I’d like you to imagine that you are a young, not-yet-verbal child who is entering a foster home. Naturally, you are a nervous about meeting your new foster parents, and wonder what life will be like. You don’t yet know what will be expected of you or how you will be treated. And since you’re not familiar with the daily household routine, you will need to be taught. On your first morning, your foster father says he’s going to take you out for a fun walk to see the neighborhood. You’re very excited! But when you run to the front door and fling it open, he scowls and pushes you away from the door. You’re surprised and a bit frightened at being handled that way. You try again, and this time the man seems very angry. He shoves you more forcefully than the first time. Now you’re truly afraid. You dare not go near the door. Instead, you wait, looking at the man, not knowing what to do. He smiles, opens the door, and gestures for you to go through. You learned a valuable lesson; don’t open the door and run out, but instead wait for the man to open it.
Now let’s imagine that instead, the man leads you to a small carpet near the front door. He gestures to you to stand there, and when you do, he smiles. He then walks to the door and begins to open it. Excited, you begin to move toward the door. He closes the door and waits. You’re momentarily surprised, but then think for a moment, and step back on the mat. The man smiles. Very quickly, you learn that waiting on the mat not only makes the man happy, but makes the door open so fun things can happen.
In both front door scenarios, you learned a lesson. However, the first method caused anxiety and trepidation, and taught you that you might need to be wary of this new stranger. In the second scenario, you learned that the man you would be living with seemed kind and patient, and behaved like someone who would show you what was expected. Of course, kids are not dogs, but the comparison of teaching with cooperation versus coercion, along with the possible fallout coercion might cause, is a legitimate one.
Among dog trainers, the concepts of cooperation and coercion are well known, and are implemented constantly. Confusingly, though, labels such as “positive trainer,” “balanced trainer” and others don’t really tell the average dog owner much about which way a trainer chooses to train, and can even be misleading. I’ve seen a self-proclaimed “positive trainer” jerk a dog so harshly that the poor dog ended up hanging off the ground by his neck. The only positive there is that owners should positively run the other way! Regardless of labels, though, any approach to training dogs is either based in cooperation or coercion. Sure, there are different forms of coercion, some much harsher than others, and many trainers only use coercion once a dog has been trained and chooses to disregard a command. But here I’m talking about when we’re first teaching dogs what we’d like them to do. A dog can be taught in a variety of ways to lie down, for example, from being lured into position with a treat to having someone stomp on his collar near the neck so his head is slammed to the ground, followed by his body. (Think that sounds awful? It’s how our group class trainer taught it when I was a kid. I was horrified.) The dog ends up lying down either way, but showing the dog what’s expected first, rather than using harsh physical force, is much more pleasant for everyone and builds trust rather than causing mistrust and fear. And what about things like leash walking where the dog isn’t given any instructions at all, but is simply jerked every time he makes a mistake? It would be like me wanting you to learn a ballroom dance, but instead of teaching you the steps, I just stomp on your foot every time you make a mistake. Wanna dance? Didn’t think so.
And that, really, is at the heart of it all. Dog training shouldn’t be a battle of wills, but an ever-evolving dance of communication and cooperation. It’s the way I’ve always trained and always will, and it’s what is kindest to the dog. Either way, the dog will learn; but what else the dog is learning—kindness and trust, or mistrust and fear—is even more important.
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