On 18th January 2014, the dog training community lost one of its most profound thinkers. Bill Campbell passed away near his home in Grants Pass, Oregon, in the US, aged 85. He beloved wife and life-long partner, Peggy, was with him and held his hand as he departed.
I had the privilege of meeting Bill and Peggy, and their mini Dachshund, “Punkin”, then 7 months old, in 1993, when I went to the US with the late Wendy Nicholson, to attend various dog training seminars and workshops.
I had been training dogs professionally, on a part-time basis, since 1989. I was pretty much self-taught. When I got a call from a client, I would talk to them at length to find out as much as I could about the issues the owner was having with their dog, and then I would go off and try to research what to do about it. There were only a handful of dog training books around in those days. Most often I turned to Behavior Problems in Dogs by William E. Campbell.
At a time when Koehler in the US was advocating that if your dog dug a hole in the garden, you should fill the hole with water and shove the dog’s head in it until the dog almost choked – and that represented the mainstream – Bill pioneered treating behaviour problems without the use of punishment. Instead, he improved the relationship between the owner and the dog, and removed the cause of the problem. Let’s remind ourselves that this was in the 1970s. Bill was way ahead of his time.
Bill was heavily influenced by Pavlov. In this regard again he was ahead of the pack. Operant conditioning came onto the dog scene in the 1990s, thanks to Karen Pryor, but Classical Conditioning took longer. Some people still find it hard to understand.
When I met Bill he stressed the importance of leadership. I can (and sometimes do) speak volumes about this very misunderstood concept. Basically everyone who advocates that dogs should earn their rewards in some way has derived this concept from Bill, although they may not have heard of him and rarely acknowledge him if they have. He called his concept “Learn to Earn”.
One thing that Bill was adamant about though, was that “Learn to Earn” was not about operant conditioning – it didn’t just mean that the dog had to offer a behaviour in order to earn a reward. It was about the dog learning that the nature of the relationship between dog and owner was based on the dog reacting to the owner taking the initiative, being a leader.
For example, trainers often find that if a dog is anxious, scared or reactive to other dogs, the owner becomes anxious, usually anticipating that her dog might become aggressive or get into a fight. The owner therefore tenses up, maybe yells at her dog or the other dog, reins her dog in, holds the lead really tight and so on. This communicates that owner’s anxiety “down the lead”, and the dog picks up the owner’s fear and magnifies it.
So a vicious cycle is created. One thing the owner has to do is remain calm, in fact try to over-act being happy and relaxed, “whistle a happy tune” as I sometimes say, and get the communication flowing the other way – calmness flows from the owner to the dog, rather than the dog communicating anxiety to the owner.
This is an example of “the Interpretive Factor” (see below), which illustrates the way in which the three key concepts are inter-related. If the owner has to interpret the world to the dog, how can she do this if everything else is communicating to the dog that he is in charge, “running the show”, taking the initiative, and controlling the social scene? In order to communicate the appropriate emotional association to an event, the owner has to be the one who initiates action and sets the emotional tone. This is leadership. The leader leads, the follower follows. The owner takes the initiative, simply by asking the dog to do something. The dog responds, and thereby earns attention.
Sometimes leadership and the concept of “Learn to Earn” is misinterpreted and either rejected totally or applied over-zealously. You need to realise that often the clients who consulted Bill were over-emotional, in the sense that they heaped expressions of love on the dog, and then swung into emotional rages when for example they came home to find that the dog, left at home in a state of frustration and arousal, had destroyed a favourite cushion. Punishment and recriminations followed, and then perhaps further emotional baggage in the form of the owner tearfully apologising to the punished dog.
The poor animal was on an emotional roller-coaster, which contributed to further behaviour problems. Bill’s concept of leadership, established means of being low-key with the dog, avoiding never-ending hugs and freebies, and asking the dog to do something such as sit when asked before getting some brief, upbeat attention, was designed to put both dog and owner on an even keel, to avoid those emotional extremes of excessive indulgence and it’s consequence, excessive punishment.
Bill was always a renegade, and made himself unpopular in some quarters because he was not a fan of clicker training or training with food. I do use food rewards and teach clicker training, but I totally understand where Bill was coming from.
Sometimes positive trainers (and I am a reward-based trainer) over-emphasise food rewards at the expense of other rewards, such as social rewards, environmental rewards, contextual rewards, everyday life rewards and rewards inherent in the social relationship between dog and owner.
Not only that, when it comes to behaviour problems, some trainers focus exclusively (or too much) on operant conditioning. This assumes that the behaviour is determined by a history of reinforcement. This is not always the case. Manipulating the consequences of a behaviour is irrelevant if it is caused by something else – such as a classically conditioned association, or socially unacceptable (to humans) consequences of the dog expressing stress, for example. This leads neatly to the next issue – the causative approach to behaviour problems.
The Causative Approach
The other thing that he emphasised was what he called “the causative approach” to correcting behaviour problems. This made so much sense to me. Instead of punishing the dog, he would try to find the cause of the problem, and change that.
Bill did telephone consultations. One evening he got a call from a man whose dog was kept outside. The dog became a nuisance barker, constantly barking at the window. The man had the dog surgically de-barked. He rang Bill in desperation, saying that the dog was no longer barking, but was still driving him crazy, constantly jumping up at the window. “Well…” drawled Bill, “you could have his legs chopped off…”
Of course, Bill taught people that the strongest needs of dogs is for company and interaction. They are social animals. This dog was barking because he was distressed about being socially isolated. Clearly to remove the cause of the problem, you would bring the dog inside and teach him how to behave inside house.
Classical Conditioning and “the Interpretive Factor”.
The third thing that Bill emphasised was Classical Conditioning, and in particular “the Interpretive Factor”.
According to Bill, it was the dog owner’s responsibility to communicate to the dog how to interpret a situation. When I was in Oregon, Bill was assisting Dogs For The Deaf, who have a great training facility there. They were training rescue dogs from the pound. One lovely, medium-sized dog with a curly white coat was going through the program, but was a bit nervous and inclined to bark in some social situations. Wendy and I assisted with a classical conditioning set up. There were four “challenges” – Wendy marching along with a ghetto blaster, me appearing around the corner on crutches and two other people coming from different directions. Then we repeated the set up in different locations, to help to generalise. When we appeared, the dog handler and Bill turned on “the jolly routine”, Bill’s famous name for cavorting around in any way that will get the dog’s tail wagging, to create a happy association with the challenging people or situations.
It was a valuable learning experience. Unfortunately, the little dog was not able to lift her confidence enough to go through the program and become an assistance dog.
Bill was acknowledged by some (but not all) professional bodies in his field. It was a bitter irony to him that an organisation which he had helped to found later excluded him from membership, or the grounds that he did not have the required academic qualifications to join.
William E. Campbell dog trainer, behaviorist
Professional Biography – William E. Campbell – 1929 –
1975: Co-founding member of the American Society of Veterinary Ethology. Remains an affiliate member of American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.
1980: Moved to Grants Pass, OR. Publishes the “BehavioRx Series,” 36 instruction booklets on canine and feline behavior problems, backed up by HelpLine Consultation Service. Has held workshops for behavior professionals until semi-retirement, 2008.
1988-2008: Published Pet Behavior Newsletter, four times yearly, back issues available from BehavioRx Systems, PO Box 1658, Grants Pass, OR 97528.
1996: Named charter member, DOG FANCY Magazine Hall of Fame. Bill, wife Peggy and Punkin (mini-Doxie, 16yrs old) continues to consult with veterinarians and pet owners. Supplies the BehavioRx Series of Canine (32) and Feline (4) behavior problem correction programs for dog and cat owners. He also edits his home page “Pet Behavior Resources” on the world wide web at: http://www.webtrail.com/petbehavior.
Last Updated: Sunday, July 19, 2009