Not so long ago, my enthusiasm for what I had learned about positive training and behavioural science turned me into an evangelist for modern training. But is pushing my training philosophy any more acceptable than pushing political or religious beliefs? Time has helped me temper my approach but the debate still rages within the positive training community. How far do we go to change the dog-owning world?
That time in my life when I had to come to terms with how poorly I had trained my dogs was difficult. That story is told in the first article I wrote here at Life As A Human. It was an important time filled with introspection, regret, new learning, and most importantly hope for a better future with my dogs. The things I was discovering were not new but they were new to me. It was an exciting time and I was eager to share what I was learning with friends and family who had dogs themselves.
When I got my new puppy and began to raise her based on the principles of positive dog training, I was amazed almost daily at how quickly and easily she was learning new behaviours. I couldn’t wait to do our next training session to see what we could accomplish. It seemed to me that some veil had lifted and suddenly I had the knowledge to become a “master dog trainer” almost overnight. It was very easy to lose my perspective and, for a time, I did.
We Can Change The World
The principles of positive reinforcement training were startlingly simple. And they worked! They worked on my dogs, they worked on other people’s dogs, and, if the books I was reading were correct, they worked on hundreds of species. And they are still trying it out on new ones. In my excitement at what I had learned, I wanted to show everyone how to train dogs. I wanted to change the dog-owning world. There is just one small obstacle to changing the world - it would be a lot easier if the world wanted changing.
Enthusiasm can be a dangerous thing. Enthusiasm to share a particular set of information or point of view can come very close to evangelism. I knew what I was doing with my own dogs was working. More than that, I was enjoying my dogs more than I ever had before and they seemed to be enjoying me more as well. Small wonder that I wanted to share all of this with others. But there is a difference between telling people of your own new successes and insisting that they must try what you do for themselves. It went beyond that to telling people not just that their training was wrong but explaining to them in detail how and why it was wrong.
Looking back on it, I’m not so sure it was a good thing that I found online communities of other positive trainers to talk with during those early years. These internet discussion forums and mailing lists were full of people who had come to their own “enlightenment” around positive training methods. They were a wonderful place to share stories of our new discoveries and improving relationships with our dogs. We talked “techie” about applying various techniques and principles to best effect in our training. Since this type of training is based on science, it was easy to get all “geeky” about it. Our dogs were quite happy to work through our experiments in positive reinforcement because that just meant more treats for them!
The downside of all this support was the false impression that being “right” about dogs and dog training gave me permission to pass judgement on other trainers. Every time I felt challenged on a particular point by more traditional trainers, I could simply run back to my community of positive trainers with my story and instantly feel vindicated in my views. The support of my fellow positive trainers gave me the courage to go back out there and badger more unsuspecting dog owners who did things differently than us “positive trainers” did them. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was becoming as popular as a born-again Atheist at a Christian revival meeting.
Is It Just Me?
As the years passed, I mellowed quite a bit. Perhaps the cold, uninterested reactions from many of my fellow dog owners had something to do with that. Perhaps it didn’t. It’s hard to say. Something I have been noticing lately is that I don’t seem to be alone in my evangelical reaction to learning about positive training. Certainly it is a message worth spreading but it seems that as the number of positive trainers has grown, so has the number of positive trainers who are taking a more self-righteous stand on their training philosophy and methods.
What concerns me about this phenomenon is that there seems to be a brand of “purist” developing in the positive training community. Their way is the “RIGHT” way to train and all others are doing it wrong or “not quite right” at best. The guiding principles of behavioural science give way to specific techniques or methods to teach this or that behaviour. Suddenly there are “rules” for the right way to use a marker signal or to deliver a reinforcer.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of this phenomenon, in my view, is the in-fighting that sometimes occurs within the positive training community. One trainer claims that another is not really a positive trainer because they mentioned a particular author or use a different technique. Perhaps that trainer suggested a technique to interrupt or punish an unwanted behaviour. Now the “Purely Positive Trainer” adopts a “holier-than-thou” stance and declares their superiority over this other trainer who “isn’t doing it right” or is just “paying lip service” to positive training.
The majority of the dog owning world seems to be only dimly aware of many of the things most positive dog trainers have known about dogs and training for decades. Is this really the time for positive trainers to be turning on each other to battle it out over who has the “RIGHT” approach to positive training? There just seems to be so much to do in raising the general awareness about dogs and training that in-fighting among ourselves only serves to weaken our message to the average dog owner. As positive trainers, shouldn’t we be positive with each other first?
Science and training technology is advancing rapidly these days thanks to real research and dedicated work by professional animal trainers who are kind enough to share their experience with the positive training community. While open discourse and debate on issues and techniques is good, I’m concerned that we don’t fall into the trap of spending our time criticizing each other instead of getting our message out to the average dog owner. Does it really matter that much if you use a clicker or your voice as a marker? Does it really matter if you reward every single behaviour or not? I think there are more important, more general messages we need to get across like “Punishment doesn’t really work as well as we think it does.” The research is out there now and ready to back us up if we can focus on talking to dog owners rather than picking each other apart.
If you read my first article here at Life As A Human, you know that I came to positive training because I was turning my own dog aggressive through more traditional training methods. My move to positive training, sometimes called “crossing-over”, was life changing as it affected not just how I trained but how I thought about dogs and understood what they were as beings. It opened a new level of appreciation in me. A part of that was a desire to spare other dogs from the stressful and sometimes unintentionally cruel training methods that I myself had used.
These days I recognize a few things about the dog owning public. Not everyone recognizes dogs for the potential that I and other positive trainers see in them. Not everyone owns a dog for the same reasons I do. Not everyone has the time or inclination to change what they know about dogs and training. Not everyone wants the same things from their dog as I do. As different as every dog owner may be, there is a different dog trainer to help them get what they need in their life with their dog.
As important as I feel it is to spread what I know about dogs, behaviour, training, and humane and positive work with dogs, I must recognize that not everyone is open to what I and others have to say about positive training. More that that, not everyone has room in their life to make a radical change to how they have always approached dogs and training. I have to recognize that for some, it is just not a priority and they feel they are doing just fine, thank you.
I think I have a more healthy perspective these days. I’ve scaled down my goals. I’m not trying to save all the dogs anymore, just a few will do. I’m happier writing my column here and sharing podcasts about what I learn. I don’t need to debate and discuss on internet forums as I used to do. And I find that I look for ways to encourage any trainer who shows the slightest interest in using any facet of positive training in their own work with their dogs or other dog owners.
I know that there are minds out there that I cannot change. It was not that long ago that I would have been one of them. I knew what I knew and I was happy. But that has changed for the better. These days I use my dogs and my relationship with them as the best showcase for positive training. Those that are open and interested will ask me about it.
The almost religious approach I once had has given way to a more practical approach. I don’t need to change the world anymore. If I can nudge a few people toward trying something new, that’s great. I don’t feel any great need to be pushy about positive training and behavioural science these days.
And the dogs? Well bless their hearts, we’ve bred them to stick with us through thick and thin. They’ve put up with our ridiculous and sometimes painful attempts at communicating and training for thousands of years. I’m sure they will happily stick around for as long as it takes. I mean, things can only get better from here. The more we know, the better we will be as dog owners and trainers. There’s no need to be pushy about it.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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