The Anna Karenina Principle

June 24, 2009 at 5:02 am 3 comments

I just finished reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel  (highly recommended, btw, for anyone who’s interested in culture, civilization, geography or the history of domestication).  Diamond introduces the Anna Karenina Principle in the beginning of a chapter on domestication where he writes:

Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.

If you think you’ve already read something like that before, you’re right. Just make a few changes, and you have the famous first sentence of Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” By that sentence, Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of these essential respects can doom a marriage even if has all the other ingredients needed for happiness.

As a dog trainer I frequently run into people who are desperately seeking the one magic thing  that will fix their dog’s problem behavior.  The irresistible treat, the perfect tool – the magic word.  A quick, simple, inexpensive and completely foolproof way to turn the Marley they’ve got into the Lassie they want.

I don’t have it.

Nobody does - because dog training is governed by the Anna Karenina Principle.  Your training program can only be effective if it succeeds in several vital areas.  If you experience an epic fail in any one of them – a quick wave of my magic wand isn’t going to save you.

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Newton’s Reaction EEK!

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joe  |  June 24, 2009 at 11:58 am

    Great point. Ironically I’m in the middle of Anna Karenina and so your post really caught my eye.

    Your “magic” points are spot on. So often in the clinic we’ll have clients that call because they want their dog to be better without us performing an exam or diagnostics. About the third time they call in I usually joke that they’ve requested enough times and so we’ll break out the magic cure which also happens to be free and has no side effects.

    It never ceases to amaze me how people expect instant results in today’s electronic society.

  • 2. H. Houlahan  |  June 24, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    I’m not sure that was a training failure on that police dog.

    It seems that the dog is merely extremely stupid.

  • 3. LabRat  |  June 25, 2009 at 1:40 am

    If you liked Guns, Germs, and Steel, pick up David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. In many ways they’re like companion books, though theyr’e not intended to be- one by an ecologist, one by an economist, and each filling in details the other can only sketch.

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