Correcting Trainers

I just read an email that greatly upset me. No, it wasn’t about cruel treatment of a dog; it was about cruel treatment of a person.

This person is an aspiring dog trainer. To follow her passion, she paid a great sum of money to attend a school where students learned about canine body language and behavior and were also taught a variety of tools and methods, from clicker training and positive reinforcement to pinch collars and even e-collars.

You should know that this is a crossover trainer who was originally using collar corrections, and wants to get into a more “positive” style of training. Although she did attend that school, she chose not to use e-collars. But she is now feeling demonized when attempting to have any discussion online that mentions e-collars at all (again, not because she wants to use them, just to have a better understanding). I don’t doubt what she is saying, as I have seen that very thing happen. Not only that, but she is also encountering people on other lists who are making her feel guilty for suggesting even a verbal correction. That’s just plain wrong.

I don’t care what your training philosophy is or where you stand in your experience or education; there is no reason to treat other people that way. Maybe instead of asking where we fall on the spectrum of correcting dogs, we ought to question our methods and severity in correcting humans. It’s all too easy in the online arena, where people are faceless, to be petty, snarky, condescending, and even cruel. It’s easy to forget that we’re all just doing the best we can. I truly try not to be judgmental, in and out of the dog training world, and I admit that I sometimes fail. But I honestly don’t understand why we can’t discuss tools and methodology in a civil tone. If you’re trying to change someone’s mind, you’re not going to do it by making them feel bad about themselves. People are more likely to leave than listen when you try to have a conversation from a pedestal.

I know this smacks of Rodney King’s “Can’t we all just get along,” but that is exactly what I’m saying. I was so pleased to see a recent online discussion where the dreaded hot topic of e-collars (no pun intended) was discussed more civilly than I have seen before. Am I glad because now we can all start using e-collars? No. I’m glad because the people who use them deserve as much respect and opportunity to explain their reasoning as do those who use other methods. If you’re a moderator and don’t want a tool discussed on your list, that’s your prerogative; make a rule and that’s that. But if you allow the discussion, it ought to be respectful on both sides. How else are we going to learn from each other? I’d hate to think about a new trainer joining an organization and stepping into the middle of a flame-war rather than finding encouragement and support.

Back to the person who emailed me. She’s new to the business, and was feeling totally demoralized and lost. That shouldn’t happen to anyone. We experienced, successful trainers, regardless of where we fall on the correction/tool spectrum, are the ones who should be setting an example. Newcomers should be able to join our profession and participate in discussions without fear of judgement or ridicule. It can only be “positive” for them, for us, and for the future of our profession.

25 Responses to Correcting Trainers

  1. jimpoor says:

    Bottom line seems to be that we’re all for positive training of our dogs, but no so in favor of positive training for our fellow humans.

    Sad actually.

    • wildewmn says:

      Jimpoor, yes, exactly! To be truly positive means treating humans with the same positive attitude and respect you give dogs.

  2. Hi Nicole,
    This is a really interesting post – and a similar thing happened in the UK recently. Last autumn, a new, young dog trainer called Jordan Shelley (you may have heard of him?) appeared on a prime time TV show, using very outdated methods to train a JRT out of food guarding. Don’t get me wrong – I was very upset by the approach he demonstrated, and he naively described a certain celebrity trainer (who many people think uses cruel methods) as his ‘idol’.
    But after the outcry had subsided, he had the courage to try and change his approach – he attended conferences and worked with much more progressive trainers to rethink his work with dogs. He did make a huge error of judgement initially, but he has since admitted publicly to his mistake, and is (I believe) trying to change. Yet there are still some in the ‘dog world’ who slate him, and give him a really hard time.
    Given that we are supposed to be all about positive reinforcement, I find this very hard to understand. The ONLY way we are going to change opinions, and eradicate cruel training methods to replace them with more humane (ad more effective) approaches is through patience, education and good role modelling. By running this new trainer down, the worst case scenario is that she jumps back to her old methods as that was her ‘comfort zone’ and she has been made to feel so demoralised by trying to move out of it. She should have been given an opportunity to properly explore and discuss different approaches with a more experienced trainer, to help reshape her thinking – she is clearly open to change.
    I am planning to train as a dog trainer this year, and would be horrified if I wanted to discuss different approaches as part of my education and was squashed and criticised. I am an ex-Learning & Development professional and a psychology graduate, and am very aware of the best way to change human behaviours and thinking – and it isn’t by making anyone feel small.
    Aren’t we humans stupid sometimes?!

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Ashley,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I remember the brouhaha over Jordan Shelley’s appearance on television. I’m ashamed to say that at first I too jumped on the bandwagon. But I do know he spent time learning with Ian and Kelly Dunbar, who were wise enough to offer their knowledge without judgement, as well as attending conferences, etc. From what I can see, he learned valuable new training skills and methodology, and will be a great help to dogs and people.

      I give Jordan a lot of credit, and hope we can all keep an open mind, give people a second chance, and keep educating without judgment.

      Take care,

      • Laura W says:

        Ian Dunbar has been my role model on how to treat trainers that use those methods. I was talking to him in a small group and I asked him how he handled the frustration of constantly dealing with people who wanted to shock their dogs because it was burning me out. He said wisely that those people are the ones who need him most and that they are the reason he hasn’t retired. It gave me a new approach to talking to them that doesn’t put them on the defensive so we can actually communicate and it works really well.

  3. Tracey S says:

    Great topic, Nicole. I hope that person is reading this blog and can see that there are many of us who feel bad that she had that experience.

    I think people just get emotional when they think about the harm that can be done with shock collars (I assume that’s what you meant by e-collars, and not an Elizabethan collar). It gets very frustrating trying to convince the general public not to use them–as evidenced recently by a surreal conversation I had with a “fan” on my own company’s facebook page. Maybe those people are frustrated and taking it out on the new trainer without thinking. I’m not defending them. I’m just speculating about why a person would be against harsh punishment for animals, but still use it on people.

    I’m embarrassed to say that I briefly used shock collars in the past and I have appreciated the kindness and understanding of my own trainer friends. I hope the lady who wrote you can find a group like that, as well.

  4. Michelle says:

    Strange…I could have sworn that I responded to this post already! At any rate, this is spot on. I see this far too often in communities I’m involved in. Someone comes in with some issues with their dogs, mentions using XYZ training technique that is “not positive” and they get jumped on and attacked. The person often deletes their post and departs. I don’t know how this is anything but counterproductive. There are a lot of great positive trainers out there but I find a lot of them to be fairly snarky with people. I think some of it may be that they feel people can reason through like a dog can’t and therefore “should know better.” It’s a real talking-down to people with other ideals and never ever works to get people over to our side. “Catch more flies with honey” and all that!

    I admit to having fallen into that trap when I first got passionate about dog training. Now I look back on how I acted with utter embarrassment.

  5. Karin says:

    No training tool in and of itself is cruel. It requires the handler to use it incorrectly, harshly or without thoughtfulness to be inhumane.

  6. Hi Nicole, great post and one that is dear to my heart as I can admit that I have been on both sides too. It is easy to have compassion for the dogs and harder to have compassion for those humans that we do not agree with. As a former ‘choke-chain’ trainer, I know I was not a bad person and was training in a way that I thought was the best for me at that time. I see myself in others who train differently, and use different tools, than me and work towards compassion for all.
    PS. blatant promotion here but I have designed a workshop called Reactive Rachel: Understanding Your Own Fears as a Pro Dog Trainer which is available on APDT’s webinars because I so wanted to address this topic publicly.
    Thank you for all that you do!

  7. This is a great blog. Thank you for writing it.

  8. Jerry Ingram says:

    Hi Nicole,
    I run into this all the time. Truly Dog Friendly treated me like crap for the very same reasons. Force Free trainers is no different. If these two groups had any dedication to their ideas, they would be capable of using the techniques with human animals. Their lack of being able to do so is hypocritical. On fb I was invited to a group that was suppose to support the very idea of helping crossovers without this phenom, but they quickly started arguing about the conduct of members. Not allowed to block others etc.
    I use positive punishment, but it is not a primary source of training, I never start with it in mind. It is a resource option I pull out when necessary. It can be confusing in reality. Take a time out, where you have a dog sit while you hold them and wait for their emotional state to calm down. Depending on the animals state of mind, this could be considered positive or negative punishment. I use time outs. I use no, but do not like to use it in an intimdating way. I never harm an animal unless it becomes necessary due to aggression. When a dog attacks all bets are off, especially if he has significant weight or size.
    I would never use positive punishment on a scared dog, which is 90+% of my behavior issues. I do not believe positive punishment has to be used with significant force to be effective, it only needs to be strong enough to make an alternative less pleasing.
    I just let the hypocrits alone and keep learning as much as I can. The more I know, the less I will be forced to resort to positive punishment.
    You know where I am on fb, if your friend wants to contact me, I will be willing to speak to her, or help her find her way anytime.
    I’ve considered a group in fb for reality trainers. That group does not exist. Lets be honest, that adolescent out of control pup that has always gotten his way, is not out of control and pushy, might need a wake up call to get his attention. Harsh trainers won’t reward him as soon as he gives that attention though. My fb friends list has been declining due to the number of self absorbed jerks.
    I don’t much care what others say anymore, I get results and I do not get dogs like Cesar or Brad. Comparing me to them shows ignorance.

    Jerry Ingram

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Jerry,

      I’m always sorry when anyone is treated badly by any group, whether “positive,” “balanced,” or whatever category. Ironically, the actual tools or training methodology aren’t really the issue–how we treat each other is very much the issue. I have a few trainer friends who (gasp!) use e-collars. They have excellent knowledge of how the tool works, and when they do use it (which is generally as a last resort or for long-distance off-leash work), they strive to apply the least amount of pain. I personally do not advocate the use of e-collars and do not use them myself (except with the possibility of use for snake avoidance training, but that’s a whole other discussion). But I understand that these trainers are not slapping the collar on the dog, turning it up to 11 (Spinal Tap joke, sorry–I really mean a very high number), and zapping the crap out of the dog. I know some do, but that doesn’t mean everyone who uses the e-collar is some sort of dog-torturing demon. And guess what, by having this attitude, I can have discussions with these friends about a lot of different things, including e-collars and other tools, without it getting unpleasant.

      I honestly believe that underneath it all, we’re all more alike than we are different. We chose this profession in great part because we love dogs and care about their welfare. That’s really where the strong reactions come from when we perceive that dogs may be hurt by a particular training method. But just as a sense of “otherness” creates racism, ageism, gender discrimination, etc., fostering an “us and them” attitude only creates a more divisive world of dog trainers who can’t even communicate respectfully with each other. I hope that will change.

      Take care,

      • Jerry Ingram says:

        I think you missed my point. I agree its discomforting when anyone is treated badly. Who can you trust? Someone who does what they say, or someone who does what is convenient for them?
        Are you willing to trust your dog with someone who treats dogs with respect, but is verbally violent with people?
        I don’t think this person can be trusted with either.


  9. I was recently booted off of an online FB group and “de-friended” because of similar things, not because I was doing anything wrong just that they didn’t like who I was friends with (which included an e-collar trainer). Sad, very sad. Some people spend way too much time hating other people and bashing their ways. It’s draining and doesn’t get anyone anywhere!

  10. It is unfortunate that some people cannot have open mind on subjects. I am a positive trainer and I am positive trainer with their human owners too.

    I have been fortunate to attend seminars with Ian Dunbar, Roger Abrantes, Turid Rugaas to name a few, but one thing I have learnt we cannot change everyone’s mind.

    If someone says that prefer using e-collars, that is their choice, though I would not, I would not judge them for it, I just prefer to use more verbal and safe removal techniques to help a dog learn.

    Again I would no slate or slander their service as this is the way they prefer to train. This then takes me on to what you Nicole said about Ian Dunbar and more people to help, which is true.

    All we can do is keep trying to educate that dogs if dogs get a good start to a life we the owners can set them up to be good dogs in the future., but again education is the key. They we would not need quick fixes like e-collars. Sorry for seemingly going off topic.

  11. Pat says:

    Thank you so much for this article – I could have been that trainer, except I was so worried about losing access to the “positive training” school’s forum to ask any questions. I dropped out.

    How can we convince people – other trainers or owner – who use harsher methods than necessary to think about changing their ways if we don’t carry on a dialog? Without discussion, we end up just preaching to the choir.

  12. Places and Pets says:

    Nicole, thank you so much for that reminder. I was unable to have a dog for many years, so when I could have one again, of course I fell into the most positive methods of training and spoiling my pet. But my first approach to training was your DVD Train Your Dog that was free through my library. What a blessing. I could tell from your gentle voice, patient ways with dogs, and your great sense of humor – I would want to follow your methods of training. Then in reading your books, you share openly with all who want to learn, and you discourage the competitive types who take the uppity road, and I truly believe you have helped as many humans as you have dogs. You have certainly helped me. Thank you for projecting love, instead of using fear to gain an upper hand over your dogs or students. Thank you for being an excellent model of what a trainer should be.

    • wildewmn says:

      Thank you so much. Your kind words brought tears to my eyes. And I’m grateful that the DVD and books were so helpful.

  13. Michelle says:

    This goes both ways. I was recently blasted on a FB group for a rescue (where I got my dog no less) for suggesting that someone use a clicker instead of a prong collar for a dog’s pulling issues. I had carefully phrased my suggestion in a non-insulting way, offering it as an alternative, not a ‘better’ method. But someone wrote back with a huge rant about the validity of prong collars when used correctly. Maybe with all the hostility that exists between trainers, some are becoming hyper sensitive and a little too defensive.

  14. Debbie says:

    I agree that civility when dealing with others is important. I don’t, however, believe that you should remain silent about how you feel about tools just because you feel pressured to remain totally positive. That’s not education.

    When I was starting out (I am a crossover trainer), I was suprised to find that so many trainers believed the jerk and praise method (that I used and was good at) was outdated, cruel, and potentially damanging to the dog.

    I did not think “oh, poor me, no one will like me, maybe I should stop learning”. No. I thought, “wow, there’s so much more stuff I need to learn. Let’s get to it.”

    I would have hated it if people kept secret that there was a whole faction of the dog training world that felt that avoidance and escape techniques were not the best and nicest way to train. Why would I want those truths to be kept secret? That would not have helped my education.

    Now, it’s become so politically incorrect to even mention that you think certain methods/tools are not humane. You are then accused of being closed minded. Not positive to the people. (because, of course, if you think that putting a shock collar on a puppy to teach it not to move is cruel, than by extension, you must be calling the trainer that trains that way… cruel. And now, you are not being positive to the people part of the equation.)

    The pressure these days (on certain trainer email lists) to keep silent about possible fall out or side effects of certain tools, or your personal opinion about the concept of humane… yikes… it’s a form of censhorship IMO.

    It’s one thing to remain respectful of your fellow trainers. To welcome new people into our profession, and be willing to help them along in their education. To try and find common ground, and keep an open discourse. All very important.

    But, while trying to do the above, you should not have to give up on the fight for what you truly believe in. At the end of the day, I would rather have spent my energy and time trying to work for the most humane training practices that we could possibly have. If that means that I say that it is a travesty that some dogs have to live their lives forced to do the things we want them to do inorder to avoid or escape getting shocked. Then I’ll say it. Sorry if this will offend some. And I’m sorry if the “you are not positive to the people” police will be on my case. This is a small price to pay for the bigger picture of creating a more humane world where the end does NOT justify the means.

    ps. Nicole – really enjoy your blog, your books, etc… !!!

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Debbie,

      Thanks for your comments. To clarify, I never suggested that anyone be silent about how they feel about tools. My friends who use e-collars, for example, are well aware of how I feel about them. Using your example of a trainer “putting a shock collar on a puppy to teach it not to move,” which many of us *would* consider cruel: do we then consider the trainer cruel? Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say this is a cruel person in general (assuming I don’t know the person), but I would certainly speak up and say that what they are doing is cruel.

      My point is not that you should, as you said, “give up the fight for what you truly believe in”–not at all. I certainly haven’t. And I’m most definitely not the “you are not positive to the people” police. The only person I can police is myself. I think you and I are actually more on the same page than not, and of course we all want dogs to be treated humanely. When the issue of what tools or training methods are humane arises, I still believe you can speak your piece and share your beliefs in such a way that you make your point without getting the other person’s hackles up, so that the conversation can continue and minds actually can be changed.

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog, books, etc. 🙂

      Take care,

      • Debbie says:

        Oops… as much of what I said was directed at the general concept you were talking about, and recent stuff going on – especially on some trainer email lists, I didn’t realize that my comments would be taken as being directed at you.

        You and I *are* on the same page as far as I can tell. I was just adding to the conversation, *not* accusing you of being the “you are not positive to the people – police”, etc.. : )

      • wildewmn says:

        Debbie, not at all, and no offense taken. And I hear your frustration about the lists, although I’ve been somewhat encouraged by civil discussions I’ve seen on one lately.

    • Jerry Ingram says:

      I think it is perfectly okay to be open about our veiws on training methods and tools. I just don’t want anyone getting treated harshly because of what they do. It makes them build their defences and convictions stronger and once the brick wall is built, its much less likely that individual is going to convert.

      If we let others know how we feel about these things, we plant seeds and opportunities to progress. Alienating them or cursing at them, wishing bad deeds is unacceptable to me.

  15. Recently attended a seminar with the speaker being a hugely renowned & respected, internationally, speaker. Right at the start speaker said, “I am not going to be politically correct, I am going to say things you won’t like and use the true wording rather than dance around to find a more favourable word”.
    Speaker was true to word, but the chunterings from the audience was clear. Personally I appreciated the speaker’s directness – these “negative” words need to be said in their true context so they don’t get misinterpreted or demonised as is now becoming the case. The speaker was even attempting to get participants to openly say the words, when it became clear they were making huge efforts not to.
    Some participants expressed concern that certain delegates would think because “punishment” was being spoken about they would think punishment (in the popular definition) was ok (and as the speakers suggested – sometimes it is!). The speaker was speaking of these words in their correct definition (which is admittedly very broad) and did clarify this as to the definition in the speakers mind but still participants felt the negative words should not be used at all.
    Nicole I agree with you – I do believe these things need to be talked about openly and without fear of being blasted for expressing an opinion. Open honest debate is essential to grow.

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