Dog trainers should understand the how, when and why of dog training

He’s Fine by Chad Mackin,

I once had occasion to watch a new trainer working a young boxer puppy. The dog was four or five months old, the trainer was considerably older than that. He came for a fairly heavy-handed school of thought and being new in the business lacked understanding of the nuances of the work. He had a fairly black and white outlook. The dog either obeyed or he didn’t. If he didn’t, there was a leash correction for every occasion. It should have been clear to him that this was no way to train a puppy. But it wasn’t. The trainer probably was temperamentally unsuited to be working with puppies. He wasn’t patient enough, nor forgiving enough. It was almost as if he couldn’t be bothered to take the time to teach, he needed get results right away. He would argue that punishments do teach, and they are faster and more effective than rewards or countless repetition. Had I taken the time to challenge him, he would have very likely pointed out that he’s getting obedience really quickly from dogs other trainers had failed to get responses from. He was too young and too inexperienced to think there might be more to good dog training than how quickly you can get compliance. The statement that not all compliance was equal, would have been met snide derision.

As I watched the session unfold, the pup became more and more frustrated. The more the “trainer” corrected him for not understanding what was expected and thus failing to comply, the more frustrated the puppy got. So he did what boxers often do when frustrated, he tried to make peace by getting the trainer to play. He responded to each correction by jumping on the trainer. Each jump invariably brought on a stronger correction.

The spiral terminated in it’s inevitable conclusion.

The 4 month old puppy decided his only real choice was to try to put his teeth into this trainer.

The trainer hesitated not an instant before he responded by hoisting the dog off the ground by the leash. The puppy dangled there, thrashing to and fro, foaming at the mouth, until deprived of oxygen he relented. The trainer set him back to the ground with a satisfied look on his face, and patiently waited for the pup to expel the contents of his stomach onto the parking lot. He said to the pup, “I didn’t want to do that, but you left me no choice.” He gave the dazed pup a scratch on the head and went to resume the “lesson”. I said nothing. The reason for this will become clear shortly.

His girlfriend was not so slow to speak up. She was clearly aghast at her boyfriend’s behavior and she let him know it. He explained that he couldn’t let the dog get away with attacking him. “If I let him win, he will just think it’s ok to use his teeth on humans when he doesn’t get his way.”

She rebutted that there had to be a better way to stop that behavior. To which he responded that he was the “trainer” and knew more about it than she did.

Then she expressed concern about the dog’s health. She asked if he wasn’t worried about hurting the dog.

And then he said it.

He said the words that trainers everywhere use when challenged about using too much compulsion:

“He’s fine.”

He was pretty much right too. The dog eventually got to be well-trained despite the shortcomings of his trainer. He was off-leash reliable under all manner of distractions. He was safe around strangers and kids, every one who met him loved him.

The reason I didn’t say anything to that young trainer was because I agreed with him at the time. Because I was the trainer. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I just told you about a lesson I “taught” in my first year as a professional trainer. I did those things.

The dog was named Sampson and I’m not lying when I say he turned out to be an awesome dog. I’m also not lying when I say it was despite of my methods not because of them. What I did to the dog that afternoon was stupid and unforgivable. But the truth is, as far as I could tell, the dog suffered no long-term consequences from the abuse I dished out that day. And it was abuse plain and simple. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to stop taking people’s money for training dogs and get a real mentor.

But he was fine.

Depending on what you mean by fine that is.

There was no evidence of physical injury. There was no lasting fear of people or even of training. He wasn’t even afraid of me after that. No one looking at the dog in later life would say “Someone abused this poor dog at some point.” He was as gregarious and trusting dog as you might ever meet.

Now, I hope that most readers can readily see that there is nothing about the fact that the dog didn’t suffer any apparent long term effects which makes how I handled the dog “ok” in any sense of the word. Yet, that exact argument is often put forward to defend less dramatic types of unnecessary compulsion.

I hear it all the time. Whenever someone opines that a particular training method was rougher than necessary, or that it could have been done in a more fair way, someone inevitably pipes up and says “The dog is fine.” They may even point out the fact that there was no lasting damage done to the dog. I guess it all depends on what we mean by the word “fine.” But is “fine” the gold standard? Is that the life we hope our pets enjoy? A world where they are “fine.”

I think we can do better than “fine.” In fact, I think we are obligated to try.

The fact that the dog might not suffer long term ongoing damage doesn’t automatically justify whatever training methods we choose to use.

Such an assertion is just nonsense.

What if we made assault only a crime if the victim demonstrated long term negative effects? What if we made theft only illegal if the victim lost enough money for them to suffer serious hardship?

“He’s fine” isn’t a defense, it’s a obfuscation of the situation. It’s the stage magicians ruse of getting the audience’s attention away from the thing he doesn’t want them to see. The abuse is hiding in plain sight while the audience is directed to a different question. “The dog is no worse for the wear, therefore there’s nothing to be concerned about.”

But we don’t know if the dog is any worse for the wear. We can’t know, not in that moment at least.

Sampson turned out to be an exceptional dog. But as I think back on my career, there are a number of dogs who never achieved their potential.

They too were “fine.”

There were countless dogs who were well-behaved, but not well-adjusted. They, like the men Thoreau famously described, led lives of “quiet desperation.”

“A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them …” These words echo the results of so much of my early training. “There is no play in them.” Even when those dogs would play, it was a reserved, careful, uninspired type of play. Like I said, Sampson was the exception.

Having training dogs to be joyfully obedient, I now see the difference between “he’s fine” and a dog fully experiencing what it means to be a dog.

The well-adjusted dog is the well-trained dog.

If the dog is not well-adjusted, then he’s not trained to his fullest potential. And the well-adjusted dog is not desperate. He is enthusiastic and engaged. He may have to accept that he can’t have his way all the time, but he finds the joy in being a dog nonetheless. The dog has the ability to teach us to embrace the moment. To find joy in a blade of grass, or a new scent. He can show us how to see magic in every new experience. This is part of the magic of the dog. He is more immediately in touch with the world than we are. He can teach us if we will listen.

But when we accept “he’s fine” as the standard, we run the risk of infecting them with the quiet desperation for which they are such a fine remedy. This, I think, is a great tragedy!

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