With the recent release of my first book, I wanted to bring you one final excerpt that I feel encapsulates a large part of my first five years–the method wars. This is some food for thought! If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Memoirs of a Novice Dog Trainer, click here.
The dog training industry can be an intense one. One filled with violence, hatred and animosity. There’s a war that goes on every day that most dog owners have no clue about until they start trying to solve their problems and that’s the sad part. The sad part is well meaning, well intentioned dog owners are getting stuck in the cross fire every day just trying to find a way to solve a problem so they can have the best friend that they’ve always wanted and the problem is so many of these fights and method wars are fought at their expense.
We all have our biases, but that doesn’t mean we should be condemned for our beliefs or chastised for the way we like to do things. I now compare dog training methodology and techniques to religion because the conflict between trainers is very similar to the conflict I’ve witnessed between major religions.
I have adopted a Buddhist outlook in the last 2 years of my life or so, and have come to do the same with my dog training. I accept that others will hate me, belittle me and think my intentions completely incorrect. I understand that some of these people have had very bad experiences, but something has painted their reality to believe such things and who am I to tell them they are wrong? As one of my favorite authors, Timber Hawkeye, writes in his book Buddhist Bootcamp: the opposite of what you know is also true.
I have had the distinct honour of changing minds and hearts when it comes to these wars. All of my colleagues have an approach that works for them: ban, block, delete. Many of these fights are fought behind keyboards and computer screens and that becomes the biggest problem of all. When someone isn’t a “person” and instead is an internet alias, it becomes so easy to loose our humanity in a flurry of words, insults and pointed fingers. I take another route: engagement. I have messaged those who believe I do things “wrong” and attempted to understand their state of mind. It’s important that you note what I said there… understand. Not change, or reply but to empathize with why they believe what they believe because they might not know any better.
The only thing I know for sure is the clients that eventually find me already have some preconceived notions of what training is to them, and that’s fine. Sometimes I have to warn them that in order to see the best possible results in my system of dog training they must first empty their mind and start from scratch in order to learn what I have to teach. In effect, I’m not starting from zero… I’m starting from about -5 and first must bring them to 0. Then I can begin my teaching.
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I think we are seeking answers to a question that doesn’t need to be answered, or at the very least we are asking the wrong being. We ask television personalities, teachers and other dog owners what the best ways are to train a dog, but forget the being that we are taking the journey with. We forget to ask the dog.
If there’s one big thing I’ve learned from my first five years as a professional dog trainer, it’s that everything that is wared against need not be fought over. The two sides of the battle field can actually play quite nicely together if you allow it to happen and stop asking the question “which is best” because the honest truth is this: it’s all relevant. It’s relevant to time, place and circumstance. It’s relevant to problem and length of problem under load.
We all have our biases and I’m not exception to this rule. To this day, I’m still not a huge fan of clickers, but love using verbal markers and food in training. A clicker and a verbal marker differ in only one way really: one is mechanical and the other is you. You can argue that the verbal marker is more personal, but in the way marker training is done, it’s not. It is a neutral sound that is being paired with a primary reinforcer (food) to classically condition the dog to understand when the sound is heard, food is coming. So why don’t I like clickers? Mostly because of my early experience as a trainer. I see their value, but I choose not to use them. This is a weakness of mine, and I’m aware of it. One of the trainers I mentioned earlier that I’ve learned from, Chad Mackin, recently said that he uses clickers to help the dog by telling the human “when I click, you feed” which takes the mechanical multitasking away from the human and helps the dog understand what we want faster. Another trainer I talk to frequently, Sarah Fulcher, uses this as her primary tool and does wonders with it. It’s all a matter of choice which we should be doing our best to stop removing from people.
When trainers who choose to use food as their primary source of motivation in training find out I use prong collars, they automatically assume that my process for using such a collar involves strapping it on the dog and cranking the hell out of him. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, when I show people videos of me working a dog on a prong collar they will tell me right away that my handling is lovely and the dog looks very cooperative. They will tell me that I’m the exception to the rule and that isn’t how the tool is used most of the time.
You see? This is the problem because in the group of trainers that I know, it’s always used this way. We must expand our views beyond the small circle of bias that we have and understand that not everybody fits into the box like we’d hoped. The sad thing is many trainers have biases about trainers who use food as a primary tool or use clickers as well. We think these people are all scientific heretics that are throwing cookies at dogs in laboratories to get obedience that “won’t work in the real world” … but that’s not true either, is it? I know many trainers now who have immense skill at attaining real world cooperation from dogs using food and markers or clickers. Much of the time when we form these biases it is out of ignorance. Period. I don’t enjoy using clickers, not because I don’t like them, but because I don’t know enough about them. When I started solving my dog’s problems, clickers and food didn’t work for me so I naturally thought they didn’t work. If, however I had sought out mentorship from an experienced trainer who used these tools successfully I might have found my application to be off. Instead, I consulted the internet and got a bunch of useless advice.
Dog trainers as a collective need to cool it! There’s so many dogs out there who require help, training and clear information to survive and thrive in our world and we’re wasting our time bickering on the internet. We debate which tools and techniques are most effective or, worse yet, most humane while dogs are being brought in for vet appointments and they won’t be walking out just because nobody has taken the time to explain to the human how to stand up for the dog and give him the information he needs. Most importantly, nobody has shown the dog another way of being.
My hope is someday we can put this behind us and focus on what requires our energy and attention and that is helping dog owners get their best friends back. Help dogs understand the rules to life, but also fulfill the needs and desires that would be getting fulfilled much more regularly and to the dog’s contentment if we pesky humans weren’t in the picture. All this, because our first priority is and always should be the dog and his training and outlook rather than a political agenda, bias and sometimes blatantly ignorant view points or an inflated ego.
Every dog owner that I meet, every house I walk in and every leash I handle is given the same speech. I tell every human that hires me the same thing. First and foremost, I’m here for the dog. I am his representative in the human world; his ambassador if you will. I am here to make sure he gets the information and training he needs to fix the problems he’s having—I’m here to fix the dog’s problems first. Because by doing that, I fix the human’s problems. That might mean using food, that might mean taking my time or that might mean a justified correction or two.
All of this can be summed up in 7 words…
Do what is best for the dog!