When we know better, we do better

I absolutely love dog-friendly training and the community of colleagues and dedicated pet parents I have come to know who share my enthusiasm and commitment to enhancing the human-animal bond through this dynamic form of interspecific communication.

We tend to be a passionate group.  Our delight in these exceptionally fun, highly effective training techniques binds our community together.

The flip side of this particular coin is that occasionally, good trainers go bad.  It is a rare and wise trainer who attains integrity through applying the same behavior modification techniques we espouse for dogs to our fellow humans.

I’ll be honest, this is often easier said than done.  Sometimes people say and do stupid things.  Yes, even dog people are “only human,” and as such, we are prone to making mistakes and, if we are lucky, learning from them.  But there is an element of truth to every cliché; and the truth is, you win more flies with honey.  Dog-friendly trainers, of all people, should be aware of this.

Should we, as positive dog trainers, perhaps consider a reality check regarding our “people training” skills?


Most modern trainers agree that “all animals learn in the same manner.”  This means that the principals of learning, as espoused by operant and classical conditioning, transcend the boundaries of species and apply to all creatures able to eat, move, and process information.

Many of us hesitate even to use “No Reward Markers” (NRMs) in training our dogs, and yet do not hesitate to judge, harass, insult, apply social pressure to, and otherwise bully or intimidate or fellow human dog owners who display what we perceive to be “unwanted” or “inappropriate” behaviors in dog training.

Social forums representing a broad spectrum of training perspectives are fraught with the worst examples of human behavior – name calling, mud slinging, the world wide web equivalent of shocks, collar pops, alpha rolls, ear pinches against our fellow pet parents.  We treat people that choose to train differently from ourselves as if they are moral degenerates, dog abusers, and “savages” in need of converting.

I don’t know that I think this behavior wins us many converts.  Too many people shout so loud the message is lost.  I’ve been guilty myself.  Unlike Monte, I am no Saint.  However, emotional impulse control is as worthwhile a skill for humans to build as it is for our beloved canines.

If we all truly believe in the concept of “first, do no harm,” to what extent to these rules apply?  Only when we are talking about non-human animals?  If so, we should ask ourselves, why?  Is it more important to be “right,” or to be helpful?

Behavioral apathy and euthanasia

Millions of dogs are destroyed in this country every year.  Many, many of these dogs are abandoned to shelters or dropped off to face the euthanasia needle alone by pet parents who are too frustrated by their dog’s overwhelming unwanted behaviors and lack the skills or understanding needed to do anything about it.

Next time you are tempted to judge someone for using a training method you may not personally agree with, stop and reflect for a moment.  That person is TRYING.  She is not giving up on her dog.  He is not putting an ad up on craigslist to rehome the dog, tying him to a fence outside the local shelter, dumping her on a farm, or insisting that the vet euthanize the dog for pulling on the leash or chasing a neighbor’s cat.

These pet parents are doing the best they can with the information they have available to them.  Maybe it’s not the same information you have, and maybe it’s not the best that you can do.  But give them credit for not abandoning their dog at the first puddle on the new carpet, or the first growl at another dog.

If they didn’t care about their dog, they wouldn’t even bother trying to train it.  They would kill the dog or abandon it, as is evidenced by our pet overpopulation problem.

Extinction bursts

Realizing that what you thought worked, that what you thought was “right,” is actually counterproductive and potentially harmful is not a pleasant experience.  One of the downsides of extinction is that if you aren’t careful, it can create much frustration and yes, even aggression.

I never wanted to put a prong on Monte for his aggression, but at the time I was not aware of other options.  I was very turned off by what I then perceived to be somewhat militant “positive” trainers who criticized my use of punishment, questioning my loyalty and devotion to my dog, while making liberal use of positive punishment in their interactions with me.

Empathy and understanding, as opposed to judgment and ridicule, would have been far more effective in helping me crossover more quickly.  The guilt trip?  Not helpful.  It only made me more angry, more frustrated, and less hopeful.

I already felt bad enough about the training that a) I didn’t like in the first place and b) was dismally unsuccessful.  I loved my dog.  I was desperate to help him, and reached out for corrective measures in my desperation because I was not aware of an effective, dog-friendly alternative.

Bullies and people that are arrogant are socially repellent.  Don’t be that guy.  Paying lip service to “dog-friendly” training techniques while being socially “people-jerky” is not an acceptable or effective way to win converts.

Becoming a changemaker

Not surprisingly, Karen Pryor sets the ultimate example of change-maker as it applies to the positive reinforcement training community. Her http://www.clickertraining.com blog entry, On Being a Changemaker, truly says it all.

At her presentation on “Punishment and the Public” at ClickerExpo in Lexington this past May, Karen talked about television trainer Cesar Millan and how positive reinforcement trainers should approach the issues broached by Mr. Millan’s undoubted success. Her solution? We clicker train him.

So next time you are tempted to judge a pet parent who is struggling without skills, instruction, or an empathetic voice of reason, think of me and Monte.  Do I seem to be an abusive pet parent? Someone who is uncaring about canine welfare or the human-animal bond? I certainly hope not. Have I made mistakes that I regret in training? Absolutely. I’ve even made a few since “crossing over” to positive training.  I bet you have, too.

One of my best friends, Kim Pike, is a talented crossover clicker trainer. Kim always says, “When we know better, we do better.” Powerful words.

It is this trainer’s belief that fear of punishment and ability to learn are diametrically opposed. Which are you fostering in the dog parents you encounter?  How does your behavior affect others’ perception of you as a positive trainer and as a representative of the dog-friendly training community?

Remember, the essence of effective modern training is in showing your learner the right thing to do and encouraging small steps toward the goal behavior.  It is in showing the learner what to do, as opposed to focusing on everything the learner may be doing “wrong.”  It is empathy and patience. It is respect, it engages the learner, and promotes self-esteem and confidence.  “Positive training” (for lack of a better term) is a misnomer without these characteristics.

“Be the change you want to see in the world”  – Ghandi

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