What Can “A Clockwork Orange” Teach Us About Animal Training?

I’ve managed to somehow avoid watching ‘A Clockwork Orange’ until probably a lot later than some would argue I should.  However, I’m quite glad of that, as it means I’ve been able to really understand the deeper aspects of the film; and I can use a clip to add another thread to explain why aversive and punitive training methods should not be used – whether we are training the family dog, a marine mammal, or a friend.

First, if you haven’t seen the film, or you’d like a reminder, you’ll need to watch this clip, as this is the specific part of the film I’m going to discuss.

What the clip doesn’t explain, is that Alex has a love of classical music – specifically Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  Beethoven’s Ninth is played as the soundtrack to a film which Alex watches while undergoing aversion therapy, using the fictional “Ludovico Technique“.  This involves the use of a specula (which holds open the patients’ eyes), to enable (or force) the patient to watch violent images for long periods of time, while under the effect of a nausea-inducing drug. The aim of the therapy is to make the patient experience severe nausea when experiencing or even thinking about violence, thus attempting to solve societal crime (almost like antabuse).

However, towards the end of the movie – when the therapy is complete and has been classed a success, Alex is locked in one room of a house, while classical music is played loudly throughout the building.  He attempts suicide by jumping from the second floor window, because of the memory of the music, and the feelings of sickness it induces in him.

So, what does this have to do with training dogs, or any other animal, you ask.

Well, for starters it is yet another piece of evidence on the effects of using something aversive to attempt to stop a behaviour, but more than that it shows a great part of the truth that is often hidden from public view by trainers who use aversive training methods.

Using aversive training has negative consequences.

Yes, you may stop your dog from pulling by putting a choke chain on him, and giving a “correction” (or, more correctly, cutting off his air supply); but what is also going to happen is that the dog learns to associate the ‘correction’ with whatever is in the environment at that time – other dogs, kids, men with baseball caps on, pregnant women – the possibilities are endless.

Pair the collar correction with the same environment a few times, and you have a dog who is starting to become worried about seeing certain things, as they often elicit pain.  Very quickly, you can go from having an outgoing, gregarious dog who wants to greet the world (which causes the dog to pull on the lead to get everywhere), to a dog that is fearfully aggressive, trying to keep everything and everyone away from him so that he will not feel pain.

Give the dog a collar correction in varying environments and he can discriminate that it is the nothing more than presence of his owner that causes pain at random intervals. How insidious.

I actually witnessed this happening for myself  a few years ago. I was walking a dog around the local harbour.  Early on in the walk, we were moving towards an older gentleman and his dog. My dog – Spirit – was well trained, and happy to listen to my cues, so I asked him to walk on & ignore the other dog, as the other dog was staring, which is quite a rude canine behaviour.  Spirit did as I asked, looked away from the dog, and kept on walking.  The other dog, however, kept staring and received a harsh tug on the lead from his owner.
Spirit & I continued on our walk, and on the other side of the harbour ran into this man and his dog again.  When they were about twenty-five feet away from us, the other dog began to growl, and continued to growl until they were about ten feet behind us.  At the time I didn’t really know why, but since starting to learn more about canine behaviour, body language, and learning theory – I now realise that this man’s dog was well on his way towards associating the sight of all dogs with the pain & discomfort of his collar being pulled into his trachea.

Learning theory, by the way, applies to all mammals, which is why it’s better to ask your son or daughter to tidy their room, and then reward them, than to threaten them to do it; or why it’s better to thank your partner for doing the chores, than to nag them to do them.  And it’s why positive reinforcement training works just as well with dogs and cats, as it does with dolphins and killer whales.

Just because it works for all mammals, however, doesn’t mean that all humans know how to use it properly, and to good effect, which is why people often complain that their dog only does something if they “have a treat in their hand”, or that their dog only complies with their request “sometimes”. A good trainer, or training book, can help to ensure this doesn’t happen. A good trainer that uses only positive, science-based training methods can help you to have a happy, well socialised dog without fear of pain and physical punishment when it sees certain stimuli.

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One thought on “What Can “A Clockwork Orange” Teach Us About Animal Training?

  1. Pingback: Don’t Feed the Troll(s) | Pawsitively Training

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