MY EVOLUTION AS AN ANIMAL TRAINER
Let me qualify the tale of naiveté that follows by saying I convincingly pass as an intelligent, functioning, capable human being. Daily. As a Seattle native steeped in the comparatively enlightened culture for which this city is known, I value the educated, open-minded nature and intellectual stimulation of my city and its residents. I am proud to reign from Seattle and am madly in love with, and will forever be, all that is Seattle.
I began learning about training and behavior with horses as a young rider at the age of nine. Over the next decade I evolved into a trainer myself and eventually left the field for college. Zoology.
Confession: horse training can be brutal. I used methods that now make me shudder: whips, spurs, chains, and all matter of punishment dolled out for lack of brain and confidence on my part. It was not unusual to dismount and “dominate” a horse into frightened submission.
While these things are hard to admit and took many years to reconcile, it is necessary to do so in order to continue to evolve as a trainer and contribute to the evolution of the field. And, though slow, we are beginning to see a shift in that culture to something smarter and more humane.
Shortly after college I returned to the world of animal behavior by attending the San Francisco SPCA Academy. It was the glue that pulled together what I knew to be true but had no credible barometer by which to measure my hunch; that we didn’t have to be harsh or mean. We didn’t have to rule over our animals. They didn’t have to fear us. We didn’t have to abandon our brains. We could actually use them, daily, to build relationships, partner with our animals, and destroy the limits put on us by punitive methods.
DOG TRAINERS DISAGREE ABOUT TRAINING METHODS
It is no surprise, then, given my enlightenment (snicker), that everyone else in the world of animal behavior would want the same thing. Smart. Educated. Evolved. Learn, learn, learn. Surely that’s what we all want. Yes. That. Smarts. We want ‘em. To be better. It’s obvious.
And so, as a fresh graduate of the Academy, armed with a college education in animal stuff, enlightened, I picked up the phone to begin networking with like-minded individuals.
I was hung up on. Scolded. Called names. And laughed at. Literally. I was targeted online by other trainers. Made the topic of unpleasant discussion groups. Devalued.
My enthusiasm was met with terms I now know are par for the course: “I’ve done it for X years, treats only bribe a dog, positive trainers are hippies, I bet you I can get my dog to X faster than you,” etc.
And thus was my indoctrination to the ever-divided and surprisingly hostile arena of professional dog trainers in which I now live.
Today, there are a handful of camps that exist in terms of technique and theory:
- Traditional: those who focus on punitive methods and are aligned with familiar personalities such as Cesar Milan. Despite clever semantics designed to soften criticism of the methods, they are antiquated, simple, and uncivil. Most practitioners of this method value speedy results at the cost of behavioral health. Tools and techniques: pinch and shock collars, choke chains, shaker cans, leash pops, alpha rolls, physical manual corrections, domination, fear, etc.
- Balanced: those who use both punitive methods such as corrective collars and sprays but may also use food or other force-free reinforcement. Many balanced trainers lack a full understanding of animal theory and behavior. Tools and techniques: pinch, shock, choke, spray collars, harness, head halters, flat collar, physical correction, food, play, clicker.
- Crossover: usually this refers to a trainer who has moved from the traditional camp to a more progressive one such as positive training. Tools and techniques: varies depending on from which camp the trainer originated.
- Positive/Force-free: those who attempt to remove all matter of discomfort in training and behavior modification. This has become the most ambiguous and variable camp of all, shockingly divided and, ironically, hostile. Tools and techniques: flat collar, head halter, body harness, flat leash. Food, play, clicker.
Much like people argue over religion and politics, each camp believes their camp is “right” and the others are “wrong.” Even within each camp there is rampant disagreement about methods and politics.
POSITIVE DOG TRAINERS CRIPPLED BY NEED TO BE RIGHT
But of particular interest and complexity is the ongoing internal rhetoric of the positive/force-free group, the one that identifies as being most kind and gentle. This group is, by far, the most internally volatile and critical of others no matter their practice. Surprisingly, this was the group most hostile to me when I arrived on the professional scene in Seattle. The most ruthless and conniving. And I am one of them!
Unfortunately, some stereotypes ring true: we are a group who lead with our hearts, often followed by our somewhat impulsive mouths, with only a token consultation from the brain, though we are smart.
By the very nature of our position at the far end of the compassion-for-dogs spectrum, we are some of the most sensitive, empathetic people around. It is what makes us so good at our work and so crippled in our ability to do it for the need to be right.
We can all agree on the usual opposition to pinch, shock, pain and fear. Those are bad. And praise, food, happy talk, love. Those are good.
But those positions, bad and good, though seemingly perfect, are deeply flawed. The black and white nature of bad and good have sheared us at the knees and should we stop at these designations we become utterly immobile in moving the field forward. We become paralyzed in a debate over subjectivities: should, shouldn’t, need to, is, isn’t. Stuck in the quicksand of “why.” And all over an animal we have no control over; another person.
While it sounds reasonable to debate, at least for a minute, the extremes of the training spectrum such as shock collars, physical dominance, etc., it is the inter-positive-trainer conflict that is most distressing.
Head harness: too harsh or just right. Pure positive reinforcement: perfect or too vague. Physical exercise: too intense or the only way to go. Feed raw, kibble, whole, specialty. Muzzle, don’t. Pet, don’t pet, hug, but not too tight, or don’t, but then do. The list goes on. They are all kind. The argument literally becomes which is kinder.
CHECK YOUR EGO – IT’S ABOUT THE DOGS
In the middle of this seemingly endless circular dialogue – 3500 dogs are euthanized daily in the US simply for being one too many. Tens of millions are living a sub-standard life for lack of qualified behavioral intervention. Owners are frustrated, rightfully. And so many in our field sit in the comfort of debate…at the cost of the quality of life for a dog; the very thing we say we live for.
While we’re playing hand over hand with kindness quotients we are literally failing the mission we so vehemently profess. It is unacceptable. Dare I say, it is comparable to the third party vote in our recent election?
There are a handful of strong influencers in our field. Driven revolutionaries who continue to push the field forward. In my years observing their approach, it seems they practice these things differently:
- They have clearly defined, and remain ever-focused on their mission. Every decision they make, whether it to take a phone call or recommend euthanasia, is based on how it directly impacts the end goal.
- Their end goal is to serve dogs, not themselves. Those stuck in circular arguments, though it may feel it serves the dogs, actually serves the immediate need of the person arguing. It is, by nature, counterproductive.
- They check their ego at the door. They don’t have to be right and they approach every conversation open to the idea that whatever they might learn could lead them closer to their mission.
- They admit and fully accept mistakes as part of growth and use them as a foundation on which to forever get better.
- They shut out the noise. This is, by far, the hardest. In order to stay focused, tenaciously stick the course, they learn what feedback is useful and constructive and what is simply distraction. They are constantly weighing the cost/benefit of criticism and feedback and take none of it personally.
While it feels it is the traditionally punitive trainer who is stifling the positive movement, it is the force-free trainer getting out of his own way who can truly change the world.
I have a touchstone motto for my students to help them rebalance should they stray from their mission in the way described. One that literally makes my heart pump, my fists ball up, my voice roar:
Put kind hands on dogs. Now.
Cristine Dahl is the founder the Northwest School for Canine Studies and author of the acclaimed book, Good Dog 101 She holds a CTC from the San Francisco SPCA Academy as a distinguished graduate, has worked professionally with dogs for almost 20 years, and has a BS in Biological Science from with a focus on the mammalian mind and brain.
Cristine has been recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) for her work helping doctors better understand the circumstances affecting dog bites to children and she is an active participant in animal welfare efforts in the state of Washington.