Last month, I attended the Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference in Cincinnati, OH. This five-day conference had over 700 attendees and 23 amazing speakers. Learning from the best (not to mention meeting so many old and new friends from all over the world) is always energizing and exciting.
Dog trainers and dog lovers are at a unique tipping point right now. In spite of setbacks caused by some pervasive myths and less-than-accurate reality shows on television, gentle, reward-based training continues to gain in popularity. Many people have discovered its power to change their dogs’ behavior for the better, and are eager to share this information with others. This movement encompasses many facets of the animal world beyond pet dog training, including exotic animal husbandry and training, service dog work, dog sports of all types, and police or military dog training.
As exciting as this movement is, it has not yet become completely embedded in our culture. Sadly, tribalism is still an issue in dog training as in so very many other facets of human culture, and different dog training “camps” continue to snap at one another’s heels.
New trainers with little experience are often quick to judge others who do things differently from them, and even experienced trainers may find themselves falling victim to this trap. I know that I’m certainly not immune to this issue. It’s very difficult for me to watch dogs being corrected on metal or electronic collars, and I frequently find myself making hasty and incorrect character judgments about people who are training using such methods. When I actually get to know these same trainers, I often find that they are pleasant, caring individuals who want the same things that most reward-based trainers do: well behaved dogs who share wonderful relationships with them.
It’s important for us to remember that all training methods work. If they did not work, they would not still be around. No one is going to write books or teach classes about methods that aren’t effective or that harm dogs, and we need to acknowledge that there are many ways to teach every behavior. Just because a method is different from what you currently use or what you would choose does not mean that the method (or the person using it) is evil. I’ve seen very happy, relaxed dogs wearing corrective collars and very stressed dogs being trained off-leash using a clicker and treats. These dogs’ emotions had much more to do with the skill and abilities of their trainers than the methods being used. Every dog and every trainer is an individual, and when we begin to make all or nothing statements we do damage.
This doesn’t mean that we cannot have strong opinions about the best way to train a dog. I strongly believe that dogs can be trained more quickly and effectively without the use of force. I believe that it’s important to engage dogs in training and to give them choices. I want my dogs to be active rather than passive partners in the training process. I also believe that as a professional, it’s my responsibility to use the same techniques with my clients’ dogs that I do with my own, and to avoid techniques that I believe have the possibility of causing harm.
In order to promote change, we must first create a dialogue. By belittling or criticizing other trainers, we build walls and prevent conversation. There is a lot that reward-based trainers can learn from traditional or remote collar trainers, and vice versa. I encourage any other trainer to audit my classes at no cost, and would urge my colleagues to do likewise. Furthermore, I regularly invite other local trainers (of all methodologies) to join myself and my fellow instructors for continuing education get-togethers. We can learn so much from one another when we are respectful and open-minded.
I’m often asked how to encourage change in training clubs and organizations, and my best advice is to stop preaching. In order to promote positive changes in the way our friends, relatives, and training buddies treat their dogs, we must first show what is possible. Nobody wants to shock, pinch, hit, kick, or jerk their best friend. Prove that your methods are better by doing what you as a trainer or dog lover do best. Find joy with your dog. Train your dog well. Show that special bond you have built up with your dog as an engaged partner. Answer questions openly and without judgment. And above all, be kind. We all want the best for the animals we love.
Let’s all work together to create a better world for our dogs.