In general, the dog training world is married to methods and the wars over those methods. There are those who subscribe to certain schools of thought, others who religiously follow one person, and others who set up shifting boundaries on either side and throw everything that falls into the middle together… equal opportunists, if you will. There are still others who only believe in tried and true methods, rejecting any hint of novelty and those who, in an attempt to make a name for themselves, repackage and sell techniques they have found, perhaps with a twist. From Koehler to Woodhouse and Hutchison to Milner, the one thing everyone could agree on, however, was that standards of some kind were necessary for training and that the measure of the methods lay in their effectiveness in reaching those standards. In other words, the test was this simple: Do the methods employed result in the achievement of the goals set out? Unfortunately, if social media is to be believed, that is not the case any more.
THE MORALIZATION OF DOG TRAINING
The new breed of dog trainer believes that they know more about dog training than anyone ever before in history. On the one hand, they may be right, as the weight of the experience of those who came before them is mostly at their disposal. On the other hand, they couldn’t be further afield as there is truly nothing new under the sun in terms of how beings learn. What IS new, however, is how far the goal posts have moved. Where the measure of a method used to be focused on whether it resulted in a dog who could do a,b or c behavior and could equally refrain from doing x,y or z behavior (and for how long), the push is on now to produce much less tangible results. Instead of the simple questions of ,”Does your dog behave in public, walk nicely on a leash and refrain from biting people?” for pet owners and “Can your dog do what’s required in an obedience trial?” for trainers, they have become, “Is your dog happy?” and “Are you being nice enough to your dog?” – considerations largely ignored before recent history. While the latter two questions are benign enough, and on the surface deserve pondering from time to time, as a measure of dog training aptitude they are complete rubbish – intangible and open to interpretation.
While there has never been a time in dog training history where a trainer could be singled out and they would NOT have a strong opinion on the best way to train a dog; there has also never been a time when the morality of a method mattered more than achieving the most basic of results. Today’s fledgling trainer is told of the morality of certain tools and methods before they have even touched a dog. They are asked to part with their money and their ability to think for themselves, and to never, ever question the results of a method because it is the RIGHT one. Anything else would be WRONG. Instead they are to go forth and proselytize. These trainers lack the basics of understanding and experience, but they do know that certain things, despite their historically proven efficacy, should never be done. Further, the trainer shouldn’t be seen to support or otherwise engage with anyone – organizations or individuals who see the value these prohibited methods or tools.
Unfortunately for many trainers and the dogs they work with, such a black and white view of training runs them into many real world road blocks on the way to achieving their goals. Since their worldview doesn’t allow them to approach other methods or tools, they are left no choice but to move the goal posts and/or blame themselves for their failings. Far too often now, it is becoming acceptable to move the posts to an untenable place for both dog and owner in order to avoid the realization that it’s the approach that needs changing. This is not a new way to live, changing the standards to avoid the discomfort of realizing that you’ve bought into a lie… but in this particular arena, the societal costs are steep. Another common approach is to claim results where there are none. A trainer colleague calls this the “Emporer’s New Clothes” syndrome, and rightly so. If propping up bits of moulding against a crumbling brick wall to prevent its inevitable decay can be called success, then I suppose dancing along to the Emporer’s parade with the dog living behind blackout curtains is the way to go.
These days, most dog training forums should come with the above plastered all over them. It’s common and almost expected that certain postings will elicit condescending commentary and in many cases, abuse and harassment. There are clique groups for people of a certain persuasion to retreat to to lick their wounds and regroup for the next attack. Any attempt to bridge the gap is perceived as manipulative and insincere, hiding another agenda. We are, unfortunately, more concerned with being right or in the most PC camp available that we’ve lost sight of the forest entirely.
It’s no secret that dog ownership has been threatened by certain proponents of AR extremism for some time now. Far from being a fringe movement, AR activists have been making political gains hand over fist. It is now no longer a right to have an animal in your home, it is a privilege that has to be earned. Capitalizing on emotional manipulation is one of the most effective tools these people have to sway uninformed public opinion in their direction. What better place to drive a wedge and separate people from their pets than in the world of training? When we can no longer provide effective training to keep dogs considerate citizens of society, when we require untenable environment and lifestyle changes – in short, when we’ve made dogs more trouble than they are worth to people and we’ve facilitated enough maulings through our need to avoid offending perceived sensibilities… when we’ve walked right into someone else’s agenda, what then? I sure hope that our morality will be enough to keep us warm at night because our beloved dogs won’t be there to. At the very least, they won’t resemble the dogs we currently know and love.
There is a bigger war to be fought than whether one approach is superior to another. It’s far past time that we put the competency back into training as the basis for acceptance. The future of dog/human cohabitation depends on it. We risk the unravelling of all that has been achieved in dog training by moralizing it and using ever shifting standards to decide our next move. We are in danger of losing the very creatures that inspired our desire to become trainers in the first place.