I recently ran across a Facebook post by a trainer friend. It pictured him with a client’s dog. The dog was a large mastiff, and the text read, “He and I weigh the same, so cooperation is important.” Now, clearly my friend was joking, and I know he treats dogs kindly regardless of their size. But having a background in working with wolves, it struck a chord with me.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen video of or heard about trainers jerking, kicking, or even hanging dogs in the name of trying to get them to cooperate. And how many times I’ve thought, “I’d love to see him try that with a wolf!” Actually, I wouldn’t really like to see it, as I would never want any animal subjected to the fear and stress that harsh corrections bring. But I do have to wonder how someone who always takes a “might is right” approach would work with an animal like a killer whale, or an exotic animal that could easily kill when provoked?
I co-ran a rescue center for wolves for many years, and only once was I ever bitten. It was completely my fault and was away from the context of training. At the time, almost every one of those wolves outweighed me and certainly could have injured or even killed me. And yet, I was able to work with them, socialize and train them, and earn their trust and respect. That had nothing to do with wrestling them, pinning them to ground or showing them who was boss; it had everything to do with being able to read their body language and energy, respecting their boundaries, understanding how to use my body language so as to not stress them out or appear as a threat, and working gradually, never pushing too far too fast. Interestingly, those are exactly the qualities needed to work kindly and successfully with dogs as well, from the tiniest Chihuahua to the biggest mastiff.
There is really no excuse for training a dog by giving harsh corrections or punishing a dog with harsh physical methods. We know better nowadays. I’m not suggesting that dogs don’t need direction or that the answer is skipping through life sprinkling cookies everywhere like fairy dust. There is plenty of middle ground, and the foundation of that ground is respect for animals, whether dogs or large predators. It’s ethical and kind, and hey, you even get to keep all of your fingers.
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