A lot of dog trainers really feel as though they are on the front lines; that there is a war being waged and they are either on the side of positive reinforcement or the side of “all the other stuff.” Organizations and groups have sprung up on either side, both believing that they are the ones fighting the good fight. The fight that helps dogs. The fight that keeps dogs in our lives.
And there’s the rub: we all actually want the same thing. So why are we fighting? What IS the “good fight”? The way I see it, there is a third front to stand on, that of quality dog training. Quality in the field is the good fight, and it’s not often what is being fought for. So what makes a quality dog trainer?
Beyond the Quadrants
So many trainers arguing online or elsewhere about methodology, tradition, and equipment lack a basic understanding of operant and classical conditioning. At its core, dog training is a learning theory field. Knowing that reinforcement and punishment are defined not by the trainer but by their functions, and that both classical and operant conditioning are natural forces at work in each moment is basic dog trainer education that too many lack. Myriad trainer websites state which of the four quadrants of operant conditioning they use, implying that they can cherrypick some and stop others from occurring like a wizard of learning forces wielding a quadrant wand. When we state that we “use operant conditioning” (or classical conditioning, for that matter) to train dogs we falsely imply that not everyone does. Being on the quality training front means understanding these things so well that we need not bore our clients with their details. It means instead that we focus on our mechanics and that of our clients so that we are communicating with our learners as effectively as possible. It means instead of engaging in a quadrant fight on a facebook thread we go do some actual dog training.
Seminars, Conferences, Online Courses, Oh My!
Continuing education is a big deal. In our field of zero regulations and very few legitimate education paths, we must choose to keep learning. Being a constant student is the best way to improve the quality of your training, your services, and the field as a whole. Being a student means constantly seeking information, opening your mind to new ideas, and surrendering to the fact that you will never know it all. There are countless learning opportunities; not a single one of us has an excuse. Plan your education for the year like you plan your marketing, your training, and your vacations. Decide that it’s important. Keep learning. Keep growing. Reach beyond your comfort zone and take a course you know nothing about; humble yourself and attend workshops on things you think you already understand. Being a student is being vulnerable; get used to that feeling.
That Which Should Rule Us All
In our field many seem to be ruled by invisible gods. Some state they worship at the church or positive reinforcement; others pay their loyalty to the god of effectiveness at all costs. We should all be bowing down to the force that should rule us all; kindness. Kindness to dogs; kindness to people.
The quickest way to peace in this field or any other is through treating others with respect and humility. Know at your core that everyone, human, canine, and beyond, is doing the very best that they can. The dog that is snarling and snapping, barking and lunging, is doing his best. The client who shows up to your session with a pocket full of dry biscuits and a scared dog on a prong collar is doing her best. Do your best. Treat them both with kindness as you proceed with the work that must be done to make their best better than it is right now.
Effectiveness as a Core Value
We, as an industry, as dog trainers, must begin to take case resolution more seriously. Sadly trainers whose practices I respect often have websites that read like this: “We will never scare, shock, choke, or hit your dog. We will use treats and praise and make training fun! We do not use harsh methods.” When their competitor, the guy who puts an e-collar on everything from 9 week old cavalier with housetraining concerns to the cane corso with a bite history, has a website that simply states “We will fix your problem, no matter what it is.” This is not only an issue from a marketing standpoint, friends! It’s a reflection of a sad fact; too many trainers do not hold effectiveness as a core value in their work. If you’re not resolving cases you’re not making the world better for dogs; no matter how many cookies you sling. The good news is we can be effective and kind. Return to the top of the blog and re-read if you’re not sure how.
The Willingness to Bend
Finally, sometimes we have to bend. While I agree with Dr. Susan Friedman when she states “effectiveness is not enough” (meaning that just because something works doesn’t mean it should be on the table for use) I also know that if we are to hold effectiveness as a priority in our work that we must be flexible.
I routinely encourage my clients to feed a fresh raw diet out of puzzle toys and take their dogs on long off-leash excursions. I want dogs to be respected members of the household who are communicated with effectively. I love nothing more than seeing a dog appreciated and adored for the very special soul that he is. I also used to do behavior work in a veterinary clinic in the middle of nowhere, serving a clientele I know a lot of dog trainers are familiar with. One such client was an older woman living in a low income area. She had recently taken custody of her grandchildren and one of them had brought with him a young female pit bull. The dog had begun escaping from the yard and had already attacked two neighborhood dogs. The woman had called the clinic to have her euthanized. The good doctor I worked for doesn’t do convenience euthanasia and said she required a behavior consultation to proceed. The woman could have dumped the dog in a local shelter, but she made the appointment (which was neither free nor inexpensive). As I sat across from her in the exam room I asked my standard questions about the dog’s day to day life. When a dog is free-fed a cheap grocery store kibble, kept on a chain, and interacted with very little, it is clear my highest recommendations will be out of reach for this family.
They reinforced their fencing to get the dog off the chain. They started feeding the dog out of used milk jugs she’d have to bat around and chew to extract the food from. With my help, the grandchild who loved the dog learned to play a two ball fetch game with her, as she could be possessive if he tried to take her toys. She is alive and hasn’t attacked any more dogs, to my knowledge. If I had been unwilling to bend in this situation, unwilling to think about what small steps were within reach for this family; if I had been blinded by my ideals, I think this dog would be dead. I had countless cases like that. They are why my clientele is really specific now; I don’t think those recommendations are the best use of my skills. But learning to adjust my expectations based on the case in front of me is a skill I will be forever grateful I have. More trainers need this lesson.
So the next time you want to click “share” on an article that crucifies another trainer or their methodology, you might think about sharing an article about our common goals instead. Or, better yet, an article that furthers the above points. Dog training as a field needs a serious facelift. It will only get it if we fight the truly good fight; that of quality in our field.