Sniffing the Past is delighted to present a guest blog from Justyna Włodarczyk
In the United States the second half of the nineteenth century was witness to an explosion of books devoted to the training of hunting dogs. These were mostly published in the Northeast (Boston, New York, Philadelphia), with a minority published also in the South (Richmond, Virginia) and Midwest (Chicago). As many of the titles implied (J.S. Skinner’s The Dog and the Sportsman, 1845; Elisha Lewis’s The American Sportsman, 1855) these books were inevitably addressed to the so-called sportsman. This label was attached to a growing and vocal group of middle to upper class men who hunted for pleasure, not for subsistence. The magazine Forest & Stream, founded in 1873, created a discussion platform for sportsmen to exchange training tips and plan competitions for hunting dogs. Field trials for bird dogs were first held in the United States 1874 near Memphis, Tennessee. It is not surprising that the development of interest in sports hunting spawned a number of training manuals. Most of these books positioned themselves as “enlightened” and spoke of progress in training methods between the eighteenth and the nineteenth century. While gentleness and kindness to dogs prevailed on the level of declarations, the books almost inevitably turned to the whip when it came to the practicalities of dog training. While a positive relationship with the dog was supposed to serve as the basis of all training, if the dog erred in his performance, the only correct way of dealing with such misbehavior was immediate and severe punishment.
The one significant exception to the prevalence of punishment-based methods among hunting dog trainers of the period was S.T. Hammond’s book Practical Dog Training: Or Training vs Breaking, published by Forest & Stream in 1882. The title of the book references the debate on dog training that was taking place at the time. While the collocation of “dog” and “training” was not a new one – in fact the first book devoted entirely to dogs and published in English in 1576, Of English Dogges, already used the word training – the term breaking was still in common use, particularly among trainers of hunting dogs. Stephen Tillinghurst Hammond (1831-1925), a native of Springfield, Massachusetts, was also the kennel editor of Forest & Stream (where his book was serialized before publication as an independent volume), and an avid participant in the burgeoning dog culture of the day. However, even though he was a part of the community of sportsmen, his training methods certainly stand out. Not only did Hammond completely forego the use of what would later be defined by behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner as positive punishment,that is the addition of an undesirable stimulus to stop an unwanted behavior, he focused on using positive reinforcement for fostering desirable behaviors.
However, what brings Hammond closest to many contemporary behaviorist trainers is the fact that his goal in using positive reinforcement was not just to elicit or lure a desirable behavior – such as by dangling a piece of meat above a dog’s head to encourage him to stand up on his hind legs, as had been the case in many of the pet training manuals of the day – but to develop the dog’s self-control. In other words, while he most certainly saw the process of training as the shaping of a dog’s instincts, the process was not based on physical curbing of these instincts by the human but on instilling self-control in the dog through methods that did not rely on punishment. This technique would much later (since the 1990s and into the twenty-first century) become the trademark of positive “clicker” trainers. In this, Hammond was not just more “progressive” in his gentle methods, his training philosophy seems contrary to the philosophy of the day because he clearly did not share the belief in the redemptive power of punishment, so characteristic for other trainers of the period.
This difference of approach is best visible in Hammond’s procedure for training the stop behavior or “To Ho.” Pointing was usually not taught at all by other trainers under the assumption that an instinctive behavior, such as stopping to point, should be natural in a hunting dog. Indeed, contemporary ethologists agree that pointing is a modification of the wolf’s hunting behavior achieved through human-directed breeding selection. The behavior of pointing birds requires ending the locate>eye>stalk>chase>grab>bite>dissect>consume chain of the wolf’s hunting behavior on the eye>stalk link (Coppinger & Feinstein 2015, 58-59). Rather than teaching the point, what most trainers of the period advocated was a severe correction should the dog break his point. In other words, they saw training as putting the instinctive behavior under control through punishment.
Hammond’s strategy was different. He did recommend starting with a dog from good hunting parents, that is a dog who would naturally point. But he extended the instinctive stopping behavior of the dog in the presence of a bird to other spheres of the dog’s life. He proposed the technique that is known among today’s trainers as “doggie zen,” or “impulse control,” allowing the dog access to the desired object (morsel of food, in this case) only once the dog relinquished the struggle to reach the food himself. The dog learned that stopping when he saw something he wanted was the only way of obtaining the treat. At no point in the training process did Hammond jerk the dog’s leash or use a whip. He was also the only nineteenth-century hunting dog trainer who routinely used food rewards.[i] The one distinction between the contemporary exercise of “impulse control” and Hammond’s “To Ho” is that in the case of the former, the dog is expected to focus on the trainer’s face. Hammond taught the dog to focus on the piece of meat but only approach it when permission was given:
You should begin by giving him a taste of a piece of meat, then secure a firm hold upon his collar, and place a small piece upon the ground in front of him. He will struggle with all his strength to get at it, but hold him steadily, and do not say a word until he becomes partially quiet (….)
After a few seconds the dog will become more quiet, and you can repeat the words. Now carefully watch him, and as soon as his attention is fixed upon the meat, and he looks at it steadily for a second, release your hold and cluck to him as a signal that he can now have it and at once praise and pet him, and give him to understand that he has done something wonderful, and that you are pleased with him (Hammond 5).
All of Hammond’s methods are surprisingly “modern” but they are compatible with his overall training philosophy. He taught the release of the retrieved object beginning with the exchange of a less desirable object for a more desirable one: a piece of “tough beef” for “liver” (8). He stopped bird dogs from pointing rabbits (or rather prevented the problem altogether) by raising them with rabbits, exhibiting a surprising understanding of what modern ethology calls social bonding and accommodation in behavioral development (Coppinger & Feinstein 2015, 113-134); he associated the sound of a gun with food, showing a good grasp of Pavlovian classical conditioning years before Pavlov’s work became widely known. He taught puppies, when most other books of the period acknowledged that training should begin only once the dog was at least one year old. He trained at home (or “in the yard”) and then transferred these behaviors onto fieldwork, a practice that is commonly referred to as ground work or flat work by contemporary trainers of sports dogs (agility dogs, disc dogs, flyball dogs). All of this went against the grain of popular instruction of the period. For example, Bogardus wrote in 1874 that “The field, where there are birds, is the place to break dogs, and puppies are too playful and too soft for the real breaking. At about a year old the dog is of an age to understand what is wanted of him in a short time, and also fit to endure the correction which will be required to make him avoid faults” (289).
Hammond’s approach throughout the entire book is exceptional for the time period: rather than positing the process of training as an act of human benevolence while proposing increasingly more complex methods of punishment for misbehavior, he refrains both from using the civilizational rhetoric and the whip. His advice does not fit into the broader framework of dog training at the time, which explains why his methods quickly went into oblivion, only to be discovered again (though with no credit given to Hammond) in the 1990s. What is also unique is his analysis of the human-canine relationship in terms of protocols of reinforcement rather than through a hierarchy of creation, a pack hierarchy or the dog’s innate desire to please. Contemporary trainers tend to think of their work as located along a paradigm of progress, viewing the past as “the dark ages” of dog training. Yet one when digs deep enough, it is possible to uncover such jewels as Hammond’s book and to realize how uninformed contemporary trainers may be in their dismissal of all old methods as outdated and barbaric. On a personal note, it only saddens me that Hammond put his ideas to use in an activity that is so fraught with ethical tensions.
Bogardus, Adam H. Field, Cover and Trap Shooting. Embracing Hints for Skilled Marksmen; Instructions for Young Sportsmen; Haunts and Habits of Game Birds; Flight and Resorts of Water Fowl; Breeding and Breaking of Dogs. Ed. Charles J. Foster. New York: J. B. Ford & Company, 1874.
Coppinger, Raymond and Mark Finkstein. How Dogs Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Hammond, S.T. Practical Dog Training; or Training vs Breaking. New York: Forest and Stream Publishing Company, 1882.
Lewis, Elisha J. American Sportsman: Containing Hints to Sportsmen, Notes on Shooting and the Habits of the Game Birds and Wild Fowl of America. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co., 1855.
Skinner, J.S. The Dog and the Sportsman. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1845.
[i] Food was used as a reward in many pet dog training manual of the period.