It happens to every positive trainer. You do the best you can at explaining why you train without force. You tell your clients about the fallout of coercion that can affect their dog’s behavior and their relationship with the dog. You explain how food is used as a motivator, and why it’s important to use something the dog wants as a reinforcement. You try to save their dogs from the pain and confusion from which so many dogs are never saved. You tell them there’s never a reason to shock a dog to train it.
Unfortunately, you are sometimes met head on with the myths that your client has heard for years from friends, television personalities, even other trainers (ones that are still mired in myth, and unwilling to even open the door a crack to learning how to use modern training methods effectively). Myths such as: your dog will get fat if you use food, you’re “bribing” your dog, you need to tell the dog who’s boss, you have to be the leader of the pack, it’s not a shock, it’s a “tap,” etc.
We can spot them a mile away. They glare at us as you encourage them to be more jolly while calling their dog. Their dog does great in class, then they go home and ruin any progress by listening to Uncle Joe or their neighbor down the street who has “had dogs for years” (Do they think we haven’t??? Did they not remember signing a check to actually pay us for our knowledge?) They listen as we tell them to bring some great treats to class, then they still bring the store bought version of doggy junk food the next week. They complain that their dog is now “begging at the table” because we told them to train with “people food” and now they can’t get the dog away from them. (Heck, I call that a huge improvement in relationship!) Even after calmly telling them how to resolve the begging issue so that they can train with food effectively, a certain percentage of them will still look at us like we’re crazy, go home and repeat whatever it is they do each day, despite our coaching, and return more disgusted the next week, and the week after, then perennially thereafter blame their failure on that nasty positive training.
All of this is very disconcerting to trainers for whom the best of all possible worlds would be one in which all dogs were free of the confusing, sometimes hostile, often painful, interactions with their owners that break down what should be the most wondrous relationship between members of two incredibly fascinating species. It’s why, believe it or not, we continue to seek ways to reach the unreachable client – the client who ignores our entreaties, badmouths us after they fail with a dog because of non-compliance with the training plan, or worse, goes on to train with someone who will force the dog into compliance by means of a choke, prong, or shock collar, when we know that they had a brilliantly smart dog that was fully capable of learning the way all mammals do, through operant and classical conditioning which we can employ using no pain or physical coercion whatsoever.
This week, there was an interesting and somewhat hopeful interview conducted by Victoria Stilwell with Jennifer Arnold of Canine Assistants on the topic of positive versus punitive training, which I wish people would watch in its entirety. Ms. Arnold trains service dogs to do all manner of tasks for their disabled owners, including taking laundry out of clothes dryers and placing it in a basket, all without the use of force. How can anyone, who realizes the complexity of service dog training, think force is necessary to get a dog to do simple things like sit, down, or walk on a leash?
A second point of interest this week was the publishing of a new book, The Human Half of Dog Training, by Rise VanFleet, Ph.D., RPT-S. Rise is a co-founder of the International Collaborative on Play Therapy and a Past President/Board Chair of the Association for Play Therapy. She is also involved in the research and use of animals in play therapy, and uses one of her dogs as a play therapy dog. Trainers everywhere should take advantage of any assistance with the human half of the client/dog relationship, especially delivered by such a learned woman in both fields!
Trainers, many of whom spend years learning about dog behavior, aren’t as facile at the human part of the equation. We are dog-centric, dog nerds if you will. Most of us really care about working more effectively with the people at the other end of the leash, but some trainers dismiss them as bad if they aren’t compliant, or don’t see things our way. For others, myself included, while I sometimes have to “save the trainer” by letting go or walking away, I’m fascinated enough by behavior in general, as exhibited by all species, to care if I can have an impact on the clients who come to me. Because it REALLY matters to their dogs if I cannot reach them!!! So, I’m inspired by the work that my fellow trainers are doing. Victoria is constantly working to dispel myths. Rise is helping bridge the gap for trainers between helping the dog and helping the human to help the dog.
I guess my message to all the positive trainers out there is, “Don’t give up.” The tide will turn, and more dogs will live without pain or fear. A stellar example of how this will happen was the incredibly solid performance last week at the Dutch Shepherd Nationals by positive trainer Shade Whitesel and her dog, Reiki. They placed second (with a score of 98 in protection) in a sport that is highly populated by traditional force training. As more positive trainers convince those “unreachable” clients, and as more positive trainers begin to compete and win at the highest levels of dog sports, we’ll make progress.
Every positive trainer who spends the time and energy to learn his or her craft well (mediocrity breeds contempt, and rightfully so), every trainer who continues to seek new and better ways to convince an unreachable client, and every competitor who avoids compulsion in their training, brings us closer to a world in which dogs will truly be our partners in the highest sense of the word.
Yes, there will still be clients who walk away and from whom we must walk away. But, for every one of those, there are a few more for whom the light comes on and stays brightly lit. Every one that we reach is one more who can never go back down the path of unkindness. Avoiding burnout is one way that positive trainers can be there to light the light for the most people and thereby save the most dogs from harm.