Sunday, January 1, 2012

What it Means to be a Positive Trainer

On a cool, autumn evening, my dog and I were walking out of a local obedience training club. This particular club is based on positive reinforcement principles, and the sound of clickers echo throughout the building. We met a teenager in the foyer area and exchanged pleasantries. She then looked at me  and said, “You know, I don’t understand that clicker training thing they do here.”

“I clicker train my dog,” I told her. “Basically, the clicker tells the dog when he’s done something right so he’ll do it again.”

“Hmm. Well, my mom didn’t use one with our dog, and he’s very obedient!”

“Oh,” I replied, shrugging, “that’s because there are lots of ways to train a dog. Clicker training is just one of them.”

We parted ways at that point, but I’ve thought about that brief encounter a lot since then, mostly because it was so different from many of the conversations I've been part of in the past. Like so many other dog-lovers, I have strong feelings about training methods, and I have engaged in my own fair share of online debates. I've publicly asserted that pain and fear are not needed in training, and I stand by that. Still... I have to think that my conversation with that teenager was more productive than most of my online preaching.

Preaching. Now there's a fitting word. I've noticed that humans, as a whole, tend to gravitate towards those who think like they do. The end result is that we dog trainers typically interact only with those who use similar methods. We even act a little cultish at times; we have our own language and customs. We're all convinced that ours is the one true way, and we try to convert others to our cause.

Like I told that girl, there are lots of different ways to train a dog, and those different ways work. It seems silly to have to point that out- no one would do something if it didn't work- but the internet has taught me that there are people out there who believe the other side's methods are ineffective. That isn't true, of course; there are many methods that will work on any given problem, and each has their pros and cons. We have to choose methods that we have the knowledge and skill to carry out, and ultimately, we must be comfortable with our choices.

You may have made a different decision than I have, and that's okay. While I will admit to having an obvious bias, as time has passed, my goal has become less about “winning” and convincing others to do things the way I do, and more about calmly explaining dog-friendly methods. I've come to realize that holier-than-thou attitudes, arguments, and name-calling almost always fail to change others. Worse, they usually cause people to quit listening and close their minds to different ideas entirely.

Of all my beliefs about dog training, this is the strongest: A positive trainer is as kind to other people as she is to her dog. I believe in clicker training, yes, but more than that, I believe in education. I enjoy scientific studies. I like reading books and going to seminars. I love learning, and that is why I blog: because I want others to come away with a new idea to think about. Ultimately, I don't expect you to do things exactly the same way I do. I hope that you'll find a kinder way to train your dog, of course, but mostly I want you to keep learning, to keep growing, and to become a better trainer... whatever that might look like.

That is why this- above all else- is my goal for the new year. I work hard to avoid hurting my dog, and I think that I should work just as hard to avoid shaming and ridiculing people just because they do things differently than I do. I will be positive with canine and human alike.

And I ask: will you join me?


katie, Maizey and Magnus said...

Such a great post. Since I train at the only all positive reinforcement training center in my area you can imagine we can get a bit, "religious" about our love of positive methods. We are also a retail boutique so we get all kinds of customers that don't know about or share our passion, those that come in with their dog in "training" collars, those that use shock collars, we get them all.

We spend a lot of time talking about how we can best convey that there is a different (and to us, better) way to train without offending people. The bottom line? We are POSITIVE trainers. We choose methods of training our dogs that don't involve force or coercion, but educate them on how to choose a better behavior. How can we claim to be positive trainers if we don't apply the same principles to our customers? Thus we seek opportunities to educate, not berate. It all goes back to the cliche our grandma's always told us, "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar." Thanks for always making us think Crystal!

jen@inubakablog said...

bravo! I'm with you. I've seen so much good from positive training that I just can't possibly see any merit in methods that harm a dog.

I'm with you.

Tegan said...

It's so hard, with so many doggy issues, to say 'enough' to spur change, but not so much that you're boring or annoying, or preaching!

I've got a couple of blog posts queued to post soon, looking at all the ways people make comments about dog-stuff, that in reality make my blood boil, but I normally answer in a mild way... However, sometimes I can't get an answer out, I'm that stunned, and also concerned of saying the wrong thing (or more, the right thing in the wrong tone).

I'm absolutely for not shaming or ridiculing people who don't know better. But, of course, I think I'm right. ;) So I'm also for education, in a subtle and pleasant manner.

Crystal Thompson said...

Tegan, I know what you mean. It is VERY hard, sometimes, to temper an immediate reaction in a kind way. But I think there's a huge difference from a knee-jerk, oops I shouldn't have said that reaction and just... meanness.

For example, sometimes on positive forums/facebook groups/email lists/whatever someone will link to a youtube video or website or something demonstrating traditional training. Sometimes it's bad, sometimes it's pretty skilled training, but the response is almost always along the line of "abuser" or "I'd like to put a collar on that guy and yank him around." There is so much vitriol that I find myself avoiding certain forums because I find them aversive.