Before I became a professional pet sitter in Australia in 2011, I didn't realise how politically divided the pet world is. One area is philosophies in dog training. Dog trainers have polarised views and some will attack each other, much like anyone with strong political or religious beliefs.
I have made several revisions of this blog post to be less biased after feedback from professional trainers and to reflect my development in critical thinking over this topic.
Humans are WAY harder to teach and train than dogs, because they often have close-minded, rigid beliefs, are often judgemental and get very defensive and even aggressive when their views are challenged. The vitriol from making personal attacks (rather than discussing and disagreeing with ideas) negates anything reasonable a person might have to say.
I dialogue in dog training groups and the hostility, nastiness, aggression and online wars (and sometimes real life wars) is quite frustrating and making a farce of the whole dog training industry. I feel quite disillusioned by professional dog training (and I've been put off becoming a professional dog trainer). My pet sitting clients preferred to have untrained dogs after having unpleasant experiences with professional dog trainers.
Philosophies in Dog Training
Dog training philosophies exist on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum are 'old-school' trainers who are aversive-based. At the other end are 'modern' trainers who are rewards-based and mainly use positive reinforcement in training. At the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum in philosophy are compulsive trainers and positive/force-free trainers. Balanced trainers are somewhere in the middle. Some balanced trainers are compulsive based and some are rewards based (they are sometimes labelled modern balanced trainers).
There has been a progressive move away from a compulsive training philosophy towards a modern training philosophy over the last few decades, just like there has been a shift away from strict, military, authoritarian teaching and parenting styles which used intimidation and physical punishment in an attempt to control. But the pendulum has swung far to the other side to positive/force-free dog training which can be permissive with problems if there is no leadership and no boundaries.
Modern training focuses on what the animal is doing right, whereas compulsion training focuses on what of what the animal is doing wrong.
Throwing Dog Poo
Most of the online dog poo slinging I've seen recently has been between positive/force-free trainers and balanced trainers. There are no clear boundaries on the spectrum between positive and balanced trainers but trainers have divided themselves into sparring camps for online wars. Some trainers have reported getting harassed in real life too by other trainers.
Some balanced trainers call positive/force-free trainers a cult of permissive cookie-pushers using bribery who spread propaganda and lie that they never use punishment or aversives. Some balanced trainers also say that positive methods don't work on dogs with severe aggression issues. I've seen some balanced trainers accuse positive trainers as killing dogs by choosing euthanasia over using any aversives they disagree with. Also that positive trainers are responsible for all dog bites.
I've seen positive/force-free trainers accuse balanced trainers of being incompetent, stupid, lazy and abusive for using certain tools or methods applying aversives. I saw one very unethical positive trainer bribing and blackmailing other trainers by mischaracterise them in videos in an attempt to ruin them. I thought this bullying behaviour was disgusting.
I've seen balanced trainers arguing with each other and positive/force-free trainers arguing with each other - tribalism. Judging each other, hypocrisy, self-righteousness over who is morally pure, aggressively attacking other ideologies in an attempt to convert. It's a real turn-off. Force-free fundies are frustrating.
Ironically, some positive trainers want regulation in the dog training industry to get rid of trainers who use methods or tools they consider to be abusive. And some balanced trainers want regulation to get rid of positive/force-free trainers whom they consider to be charlatans. I don't see how regulation is possible or even very useful with so many different philosophies and so many subjective opinions about what is abusive or not. There is no absolute truth.
Animal behaviour and psychology are soft-sciences with bias and subjective interpretation unlike 'hard-sciences' like chemistry and physics where objective conclusions can be drawn. The scientific method has limitations when applied to fields such as behaviour and psychology. There are many grey areas so any scientific studies can only be taken with a grain of salt. Scientific studies only tend to show patterns and leave more questions to be answered.
Encouraging Civil Discussion
What happens with the online wars is that people continue to close off their minds and cling more rigidly to their beliefs. It's natural to feel defensive and even aggressive if they are personally attacked. Some people take criticism of their ideas to be a personal attack because they hold their beliefs so rigidly. The arguing is emotional and passionate and all critical thinking goes out the window.
I've actually been put off getting any formal qualifications or certifications in animal training or behaviour because of all the polarised philosophies. I'm an independent thinker and don't adhere to any one prescribed methodology. Various certifications can be meaningless - anyone can make up a certification and anyone can make up a training school with their preferred method. I don't see much value in certification if professional trainers are rubbishing each others' certifications.
A lot of arguments are over labels. Labels such as 'positive', 'balanced', 'force-free', 'science-based' etc. I dislike labels because they can be misleading and they come with stereotypes. Then there's emotive arguing over language such as 'dominance', 'leader' etc.
Positive/force-free trainers like to say that their training is science-based and seem to use science as an ultimate authority. All dog training is science-based though. Black-and-white claims shouldn't be made from biased studies which have subjective grey areas and science isn't a religion. Science seeks to understand the 'why' but doesn't prescribe the 'how'. It's open ended. I have a science degree and it's frustrating when people misuse science to try to push their beliefs. Biased, flawed studies to push a political agenda is not science but pseudoscience. I've read some of these studies and they don't even follow the scientific method very well at all.
It's rare to see civil discussions amongst people with differing dog training philosophies. People are more receptive and will consider other ideas if they don't feel threatened and attacked. I also have more respect for someone who treats others with respect, despite disagreeing with them. I also have more respect for people who can put aside their egos. How about some mutual respect, even if that's to agree to disagree? After all, no-one is an authority on absolute truth. How about trainers show what they can do rather than attack other trainers?
Meeting Professional Trainers
My experiences with professional trainers for my own dogs have been:
From my experiences, I am biased against the use of inappropriately harsh aversives and I am not a fan of a check-chain. I don't see it as abusive used correctly although I'd rather not give leash corrections. It is difficult to use and it can be used with excessive force. I trained my puppy 'sit', 'down' and 'come' using a rewards method I read in a book before she even went to puppy class. I ignored the advice from the Bark Busters trainer and rehabilitated and trained my dog from a shelter my own way.
After I became a professional pet sitter, I met half a dozen professional trainers, including some nationally highly regarded ones. We discussed their philosophy and training methods and they made recommendations for common problem issues I encountered (most of my clients had dogs with little or no training). Their philosophies included traditional-balanced, compulsive-balanced, modern-balanced and LIMA (least intrusive minimally aversive).
They had different personalities too - I found a compulsive-balanced one (military trained) to be very forceful with a 'my-way-or the-highway' attitude and I was uncomfortable with his methods - very heavy-handed with punishment in my opinion. The others were more open-minded with better people skills - no-one appreciates being belittled and judged plus training dogs also involves training people. I've never met any positive/force-free trainers in real life.
My philosophy is somewhere between modern balanced and positive/force-free and I have a moderate LIMA approach to pet dogs I've trained since my experiences with old school professional trainers with my own dogs.
I've actually picked up bits and pieces from trainers from all philosophies - for example, I learned and use things like tone of voice and timing from old-school balanced trainers, even though I don't use or agree with other aspects they use. I am rewards based but I use food very sparingly compared to most positive/force-free trainers. Every trainer has a different personal style and most only have experience with limited areas. Very few trainers are master trainers who are able to train other trainers in diverse applications. Skilled trainers and teachers will customise their training for each dog and handler and not rely on any one tool or method.
I've learned that dog training is unregulated and anyone can call themselves a dog trainer (and anyone can certify dog trainers). I've talked to a lot of professional dog trainers online. I noticed force-free/positive trainers tend to censor more and also get upset more easily at other trainers having different views.
Disillusioned by Force-Free Fundies
I've talked to some lovely force-free trainers online and one encouraged me to join a force-free association. I quit soon afterwards though because I started seeing propaganda rather than education by the association and I felt very conflicted by all the aggression and zealotry in the positive/force-free movement. Also I was getting judged by force-free fundamentalists for sharing material from balanced trainers and agreeing with balanced trainers. I thought this was ridiculous - to write a trainer off because they don't agree with one aspect such as a particular tool they might use sometimes. I've realised that a lot of the information portrayed as education was actually dishonest propaganda to push an agenda using emotive outrage.
The lack of critical thinking bothers me eg making black-and-white exaggerated claims that low-level modern remote collars that can have a barely perceivable sensation like a TENS machine or a vibration like a mobile phone are delivering an severe electric shock and therefore abusing the dog. This is not logical at all and I am wary of trusting information now from from positive trainers. It does have much in common with religious extremism such as a cult.
Many positive/force-free trainers seek to get certain tools they consider to be abusive banned. I've been looking into this and I do not think banning controversial tools for an ideology is a good idea. Some tools may be the only option to train some dogs. Banning tools and opposing aversives in every situation will result in a lot of dead dogs.
Controversial tools such as prong collars, e-collars and check-chains are not needed for most pet dogs for basic manners but in some cases, they may be appropriate and should only be used under the instruction of a skilled trainer who will use such tools as safety and humanely and effectively as possible. I don't like videos where I've seen prongs and e-collars used for punishment. I have seen some videos where these tools were used very gently without applying corrections.
Using a slip-chain is not automatically abusive, although I have seen it used with excessive force which was in my opinion using the tool abusively. I've observed some tools such as a head halter promoted by positive/force-free trainers to be just as aversive if not more than a check-chain, going by the dog's body language. Many dogs find their halters and harnesses so aversive, they have to be counter-conditioned to tolerate them. All tools have some degree of discomfort.
I am wary of extremists within the positive/force-free movement who are too permissive and fail to have any boundaries and are totally against using any aversive ever in any circumstance. I've also observed some positive/force-free trainers to be very judgemental, evangelical, condescending, sanctimonious, misinformed and in denial. It is more like an extreme cult-like political agenda rather than a personal philosophy. Ironically, force-free fundamentalists accuse balanced trainers of being 'lazy' and 'brainless' yet shoving treats down a dog's throat doesn't require much effort or thinking.
I've also seen some balanced trainers be equally as close-minded and seeing positive/force-free trainers as 'the enemy'. Seems some of this is backlash because of the behaviour of positive/force-free zealots seeking to ban controversial tools and to poison the public against balanced trainers. So balanced trainers try to poison the public against positive/force-free trainers calling them all frauds and liars. Inflated egos, close-mindedness and cognitive dissonance is apparent in several trainers no matter what their philosophy. It's a human nature thing.
I've seen several comments by force-free zealots that any trainer who is not 'force-free'/'positive' must be hitting, kicking, yelling, pinning dogs down and electrocuting them. There were no alpha rolls, no hitting, no yelling, no kicking and no shocks in the traditional balanced training I did with the ex-police dog handler. No choking either - a slip-chain used correctly does not actually choke. The huge exaggerations based on fear by zealots is frustrating. I seem extremism in force-free to be more an ideology than a philosophy.
Best Philosophy for Dog Training
There are excellent and terrible trainers in any philosophy. I have my bias towards modern balanced-positive for myself which works well for basic training for many pet dogs but I'm aware my style of training has limitations (because of my limited skills not my philosophy). Although I've talked to some very experienced trainers online who also have a LIMA philosophy. Some of them rehabilitate severe cases but are too shy to go camera to demonstrate. So some compulsive-based balanced trainers have called them liars for not making videos to 'prove' themselves.
I've seen videos from some exceptionally talented modern balanced trainers rehabilitating dogs with severe aggression. I didn't consider their approach to be abusive in any way and they resulted in confident, well-adjusted dogs. I felt uncomfortable with videos I've seen from some compulsive-based trainers, including compulsive-balanced trainers. I thought some methods were quite extreme, very forceful and the dogs at the end were compliant but looked robotic and not very happy.
Modern balanced trainers can be very versatile and train dogs for competitive sports, the military, police departments, search and rescue, service dog agencies and pets, including pets with serious behavioural issues. They use mainly rewards but will also use some aversives to produce very reliable dogs who can manage stressful situations. I haven't seen any positive/force-free trainers successfully train dogs for challenging situations or train dogs with serious behavioural issues (only a few with moderate issues).
The reality is that it's not so much the philosophy a trainer has or the tools they use or the certifications they have but how skilled the trainer is themselves. Training is an art and a science. A good trainer will get results without stressing the dog out. Unfortunately many compulsive-based trainers use too much force. Some positive trainers also put excess pressure on the dog even though they believe they are being more humane than all other trainers. Some positive/force-free trainers are so worried about any slight stress or discomfort that they never manage to help their dog adjust to life. Excellent trainers will produce happier, more confident, better-behaved dogs in a reasonable amount of time with an improved relationship with their owners. Poor trainers will fail the dogs and their owners.
Ethical trainers will treat humans and non-human animals with a consistent philosophy. It bothers me when I see positive trainers preach positive reinforcement with dogs but practice positive punishment with humans. The best trainers I've met and dialogued with are open-minded, always learning and don't stoop to attacking or slandering other trainers.
An ethical trainer will be transparent with their methods and will not use inappropriately harsh aversives. What is a harsh aversive is very subjective and depends on the dog. Any tool (including a flat collar or head halter) can be used inappropriately and even abusively. An effective trainer will develop their people skills and learn to teach. Some trainers bully and belittle people. I lose respect for trainers who do this.
My philosophy is to use the most humane method with emphasis on safety and animal welfare with minimal stress to the animal. An ethical trainer will know their own limitations and be willing to refer on to someone else. I have experience mainly with basic house and leash manners for a large number of pet dogs. I have helped some dogs with reactivity walk calmly and confidently past things that used to make them go into fight, flight or freeze.
I have only rehabilitated and trained one dog of my own with moderate fear aggression. I have not trained or rehabilitated dogs with severe aggression issues. I have not seen any positive/force-free trainers rehabilitate or train dogs with severe aggression issues nor train police dogs, but some have been very vocal telling other trainers to never use aversives (for dogs they have no experience with training themselves). I'm not impressed by people who don't practise what they preach.
Some of my pet sitting clients have been offended when I suggested they need the help of a professional trainer. Some had previous bad experiences with professional trainers (mainly compulsive-based ones) and would rather have an untrained dog than to risk spending money on a professional.
I am wary of any trainer from any philosophy who has a 'my way or the highway' attitude and makes personal attacks on other trainers and poisons the public against other training styles and philosophies. It's fine to disagree or be critical with ideas and to say why. But making personal attacks is very aggressive and is a poor reflection on the ethics of that individual. If people claim to be non-aggressive with animals but are aggressive to humans, that's a huge red flag to me not to trust them. Also, people are not receptive to new ideas if they feel attacked. I believe a trainer's philosophy should extend to humans as well as non-human animals.
The aggression in the dog training profession is something that I see in all areas. It's a human nature thing. The most aggressive individuals seem to have over-inflated egos and see themselves as morally superior. They seem close-minded and attack anyone who challenges their rigidly-held beliefs. Strong cognitive dissonance is apparent. I suspect it's a fear of loss of control - if their firmly held rigid beliefs don't hold up then they feel like they have lost control.
I would like for for dog trainers to try to be more open-minded, behave more professionally towards one another and to seek to find common ground. There is no one right way to train a dog. Trainers need to put aside their egos, their emotion and passion and start thinking critically. If they would learn to communicate, rather than see each other as the enemy, they might find they have more common ground than they expected. The dog training profession will be taken a lot more seriously without all the wars.
Xanthe founded an award-winning pet sitting business in QLD, Australia in 2011. After selling the business, she returned to Taupo, New Zealand.
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