I often surf the web to find interesting sites about dogs and dog training. This week I stumbled on a site that began with a statement about dog training that was so audacious that I had to stop and read it several times to be sure I had read it correctly. The author states –
“Let me start off by saying that of all the different dog training methods you’ve heard about fit into one of two categories. There are only two methods in the whole world! And they are… … all-positive and balanced.”
The sheer magnitude of this over-simplification stunned me. I had walk away from the laptop and get myself another coffee before continuing my day. There are only two methods of dog training in the world? My first question is, “Which world?” It certainly can’t be the one in which I live. Although things would be so much easier if that were true, it just isn’t. What troubles me about statements like the one above is not how inaccurate they may be. What troubles me is that dog trainers feel the need to reduce dogs and training to such simple terms in the first place. There is a “war of words” out there in the dog world and the unfortunate casualties are dogs and not humans.
It seems that like many things in our 21st century society, we are being asked to choose a side – who are you for or who are you against. Often training discussions get more caught up in who is right and who is wrong than whether the training does the best job for the dog. When it comes to training and working with our dogs, this kind of polarizing argument can have unfortunate consequences for the dogs that get caught in the middle.
The quote above claims that the two sides at odds in the world of dog training are “all-positive” and “balanced” training. I have read a great deal about dogs and dog training. I am a certified professional dog trainer. In all my reading on dogs and training, I have not come upon any training that identifies itself with the label “all-positive” dog training. By contrast, I see any number of sources claiming to use “balanced” training with dogs. Here I find the opposite problem. I found such a wide variety of definitions of “balanced” dog training that I wrote an article about it to try and figure out what trainers meant by “balanced.” It turns out that most of them don’t agree on the same meaning and many actually conflict with each other.
Sticks and Stones and Words
The war of words is escalating. There are exaggerations and questionable claims from both the force-free training community and the traditional compulsion trainers. This is not just unfortunate, it’s dangerous. The dogs get caught in the shuffling of trainers and methods as owners move from one “solution” to another. A dog can easily end up confused and act out. Many of those dogs will end up in shelters. Some won’t survive being re-homed. The terms dog trainers use to help a dog owner can do the most damage. Let me give you some examples:
- Correction – This is one of the most commonly used terms in the dog training world. And yet, it is rarely used to describe what the word actually means. If we “correct” something, it is assumed that something has gone wrong and we are bringing it back to being “right” again. When compulsion trainers talk about “correcting” a dog, what they mean is using some kind of physical or verbal intervention to stop a dog from doing something unwanted. But where is the “correction”? Yes, it tells the dog what they are doing wrong but it tells them nothing about what to do instead to be right. A yank on the leash, a poke in the side, a loud “HEY!” are all described as “corrections” but these actually function as a reprimand to stop an unwanted behaviour. You aren’t “correcting” anything, you are stopping (reprimanding) unwanted behaviour. But Correction sounds much more productive than Reprimand when we’re working with our dogs even if it is inaccurate.
- Abuse -This one is getting thrown around a lot by the force-free training community these days. It has been used to describe everything from the use of shock collars and pain-based training methods to slip-collars and feeding the wrong kind of dog food. That’s a pretty broad spectrum for such a highly-charged word. The use of the term “abuse” seems to be based on what the speaker believes about a particular technique, training philosophy, or piece of equipment rather than the actual living conditions of a particular dog. For example, prong and shock collars are sold by the thousands each year and yet physical injuries from these devices make up only a small fraction of cases that come through the average veterinary practice. This is not to endorse their use but simply to point out that just putting a device on a dog should not, in itself, constitute abuse unless using the device is shown to have caused harm to that particular dog. Abuse is an act, not an idea.
- Killing with kindness – Lately compulsion trainers have been making claims that using food treats to reward a dog for behaviours can lead to any number of unfortunate consequences. They claim that food rewards can end up killing dogs by creating food aggression or being too permissive and having to surrender an unruly dog to a shelter to be euthanized. The science behind the use of rewards to reinforce behaviour is backed up by over 70 years of data – both in psychology labs and the real world. Reward training has been used successfully with hundreds of species living in zoos and the pets we keep in our homes. If the use of rewards in training were as dangerous as claimed by some, marine mammal trainers would have abandoned it decades ago. Instead, aquariums and wild animal parks routinely use rewards to train everything from rhinos to sharks to killer whales to tigers. The claim that dog owners are “killing their dogs with kindness” by using food treats in training is utter nonsense. And yet the claims are made over and over again with no proof.
- Dominance – World renowned wolf researcher Dr. David Mech is largely responsible for the term “Alpha Wolf.” He now says he now regrets using “alpha” to describe the breeding pair in a wolf pack. The dog world, for whatever reason, latched on to the concepts of “Alpha” and “Dominance” in their efforts to explain dog behaviour and justify a variety of training methods. The science and contemporary literature on dogs and their ethology has proven that the “dominance” model does not apply to dogs either in domestic situations or living on their own in feral communities. But the words “dominance”, “pack”, and “alpha” remain trigger words that are sure to spark lively and, at times, less-than-civilized debates among dog trainers. The use of any of these words can get the speaker labelled as “Old School” or as a trainer who has little regard for our modern understanding of dogs – a trainer who prefers brute force to establish themselves as the “alpha.” Used in proper context, these terms can have some meaning regarding dogs and behaviour. But we struggle in our efforts to redefine and reuse them. All too often the force-free community finds what they feel are incorrect applications of these words. They can look too closely and start fights where little or no disagreement even exists.
There are dog owners out there that need help with their dogs. Some just need a little coaching. Others are learning how to live with their first dogs. Many will turn to dog training professionals. It can be daunting for the average dog owner to venture online looking for answers. There are opinions and counter-opinions about treats or no treats, prong collars or no-pull harnesses, abusive and too permissive.
There is nothing like a good argument to increase that sense of solidarity with those who share our opinions and nothing that seems quite so noble as trying to right a terrible wrong. But can we, as dog training professionals, get so caught up in the war of ideology that we lose the very audience we are trying to serve? What about trying to help the dogs? Helping dog owners provide the best, most healthy and successful life for their dogs should be the priority. Not which side you are on or who is right or wrong.
I’m quite sure that this article will have all the effect of holding up a hand to stop the wind for all the difference it will make in the greater debates raging in the dog world. But my advice to dog owners is that you should meet the dogs of potential dog training professionals or at least dogs that they have helped to train. Decide for yourself if these are the kinds of dogs you want to live with yourself. You don’t need to get caught up in the war of words and the ideology. Meet the dogs. They will tell you all that you need to know.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
Photo credits –
All photos – Canine Nation 2013