A call for dog trainers to be open-mined

No Matter What Camp You’re In, You’re Missing Out! by Chad Mackin, www.packtobasics.net

Got to get something off my chest.

When it comes to solving behavior problems, there are a few widespread ideas that need to be addressed.

One idea is that the only two criteria that matter are “did it work?” and “did the dog live?” Along with that is often added the idea that the fastest solution is the best solution.

There is another that says that any sort of pain, discomfort or fear is to be avoided at all costs.

In my opinion, not only are both of these opinions ludicrous, they are both untrue and dangerous. The extremism that both sides demonstrate is offensive to reason and common sense. If that offends you, I invite you to keep reading. You might actually agree with me once you see where I am going.

The fact is, the first group doesn’t actually believe their own rhetoric. I have heard proponents of this idea say things like “punishment doesn’t cause blowback” or, “anything is ok if it saves a dog’s life.” but they don’t mean that. If I said “The best way to stop a dog from jumping on you is hang him until he’s unconscious every time he does it” I think they would tell me there are better ways than that. If I countered that it meets their criteria: It works, it works quickly and the dog survives it. They would say, “Well yeah, but there are ways that are way less damaging to the dog.” Of course there are. Which is my point.

Likewise if I were to say the best way to stop counter surfing would be take a bull whip to the dog’s back when he put his paws on the counter, they would be aghast (I hope) and suggest that (again) there are easier ways. Easier for the dog, for the dog’s owner, and for the trainer. So whether they say it outright or not, there is a limit to what is acceptable that stops well short of death. Effectiveness and quickness are, in truth, not their only criteria. Rather, those requirements are a rhetorical device used to frame the argument in a way that never requires them to deal with the counter argument that there may be a kinder way to create the same effect. Because in the end, they all know abuse exists. They all know that punishment can go too far. They all know that blowback CAN happen. But they believe that THEY don’t go too far. It’s kind of like overpopulation, “There’s just enough of me, and too much of every body else.” They want to be free to use their own judgment without fear of being attacked, so they try to shut down arguments by creating a rhetorical framework that supports the idea that the relative harshness of two effective approaches is immaterial. But it’s not immaterial. Not for them, and certainly not for the dog or the dog’s owners.

On the other side of the spectrum. The no pain, discomfort or fear people also aren’t being entirely honest with themselves. They too create walls or rhetoric that allow them to avoid a hard look at their own work and the well-being of the dogs. To say that there is no amount of punishment that is ever useful is every bit as illogical and disingenuous as to say that there is no such thing as too harsh. Both extremes allow for the possibility of abuse. But as with the other group, the rhetoric isn’t entirely representative of their behavior. It’s a rallying point and a protective wall. It keeps them from having to explain why they are taking a path that is taking more time than what someone else might do. It keeps them from having to defend a method that might be a bit slower than others. I might make the same choices, and often do. But I don’t protect my choices with a rhetorical absolute, rather I defend my choices with solid reasons based on what I know of dogs in general and that dog in particular.

Many of those who live by this idea, will tell you they would rather see a dog put to sleep than receive a leash correction. “Death before discomfort” is an unavoidable result of this kind of thinking. Dogs might go through life constantly frustrated by strict management protocols and almost no freedom.

The truth is, most days I have more in common with the second group than the first one, but I differ where it matters most. I understand that sometimes punishment is not only excusable, or even that it’s the best choice.

Sometimes, it’s the only reasonable choice.

However, sometimes it’s an irresponsible choice.

There are no golden absolutes when it comes to deciding when and how to apply punishments. Except that we should all be working hard to do the job in the way that is best for the dog. We might disagree about what is best for the dog, but we should at least agree that the dog’s well-being has to be a priority. For me, it should be top priority. What’s best for the dog should not be determined by my preconceptions but about the dog in front of me.

It’s very simple. I think we would all agree that if we can solve a problem reliably and quickly without putting the dog into a fear response, we should definitely take that path. I don’t think anyone is advocating for using fear when fear is no more effective than other approaches. But if the only thing that I have that will stop a dog from running in front of a car is fear … well, I have two obligations at that time. The first is use fear, to save that dog’s life. The second is to find out if I could have done the same thing without fear, and if it can be done, become skilled at doing that.

I wrote many years ago, that I will never let my ideas about how dog training should be done get in the way of getting the job done. I don’t think I’ve ever betrayed the principle. I also wrote that I never want to use any more pain, discomfort or fear than is absolutely necessary to create the reliability my clients need to keep their dogs safe. At the time I wrote those words, I was much heavier handed. I used a lot more discomfort and punishment than we absolutely necessary in general. But it was absolutely necessary because of my meager skill set. I didn’t know how to do it any other way.

These days, I routinely solve problems with 90% motivation-based work that I used to believe unequivocally required punishment to solve. I would not have believed a trainer saying they solved some of the cases I have solved the way I have solved them. But now I have no choice but to believe.

In the end, dog trainers are a contentious bunch, and they love to argue, they love to debate, and they love to pontificate. The love to take offense, and to (maybe) a lesser extent, they love to give offense. But the truth is none of that matters, not really. Winning an argument is not the same thing as training a dog. And that’s what we are here to do.

Train the damn dogs.

I don’t care if you think I’m full of shit.

I don’t care if you think my ideas are too soft, and my training too weak.

Because day in and day out, I help people with their dog problems. If you’re doing the same thing, more power to you. If you’re not, maybe stop arguing with others and start listening? Because no matter what camp you belong to, there’s a ton of good and valuable information in the other camp that you aren’t hearing about. Go get it. Use it, and be a better trainer.

If you ever ask about my training, I hope to be able to answer you “A little bit better than it was yesterday, and hopefully a whole lot worse than it will be tomorrow.”

That’s my goal. I invite you to share it and stop worrying about what camp or ideology you subscribe to, instead subscribe the mantra of constant improvement.

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