Technology & Dogs

Why Replacing Real Connection is a Lousy Idea

I’m all for technology. Hell, I worked for 22 years in Silicon Valley. Never mind that I didn’t like it all that much — the people were neat, the travel was fun and it sure was fascinating having a front row seat as technology began to have a tectonic effect on the world.

It was, in some part, due precisely to that very thing — the disruptions that seemed for no other reason than disruption’s sake — that began my move away from that world and into the one I inhabit now.

When used as an augmentation, enhancement or means to expand connection, technology can be amazing. When it is used, however, as a replacement for the very thing that makes us human, it can have devastating impact. Just look at the world today and you see a world that is more inextricably “connected” than ever before, and never before have we seen such deep rifts, tribalism and extreme rises of dissociation.

But this isn’t a discussion of society’s challenges. This is a discussion about technology and how it can be used effectively and usefully in establishing, strengthening and building your relationship with your dog. As with all technology though, a cautionary note — If you believe that technology will absolve you of the need to spend the time to properly educate and manage your dog’s life … If you think that using technology you will be able to write off having to go home to take your dog for a walk, or can cut corners on the time you spend? Well, you probably should stop reading right … about … now.

Okay, still with me? Good.

Now let’s get down to it.

Back in January 2020 (you know, right before the world stood still) I headed over to the Consumer Electronics Show. It’s the annual monster of a trade show hosted by the Consumer Tech Association and while there my mission was simple … Find and evaluate as much dog-related technology as I could. Sadly the CTA did not make that easy. I’d heard through myriad sources that the vast majority of tech for dog/pet players were in the Sands Convention Center/Venetian. So that’s where I went. No doubt there were others in any one of the halls boasting miles and miles and trade show floor, but since the CTA’s online, on site and app-based guides were all utterly useless, folks interested in a specific category of product either had to know a company name (which defeats the whole discovery idea) or had to hope that it was in one of a handful of categories that they laid out.

In any case, an aggressive prowl of the show floor revealed that most of the pet technology was related to dogs and most of that was in one of two major categories — health/wellness and location (GPS). There were a few others, but those tended to be ones that played squarely into the category I eschew heartily — technology that owners can use to absolve themselves of having to be responsible themselves. More on that below.

From the health/wellness perspective things are pretty interesting these days. Not that surprising, really. FitBit and players of that ilk have been evolving at a rapid clip. I’m an avid FitBit user and have been for a few years now. As their products have become more powerful, they’ve also become more useful. for example, I had no idea why I was waking up exhausted despite having been “asleep” for 7–8 hours. Turns out I wasn’t asleep for that time. I was in bed, but my sleep was broken — impacted by myriad factors. I adjusted those factors and voila! Better sleep.

Dogs, unless working dogs, lead relatively sedentary lives. They get walks regularly (hopefully) and many owners spend long periods of time away from them while they’re at work. So if your dog’s behavior is changing, you might not know.

A series of products are either on the market or coming onto the market that help that. They are worn affixed to a dog’s collar and after a period of calibration allow you to have a better sense not only of your dog’s movement, but the kind of movement. Great to see how anxiety levels may or may not be sorting themselves out.

To the point of the title and as noted above, though, there is a trend that — as a behavioral counselor/trainer and as a human communications expert — worries me. It’s the seemingly inexorable march of technology sticking its nose in places where it doesn’t belong — most notably in replacing real, actual, tangible, interaction between sentient beings.

Put more simply, delegating things that ought not be delegated. Put even more simply, doing so is a recipe for disaster.

Can technology be utilized in the education, care and maintenance of a dog’s life? Yes. Can or should it replace the direct participation, consistency and balance of a dog’s guardian(s). Hell to the 100th, no. The number of people who already attempt to delegate their dog’s behavior to someone else is colossal. That number leaped forward exponentially post pandemic as the socially-deficient dogs of isolation times found themselves at home alone or thrust into social situations for which they had no grounding or education.

Before the pandemic I’d get calls that went something like this:

“Hi. I have a <insert age here> male <insert breed here>. They pull on the leash when we walk and tear apart the house when I go out. How much will that cost for you to fix and how long will it take?”

Note the language “How much will it cost for you to fix…”

Those calls always break my heart, mostly because I know there will be some “dog trainer” who will tell them that they can “fix it” in a handful of weeks and the dog will be good to go. Just send your dog for a super spendy board and train program. Never mind that those programs rarely work because they fail to take into consideration the most critical part — what happens with the dog when it gets home.

Send me any dog and I can address any behavior. Easy peasy. Making sure that behavioral modification sticks in a long-term solution that is reliable and consistent? That’s an entirely different story because it requires one thing that can range from challenging to impossible. It requires the complete buy in and participation AND long-term commitment and consistency from the humans in whose care the dog lives.

The dog end of the leash? That’s easy to fix. The human end takes a minute.

Assuming that an app will provide you with sufficient sustenance of education to resolve behavioral issues is flawed. Flawed because so much of that app content is out of context and lacks the voice of a trained professional to support the understanding of the nuance in dog behavior.

Like humans, dogs learn differently. Sure there are broad swaths of practice that work, and methodologies that are tried and true. And any good trainer worth their leash will tell you that education of a dog starts with broad brushstrokes and structure and as time passes, the dog’s personality, temperament, and — yes — individual needs get factored in. The other critical thing that most folks miss is that any trainer who says their way is the only way or that there’s one way and only one way that works to educate a dog is one of two things:

  1. Inexperienced and only has that one tool in their toolbox.

Recently I joined the board the Professional Animal Care Certification Council. Its mission is establishing and enforcing standards of care for animals. This means anyone and everyone whose work involves the handling of domestic pets (cats & dogs) — dog walkers, pet sitters, more formal daycare/boarding facilities, breeders/kennels, trainers/training facilities, groomers, and even medical/veterinary care — comes from the same foundation of care. I call this philosophy “you must be this tall to ride this ride”. Meaning, there is a baseline of acceptable quality of care to which everyone and anyone who calls themselves a pet care professional can and should be held.

PACCC Certification is done through an in-depth and intense (and challenging) program. Not certificate. It’s not a course you take and then get a piece of paper to hang on your wall that you completed. This is legitimate certification. Meaning it’s a seated, proctored exam. You must re-test and re-certify every three years. So your certification expires. You are required to complete ongoing education between testing to maintain your certification. And your certification can be revoked if it’s found that you’ve breached the code of ethics that you signed when you sat for the exam.

It’s serious stuff.

As of today it is the only (let that sink in a minute) third-party certification in this industry. The only one. In an industry that rakes in north of $100 billion a year. Lots of easy peasy courses you can pay for, take online and pass with ease, get a piece of paper and there’s no practical testing required. There are even some certificate programs that put fancy letters after your name but there’s no practical testing that prove actual, real-world knowledge and the way to keep the letters/certificate is just dropping some money every year. There’s no proof you have legitimacy.

It’s terrifying, really.

So the idea of adding technology into the mix — into an industry already fraught with some serious issues in quality control — isn’t great.

Now technology to augment and support learning? Awesome. Technology to enhance and expand education and community? Hell yes. But the idea that in any way shape or form any technology solution can create the necessary bond and balance in relationship between dogs and humans is utterly and entirely flawed.

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Musings, observations and insights on human behavior, communications skills, and leadership as seen through the lens of the dog/human bond. (More simply — how dogs make us truly better humans.)

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