There’s a joke every dog trainer has heard… a lot. What is the only thing that two dog trainers can agree on? That the third dog trainer is doing it all wrong! I find this unfortunate. Especially for those of us who are trying to make changes in the industry and require that anyone who calls themself a dog trainer be held up to the highest standards of understanding and ethics. I have heard stories of those who wanted to try reward based training only to be turned off by an arrogant trainer who treated them with contempt. It’s a sad state of affairs. Some of those people close themselves off from science based training because the people who promote it can’t get along with each other, and can’t seem to come down from their idealistic clouds long enough to just teach people. I think that there are a few things that we can do that will help us further the cause of force free, harm free training, and that’s what I’m going to talk about here. Of course, if you are a dog trainer, you will probably disagree with me on all of this.
As trainers, we need to think of ourselves as servants, not as crusaders. The crusades were not pretty to many people. Yes, there is a sense where we are battling for the lives of our favorite species and best friend, the dog. But we needn’t enter every conversation ready to wage war. Instead we need to realize that, in order to show compassion to the dogs, we must first show compassion to their humans. Even if they are dog trainers! We need to give people the benefit of the doubt that they are using harsh and harmful methods not because they are sadists, but rather because they have never been shown how to effectively train a dog using positive reinforcement. I have even known some crossover trainers that seemed to forget where they came from. Many of us came out of those traditions because there was nothing else around when we learned how to train dogs. If we have come over from the dark side, hooray! Let’s work together to get the word out to those who have not and stop fighting about who is the better trainer with the better technique. Is the dog learning and having fun? Is the client sticking with us instead of running out to buy a shock collar? WINNING! It’s my win, even if it’s your client. Because the guy across town who still thinks dogs are wolves isn’t going to alpha roll this one. He’s safe. We can all breathe a sigh of relief and move on to the next potential convert.
But what of the compassion for other dog trainers who use punitive methods? Don’t take for granted that they have heard the good news! We force free trainers tend to surround ourselves with other force free trainers, but if you’ve got a trainer that is coming up out of a kennel club where they have been teaching others what was taught to them and not plugging in to subculture that you and I know exists, they really may just be ignorant. They may also have experienced poorly executed or confusing reward based training. I wish everyone who had a passion for reward based training was really super good at it. But they aren’t. Not everyone has the timing. Not everyone lives and breathes to learn more and more and more about what they do. Most of all, many of the punishment based trainers I meet have, at some point, met up with a cocky, arrogant, sanctimonious blow hard that calls him/herself a force free or positive reinforcement trainer. If this is the only trainer they ever meet that uses our techniques then we are in trouble. Because arrogance and self righteousness never changed anybody’s mind about anything. It’s repulsive, and repugnant, and it has no place in force free training.
If you’ve taught a group class, you know that no two students, be they human or canine, are ever the same. They don’t learn at the same rate. They don’t change at the same rate. But if they are making the journey, then we should help them stay on the path. We can’t do that if our patience is only extended to the dog. We can have endless patience for the dog, but if we are frustrated or short with the human end of the leash we might as well call Mr. Shock and Jerk, because we are about to hand him a client.
I think the day I should retire is the day that I start telling people that I know everything about dog training. There is always more to learn. They day we forget that is the day we need to hang up our treat bag and our clicker and fade into the sunset. We can all learn from each other. My techniques are not the same as your techniques, but they are similar enough that we can work together, and I may see something that you are doing that I never thought of! I love it when an epiphany hits! It’s one of my favorite things. And it happens, more often than not, when I walk into another trainer’s classroom with an attitude that they have something they can teach me. I have even learned things from trainers who used punishment! It can happen! Sometimes when you are digesting information you have to spit out the bones.
You have a lot to learn. I have a lot to learn. We need to be open to new ideas, even if we cannot take credit for them. A commitment to continuing education is essential if we are going to be at the top of our game. The title is a little misleading. None of us will ever be the best dog trainer ever. But together, accepting each other where we are, and offering a hand up instead of a slap down when needed, we can all be the best trainers around.