Vincent the Rhodesian ridgeback was not an agility dog. He was the walking and running companion of New Zealand/Aotearoa writer and dog lover, Ian Wedde. Wedde and Vincent have taught me much that I need to say about the sport of agility, a game that I play with my fast herding dog, Cayenne. She enriches my ignorance. Playing agility with Cayenne helps me understand a controversial, modern relationship between people and dogs: training to a high standard of performance for a competitive sport. Training together, a particular woman and a particular dog, not Man and Animal in the abstract, is a historically located, multispecies, subject-shaping encounter in a contact zone fraught with power, knowledge and technique, moral questions—and the chance for joint, cross-species invention that is simultaneously work and play. Writing this chapter with Cayenne is not a literary conceit but a condition of work. She is, legally, a research dog in the University of California, just as I am a research human; this status is required of both of us if we are to occupy an office in the History of Consciousness Department on the campus of the University of
California at Santa Cruz. I did not originally seek this status for Cayenne; I would have liked her company in the office simply as my companion. But dogs who are merely friends are banned from UCSC for obscure reasons having something to do with a dog's murdering a donkey thirty-odd years ago near the old barn on campus, but really having more to do with the remarkable problem-solving strategies among bureaucrats running things in the world. If there is a difficulty involving some individuals (unsupervised dogs and clueless humans?), then ban all members of the class rather than solve the problem (retrain the campus community?). Only the dogs, of course, not the clueless humans, were actually banned. That, however, is a story for another day. The material-semiotic exchange between Cayenne and me over training is the subject of this chapter; it is not a one-sided affair. The chief campus animal control officer recognized her as a knowledge worker. After careful temperament testing (of Cayenne; I was given a pass although my impulse control is more fragile than hers) and practical interviews assessing both of us for skills in following orders, the officer filled out papers to legalize Cayenne's presence. The box checked was "research."
Many critical thinkers who are concerned with the subjugation of animals to the purposes of people regard the domestication of other sentient organisms as an ancient historical disaster that has only grown worse with time. Taking themselves to be the only actors, people reduce other organisms to the lived status of being merely raw material or tools. The domestication of animals is, within this analysis, a kind of original sin separating human beings from nature, ending in atrocities like the meat-industrial complex of transnational factory farming and the frivolities of pet animals as indulged but unfree fashion accessories in a boundless commodity culture. Or, if not fashion accessories, pets are taken to be living engines for churning out unconditional love—affectional slaves, in short. One being becomes means to the purposes of the other, and the human assumes rights in the instrument that the animal never has in "it"self. One can be somebody only if someone else is something. To be animal is exactly not to be human and vice versa.
Grammatically, this matter shows up in editing policies of major reference books and newspapers. Animals are not allowed personal pronouns such as who, but must be designated by which, that, or it. Some contemporary reference manuals allow an exception to this: if a particular animal has a name and sex, the animal can be an honorary person designated by personal pronouns; in that case, the animal is a kind of lesser human by courtesy of sexualization and naming.1 Thus, pets can have names in the newspapers because they are personalized and familialized but not because they are somebody in their own right, much less in their difference from human personhood and families. Within this frame, only wild animals in the conventional Western sense, as separate as possible from subjugation to human domination, can be themselves. Only wild animals can be somebody, ends not means. This position is exactly the opposite of the grammar reference books' granting derivative personhood only to those animals most incorporated into (Western) humanlike sexuality and kinship.
There are other ways to think about domestication that are both more historically accurate and also more powerful for addressing past and present brutalities and for nurturing better ways to live in multispecies sociality.2 Tracking only a few threads in a densely complex fabric, this chapter examines the case of people and dogs working to excel in an international competitive sport that is also part of globalized middle-class consumer cultures that can afford the considerable time and money dedicated to the game. Training together puts the participants inside the complexities of instrumental relations and structures of power. How can dogs and people in this kind of relationship be means and ends for each other in ways that call for reshaping our ideas about and practices of domestication?
Redefining domestication, the Belgian philosopher and psychologist Vinciane Despret introduces the notion of "anthropo-zoo-genetic practice," which constructs both animals and humans in historically situated interrelationships. Emphasizing that articulating bodies to each other is always a political question about collective lives, Despret studies those practices in which animals and people become available to each other, become attuned to each other, in such a way that both parties become more interesting to each other, more open to surprises, smarter, more "polite," more inventive. The kind of "domestication" that Despret explores adds new identities; partners learn to be "affected"; they become "available to events"; they engage in a relationship that "discloses perplexity."3 The personal pronoun who, which is necessary in this situation, has nothing to do with derivative, Western, ethnocentric, humanist personhood for either people or animals, but rather has to do with the query proper to serious relationships among significant others, or, as I called them elsewhere, companion species, cum panis, messmates at table together, breaking bread.4 The question between animals and humans here is, Who are you? and so, Who are we?
Who is not a relative pronoun in the co-constitutive relationships called training; it is an interrogative one. All the parties query and are queried if anything interesting, anything new, is to happen. In addition, who refers to partners-in-the-making through the active relations of coshaping, not to possessive human or animal individuals whose boundaries and natures are set in advance of the entanglements of becoming together. So, how do dogs and people learn to pay attention to each other in a way that changes who and what they become together?51 will not try to answer that question in the large; instead, I will try to figure out how Cayenne and I learned to play agility together well enough to earn a modest certificate, if one that we found demanded our laughter, tears, work, and play for thousands of hours over several years: the Masters Agility Dog title in the United States Dog Agility Association. Our championship eludes us; she enriches my ignorance.
THE GAME'S AFOOT
What is the sport of agility?6 Picture a grassy field or dirt-covered horse arena about one hundred by one hundred feet square. Fill it with fifteen to twenty obstacles arranged in patterns according to a judge's plan. The sequence of the obstacles and difficulty of the patterns depend on the level of play from novice to masters. Obstacles include single, double, or triple bar jumps; panel jumps; broad jumps; open and closed tunnels of various lengths; weave poles, consisting of six to twelve in-line poles through which the dog slaloms; pause tables; and contact obstacles called teeter-totters, A-frames (between 5.5 and 6.5 feet high, depending on the organization), and dog walks. These last are called contact obstacles because the dog must put at least a toenail in a painted zone at the up and down ends of the obstacle. Leaping over the contact zone earns a
"failure to perform" the obstacle, which is a high-point penalty. Dogs jump at a height determined by their own height at their shoulders or withers. Many of the jump patterns derive from those used in horse-jumping events, and indeed horse events are among the sporting parents of dog agility.
Human handlers are allowed to walk through the course for about ten to fifteen minutes before the dog and human run it; the dog does not see the course beforehand at all. The human is responsible for knowing the sequence of obstacles and for figuring out a plan for human and dog to move fast, accurately, and smoothly through the course. The dog takes the jumps and navigates the obstacles, but the human has to be in the right position at the right time to give good information. Advanced courses are full of trap obstacles to tempt the untimely or the misinformed; novice runs test fundamental knowledge for getting through a course accurately and safely with nothing fancy required. In a well-trained team, both human and dog know their jobs, but any knowledgeable observer will see that the overwhelming number of errors on a course are caused by bad handling on the human's part. The errors might be bad timing, overhandling, inattention, ambiguous cues, bad positioning, failure to understand how the course looks from the point of view of the dog, or failure to train basics well beforehand. I know all of these disasters from all-too-much personal experience! Qualifying runs in the higher levels of the sport require perfect scores within a demanding time limit. Teams are ranked by accuracy and speed, and runs can be decided by hundredths of seconds. Thus, working for tight turns and efficient paths around the course is important.
Agility began in 1978 at Crufts in the United Kingdom when a trainer of working trial dogs, Peter Meanwell, was asked to design a dog-jumping event to entertain spectators waiting for the main action at the classy dog show. In 1979, agility returned to Crufts as a regular competitive event. After about 1983, agility spread from the United Kingdom to Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and France, and it has since continued to spread across Europe as well as to North America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and Latin America. The United States Dog Agility Association was founded in 1986, followed by other organizations in the United States and Canada. In 2000 the International Federation of
Cynological Sports (IFCS) was founded on the initiative of Russia and Ukraine to unite dog sport organizations in many countries and hold international competitions.7 The first IFCS world championship was held in 2002.8 The growth in participation in the sport has been explosive, with thousands of competitors in many organizations, all with somewhat different rules and games.
Workshops, training camps, and seminars abound. Successful competitors frequently hang out their shingle as agility teachers, but only a few can actually make a living that way. California is one of the hot spots of agility, and in that state on any given weekend year-round, several agility trials will occur, each with two hundred to three hundred or so dogs and their people competing. Most dog-human teams I know train formally at least once a week and informally all the time. The year I kept count, I spent about four thousand dollars on everything it took to train, travel, and compete; that is considerably less than many humans spend on the sport. In the United States, white women about forty to sixty-five years old dominate the sport numerically, but people of several hues, genders, and ages play, from preteens to folks in their seventies. In my experience, lots of human players hold professional jobs to pay for their habit or are retired from such jobs and have some disposable income. Many people also play who make very little money and have hard working-class jobs.9
Many breeds and mixed-ancestry dogs compete, but the most competitive dogs in their respective height classes tend to be border collies, Australian shepherds, shelties, and Parson Jack Russell terriers. High-drive, focused, athletic dogs and high-drive, calm, athletic people tend to excel and find themselves in the agility news. But agility is a sport of amateurs in which most teams can have a great time and earn qualifying runs and titles, if they work and play together with serious intent, lots of training, recognition that the dogs' needs come first, a sense of humor, and a willingness to make interesting mistakes—or, better, make mistakes interesting.
Positive training methods, offspring of behaviorist operant conditioning, are the dominant approaches used in agility. Anyone training by other methods will be the subject of disapproving gossip, if not dismissed from the course by a judge who is on the lookout for any human's harsh correction of a dog. Dogs get precious little more leeway if they are harsh with their humans or other dogs! Beginning her training career with marine mammals in 1963 at Hawaii's Sea Life Park, Karen Pryor is the most important single person for teaching and explaining positive methods to the amateur and professional dog-training communities, as well as many other human-animal communities. Her blend of science and practical demonstration has had a major impact.10 So, what is positive training?
In the simplest terms, positive training methods are standard be-haviorist approaches that work by marking desired actions called behaviors and delivering an appropriate reward to the behaving organism with a timing that will make a difference. That's positive reinforcement. Reinforcement in behaviorism is defined as anything that occurs in conjunction with an act and has a tendency to change that act's probability. That bit about"in conjunction with an act" is crucial. Timing is all; tomorrow, or even five seconds after the interesting behavior, is way too late to get or give good information in training. A behavior is not something just out there in the world waiting for discovery; a behavior is an inventive construction, a generative fact-fiction, put together by an intra-acting crowd of players that include people, organisms, and apparatuses all coming together in the history of animal psychology. From the flow of bodies moving in time, bits are carved out and solicited to become more or less frequent as part of building other patterns of motion through time. A behavior is a natural-technical entity that travels from the lab to the agility training session.
If the organism does something that is not wanted, ignore it and the behavior will "extinguish" itself for lack of reinforcement (unless the undesired behavior is self-rewarding; then, good luck). Withholding social recognition by not noticing what each other is doing can be a powerful negative reinforcement for dogs and people. Supposedly mild negative reinforcers like ""time outs" are popular in agility training and human schools in the United States. Restraint, coercion, and punishment—such as ear pinching—are actively discouraged in agility training in any situation I have experienced or heard about. Strong negative words like ""no!"— emitted in moments of great frustration, broken-down communication, and loss of human calm—are rationed severely, kept for dangerous situations and emergencies, and not used as training tools. In the hands of unskilled but aspiring lay trainers like me, using strong negative reinforcers and punishments is foolish as well as unnecessary, in no small part because we get it wrong and do more harm than good. Just watch a dog shut down in the face of a tense or negative human and hesitate to offer anything interesting with which to build great runs. Positive reinforcement, properly done, sets off a cascade of happy anticipation and inventive spontaneous offerings for testing how interesting the world can be. Positive reinforcement improperly done just reduces the stock of liver cookies, chew toys, and popular confidence in behavioral science.11
♦ learning how to mark what one thinks one is marking (say, with a click of a little tin cricket or, less accurately, a word like "yes!")
♦ timing (i.e., knowing how long after a mark one has to deliver a reward and delivering it in that window; otherwise whatever just last happened is what's being rewarded)
♦ working and playing in such a way that dogs (and people) offer interesting things that can be positively reinforced (Luring can help show what's wanted in early training of something new, but luring does not reinforce and quickly gets in the way.)
♦ knowing what is really rewarding and interesting to one's partner
♦ correctly seeing what actually just happened
♦ understanding what one's partner is in fact paying attention to
♦ learning how to break complex patterns down into technical bits or behaviors that can be marked and rewarded
♦ knowing how to link behaviors into chains that add up to something useful
♦ knowing how to teach chains of behavior from the last part to the first (backchaining), by using bits of a behavior chain that a dog already understands as a reward for a bit that comes right before
♦ knowing how many repetitions are informative and effective and how many shut everybody down with stress and boredom
♦ knowing how to identify and reward approximations to the endgoal behavior (Trying to teach left and right turns? Start by marking and rewarding spontaneous glances in the desired direction, don't rush over steps, don't go so slow that your dog dies of old age or boredom.)
♦ knowing when—and how—to stop if something is not working
♦ knowing how and when to back up to something that is easier and already known by one's partner if something harder isn't working
♦ keeping accurate count of the actual frequency of correct responses in a given task instead of imagining what they are, whether one is in an inflationary or deflationary mood
♦ keeping learning situations fun and cognitively interesting for one's partner
♦ evaluating whether or not the dog, the human, and the team actually do know how to do something in all of the circumstances in which they will need to perform the "behavior" (Chances are high that the relevant variable in a real agility trial was left out of training, and so what was the variable that caused a dog who knew her job, or so one thought, to blow an obstacle? or caused the human to become unreadable? Go back and train.)
♦ avoiding tripping on one's dog or the equipment
♦ perceiving the difference between a lure, a reward, and a tug rope crashing into one's unsuspecting dog's head because the handler can't throw accurately
♦ not dropping food treats and clickers all over the practice field
♦ figuring out how to reward oneself and one's partner when everything seems to be falling apart
Obviously, one would hope, it is essential for a human being to understand that one's partner is an adult (or puppy) member of another species, with his or her own exacting species interests and individual quirks, and not a furry child, a character in Call of the Wild, or an extension of one's intentions or fantasies. People fail this recognition test depressingly often. Training together is all extremely prosaic; that is why training with a member of another biological species is so interesting, hard, full of situated difference, and moving.12 My field notes from classes and competitions repeatedly record agility people's remarks that they are learning about themselves and their companions, human and dog, in ways they had not experienced before. For a middle-aged or older woman, learning a new competitive sport played seriously with a member of another species provokes strong and unexpected emotions and preconception-breaking thinking about power, status, failure, skill, achievement, shame, risk, injury, control, companionship, body, memory, joy, and much else. Men who play the sport are almost always in the marked minority, and they feel it. It is hard to escape the subject-changing conjunction of gender, age, and species against a background of seemingly taken-for-granted (if not always empirically accurate) race, sexuality, and class.13
The human being actually has to know something about one's partner, oneself, and the world at the end of each training day that she or he did not know at the beginning. The devil is in the details, and so is the deity. "Dog is my co-pilot," says the masthead on the magazine Bark, a motto I repeated like a mantra in e-mail posts with my agility friends. In my experience, very few undertakings in life set such a high and worthwhile standard of knowledge and comportment. The dog, in turn, becomes shockingly good at learning to learn, fulfilling the highest obligation of a good scientist. The dogs earn their papers.
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