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?