Unlike other trades like plumbing, there isn’t a consensus on the right way to do a particular task, instead there is a million dog trainers and each one has “their way.” So much so that dog trainers sum up the training community with one cliche: the only thing two trainers can agree on is that the third trainer has no idea what they are talking about.
As a trainer, this creates a large amount of stress. Every trainer I meet loves dogs and wants the best for them, but the dialogue has broken down over the best way to move forward with dogs.
Our community is fractured along partisan lines, much the way our nation’s politics are divided. Two sides yelling at each other about what is right and that leads you, the consumer, to be confused and forced to pick a side as well.
Influenced by changing demographics in the veterinary and training industry, positive reinforcement training based on B.F. Skinner’s work with rats gave way to the idea that dogs could be trained without harsh and punitive methods. Pioneers like Ian Dunbar started speaking about the merits of food training and using joy and humanity in dog training rather than command and compulsion.
These new trainers did amazingly in competitions. Their dogs looked peppier, more enthusiastic, and joyful while winning competition after competition.
On top of winning competitions, positive reinforcement and “force free” training was and is being touted by many veterinary behaviorists as the cure for behavioral issues like aggression, fear, and more.
In the era of modern communication, though, it is the trainers who are willing to correct that are capturing more stories of change and rehabilitation and sharing them so that we all can see.
Today, there are extremists on both sides of the paradigm, but if you look at the majority of people, like in politics, trainers fall somewhere in the middle - blending positive reinforcement and corrective training to create a dog that works excitedly, but is also expected to respect boundaries and rules.
Yet still, a loud voice from academia and the Internet is calling for only positive reinforcement to be used in dog training.
Personally, I started my dog training career using mostly positive reinforcement. Like most people, I didn’t want to do anything harmful to my dog if it wasn’t necessary.
My first project dog when I was a young man led me to a bunch of dead ends and an eventual trip to a veterinary behaviorist who told me to use positive reinforcement and medication like Prozac and Trazadone to manage anxiety. I saw no change for the better in my dog, but did notice the medicine would lead her to sit in her bed and shake as if she were cold or scared. But I had worked with a very well regarded veterinary behaviorist who told me that was the answer so I went onward with my own dog and my early client dogs doing that which was deemed to be good and acceptable by the thought leaders in the industry.
As I saw this approach failing, I felt ignited to learn. I started following the e-collar training of the now deceased Martin Deeley. I watched him work with these e-collars - what I was told were tools of destruction and cruelty - and saw only joy and control on the dogs he was working with. I went back to look at the work Cesar Millan did on tv, which many corrective trainers rightly call simplistic or made for TV, and saw dramatic shifts in dogs who were enduring finger pokes, leash corrections, and more. I watched countless dogs changed on YouTube and instructional DVDs and I decided I wanted to learn what the “dark side” was doing.
I respect any trainer out there trying to make a difference in the lives of dogs, but realized I wasn’t getting dogs to where I wanted them to be. It’s one of the reasons I decided to go into business for myself - so that I could look at the dog in front of me and figure out what tool could get the dog to where I wanted them to go rather than worrying about what the business would allow me to do based on popular opinion.
When selecting a trainer, try to avoid the politics.Good trainers have a ton of tools in their toolbox and know how to get results while minimizing stress (some stress, as you know from your own life, is unavoidable). Be concerned with trainers who have fallen in love with a “system” or ideology, rather than honed the skill of building rapport with a dog.
Dogs are not treat machines being programmed like a computer. Conversely, dogs are not unfeeling animals or wolves who always need to be put into their place with physicality.
As with many things, the truth is in the middle and best I can tell, a blended approach and solid communication with dogs is what will really get results with the least amount of stress.