Confessions Of A Positive Dog Trainer

Is it more ethical or moral to use positive dog training?  For Eric Brad, the reasons are less lofty and more practical.  And sometimes the simplest reasons can be the most compelling.

ConfessionsFor 9 years now I’ve been training my dogs using positive reinforcement techniques and behavioural science.  It’s been amazing and terrific and a helluva lot of fun.  It has changed my views on dogs and behaviour and even some other ideas about relationships both human and animal.  I’ve discovered a large number of like-minded dog trainers who are on their own path discovering the great things that behavioural science can make possible with our dogs.  But I have a confession to make.

I have been to several workshops and seminars for positive trainers.  I’ve taught workshops on positive training and canine behaviour myself.  And there’s an interesting phenomenon with positive training.  As far as I have seen, roughly 75-80% of dog trainers interested in or using positive training are women.  I’m not alone in this observation.  Other trainers have told me they have seen similar numbers.  The Vancouver Island Animal Training Association discussion group on Facebook, a group dedicated to humane training of all species through positive and science based training, boasts a membership of 63 as of this writing.  Only 2 of us are men.

Some in the dog training world have attributed this phenomenon to positive training appealing to the “nurturing” nature of women.  Others have said that women prefer the non-confrontational approach that positive training provides.  Whatever the reason for this gender-skewed interest in positive training, the dogs benefit greatly from it.

Confession Time

While these reasons may certainly be true, they have nothing whatever to do with why I have become such a strong supporter of positive training and behavioural science.  The truth is – I’m fundamentally a lazy person and this stuff works without a lot of effort once you know how to do it!

I know, I know.  It would sound so much better if I was all about minimizing conflict and being concerned about the emotional health of the dogs as they work with their trainers.  It would be great if I had some more noble purpose for choosing positive reinforcement over other training methods.  But the bottom line is that this stuff wasn’t hard to learn, it makes perfect sense to me, and when I use it as I was taught, I can train my dog amazingly quickly.  

What she learns sticks with her without a lot drilling over and over to be sure she has “got it.”  I can easily string learned behaviours together to make new behaviours.  And most importantly, the process is repeatable with easily understood components so I can adjust my training if I need to should things need to be changed here or there.

LazyIt’s A Mystery

So there, my secret is out.  I’m a positive trainer because I’ve never found an easier way to work with dogs.  Nothing more noble or high minded than that.  This stuff just works and it works every time on every dog.  Yes, I said EVERY dog!  If it doesn’t work, you either aren’t doing it right or there is actually something wrong with your dog (and you should see your vet about it).

The mystery to me is why more men are not getting involved with positive training.  I really want to believe that our male drive to do less and get more for our effort can overcome our other male drive to “dominate” and control things in our environment.  Like our dogs, for instance.  It seems kind of like a “free lunch” to me or at the very least a second helping for no extra charge.

Give me a clicker, a bag of treats, a few toys the dog likes and I can teach them nearly anything they can physically or mentally do.  And the best part is, once those behaviours are trained, I can even get rid of the clicker, treats, and toys!  Those are just a temporary part of the beginning process for teaching behaviour.

Appealing to Male Logic

As a male, behavioural science just makes sense to me.  And no wonder, all of key figures in the foundations of behavioural science are men!  B.F. Skinner, Edward Thorndike, Ivan Pavlov all made major contributions to the field in the early 20th century.  The psychology of Operant and Classical Conditioning is well documented in thick text books offering a wealth of experimental data to support the findings.  Processes are well documented.  Conclusions are arrived at through precise and logical reasoning.  In short, guys should eat this stuff up!

Just like engineering or woodworking, positive training and behavioural science has it’s blueprints and plans, it’s definitions and specific terms.  For me, learning positive training was like learning any other “craft.”  I needed to understand the concepts and apply them with careful practice to develop my skills.  If this sounds like a formula for becoming a great baseball player or guitarist, that’s exactly what it sounds like to me too.

Equality In The Modern Era

While the roots of behavioural science may feature men of science, the late 20th century has produced some incredible women who have contributed to the field of behavioural science and positive training with animals of many species.  Karer Pryor, Brenda Aloff, Pamela Reid, Alexandra Horowitz, Susan Freidman, Sophia Yin, Kathy Sdao, Patricia McConnell, the list can go on and on.  The contributions of such women have been incredibly important to moving us forward in understanding and training animals.

Perhaps it is because of the example set by these women that positive training is so popular among women today.  What I cannot understand is why men would want to be left behind in all of this advancement.  I mean, if a woman dropped by the tennis courts and showed me a simple way to improve my backhand, I’d be incredibly grateful and eager to learn more!

Puppy LoveLoving For Nothing and Nobility For Free

So, ok, I did it because it was easy, it worked, and I understood the simple rationality of positive training and behavioural science.  I didn’t jump into it to save the world or save the dogs or anything like that.  But you know what?  I got some of that for free.  Sure,  in the beginning I found that cooperative training was easier than confrontational training.  Easy is good.

I started out in positive training with less than noble goals but I ended up doing the right things even if it was for the wrong reasons.  Positive training is less stressful for dogs and other animals.  It has done incredible things to change my relationship with dogs for the better.   I understand dogs a lot better now.  Their behaviour and motivations make sense to me and I’ve learned to communicate with them in a way that helps them understand my behaviour much better as well.

Kind of like having your cake and eating it too, isn’t it?  I’m training my dog in a more humane and effective way.  I’m using the latest information to be smarter about my dog and training her.  And I’m spending half the energy doing it this way.  Isn’t that just the perfect solution for a lazy 21st century dog-loving male?  It works for me!

Until next time, have fun with your dogs.


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Photo credits -

Confession – sleepyneko 2009 from Flickr
Lazy – emerille 2009 from Flickr
Love – margaretshear 2006 from Flickr
Feature Image – Sniff - *linda*I* 2009



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