Tribalism in Dog Training: One Trainer’s Perspective

(Note: This piece was originally posted in January of 2012 on a different blog. It continues to spark valuable discussions and I’m reposting it here in order to encourage further dialogue.)

There’s been a lot of hate speech about other dog trainers (especially those who use traditional techniques) on various email lists lately, so I thought I would share my personal philosophy and recent experiences as another perspective.

Photo by Lydia Chow

Photo by Lydia Chow

I’m a clicker trainer, and don’t believe that the use of force or coercion is ever necessary (with dogs OR people). I do not permit choke, shock, or prong collars in my classes and help people find alternative ways to control and train their dogs. I believe in managing a dog’s environment and access to reinforcement and in shaping behaviors I like. Although my business offers pet dog and competition classes, the majority of my personal time is spent working with dogs who have serious behavior issues.

We have a wide variety of trainers practicing locally, using a wide variety of techniques. My policy regarding other trainers is based in positive reinforcement - I never say anything bad about another trainer, no matter how much I may disagree with them. I will explain why I don’t recommend a specific method to a client who asks me about it (or is currently using it), but I will not denigrate the trainer who recommended that method. Ever.

Is this hard? You bet. Sometimes I cringe at the advice my local colleagues give. Sometimes I feel that their techniques are uncalled for, or even inhumane. I may call a colleague and vent, but in front of anyone else, I am never less than professional. I will address a technique if asked, but I will not address the professionalism or knowledge of the person who recommended that technique. When asked about a technique I disagree with, I acknowledge that there are many different ways to effectively train a dog, then tell the person who’s asking what I would do, and why. I tell people that any local dog trainer can probably help them accomplish their goals as long as they stick with it and follow that person’s advice, but that I believe my techniques will be the fastest, most effective, and most resistant to extinction over time. I use clicker training because I believe it works best, end of story.

So, here’s the thing: none of the local trainers are evil dog-hating psychopaths. As much as some clicker trainers may want you to believe that anyone who doesn’t use clicker training is cruel and loves hurting dogs, that’s just not the case. There’s a lot of tribalism in dog training, and I’m calling BS. Every trainer I know loves dogs. Some believe that the best way to train dogs is by using prong collars or e-collars or alpha rollovers, but they do this because they believe that’s the best way to work with the animal in front of them. They do not do this because they hate dogs.

I know that if someone accused me of abusing dogs, I would be highly offended. I would never, ever want to speak to (or even be around) that person again. I really don’t blame some traditional trainers who speak badly of clicker trainers. If someone who happens to use e-collars starts to look into clicker training because she’s curious, and she gets treated like she’s an evil baby-eating Nazi because her dog has an e-collar on, is she likely to continue learning? Maybe, if she has a thicker skin than I do. But if that were me, and the roles were reversed, I would never again leave my comfort zone.

I believe in being positive with dogs and people. And you know what? This works. I invite any local trainer, regardless of the methods they use, to come audit any class I teach. I’m happy to go out to lunch with them and to talk dogs. I’m genuinely interested in learning more about their techniques, and ask for book and DVD recommendations (I find I always learn something, even if the techniques are not those I would personally choose to use or recommend). I’m happy to lend them books or DVD’s from my personal library, and to talk about said books and DVD’s. I invite them to read and comment on this blog, which I work quite hard to keep a safe place for people to learn. I don’t preach, and, while it’s human nature to judge, I keep any judgements to myself.

You know what else? Being nice works. Tonight, I had the first of four private in-home sessions with a lovely couple and their young dog. These people were referred to me by a local trainer who uses remote collars. I came home and exchanged emails with a student who’s interested in agility lessons with her dog, and is currently training at the local facility where prong collars are included in the cost of any beginning class’s tuition. I bought ring gates from another local e-collar trainer, and currently have a trainer who uses Koehler methods auditing my classes. I regularly refer clients to the other local CPDT’s when I get too busy to take in new clients.

So, here’s my call to action for all professional dog trainers: let’s stop the hate speech. Whether your method of choice is clicker training, e-collars, lure/reward, or dominance theory, please treat your colleagues with respect. Please don’t be afraid to ask questions of others whose training philosophy doesn’t mirror your’s, and to learn more. You may not agree, and that’s okay. No, really, it’s okay.

There are a lot of dangers to dogs today. Puppy mills, irresponsible owners who treat their pets as throw-away commodities, breed-specific legislation, anti-dog legislation, radical groups like the HSUS and PETA, inbreeding and the threat to genetic diversity, overbreeding of Pit Bulls and “something-Poos,” unnecessary medical procedures like surgical debarking or ear cropping, law enforcement’s use of lethal force against dogs, and many other topics of are much greater concern to the animals we love and work with than what other professional dog trainers are doing. We can do more good for dogs as a united front than we can with our petty squabbling about the best way to teach a recall.

Can’t we all just get along?

23 responses to “Tribalism in Dog Training: One Trainer’s Perspective

  1. I am a clicker trainer but for many years I used the traditional, harsher methods of training . Although training has become more and more science(learning theories,etc) it is and always will have an artistic element that will always involve diverse methods. I believe talent is a factor and although anyone can learn the training techniques some people have a natural gift. I cringe when people tell me about the latest thing they saw watching Caesar but generally just let them know I disagree with his methods and explain my view. I might still be training the old way if not for my parrots… Can not use coercion when training them which is how I was introduced to clicker training 15 years ago and have never looked back other than to,in my heart, apologize to all the dogs I trained b/c(before clickers).

  2. If only ALL trainers were as ethical and professional as this!!! Reading some of the “progressive” groups on Facebook I am horrified at some of the things said about and to people!!!!
    Permission to share this link on Facebook please???

  3. This one’s a keeper, a classic, and deserves an annual re-run.

  4. Great read! I use the same advice you gave in the landscape biz, if anything, be NICE! Even if you are planting the tree incorrectly… Anyway.
    I’m not a trainer, but have (older) dogs. I did not used the clicker technique when I trained these guys, actually, I don’t know what technique I used, but we did use choker collars in class. One of my sweethearts started a bad habit last month (outta nowhere) of poopin’ in the house. We’ve since started caging him while not home, which ‘cured’ it. But, my question would be, can I change to clicker training now on a 4 YO dog? Thank you!

  5. Love your post but I must live in a different world as what I mostly see is posts talking about how postive training will never hold up in real world situations and basically referring to positive trainers as being anywhere from unrealistic to downright stupid or even blaming them for creating more aggressive dogs. I agree that we can all learn from each other. On a side note – can we all please stop bashing rival dog organizations too? AKC isn’t evil nor are any of the others.

  6. I REFUSE TO GET ALONG! ! !

    (I Also Refuse To Wear Pants.)

  7. Fair winds to you. I looked at your picture and I remembered a woof, woof I had a Dalmatian. huge miss him. It’s so hard to find anyone who does not judge either professionally or by Ethical issues of personal dignity. Yes, let’s stop the hate speech. Thank you for being this professional and that person and teach us to be. More respect and more compassion in the world, please.

  8. Thank you thank you thank you. I am SO sick of the FB shares by trainers that basically depend on we-all-hate-Cesar-Milan for the bulk of their teaching content. Grow up ! Cesar uses some techniques that I find personally either appalling or counter-intuitive, but – and this is a HUGE but – Cesar Milan made millions of Americans start to actually pay attention to their dogs and TRY to understand them and finally – and this is a very good thing – EXERCISE them. So cut the guy some slack. I have been working with dogs for 50 years, and my first Lab cross was taught everything with a choke collar and zero treats back in the day. Would I do it this way now ? No. But Tippy was a happy well-socialized dog who loved to go for walks and walked beautifully on a loose leash with my aged father when he took her for that ritual amble down to the corner mailbox every afternoon. So correct use of a choke collar in training her did not visibly warp her psyche or her soul. Instead of dissing different training techniques, we should start taking what is useful and practical from across the spectrum, and we should show as many people as possible how to use the best techniques for THEIR dog as intelligently and kindly as possible. The little boxes are self-defeating in the end.

  9. I agree 100%. I do not believe in choke, shock, prong, or anything like that. There have been times I’ve been in a pet store and have diverted many people away from using them. Educating the owner on the different “devices” out there, they soon realize there are much better ways to train. When they start asking me in-depth training questions, I tell them to contact Paws Abilities.

  10. “BEING NICE WORKS” – I can attest to that.
    In my high school years, I was part of the agricultural “Led Steer” team. We would raise 2 steers (castrated male cattle) to lead during an agricultural show.
    One particular year, we only got one steer – they are herd animals and he was very lonely. He paced the paddocks daily and never put on a good weight. no one was every able to get near him, he was in such a distressed state. When show time came, out supervisor decided as the steer was so skinny, the best way to show him off was to shave his coat.
    He was placed in the cattle crush but was quite agitated and really was not happy with the whole experience. Finally the teacher asked for a volunteer to cradle the steers head in an effort to settle him down. I was the only one willing to give it a go.
    The minute I cradled his big head in my arms, he settled down and became a piece of cake to handle. Our teacher exclaimed “see all he wanted was someone to sook over him” – still no one else was convinced, only me – to feel him relax under my hold was AWESOME!
    For the rest of our time that we had him, I was the only person he allowed to approach and touch him, I even got a special mention during judging that said although our steer did not physically show ell, there was an obvious bond between the animal and the handler!
    - kindness and being nice does work and does pay off

  11. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

  12. Although these are nice sentiments, I wish they would be read by my kennel club members who not only still use punishment training regularly but also have now and always have had an iron grip on the kennel club offerings. If anyone tries, however nicely, to introduce new approaches, they are at best ignored and at worst bullied into silence.

    Why do humans resist the new approaches? Of one thing I am certain: they don’t need me to fuel their resistance.

    They resist coming to grips with having used the old approaches on a dog or person precisely because they actually love that person or dog. In fact, they resist coming to grips with having made money and taught others to do things they now find offensive. They don’t want to give up their tools and feel powerlessness in dealing with another species and then feel the uncomfortableness of learning a new way to approach things. They will have to leave the comfort of what they believe has served them well and be mighty uncomfortable and scared of being defenseless.

    What I say or do is not the cause of the resistance or their clinging to old and ineffective methods found in my local kennel club. I no longer believe that if I am nice enough or professional enough or competent enough or accepting enough that they will change and allow me to teach what I know works at the kennel club to which I have belonged for 20+ years.

  13. This is great and inspirational.
    I am going to now use this philosophy going forward with my dog training and in life.
    I would love to meet the person who wrote this, they are wise and will live long.
    It would be an honor to exchange ideas and brainstorm with the author .
    Thanks, life is too short to not get along.

  14. This is right as far as I am concerned. I am a social worker. While attending grad school I came home and tried the techniques I learned for children with my two cats. Positive reinforcement worked wonders, as did behavior modification. Trying to get them not to leave the yard, I put the cat back in the house for 5 minutes if he touched the cement (wanted him to stay in the yard). After about three weeks of this, and using small treats to reward the cats when they stayed in the yard, the cats would not leave. Not even for a bird. Of couse, I never let them outside without supervision, but it was easier to have a good time knowing the odds were now small that either one would take off.

    I help with a dog rescue now and can tell you that inbreeding causes problems. Kindness works, positive reinforcement works, knowing your dog and having patience works, painful techniques do not and are cruel. There are better methods than choke collars, hitting, and other negative techniques.

    This post is long over due and should be put on facebook, pet finder, adopt-a-pet, and any other site devoted to dogs.. Running it annually is a great idea. People tend to forget and get lax.

  15. Excellent post. It makes me realize the energy of words. I learn a lot, thank you! Wish you make a further progress in the future.

  16. A really good bit of advice. I too find it incredibly difficult when clients tell me that they have been advised to use shock/prong collars etc. but it is so important to be professional and do your best to promote the good stuff.

  17. I am not a professional trainer. I train my two dogs and I’m constantly learning more about how to do that better. I am a positive trainer and mostly use a clicker. There is another amatuer trainer at the dog park who uses a mismash of styles and techniques in training his dogs. His dogs know a lot of great behaviors and tricks and on that basis he’s set himself up as a training guru. I actually agree with him more than I disagree but when he’s recommending alpha rolls and collar corrections I cringe. My solution is to ask my dog for the behavior this guy is expounding on. I don’t confront, argue, criticize, I simply demonstrate without any comment an alternative. He’s developed a lot of respect for me as a trainer by now; We can actually have reasonable conversations about some of his more negative training methods and why he uses them. ‘m pleased to say the e-collar he got for his dog because he “wanted to take his training to the next level” hasn’t been in evidence in months and his dog is a lot more relaxed. As they say, you catch more flies with honey.

  18. Very informative! Thanks for the tips. Great post!

  19. Sorry. Late to the discussion but why are “radical groups like PETA” a danger to dogs? Not trying to start a flame war, I’m honestly curious. I don’t know a lot about them, but isn’t PETA on the same side as dog/animal lovers?

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