If you’re not a dog trainer, you might not be aware of the divisiveness in the dog training world. (Hint: Think of our current political climate.) If you are a trainer, you no doubt know all too well what I’m talking about. This is nothing new and, sadly, this is not the first time I’ve written about it. The Training Wars have been going on for many decades, and are showing no sign of letting up.
The core issues in the ongoing debates revolve around training tools and methods. On one side, there are those who call themselves “positive trainers” and on the other, those who may term themselves “balanced trainers.” “Positive” refers to the use of positive reinforcement to teach and maintain skills, often in the form of treats, although sometimes toys and other reinforcers are used. Positive trainers use various training tools, but often eschew e-collars (a.k.a. shock collars) and many do not use choke chains or prong (a.k.a. pinch) collars. The focus is on teaching the dog what is expected, and then rewarding successful behavior. Those who call themselves “balanced trainers” may also use treats and positive reinforcement to train, or use alternate reinforcers such as praise, but are generally more willing to use punishment to enforce behaviors. Now, here’s where it gets tricky; that doesn’t mean positive trainers never use any form of punishment, or that the punishment used by balanced trainers is harsh physical punishment. Since “punishment” is defined as anything that lessens the likelihood of the behavior repeating, punishment can range from a verbal “No!” to a harsh jerk on a choke chain, and so on. The problem is, those stereotypes are invoked whenever the Training Wars commence.
Positive trainers are often painted as ineffectual, overly lax, “cookie-slinging weenies” who are afraid to even say, “No” when a dog does something wrong. On the other hand, I’ve seen Balanced trainers portrayed as shock collar-wielding monsters who don’t even teach a behavior before resorting to punishment. Neither of those caricatures is typically accurate, except perhaps at the far ends of the spectrum. I have seen trainers use treats prolifically but fail to teach rules and boundaries effectively. I’ve also seen trainers teach dogs not to take food off a table by using a shock collar, when a simple “leave it” would have sufficed. But again, most trainers fall somewhere in the middle. Most would agree that ridiculously harsh methods like helicoptering or hanging a dog have no place in dog training. Beyond that, it helps no one to sling mud when the bottom line is that most trainers are in it because we love and want to help dogs.
I recently saw a conversation on Facebook—that hotbed of civility—where training tools were being discussed. “Discussed” is a nice word for it. The post showed an image of various training tools, and inferred that all trainers should understand how all training tools worked. Well, you can imagine the riot that incited! Much dog-poo-slinging ensued. The thing is, I agree, for the most part. Although I would never put an e-collar on a dog, I do want to know that there are multiple settings and warning beeps and such, so that I can have an intelligent conversation about it if the topic comes up, rather than assuming that the trainer who uses it is someone who slaps a collar on a dog, presses a button, and causes a dog to shriek in pain. Again, it’s not a tool I would ever use or recommend, but being informed does not equal condoning.
At a seminar I taught a while back, the hosts pulled me aside beforehand and whispered that a few people had signed up that I might not want there. They weren’t sure what to do. Should they let them in? I asked what the problem was, and they said the registrants were from a local “balanced trainers” group. I couldn’t understand what the problem was. After all, they’d paid to be there, so they must have at least somewhat of an open mind–unless there was a bag of tomatoes I’d missed. Who knows, I might change someone’s mind about something, or at least plant a seed. Or, maybe something they said might cause me to understand a bit more about a different view. The point is, just like politics, if we have knee-jerk reactions when others have different policies than we do, and simply demonize them without making any effort to understand, the climate is never going to change. Have you ever seen someone change their mind about a training method or tool because they were being berated or bullied? Me, either. But I have seen trainers gradually change their methods by being shown the success of other ways, or because someone was willing to talk with them without speaking down to them, and they were willing to listen. At the very least, we can agree to disagree.
Look, we all have our own beliefs. Training methods are a hot-button topic because we love dogs and don’t want to see them suffer. We also don’t want to see training be ineffectual, which can also cause problems. But just as a country being divided doesn’t help its citizens and in fact hurts them, the Great Divide in dog training does the same to dogs. It’s not that we all need to use the same tools and methods; that’s never going to happen. But the vitriol, name-calling and general animosity seriously need to stop. It’s enough, already. Discussions can be had with open minds and, at the very least, with a lot more respect. Yes, even on the faceless internet. The divide in dog training is, in a way, a microcosm of the larger world, and both worlds could use a lot more tolerance and understanding right about now.
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