When I first learned dog training I was at the mercy of my teachers, as we are whenever we take on a new skill. I had a dog with severe behavioral concerns, I was pretty desperate, and I laid myself at their feet. As a result, I did a lot of things that I’m not proud of. Things that never sat right with me; things I buried my own intuition to carry out.
And there’s the problem. That’s what we need to talk about today.
In my own work of becoming the trainer I am now, I too often complied with recommendations that didn’t seem right. I too often decided on a trainer and then followed that person without doing much questioning. In the early days that looked like learning a force fetch and how to fit and use a prong collar. Later on it involved employing NILIF in behavior cases. Further down the road it involved laughing off frustration-fueled vocalization in shaping and accepting minutes-long gaps with no reinforcement for dogs learning impulse control. I didn’t have the tools to find the answers myself and thus I was again at the mercy of the people doing the teaching.
The interesting thing about dog training is that pretty much everything works. But when we start to really see the dogs; to pay attention to them as emotional beings and not just the things whose behavior we’d like to bend to our will, some techniques must be removed from the table. For me, that didn’t stop at aversive tools and forceful techniques, it stopped also at procedures that (based on my observations) induced stress or frustration in my learner. Which meant a whole lot of people in the “positive” dog training world were doing things I’d have to reconsider.
Is the Emperor Wearing Clothes?
What’s vital here is twofold: we must know what emotions we accept in our dogs when working with them, and we must take this into account each time we receive advice, no matter where that advice comes from. Too many trainers have gurus in this work; people they hold up as all-knowing and powerful, people whose training they don’t question. This is always dangerous. Be sure each time you show up to work with a trainer, be it online, at a seminar, or otherwise, that the emperor is indeed clothed. It is not uncommon for hoards of trainers to follow recommendations made by their leader, even when their intuition is screaming inside them. What results is similar to the folk tale I am referencing; a town of people–who all know the truth–crowd around their naked emperor, not one of them willing to speak up.
Speak up. Do it again and again. And when you get an answer, examine that too. Take responsibility for your own education and know that if something seems out of character for a trainer you admire, it might just be illuminating what their true character is.