Dog Trainer Wars

husky attacksIf you’re not a dog trainer, you might not be aware of the divisiveness in the dog training world. (Hint: Think of our current political climate.) If you are a trainer, you no doubt know all too well what I’m talking about. This is nothing new and, sadly, this is not the first time I’ve written about it. The Training Wars have been going on for many decades, and are showing no sign of letting up.

The core issues in the ongoing debates revolve around training tools and methods. On one side, there are those who call themselves “positive trainers” and on the other, those who may term themselves “balanced trainers.” “Positive” refers to the use of positive reinforcement to teach and maintain skills, often in the form of treats, although sometimes toys and other reinforcers are used. Positive trainers use various training tools, but often eschew e-collars (a.k.a. shock collars) and many do not use choke chains or prong (a.k.a. pinch) collars. The focus is on teaching the dog what is expected, and then rewarding successful behavior. Those who call themselves “balanced trainers” may also use treats and positive reinforcement to train, or use alternate reinforcers such as praise, but are generally more willing to use punishment to enforce behaviors. Now, here’s where it gets tricky; that doesn’t mean positive trainers never use any form of punishment, or that the punishment used by balanced trainers is harsh physical punishment. Since “punishment” is defined as anything that lessens the likelihood of the behavior repeating, punishment can range from a verbal “No!” to a harsh jerk on a choke chain, and so on. The problem is, those stereotypes are invoked whenever the Training Wars commence.

Positive trainers are often painted as ineffectual, overly lax, “cookie-slinging weenies” who are afraid to even say, “No” when a dog does something wrong. On the other hand, I’ve seen Balanced trainers portrayed as shock collar-wielding monsters who don’t even teach a behavior before resorting to punishment. Neither of those caricatures is typically accurate, except perhaps at the far ends of the spectrum. I have seen trainers use treats prolifically but fail to teach rules and boundaries effectively. I’ve also seen trainers teach dogs not to take food off a table by using a shock collar, when a simple “leave it” would have sufficed. But again, most trainers fall somewhere in the middle. Most would agree that ridiculously harsh methods like helicoptering or hanging a dog have no place in dog training. Beyond that, it helps no one to sling mud when the bottom line is that most trainers are in it because we love and want to help dogs.

I recently saw a conversation on Facebook—that hotbed of civility—where training tools were being discussed. “Discussed” is a nice word for it. The post showed an image of various training tools, and inferred that all trainers should understand how all training tools worked. Well, you can imagine the riot that incited! Much dog-poo-slinging ensued. The thing is, I agree, for the most part. Although I would never put an e-collar on a dog, I do want to know that there are multiple settings and warning beeps and such, so that I can have an intelligent conversation about it if the topic comes up, rather than assuming that the trainer who uses it is someone who slaps a collar on a dog, presses a button, and causes a dog to shriek in pain. Again, it’s not a tool I would ever use or recommend, but being informed does not equal condoning.

At a seminar I taught a while back, the hosts pulled me aside beforehand and whispered that a few people had signed up that I might not want there. They weren’t sure what to do. Should they let them in? I asked what the problem was, and they said the registrants were from a local “balanced trainers” group. I couldn’t understand what the problem was. After all, they’d paid to be there, so they must have at least somewhat of an open mind–unless there was a bag of tomatoes I’d missed. Who knows, I might change someone’s mind about something, or at least plant a seed. Or, maybe something they said might cause me to understand a bit more about a different view. The point is, just like politics, if we have knee-jerk reactions when others have different policies than we do, and simply demonize them without making any effort to understand, the climate is never going to change. Have you ever seen someone change their mind about a training method or tool because they were being berated or bullied? Me, either. But I have seen trainers gradually change their methods by being shown the success of other ways, or because someone was willing to talk with them without speaking down to them, and they were willing to listen. At the very least, we can agree to disagree.

Look, we all have our own beliefs. Training methods are a hot-button topic because we love dogs and don’t want to see them suffer. We also don’t want to see training be ineffectual, which can also cause problems. But just as a country being divided doesn’t help its citizens and in fact hurts them, the Great Divide in dog training does the same to dogs. It’s not that we all need to use the same tools and methods; that’s never going to happen. But the vitriol, name-calling and general animosity seriously need to stop. It’s enough, already. Discussions can be had with open minds and, at the very least, with a lot more respect. Yes, even on the faceless internet. The divide in dog training is, in a way, a microcosm of the larger world, and both worlds could use a lot more tolerance and understanding right about now.
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You can find my books, seminar DVDs and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com. And you can check out my artwork at http://www.photomagicalart.com.

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10 Responses to Dog Trainer Wars

  1. Katy says:

    I was trained in the “positive training” group, but I grew up around “balanced” trainers. I see pros and cons to both sides. Funnily enough, I kind of see the same conversation among my “mommy friends” about the way they discipline their children. At the end of the day, love must win over fear and apathy. And either way, consistency really tends to be the most effective.

    • Adam says:

      I agree with Katy! Love must win over fear and apathy – especially since we’re doing all of this with our dogs in mind.

      I find it’s best to be in both camps somewhat in order to get the best of both worlds – as long as you’re consistent of course 🙂

      /Adam – The Doggy Institute

  2. Vivien Eales says:

    I have been training for over 50 years, from the age of around 13, and have seen so many changes during this time! Gone sre the days of dragging dogs around a hall, being bellowed at by a sergeant major type, feeling afraid you’d get picked on! Over many years, and working with some exceptional trainers, learning new skills, and listening to advise, your perceptions and handling change with the times, and you hope your knowledge is being passed on in the most positive, and easy to understand manor! Most of my clients over the years have not been competitive (Though a few might dispute that!), and have pet dogs they just want to fit into their lives! Each person, and their dog becomes individual, and so you tailor the training to their requirements! When running classes, which I’ve done in the UK, Spain and now France, you try to ensure that the information you are giving is clear, fun and not condescending in any way, so that they enjoy what you do, and want to come back! Prime example is a lady in her 70’s with a young dog, trying to get a sit today, constantly nagging her, nicely, without success! When I took over, showed her how i would do it, with a quick result, she was amazed, but quickly realised how easily she was confusing her dog with the wrong signals and attitude! I love what i do, and will always listen to those more specialised than I am, and offer whatever help and guidance is needed, whether as a ‘positive trainer ‘ or a ‘balanced trainer’, for I feel you can, actually be in both camps!

  3. Jenny H says:

    When I first heard about ‘treat training’ I was not convinced. Especially since the dog I had at that time was not at all interested in treats. I enrolled in a Certificate IV in Behavioural Dog Training, and was taken aback to hear of ‘check-chains’ being evil. Not as I had learned to use them.
    So I set about writing an article about “The Correct Use of Check-Chains” — and in doing so convinced myself that they are really NOT a good tool/equipment for your average dog owner.
    Just too easy to use badly.

  4. M.Parsons. says:

    I have owned 6German Sheperds and a Doberman and I have trained them to a high standard, I find dogs are like people they are all different. So as you gain expierience you have to apply different training methods but above all patience and expierience is the key. I personally think the use of pronged choke chains and electric collars are evil and people who lose their temper because the dog won’t do what they want need training before they get a dog.
    mparsons.

  5. Sandy says:

    I remember attending a training class w/a sergeant type instructor. He would belittle and name call the dog owners idiots for making mistakes, etc. Until one owner piped up in class-“I get called an idiot all day at the office, why should I pay to come here and be called the same?” Enough said!

    I used the positive dog training methods on my kid, and she turned into a great, happy, well behaved individual. Never once ran into the street, etc. I highly recommend parents give it a try!

  6. Cindy Conley says:

    Very well said.

  7. Kathy Little says:

    Problems can really occur when there are several trainers working with a company. What is really horrible is when another trainer calls you out as incorrect while attempting to teach. Not that you are incorrect, but you have a different method.

    Secondly if trainers are teaching together and one comes up with a nonproven, an off the wall fact that they are preaching as the ultimate truth. Like you do not want to be guilty of this total untruth that is being taught.
    This is a horrible situation that I have had to back out of as I could not be partner to the absolute ridiculous announcement of stupidity.

    I just resigned from a company that was attempting to teach me their way, after teaching dogs on and off all my life. Such a different experience. But, I could not be a partner to obsurd methods. I do not think it is appropriate to keep your dog from interacting with other dogs or other people…in other words, reverse socialization? Also it is obsurd to me to teach that dogs do not understand words….really? I could go on and on.

    • Jenny H says:

      If you actually TALK to your dogs, they do understand human speech. There is a lot more than verbal communication in our language, pitch, tone and rhythm as well as facial expressions, Dog do well with language.

  8. Vivien Eales says:

    Most dogs understand how certain words are said, the tone, how our body emphasises them, all signals for what we are asking of the dog. My little poodle cross knew many words, was able to tell the difference between many varied objects or actions, and was a great trick, agility and obedience dog, and sadly passed away in May last year at nearly 17 years old, and would still know how to go and collect my slippers!

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