I look back at it now and I'm just appalled at what I was doing. She would roll her eyes at me and be like, "Are you done now with your little human ego display?" Walk off and ignore me for the rest of the day, and I was like, "Why don't I feel empowered?"

Melissa Breau: Why isn't this working?

Kim Brophey: Right. She was such a good teacher, though. She was so patient with me while I was just reading things, trying things, figuring it out. She was my guinea pig and she took it all in stride.

But I think as soon as I found anything else that made more sense, I immediately latched on to it. I never used those techniques with clients' dogs professionally. I'd figured out a lot of those mistakes pretty early before I started actually taking folks' money.

But I do think that my approach has changed in that it's been able to take my background, my academic education, and connect it more proficiently with the behaviorism and the operant model, in that for a while I had a hard time reconciling the two because Applied Ethology had a larger presence back then, twenty years ago, than it currently or in the last few years up until this last year or two has in the industry. There just wasn't a good interdisciplinary discussion and appreciation of all the different sciences that help us understand behavior.

I think now I can incorporate those things better than I used to be able to, in that sometimes I found that even through positive reinforcement, for example, that the operant model could create behavior fallouts and all kinds of problems and issues. Whether that was confusion for the dog, or you used the wrong replacement behavior for something you're doing, or something about our operant strategy doesn't make sense to him.

And the frustration that I felt that the dogs felt that the clients felt and some of the kinds of techniques I was picking up along the way that I would try because they were popular, but then I decided, "That doesn't make a lot of sense to me, so it can't make a lot of sense to the dog if it doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

So yeah, I think it's evolved more. It's more pragmatic now, I have a much more comfortable appreciation of how all the pieces fit together.

Melissa Breau: Kind of interesting, because I'd imagine in all things, taking the academic and applying the practical, sometimes they go and sometimes they don't.

Kim Brophey: Yeah, and I think our industry has been one that has struggled. I don't know whether more than others. I just know that we have struggled. It's the only one that I've been in, so I can only speak to that.

I've been going to conferences every year for twenty years, and I feel like there'd be a lot of academic information that was presented, but oftentimes presented by academics who they themselves didn't work hands-on with dogs. So it's almost like they would present this amazing, relevant science, but couldn't necessarily connect the dots for meaning for us for what it would look like in our work, what the implications of it would be.

Even though I've seen the effort to bring that in, I think that there has been and then practicality of dog training, and there haven't been a lot of people that have been able to really be like, "Because of this, that means this." And so I think we've missed out quite innocently on a lot of the great science that's been out there, only because it's almost a translation issue sometimes. The vernacular of different disciplines, and one lens calls something this and the other one calls … I was just thinking about the word "function." In ABA, it means "What is the function of the behavior in this particular moment?" and the field of ethology or evolutionary biology, the function is the evolutionary purpose. It's not in that moment what the function was. So just things like that, where you get these crossed wires for no reason when you're talking about the same stuff, but you're using different words.

Melissa Breau: That makes a lot of sense. And then, of course, in the dog training world, you also have this whole additional component where it's not always necessarily just trainer and dog. You've also got often the handler, owner, you've got to factor into the whole puzzle.

Kim Brophey: It's why ultimately I rested on, "Mediation is a really good model," because we really are taking these two different species with their different personalities, the variables that contribute to who they are, and their lifestyle, their environment, their expectations, and all these things, and you're trying to optimally reconcile them so again they can cohabitate harmoniously, in theory.

Melissa Breau: We'll have to name the episode that. You're doing a webinar for us in the very near future on ethological contributions to behavior problems, which sounds like a very official title. I want to break it down a little bit. I want to talk about what that actually means for folks. Let's just start with the terms, because as you just mentioned, sometimes terminology is not the same to all people. What is ethology, and what does studying it dogs, in particular, look like?

Kim Brophey: Ethology, traditionally, is the study of animal behavior in their natural habitat. Right off the bat, you can see the obvious implication for, "Okay, but is captivity a dog's natural habitat?" If you have a domesticated and captive species, it gets complicated.

That's why there's the field of Applied Ethology, which is my background, that's specifically looking at animals that are under some form of human control, whether it's domestication, captivity, or both. And so it gets messier, but all the principles of ethology are still there, ethology being studying animal behavior within the framework of evolution and all of the other natural laws and functioning principles.

Being very concerned with, in nature, if we step away from dogs for a second, how did that organism, that animal, that species get to be the way that it is in the first place? In nature that would be, what were the selective pressures? What were the selective opportunities? It's funny, you can incorporate starting here in some of the behaviorist language that says which behaviors were more fit, which designs were more fit, survival of the fittest behavior.

We think about behaviors being reinforced increasing, behaviors that are punished decreasing. Well, the same is true for evolutionary characteristics, traits that make up an organism's phenotype. And so if it works, it's repeated and there will be more of them, and they will continue to reproduce. And if it doesn't work, it will have to adapt or it'll just fall out of the gene pool.

When we think about that, and you think about nature is picking for what works in the conditions just by default, that's how the logic of those things work. So what happens is when humans end up in control of that process, and we are determining the reproduction, and we are determining what we like and what we don't like, so it's not about what works for the animal to be successful, it's about what did we find positive and successful for us.

Through that artificial selection process, we've manipulated the heck out of that. And therefore we have all these exaggerated representations of all these different kinds of dogs that were developed for these different purposes that still are subject to the phenomenon of does the animal fit the habitat, which is nature's constant question: Is it working or not?

The problem is now we designed all these behavioral specialists for these really specific tasks throughout history, because humans could benefit from them and exploit those characteristics for their own survival. Problem is now we're not using them for those things anymore 99 percent of the time, so we have a lot of dogs that, for all intents and purposes in the modern pet condition, are fish out of water, and that's the rub.

That's why ethology matters so much in the work of training dogs, or working with dog behavior, is because we tend to just set about how to train the dog, oftentimes without failing to appreciate why we're getting what we're seeing in the first place. What's happening, because a lot of the behavior that we're seeing, the modern behavior problems, are really natural symptoms of that friction you get when the key doesn't fit the lock. The organism doesn't fit the environment, kind of like when you put an animal in the wrong natural habitat, like in a zoo, then they will suffer and act stereotypically and have behavioral dysfunction.

So I think because as we're seeing this tremendous increase in behavior problems in the pet dog population, all under the idea that all dogs are quintessentially pets, when actually most of them were not designed to be pets, they were designed for specific jobs, I think we have to get clear and honest in how we approach behavior to communicate professionally with each other, and then to the public, that (a) most of them weren't designed to be pets, and then (b) that's going to affect everything from the behavior we experience to their overall welfare. And we have to talk about that before we start talking about how to change their behavior.

Melissa Breau: You're talking about, for example, herding dogs were bred to herd things, and hunting dogs are bred to hunt things.

Kim Brophey: Right. We get a lot of calls, like, "Make the herding dogs stop herding," and "Make the hunting dog stop hunting." And you're just like, "There's a really logical problem here. Do you know what I mean?" And yet that's the call we get, over and over, every day. It's like the cultural expectations are "Make it do this, make it stop doing that," and you're like, "But humans spent thousands of years making it do that and not to do that." And it's like, "But that's not what I wanted. I wanted a pet dog that would do this and this."

I think a lot of us just feel like it's our job to satisfy the consumer's demands for whatever they want their dog to do, without getting really practical about "Wait a minute, hold on here. Does it even make sense for you to ask that in the first place?" Is it fair? Is it ethical to try to manipulate an animal's behavior in a direction that doesn't make sense for them, with all the things that went into them becoming who they are in the first place?

Melissa Breau: I think it's really interesting. I think it'll be really interesting to see where we go in the near future. I do think there are some breeds that are leaning more and more into the pet lifestyle, so to speak.

Kim Brophey: And those dogs should be bred a lot more, I think. Ray Coppinger said, fifteen or twenty years ago, if we want better pets, we should be breeding for it. It's really unfair to be breeding for animals' phenotypes that aren't a pet phenotype, and then we're like, "What the heck? Why can't you get on board of being a pet?" And they're like, "Because I'm not one."

It doesn't mean that you can't be our companion. I think that's where we get lost. We think, "Humans and dogs have been companions forever." Well, yes, but only in my lifetime have they become exclusively pets. Again, in major cities not that long ago, dogs were still running loose, but they were coming home at the end of the day. But they still had a life and the affordances to express natural behavior and all sorts of things they don't now. And they're so chronically frustrated.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. It's just such a different lifestyle than what they were bred for. I know in the webinar that you're doing for us, to go back — we got a little on a tangent there — you're going to be talking about your L.E.G.S. System of Applied Ethology. I'd love to have you tell us what that is, what L.E.G.S. stands for, and maybe how you apply it when you're looking at dog behavior.

Kim Brophey: One way to think about why L.E.G.S., before I explain what it is, is that most of us who've been working with behavior and keeping up with the science of animal learning understand what the ABCs of behavior are: the antecedent, behavior, and consequence.

So an easy way to think about L.E.G.S. is that it's the antecedent iceberg. Basically, it's all of the things that set the stage for that moment that we're used to assessing and analyzing through a functional behavior analysis of "What is the catalyst? What's the behavior? And then what is the consequence of that behavior?"

If you think of L.E.G.S. as all of the things that contribute to every organism, in biology language we call that phenotype. An animal's phenotype is the collection of the distant, more ultimate, and then the more immediate, proximate influences from the environment, their genetics, their own learning and adaptation experiences through the course of their own individual life while they're developing, growing, and all those internal circumstances of sex, age, health, disability, disease, injury, etc.

If you break it down, phenotype might be one word, but nobody really knows what it means. It feels abstract. So L.E.G.S gives us a practical way to check all the boxes and make sure we're looking underneath all of the elements that do contribute to behavior.

The learning, which is a piece we are good at looking at, like, what has the dog's experience been in the past, what kinds of ideas, strategies, habits, associations have they formed.

And then the environment, looking at the dog's environment — not just now, right before the behavior, but lately — and then the last few years, the course of their life, comparing that and contrasting it with their original intended environment.

And then the genetics, so learning, environment, genetics, getting us to the L.E.G. here of what sets that animal up genetically, both internally and externally. So observable physical traits, and then not so necessarily observable — internal, behavioral, and physiological states.

And then the self, which is the internal condition. So basically the animal's, again, age, sex, health, development, reproductive status, and whether they have any kind of injury or infection or chronic disease, things like that. Anything that is on the inside part of that animal's individual self, and also including their individual personality, and just one in a million self that every animal brings to the table.

And so if we're thinking about working with behavior, and we're thinking about that ABC, it's a way of stepping back and assessing what are all of the things that I need to take into consideration to help me have as optimal of an understanding of the potential recipe I'm working with here, so that I can appreciate what expectations are going to be realistic, what expectations are not going to be realistic, potentially, based on all of that.

I think one of the reasons historically we have liked avoiding that conversation is what's underneath the surface at the tip of the iceberg feels really overwhelming and really abstract. It's like, "But there's so much water down there. How we begin?" It is daunting, and I think we've avoided the task for the scope of it in the industry. It's like, how do you start?

And so, for me, that's why I came up with L.E.G.S was because I was doing all of this research through all of these different scientific disciplines that had so much to say about what we were working with with dog behavior, really important insights, and it was overwhelming to me.

I had these stacks of books and research articles and was trying to almost color-code them to make some type of order out of them, because you're not going to convince everyone, "Just read all the science and make sense out of it." How, then, do you say, "We need a structure, a framework, that can hold all of the pieces that matter in it, that can keep us on track in terms of just making sure we're asking questions along these lines, and along these lines, in a way that's pragmatic enough that it's actually practical to use.

Melissa Breau: It's interesting to think about that, and think about all the different pieces you have to sort through to pull out the relevant bits.

Kim Brophey: Which is why we have a really enormous course on the whole thing, because to teach people how to use it, and have it be organic, and get the sense of all the things you've got to think about — it's a longer conversation than we have time for today. That's just a snapshot, but it all really matters.

Melissa Breau: As you were trying to develop it, what did that process look like? How did you go about filtering through those books and books and pulling out these four pieces?

Kim Brophey: I would find themes. And actually it's funny, because I was just going through all of that stuff in a recent move about a year ago.

Melissa Breau: Moves are great for that.

Kim Brophey: Oh, they are. You're like, "Oh, this early stage in this whole process." I think it was, gosh, probably thirteen or fourteen years ago. Let's see … my son is 16, and it really started when he went to kindergarten.

That was interestingly enough the catalyst for me being like, "Oh my gosh, I need all of these answers" was me reading a book that I just picked up at Barnes & Noble on a sales shelf called Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. The book was talking about basically the L.E.G.S. of a kid. They weren't using the L.E.G.S. model, but just talking about the modern kids and the history of humanity, and then how much environmental change has happened in the last hundred years, and how much our lifestyle and habitats and expectations have just suddenly shifted, and how modern kids are fish out of water and how they're having all of these developmental, behavioral, psychological, and physical problems as a result.

I was just like, "That's it. That's the beginning of it." And so I started color-coding his book. I don't even remember what my original … I think maybe one of them was environment and genetics, but I don't remember what those early pieces were. And then after a while it just started to form.

The color-coding meant that I could categorize things that I was finding. I think it started with ten buckets of like things and then I was just distilling it down. Ultimately, L.E.G.S. emerged as a framework that was simple enough and yet inclusive enough that any new research that I found could either fit squarely within or in a combination between some of those L.E.G.S. variables.

Melissa Breau: That's pretty neat. Do you mind just talking us through an example of a case where you might apply it and how it factors in?

Kim Brophey: Sure. I can give you one that I was just talking to my colleague and business partner with this afternoon, since it's top of mind for me. Her name is Angie Cook, and she's our other behavior consultant at the Dog Door.

She was talking to me about a case that she is carefully considering firing the client at this point because there's been zero compliance. But it's a really great example of the L.E.G.S. being the problem and it not being a training problem, like we're used to thinking. Perfect example of how just training alone can't solve this behavior situation.

It is a working line German Shepherd that is now 7 months old, but Angie met the client with the dog at 4 months old. And at 4 months old, the dog was already aggressive, quite proactively aggressive, towards visitors to the house, as well as the wife in the house and controlling her movements. She wasn't allowed to sit in certain chairs, wasn't allowed to wear certain clothing without being assaulted with what was more than just puppy biting, but was some early instinct, modal action pattern herding behavior with more follow-through on the bite, as many Shepherds often will present with, where it's like, "I'm really sensitive to sound environmental contrast, I'm very sensitive to movement, I'm very aware of order and status quo as an aim," as opposed to getting stressed by things that are exciting or chaotic or unpredictable.

The relationships with the humans in the house have been so unreliable and unstable and unpredictable, with a lot of erratic and inconsistent signals, a lot of disorganization, dysfunctional schedules, etc. The clients came in with this idea of "Just train it. Teach it a command that will make it stop biting me."

The reason that the behavior is happening in the first place is a combination, as it so often is, an interaction between the dog's genetics. You design a dog to be a working dog, you design a dog to be hyper-vigilant to environmental conditions, and to be a "step up to the plate" kind of dog in the environmental conditions, largely by using its mouth in both barking and actually biting and making contact.

The dog has been basically experiencing an environment that arouses these certain natural instincts that the dog carries from the time that they've had the dog, and they have kept trying to just operantly train the dog new commands to make the behavior stop. And, as we so often see, the dog is able to operantly perform really well. When you put on the little training hat and you go through the little motions, the dog is great, but when you're not doing that, the dog is completely dysfunctional, anxious, reactive, aggressive.

The advice that we've been giving in this case about things that need to change in the literal and the social environment to help get ahead of the reason for the behavior, which is that environment genetics interaction — the fact that the dog has not even hit adolescence yet, you're like, "This has no place good to go from here." We're talking about a puppy that is so young to be exhibiting these behaviors. You warn them as much as you can, and you say, "You really need to make sure that these things are structured, and these things are predictable, because the dog needs to feel like you're an excellent driver and you're very competent so the dog can be getting reliable information from you and guidance about how to handle life as it's unfolding."

That's what we designed working dogs to do is to be having that close partnership where they are getting that kind of guidance. I think a lot of people get working dogs to be pets, and then they just put their feet up on the sofa and they aren't creating that working bond and dynamic and relationship, so the dog feels very uncomfortable with the social dynamic in that kind of an environment. We've bred for almost a codependency there, that if someone's not ready or willing or able to step up and fill those shoes, those dogs seem to unravel pretty quickly.

And so we're about to come into the S piece. If we're using this as a L.E.G.S. example, this dog's learning so far is, "These people are completely unpredictable. The meaning of them in my life is that they are, yes, my social members, but that they are not in control of the situation." They don't give reliable information. They are unpredictable emotionally, mood-wise, behaviorally, etc., and that it's very easy to get into these unhealthy dynamics where the dog has the upper hand in the situation as only a 4-and-a-half-month-old puppy, able to corner its owner as a 4-and-a half-month-old puppy, scared to come out of the kitchen. That's not a great precedent. All of that being part of that dog's learning so far in this environment, which is clearly not what that dog was designed for in the first place.

With those genetics that set that whole stage, and then as an individual self who hasn't even hit adolescence yet, you're looking at the L.E.G.S. picture. So proceeding with the ABC when we have this massive problematic iceberg over the antecedent, L.E.G.S., is like we're going to just spin our wheels. And frankly I worry about the psychological and emotional abuse for all parties in that case of trying to squish that square peg into a round hole, when frankly they got a dog that just isn't going to work for them.

I think this happens a lot, too. It's a breeder breeding for all military dogs, who places the males and then puts all the females in pet homes.

Melissa Breau: Oh, man, that's hard.

Kim Brophey: Perfecting working line genetics for those dogs' L.E.G.S., and then they're in pet homes, where I think a lot of them end up very frustrated at a very early age.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely, I could totally see that. Even as a human being, when your expectations aren't met, and to have a dog whose genetic expectations are so high by comparison to what an average pet home is going to be able to deliver.

Kim Brophey: Yeah, and I really think that's it's such a basic truth. And it's such a basic lie we all keep telling in the industry is that, "Oh yeah, all dogs are pets." You really put that through the filter of reality and it just doesn't work. But the pet industry has grown so rapidly in the last thirty years, and there's so much money to be made. I think we forget how effective the pet marketing is, just to be like, "If you just do this and this and this, and you buy this product, and you get this collar, and you get this magic anxiety cure for your dog," like all dogs can fit in any situation. And it's just not true.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. To pull things back to the webinar for a minute, folks listening to this, if they're interested or they're intrigued, who is the webinar really targeted for? Who should really consider purchasing it, or who might benefit the most from breaking down this information and understanding some of this?

Kim Brophey: The webinar, while largely designed for the audience of trainers and behavior consultants, is also very appropriate for veterinarians, shelter or rescue staff, groomers, daycare, kennel boarding owners, operators, staff, etc. Really anyone that is working closely with dogs in their profession, as well, frankly, as someone that is just really looking for more answers outside of the traditional boxes that are available out there for explanations behind dog behavior and all the things that go into it.

We've had a lot of folks tell us that they have taken one or more of our webinars or seminars and weren't professionally involved with dogs in their own careers, but they felt like it filled in some blanks and answered some questions that they hadn't been able to find in other places. I think what's so interesting about it is just the exposure to all of these other scientific disciplines that you get through the L.E.G.S. model; not even just ethology, but a lot of other little pieces that can help make some light bulbs go off for folks.

Melissa Breau: So maybe even if somebody is just really interested in behavior.

Kim Brophey: Yeah. Anyone that's just like, "I just love this stuff. I'm a dog nerd," like I am, where you just eat any of it up. It's just fascinating. It's really intriguing stuff.

Melissa Breau: It sounds like it. To round things out, if we were to pull the pieces apart here and say there's one key piece of information you want to leave folks with or you really want people to understand, what would that be?

Kim Brophey: I think a couple of them … I wrote a few down before we were talking, thinking those one-liners … a couple of them we've already covered. We've already covered that dogs are not principally pets, definitely one of those that I think is the thing that needs to be challenged.

I touched on the importance of why before how, instead of just jumping right into the how, and that leads me into the third one, which is, I think we forget to pause and consider that with our incredible understanding of how learning works and our ability to change behavior, because we've cracked the code of learning and that process in behaviorism and applied behavior analysis, we have to stop and consider how powerful we are and what we wield as a result of that, because I think it is so reinforcing for us to be able to get such profound behavior change that we sometimes don't think about the repercussions of the kinds of behavior change or training that we're getting, and whether it is functionally serving the animal's best interest and welfare, even through humane methods.

I think we have an idea that positive reinforcement can't do harm, and I don't think that that's true. I think we can do a lot of harm when we're not understanding the bigger picture of what we're working with.

Melissa Breau: I think that's a really important takeaway to leave everybody with, just because I think so often you just look at the actual physical actions of the behavior, and folks don't stop and think about the why or the how, like, how that came to happen. So I think that's a great note to leave folks with.

Kim Brophey: Yeah. It can be very impressive and very luring watching the magic of behavior change. It's like magic, and people have gotten so good at it that the things that we can get dogs to do are just mind-blowing.

I feel like sometimes the dog world gets consumed in competing about the most impressive performances, and we don't necessarily step back and say, "But what are we really doing, and what's going on in the internal experience for that animal?" At the end of the day, are we creating more balance and psychological, emotional, behavioral welfare for them? Or are we creating a more dysfunctional animal?

I think, for instance, one of the examples that always pops to my mind is how we've created genetically, and then through learning, some behavioral addicts in some cases for performance or competition or sport or whatever. There's certain types of dogs that are just dopamine junkies, and they want to work and they like it. But it's like a cocaine addict likes their cocaine. It feels good, so they want it. So they're voluntarily in there and they're participating, and they're chomping at the bit to do it. And we're like, "See? They love it. Isn't it great?"

I think just getting objective even about that, like, what are we doing when we're creating those dogs genetically? What are we doing when we create that lifestyle for them from the beginning? At what point does the scale tip and it's not good for them anymore? Because now that once you have those genetic dogs, you have to meet those behavioral needs that you created through those genetic selections, but then what's that balancing act when we're walking that razor's edge about meeting those needs but not pushing them into overdrive where they do become dysfunctional, they become neurotically obsessed with working.

Melissa Breau: Where's the line of when it becomes a problem, is really what you're saying, right?

Kim Brophey: Right — a problem for us or for them or both. I think in some cases it's not a problem for us and it is a problem for them. And the other way around — it could be that it's not a problem for them and it is a problem for us.

But just the whole warning of be careful, be mindful, really put things through a comprehensive filter before you proceed. I think there's a whole lot of trainers that just get into training, and they get drunk with the allure of the power that they're able to wield, and they forget to stop and consider the potential repercussions.

Melissa Breau: It's an important note to round things out on. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Kim. This is fantastic. It's such interesting stuff.

Kim Brophey: Oh, you're welcome. Again, thank you so much for having me.

Melisa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it!

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

E245: Barb Buchmayer - "Positive Herding"
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