The Milgram Experiment - Overview
In 1961 Stanley Milgram set out to explain how so many people could heartlessly participate in the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Many war criminals justified their actions by saying that they were ordered to carry out these atrocities on other humans and had no choice. Were the Germans inherently cold and evil, or was this a phenomenon that could be repeated under the right circumstances? To answer this question, Milgram created an experiment to research the effect of authority on obedience.
Forty subjects from all different walks of life were recruited. They were told that they would be participating in an experiment about memory and learning where they could be assigned as either "Learner" or "Teacher." The Teacher would ask the Learner questions and administer an electrical shock if the answer was incorrect. In reality each subject was assigned the role of Teacher and the Learner was an actor, but the subjects were unaware of this. Each one believed that he had just as much of a chance to end up in the Learner chair hooked up to the electrodes as he had of being the one to administer the shocks.
The fake shock generator had 30 different switches marked for levels of voltage ranging from 15 to 450, at 15 volt increments. Descriptions accompanied these labels, such as "slight shock" for the lower levels and "strong shock" at the 180 volt level. The level that went up to 420 volts was labeled "danger:severe" and the highest level, at 450 volts, simply "xxx." At each wrong answer, the Teacher was instructed to increase the level of shock he administered. The actor playing the part of the Learner would respond to an audio prompt to react to the different levels of shock by starting out with grunts, and escalating his reactions as the shock levels were increased. By 280 volts he would let out agonized screams and complain of heart pain. After 330 volts, he was instructed to go completely silent.
The authority figure was the Experimenter. If the Teacher hesitated in delivering the shock, the Experimenter would verbally prod him to continue. As the actor's reactions to the different levels of shock were predefined, so were the levels of pressure from the Experimenter, from "please go on" to "it is absolutely essential that you continue."
As could be expected, most of the subjects were very reluctant to inflict pain on the human trapped in that chair, believing that they could have been assigned that position themselves. And yet every single one of the subjects administered shocks up to the 300 volt level, past the point of screams, begging for mercy, and complaints of heart pain. Amazingly, 65% of the subjects continued to administer shocks all the way to the maximum level of 450 volts after the man in the chair went totally silent. Some of them believed they had already killed the man, and yet they continued caving to the pressure of the Experimenter to deliver more shocks.
This experiment proved that 65% of the subjects - people like you and me - would torture another human being even to the point of death if a person they believed to be in a valid position of authority demanded it.
So how does this relate to dog training?
After adopting a new puppy or shelter dog, the first authority figure the owners encounter is usually their vet. Though vets are surely experts in medical issues, those who are also well-educated in training and behavior are few and far between. They should be answering questions about training by referring owners to a trainer or behaviorist, but unfortunately some of them take it upon themselves to spout advice based on old wives' tales and myths.
For example, most young puppies will nip their owners in play and need to be instructed in a scientifically-based and humane way how to behave more appropriately. Far too many vets are telling people to take these trusting, impressionable little tykes, throw them on their backs, and pin them to "show them who's boss," an archaic technique referred to as an alpha roll. The owner will certainly feel uncomfortable forcing this technique on a frightened puppy, but usually will do so if their vet tells them to. Dr. Ian Dunbar, author, veterinarian, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and creator of Sirius Dog Training, says, "A wolf would flip another wolf against his will ONLY if he were planning to kill it. Can you imagine what a forced alpha roll does to the psyche of our dogs?"
Another common piece of advice handed out by otherwise well-meaning vets is to handle potty training accidents in the home by dragging your dog to the puddle or pile, forcing him to smell it, and then disciplining the dog either by yelling or smacking him with a rolled-up newspaper. This is a good way to teach your dog not to ever eliminate in front of you, and could possibly cause fear of paper products and/or your hands coming at him. This nonsense does not help to teach him where to eliminate appropriately. In fact, good luck with rewarding your dog for going outside if you have made him afraid to go with you standing there.
Do people want to drag their dogs to a puddle of piddle and bop them in the nose? Not usually. But if your vet tells you to, you probably will - even if it makes you uncomfortable to do so.
Question training and behavioral advice that comes from somebody whose expertise lies in a different field. That's pretty obvious. What's not so obvious is that there are far too many "authority figures" out there who claim to be experts in behavior and training, but their actions prove otherwise.
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