Unfortunately, a one-sided training approach does a serious disservice to dogs, not only by forcing them into the wrong type of training for their personality, but by convincing owners that they don’t have any other options. When my father and I first started training dogs together, we built our name on actively appealing to owners of dogs who had already been trained but had seen little or no improvement. Most of our clients came to us from self-styled animal behaviorists or online course graduates with cute business names like “Pawsitive Pups!” or “Waggy Tails!” or whatever. (Those aren’t the real names, but close enough.)
Seeing how little progress these dogs had made with their previous trainers contributed to a very closed-minded attitude that I carried for a while into my dog training career. If a dog couldn’t hold a sit for 30 seconds after 10 weeks of clicker training, then clickers must be a waste of time. And even worse were the stories our new clients brought with them – stories of being told by “positive” trainers that their dog was too far gone for training and should be euthanized, or their two dogs would never get along and they simply needed to get rid of one. One was even scolded for not consulting their trainer before getting a second dog. We took those dogs on with enthusiasm and quickly became known for never turning down a dog.
When it comes to the “positive reinforcement” crowd’s unwillingness to use other methods, the usual culprit is a little something called “anthropomorphism” – the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to an animal.
Now of course, everyone anthropomorphizes their dog in some way or another. It can be as harmless as narrating your dog’s thoughts out loud when he’s doing something funny, or feeling guilty when he looks you in the eye as you leave the house without him – and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, when trainers judge a training style on whether or not a human would enjoy being treated that way, it creates an atmosphere of denial and dishonesty. Anthropomorphism and cognitive dissonance are a very bad pair.
A good example of this is the ongoing debate surrounding punishment in dog training. Safe, humane tools such as prong collars and electronic collars are as hated as they are misunderstood, and, to an extent, I can understand why. E-collars rarely come with instructions, and I’ve tried all the bargain brands (on myself) and found them to be way too rough compared with industry leaders like Dogtra and Tri-Tronics, who make amazing e-collars.
And maybe it’s not such a great idea to sell them to the general public without any oversight, but, in the right hands, they can do amazing things – including saving your dog’s life. I’ve personally trained hundreds of dogs to avoid rattlesnakes with the use of an e-collar.
The assertion that we should only teach dogs with methods that we, as humans, would accept being taught with is what I refer to as “dognitive dissonance.” Dognitive dissonance arbitrarily draws a line in the sand based on emotion and junk science, and completely ignores and excuses all the other universally accepted things that we do to, and for, our dogs, but that no human would want done to them. It presumes to know what dogs are thinking and feeling with 100 percent accuracy, while likening them to our own fragile selves and denying real-world evidence to the contrary in favor of biased behavior studies. It mistakenly proclaims that dogs are weak and sensitive – like humans.
If you think about a dog’s life, none of it really sounds appealing to a human in realistic terms – and it’s not supposed to be because we aren’t dogs. Is wearing a prong collar any worse sounding than waking up in a cold room to discover that some other species cut your testicles off and stuck an RFID chip in your neck? Would you want to eat kibble twice a day for the rest of your life, or wear a harness on your face just to go for a walk? Would you want to live in a house with animals you can’t understand, doors you can’t open and furniture you can’t sit on? Oh, you’re scared of that thunder? Here’s a really tight sweater, because, you know, why not?
Dogs are dogs. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve humane treatment or loving homes. But if training your dog with a firm hand is cruel on the grounds that we wouldn’t want it done to us, then the very act of owning a dog is cruel by the same standards, and euthanizing a dog because the methods needed to save it contradict your morals is undoubtedly cruel, too. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Let’s be dog trainers again. Let’s save lives.
Joe Reaves grew up in Lewiston and Auburn, and now runs Cerberus Canine Behavior Specialists in Tucson, Arizona. He is a certified canine training specialist from Starmark Academy in Austin, Texas. This piece first appeared here.