When I was at The Ranch a few weeks ago a common conversation came up–common amongst positive reinforcement-based trainers. The topic was something along the lines of “how do we (the “good” trainers) help the public transition away from aversive techniques and methodologies?” Whenever this question comes up (in any of its various forms) discussions of banning equipment, regulating the industry, and public education are usually the answers our field comes up with. There’s a better answer, in my opinion, and Laura VanArendonk Baugh (one of the TAs hard at work that week) phrased it perfectly: “Shut up and show off.”
Too often the positive training community is heavily focused on disallowing techniques they find unacceptable, or about bashing “the other side.” We talk at length about how tragic it is when a clicker trainer loses a client to an e-collar trainer. We lament about the uneducated dog owning public who doesn’t want to learn anything, and only wants a well-behaved dog.
We could instead be spending our time and energy working. We could be training our own dogs to very high levels. We could be being certain that we are providing the service the public needs us to provide; for if we lost our client to another trainer it is because of this, and this alone. The consumer pays the person who helps them; not the person who is nicest or who has the certifications or the professional memberships.
So, to simplify, here is how I think positive reinforcement-based dog trainers can (and should!) cause the cultural shift we so desperately want:
- Train our own dogs to high levels, then get out there! A sport is a great thing here, but so are life skills. When my dog does a really nice down stay for me at Home Depot while I load my cart, it matters. When my dog lies quietly by my side on the patio at Panera Bread, people notice. I am liberal with reinforcement in these moments because that’s really important for people to see. When people ask me how I trained them, I do not mince words: I tell them with food.
- Take case resolution seriously. How many of your private behavior cases get the “resolved” stamp? Be sure its most of them. If it isn’t, get some specific education to help you get there. Hint: this isn’t the owners’ fault.
- Embrace the fact that we are teachers of dog owners much more than we are dog trainers. Take some courses on human education. Talk to your friends who teach grade school, or college, or evening pottery. There is science and art to this and the best way to get good at it is to accept it as vital to your success.
- Help other trainers. If you see someone wanting to make change, help them do so by either taking them on as an apprentice, pointing them to good education, or just befriending and networking with them. We are stronger together.
Ok, closing my laptop to get out there and follow my own advice!