The dog divide.
One thing I discovered very quickly in the world of dog training is that it’s extremely split. There are hundreds of ways you can train a dog and a thousand and one techniques that can be challenged or endorsed. Whatever method you chose to practice, you can be sure you will have some negative-Nancy (there’s probably one right now furiously typing in response to this post) telling you that there is a better way. But I’m not looking for a better way because this way works just fine.
Personally, I do not have a ‘one size fits all’ ideology and prefer instead to combine and mix various techniques depending on the dog in front of me. I’m forever looking to expand and broaden my knowledge of canine behaviour. No dog is the same, just as no person is the same. No canine/human relationship is the same. Hence why I have trained under various institutions and individuals who practice both PP (purely positive) and balanced training (rewarding wanted behaviour and correcting unwanted behaviour.) In my opinion, if you wish to be a master of your field you should be aware of, understand and know how to apply multiple methods. By combining calm energy with classical conditioning and desensitisation methods I rehabilitated my first really aggressive dog that would lead me down the path of becoming a dog trainer. I won’t ever claim to know everything when it comes to dog training – that’s virtually impossible and anyone that tells you otherwise is kidding themselves. I spend much time in the company of large packs of dogs, watching and understanding their body language and interaction. You can read and digest the many theories (as you should) but nothing compares to having real life experience with various breeds, behaviours and observing communication.
Every trainer believes his or her techniques are the best thing since sliced bread. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this attitude, it’s a shame that it results in such conflict. All of us who are active within the dog training industry surely have the same common interests and goals – to help the dog and to aid the client build a better bond and understanding of one another? To help, guide and support individuals to their ideal relationship and reach those training goals? To save that dog that is out of control from ending up in the shelter? I guess it would be an ideal world where every trainer would be respectful and inquisitive of another’s skills, input and ideas. Both types of training work! But does it last? Why are particular methods more successful with specific behaviours? Why did you choose that technique over another? There is so much we could all learn from one another to benefit the canine species.
Balanced training has become a popular conversation topic of controversy. The terms ‘dominance theory’ or ‘alpha’ or ‘aversive’ strikes debate every time it is mentioned. Yes, you must have a ‘leadership’ mentality when training using those techniques. You must also be assertive, calm and unafraid of the scenario in which the dog tends to react. Embrace every opportunity as a learning possibility rather than shy away and avoid the undesired behaviour -tackling the problem head on. Of course, you must invest the time and effort to be educated to apply the techniques calmly and correctly. Harshly yanking your dog on a slip leash every time he lunges or barks at the dog across the street will not result in behavioural change. You have to know at which exact moment your dog focuses and at what point to redirect their attention. It’s not supposed to hurt your dog, nor is it supposed to fuel frustration with your four-legged friend. Perhaps too many people have watched popular dog TV shows and despite the fact of stating ‘don’t try this at home’ they do just that and apply the training completely wrong which gives ammo to the positive movement.
The element of energy that many sneer at and disagree with is at the core of this type of training. Upon adopting Nero, it was as if the communication line had been opened and I was able to have a conversation with my dog using energy and body language. Nero understood what behaviour I wanted and what behaviour was unacceptable. In no way did I ‘dominate’ my dog through physical pain, rather show the way as a calm and confident leader that he could follow and trust. We built that mutual trust and respect through play, consistency and exposure to various environments. He accompanied me to work, on public transport and was heavily socialised with other dogs using control and management. I worked hard every single day. I rewarded and praised good behaviour and corrected the bad. Telling your dog ‘no’ is made out to be the eighth deadly sin, when in fact it is very useful – as long as you are clear with pairing a behaviour with such a cue. What does ‘no’ mean to the dog? It’s a little word with a big meaning.
I’ve read articles describing balanced methods as outdated and cruel. I completely agree that no dog should feel intimidated or be forced into submission. Now, THAT is dominance. But this balanced theory is misunderstood and does not encourage such actions. It’s something that has been sensationalised by the media. I challenged those who sent me strong words of disagreement with mindful questions. Many of these people had never dealt with a dog with behavioural issues, let alone canine power houses that display severe aggression. Most had had their woofers since pups and majority of which were smaller breeds. I make this point as I want to emphasise the difference in rehabilitating a small breed to a larger breed. Although the element of training is the same, the difference with the bigger breeds is that they can do a lot more damage if a behaviour is allowed to spiral out of control. On the other end of the scale, I have received many more inspiring comments from people all around the world congratulating Nero’s development and success and asking me what the secret is to changing an aggressive dog. It amazed me just exactly how many people struggle with their dogs aggression on a daily basis. Many completely revolve their life around it! Hiding behind cars and dustbins to avoid that dog in the distance people – I’m talking to you!
Whilst we’re on the positive movement subject, I have to put my two pence worth in. Never have I ever seen such negativity of a cult type manner. As I previously wrote, I have worked with many PP bodies and I use many of their techniques in my own training and have absolutely no issues in listening to, learning and discussing such methods. Some of the best trainers in the world are PP. Some are balanced. Both have alarmingly amazing success rates of rehabilitation and their reputation speaks volumes about their work. So, obviously both types of training work. It’s not just black and white. What I do see as a worry is the amount of name calling and threatening behaviour from such individuals that classify themselves as PP and FF (force free) attacking balanced trainers or any trainer that has a different belief to their own over the internet. So much to the point that I know trainers who have had their homes and possessions vandalised due to the way they train by purely positive individuals! Oh, the irony! I’m sure there are also balanced trainers who display the same aggression to PP people but in my experience it usually tends to be the latter.
There is an entire secret society online for dog trainers. Hidden Facebook groups full of both FF and Balanced trainers who feel unable to ask a question or voice their opinion on other public groups for fear of being attacked and deleted. Sharing ideas and experiences is golden when it comes to dog training. You have to get very, very creative in some cases – a unique plan created by you that successfully worked for a dog and owner could potentially help someone else in a similar scenario. Healthy discussion is an imperative skill that any dog trainer or behaviourist should possess. Of all the tools in a dog trainer’s toolbox, an open mind is one of the most valuable. Disagreement is a good thing – but when it comes down to playground retaliation from adults it’s downright embarrassing and completely useless. Do you truly believe you can convince a stranger to convert to another method whilst displaying such frustration and throwing insults like I would tennis balls for my dog? I don’t believe in firmly pushing your beliefs onto a dogs owner let alone an established trainer. It’s hard enough suggesting to the human that in order for their dogs behaviour to alter, they will need to change their own first. What happened to civil conversations that can enlighten certain aspects of a theory that challenge your own stereotypes?
Another big topic is the use of training tools such as prong and E-collars. Although I have never and do not have plans to make use of such devices , I’ve recently found myself part of heavy conversations with other trainers and friends discussing the good, the bad and the ugly. I have heard marvellous stories of dogs being days away from euthanasia who have been trained within a couple of hours whilst using these tools. (Of course this behaviour will need consistency and proofing over time BUT using such collars provided these dogs with one thing they did not have before – time and a chance to be a better dog.) Whilst discussing the use of such tools, I was asked a question that truly made me think. Regardless of background or beliefs, have a little read:
Imagine you had a dog under your care. A dog that suffered with bad traits such as severe dog/human aggression and an endless bite history. Said dog is a day away from being put to sleep as adopters overlook them due to such behaviours and the future of this dog is almost certain. Many trainers have tried prior to yourself and failed in rehabilitating this dog using positive reinforcement and balanced training methods. Would you consider or even entertain the idea of using a training tool to attempt to save this dog? Would the possibility of successfully showing a potential new owner that this dog can and could be trained using those devices go against every ounce of your being? Or would you still attempt a repeat of the same methods the dog has previously not responded to? Would you rather see a dog put down than trying everything available to you on the market? Could you combine your own training skills with such tools?
Really think about it. I’d appreciate if you would kindly share your answers and comments too. Nicely now gang, let’s keep it calm, civil and insult free!
Nero photo credits: Mary Off Duty
5 thoughts on “The dog divide.”
In reply to your question, well, Im not a trainer but lets imagine that I am, and that dog is in my hands. Last chance. If I know how to properly use those tools, regardless my opinion on them, I would give them a shoot. repeting what has been done by others wont do magic, time to try something else. If I do not have experience with those tools, I would refer to someone who does have the experience. Those who think that prong and ecollar are abuse should remember that, in this hypotetical case, the alternative is euthanasia, so regardless my opinion on the tools, I would give it a try.
Regarding the rest of the post, you know what I think, I believe PP is fantastic for average dogs with no big issues. Also good to train your dog new stuff. But I also believe that some dogs DO need corrections. And the intensity of the correction depends on the dog. A NO is a correction, to pull the leash is a correction, you do not need to break a few ribs to the dog in order to correct. So in that sense, I am balanced. There are good and bad trainers in both sides, and instead of having the war Balanced vs PP we should have a war good trainers vs bad trainers, that would benefit dogs.
Fantastic article! I’m new in the doggy world and this dog divide that you’ve so aptly named it, is one of the things that has surprised me (and not in a good way).
In the short time I’ve been really reading up on all the available knowledge, two things have really stood out:
– Different dogs seem to require different training methods. One dog can be very sensitive and completely shut down even at a simple ‘no’, whereas another dog is so stubborn and cheeky (or aggressive) that the only way to deal with him will be a firm correction.
– As you point out above, there is a huge amount of hate between followers of different training methods.
Especially the latter has got me thinking. Why would this be? I really like your way of approaching things: getting to know different methods, keep an open mind and apply the bits and pieces of what you’ve learned based on what your particular dog needs. But it’s obvious that this open-minded approach is far from universal.
So far, my conclusion is that there are two problems that cause this. The first problem is my very first obvervation (disclaimer: the word ‘obversation’ is used loosely here since it’s mostly based on a literature study). Different dogs require different training methods. That’s an issue if you’ve only had one or few dogs: that’ll likely leave you thinking that only the method that worked for that dog, works – and that all other methods might not. I’ve seen dog owners having this flaw in their reasoning on both sides of the spectrum: owners who’ve only had power house dogs think that positive-only training doesn’t work and dislike the “cookie monsters”. And owners who’ve only had sensitive dogs think that every form of correction is inherently bad.
The second problem resides more in the latter group. They seem to think that correcting your dog is animal abuse, especially if that’s paired with tools like prongs or e-collars. This viewpoint causes them to go on some sort of moral crusade against balanced trainers, in an attempt to rid the world of animal abuse.
While ridding the world of animal abuse is a praiseworthy goal, I think the FF community is going too far. Not all corrections are animal abuse. Correct use of tools, even prongs and e-collars, can be highly effective training methods and sometimes, I think, even the only effective training methods. And even if they do cause some discomfort to the dog, isn’t that preferable if the only other option would be euthanasia? I don’t know about the lot of you, but I’d rather be punished if I misbehave than euthanised.
So, in direct answer to your question: yes, I’d definitely consider using those tools. That said, I’d like to minimize the use of them: use reinforcement techniques where possible and only use corrections (in whatever form) when necessary.
How about all the people that are ranting and raving about the use of training tools go and put their energy into something much more worthwhile? For example – the Yulin festival?!? THAT is animal cruelty in it’s purest form!
In answer to the question, I would of course try everything available to save the life of a dog. That’s what love for a dog is.
As long is the dog is cured at the end of the training, who cares what method it took to get there?
Great article! I guess there are two wins to your philosophy: professional growth and inner peace. You get yo balance your techniques and your life!
Have “ideas” instead of “beliefs”, the first allow to construct around, the latter are very difficult to change.