Monthly Archives: September 2013

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?

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Jeff Balke

Photo by Jeff Balke

It’s not “how they’re raised” (what happened in the past) but rather, “how they’re managed” (what’s happening in the present) that needs to be our focus, if our goal is to help our dogs and also create safe communities for us all to enjoy.

Jessica Dolce

Does Breed Matter?

Last week I revealed the results of Trout’s Wisdom Panel DNA analysis. So, what good does it do us to know the breed or breed mix that makes up our dogs?

I personally think it can be quite helpful to know the breed mix of a dog I’m working with. But I also know from extensive experience that focusing on a dog’s breed can get people in a lot of trouble. Let’s discuss why it might be helpful to know your dog’s genetic background… and why it doesn’t always matter as much as you think.

Photo by Laura Caldwell

Photo by Laura Caldwell

Firstly, the benefits: Knowing a bit more about what your dog’s ancestors were bred for can give you special insight into what makes your dog tick. Quite a lot of behavior is driven (at least in part) by genetics. If you want a dog to move your flock of sheep, you’re going to have a higher likelihood of success using a Border Collie than a Bloodhound. If you want a dog to catch and kill rats in your barn, starting with a Patterdale Terrier will give you a greater likelihood of success than if you brought home a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

While Trout is usually quite biddable, she becomes very independent and more likely to ignore me when she’s chasing critters off leash. That makes sense with her breed background: both working hounds and terriers were originally bred to have greater-than-average focus on prey animals of various types. Trout also bays loudly when she’s chasing another animal, a trait that her hound ancestors would have been selected for.

So, knowing what to expect can be an important facet that your dog’s breed brings to the way you care for and train that dog. Knowing which motor patterns a dog is likely to display may change the way I initially work with that dog. I’m much more likely to offer a chase game to a sighthound, a tug game to a terrier, and a piece of food to a Labrador in the beginning stages of training. That hound may really enjoy tugging and the terrier may love to chase, but it helps to stack the deck in my favor if I start with the knowledge of that breed’s typical tendencies (such as most Labs’ desire to eat anything remotely resembling food). Once I’ve gotten to know the dog as an individual I will adjust each training program to perfectly suit that dog, but in the beginning stages it’s a good idea to start with offering rewards the dog is likely to find appealing based on his ancestry.

Knowing a dog’s breed background can also give us important insights about areas where we should exercise caution. If Trout’s results had come back with strong herding breed heritage, my vet and I may have used that information in formulating her heartworm preventative program because we know that some collie-type dogs are sensitive to Ivermectin (a common ingredient in heartworm meds). Had she come back as a Flatcoated Retriever, I would be very aware of the risk of cancer. If she had a long back I would be more cautious about activities that could result in a herniated disc. Since she has the floppy ears of a hound, I’ll be careful to clean her ears after she swims or gets bathed since I know that floppy-eared dogs are more prone to ear infections than those with erect ears.

Behaviorally, we can also use general breed knowledge to avoid issues. My dogs are both terrier mixes, a breed type that tends to be more aggressive towards other animals than, say, retrievers or toy breeds. Knowing this, I choose not to leave the two girls unsupervised together. Even though they generally get along beautifully, the risk of a dog fight happening when I’m not home to do something about it is higher than if they were both Maltese. Owners of German Shepherds, Cane Corsos, and other guardian breeds should not be surprised if their dog begins to display suspicion of strangers between 6-18 months of age, any more than the owner of an Australian Shepherd or Corgi should be surprised if their dog nips at their children’s heels when they run or the owner of a Husky or Jindo should be taken aback when their dog repeatedly escapes their fenced-in yard to run about the neighborhood.

So, knowing your dog’s breed can be helpful. However, focusing on your dog’s breed without first looking at your dog as an individual can do an enormous amount of damage.

I’m frequently educated about breeds by my students. Having fostered over 100 dogs of various breeds and worked with everything from Dogo Argentinos to Coton de Tular, I’m very familiar with most breed traits. And I can tell you that while breed is important, it is much less important than many people think.

It can be helpful to think of your dog’s breed in the same way that you think of your human family. Genetics influences behavior, but so does environment. Furthermore, individuals within a breed will each receive slightly different genetic packages, even if certain genetic markers remain constant within that breed. Think of it this way: you and your siblings are not carbon copies, and neither are dogs. Your family probably has a few commonalities, but judging your new dog based on your previous dog is every bit as unfair as your kindergarten teacher judging you based on your older brother’s behavior in her class last year.

Dogs are individuals, and we need to look at them first as individuals. Making excuses based on your dog’s breed is every bit as misguided a generalization as saying that children from bad homes can never amount to anything.  If your Golden Retriever hates the water or your Malinois is totally uninterested in toys there’s nothing wrong with them, just as there’s nothing wrong with me for not liking spicy food even though my mother and brother both love it. While hounds and terriers are both high-energy dogs, Trout is much calmer than her ancestry would suggest – a trait that’s quite individual to her own unique personality.

In the end, dogs’ breeds can give us helpful insights into what behaviors and health issues to expect. However, these are just generalities which may or may not apply to your individual dog. The best service you can do your dog is to view him or her as an individual. Spend time getting to know your dog and enjoy those unique quirks that make your dog who they are.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by feeb on flickr

Photo by feeb on flickr

“No shelter should keep puppies (under the age of 5 months) in a shelter facility. Puppies need to be in foster homes and attending puppy classes until or before they are adopted. We would be appalled if a shelter didn’t provide veterinary care to a puppy, but we don’t seem to see the cruelty of withholding life-saving behavioral therapy.”

– Cindy Bruckart
(Read the whole article here.)

Contest Results – What’s in a Trout?

Last month, I opened up a competition to guess Trout’s breed. The results are in, and according to the Wisdom Panel, her DNA shares certain genetic markers with the DNA of Harriers (a type of scenthound) and Irish Terriers (a medium-sized terrier).


While I doubt there are many purebred Harriers and Irish Terriers breeding indiscriminately in rural Missouri, where she came from, the results make quite a bit of sense when we take a broader view of them. In fact, it’s very likely that a hound-type dog and a terrier-type dog both feature strongly in her ancestry.

While no one guessed this exact breed mix, many of you guessed that she was a Terrier/Hound cross. Congratulations to Susan Garriques, who was the first person to guess this combination. Susan will receive a $25 gift certificate to Dogwise (Susan, email me – sara at paws4u dot com – and I’ll send you a .PDF with your gift card information).


Next week, we’ll discuss the role breed has to play in behavior. We’ll also talk about ways in which focusing on your dog’s breed could be detrimental to your dog’s training.

In the meantime, though, I’d like to hear from you! If you have a purebred or known mix, how does your dog’s breed influence your training decisions? If you have a mixed breed, what breeds do you believe make up your dog’s ancestry? If you’ve done the Wisdom Panel for your dog, what did you think about your dog’s results? Please share your thoughts n the comments below! I’m really looking forward to the discussion.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo bykrembo1 on flickr.

Photo bykrembo1 on flickr.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”  – Dr. Leo Buscaglia

Socializing your Dog: an Illustrated Guide

Thanks to Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings for collaborating with me on this socialization poster! You can click on the picture below to view the full sized version. Lili and I have previously worked together to create the illustrated guide to playing with your dog.


Do you have any socialization tips or tricks? Please share them in the comments below!

Even if it means oblivion

“Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing. We’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was.” – Phillip Pullman

Today is Dobby’s last day. I posted awhile back about Dobby’s struggles with seizures and behavioral issues. At that time there were two medication changes we still wanted to try, but neither made any difference and I made the heartwrenching call to schedule his euthanasia. At that point, he’d been having a seizure every six days on average, so I decided to push his appointment out a week with the knowledge that he may have another seizure or two and I may have to bump his appointment up if the seizures, fear, or aggression worsened.

dobby rocks

This last week has been spent enjoying Dobby. I made a “bucket list” of the things I thought he would most enjoy that wouldn’t be too exciting (and therefore likely to trigger a seizure). Dobby’s been on multiple off-leash hikes on friends’ rural properties. He’s gotten so many new toys I can’t even count them. He’s gotten to snuggle in bed with me and has eaten his favorite foods. I started feeding him twice as much at mealtime – there’s no longer any reason to watch his weight, and one of the side effects of his medication has been increased appetite. He’s swum and he’s played with his few doggy friends. I’ve told him how much I love him over and over and over again.

I’ve done some things for myself this week, too. I’ve spent a lot of time crying and a lot of time with caring friends. I had a professional photographer take pictures of Dobby by himself and of Dobby and I together to remember him by. I stroked his velvety ears and laughed at his happy prance when he got a new toy. I rescheduled all of the appointments I could and spent less time working so I could be with him.

Everyone who loves Dobby has gotten to say goodbye in whatever way made sense to them. My parents took him on long walks, snuggled with him, and fed him handfuls of popcorn. My boyfriend bought him a bulk lot of squeaky balls – more new toys than Dobby’s ever seen in his life. Friends gave him toys and treats and chews. They invited him to hike on their properties and told him what a special little dog he was.

It’s still hard to believe that it’s almost over. It’s been almost three years since Dobby was pulled from the Rochester Animal Control Shelter. He’s only four years old, and I wish he could live to be a wise, tottery old dog with a grey muzzle. It’s hard to think of my sleek, athletic, awkward, sincere little dog being gone.

Tonight Dobby will get a double dose of one of his medications, a situational anxiety drug. Tomorrow he will get another big dose three hours before the vet comes over, which will make him very sleepy. My vet will come to us, and he will be euthanized in the place he’s happiest and most comfortable. We’ll do everything we can to make sure he knows he’s loved and valued during his final moments. Afterwards, my other dogs will be given the chance to investigate his body before the vet takes it to be cremated.

It hurts to say goodbye, but I’m so glad I got to know and love Dobby. I’m grateful for all of the things he’s taught me about perseverance and love, about hope, and about accepting that the right answers aren’t always the easy ones. Today I will enjoy everything about my special little dog, and tomorrow I will do everything I can to help his final moments be gentle and comfortable.

As I miss Dobby, I’ll hold onto the belief that he’s not altogether gone. The special spark that made him who he was will live on in those whose lives he touched and changed.  We’re all a little better for the connections he made, and I’m hella glad I got to know him. I love you, Batdog.