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Positive Reinforcement Dog Training as Postcolonial, an artist's perspective

A paper presented for presented at the Minding Animals International Conference 3, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, January 2015


This paper explores contemporary postcolonial art, with a focus on Southeast Asia, alongside parallels in contemporary dog training and its emphasis on positive reinforcement. In The Postcolonial Animal, Phillip Armstrong (2002) describes the intersection of Postcoloniality and Animal Studies as “listening to the voices of all kinds of ‘other’,” free of “ventriloquizing” or the assigning of foreign accents. From the theoretical to the applied, contemporary dog training comes to the same conclusion: effective human-canine relationships, i.e., “training,” rely on empathetic listening. Dogs have long “listened” and understood their human companions; humans have only recently begun to reciprocate in a comparable manner. While Postcolonialism and dog training may seem far removed from each other, as an artist, I find they share a meaningful and significant commonality: acknowledgment of historically repressed subjectivities, giving voice, providing a model for collaborative being.

I begin with my own video piece, I am not Jeepy (in progress, 2014), as a point of departure. Jeepy, an askal, a Philippine street dog, has long passed and been replaced by Tiger. Tiger lives in Jeepy’s old cage, outside in the yard, by the front gate, so she can bark a warning to the homeowners should strangers enter the property. Tiger, like Jeepy, is not a companion or pet but a tool, an implement to suit human needs. The homeowner can’t even remember Tiger’s name and keeps calling her Jeepy, as if that were the name of the inanimate tool and not a sentient being. But like the postcolonial subject, Tiger demands reconsideration of the prevailing system: when her cage door is opened, she runs, hides, escapes, but is willing to interact when shown kindness and given the power of choice.

Tiger’s choice reflects what contemporary dog training has learned: dogs are happy to collaborate with humans when given the ability to choose and are reinforced positively. The dominance paradigm that once governed dog training is discredited by science, just as the global dominance of colonialism fades in the unraveling of Enlightenment ethos and the modernist project. With regard to art, McCarthy and Dimitriadis (2000) identify three motifs in postcolonial art, specifically: “counter-hegemonic representation, double or triple coding, and emancipatory or utopic visions.” I find parallel motifs in contemporary dog training, seeing it not only as an applied practice but also as an approach to dismantling the anthropocentric paradigm in canine-human relations. I look at the work of Southeast Asian artists like Leslie de Chavez, Iswanto Hartono & Raqs Media Collective, and Nguyen Trinh Thi, and find similar sensibilities in the writing of dog trainers/behaviorists such as Patricia McConnell, Kathy Sdao, and Suzanne Clothier.

Connecting the conceptual approaches of postcolonial artists and dog trainers/behaviorists is perhaps unorthodox and unexpected. However, my work as an artist derives strongly from these connections. Moreover, in both art and animal work, we find space for the non-verbal and intuitive, the makings of powerful collaborations and a strategy for subverting dominant discourses.

Works cited:

Phillip Armstrong, “The Postcolonial Animal,” Society and Animals 10:4, 2002, pp.413-419.

Cameron McCarthy and Greg Dimitriadis, “Art and the Postcolonial Imagination: Rethinking the Institutionalization of Third World Aesthetics and Theory,” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literarture, 31:1 & 2, January-April 2000, pp.231-253.

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