Dog Training—Let's end the fighting!

Roger Abrantes and boxer.

The dog trainers’ dispute about training methods blazes on unabated, with the erroneous and emotive use of terms such as dominance, punishment and leadership only adding fuel to the fire. There is no rational argumentation between the two main factions, one of which advocates a “naturalistic” approach and the other a “moralistic” stance. The term ‘dominance’ generates particular controversy and is often misinterpreted. We can detect, in the line of arguing about this topic, the same fundamental mistakes committed in many other discussions. By taking the controversy over dominant behavior as my example, I shall attempt to put an end to the feud by proving that neither side is right and by presenting a solution to the problem. Plus ratio quam vis—let reason prevail over force!

I shall demonstrate that the dispute is caused by:

(1) Blurring the boundaries between science and ethics. While ethics and morality deal with normative statements, science deals with factual, descriptive statements. Scientific statements are not morally right or wrong, good or bad.

(2) Unclear definitions. We cannot have a rational discussion without clear definitions of the terms used. Both sides in the dispute use unclear, incomplete definitions or none at all.

(3) Logical fallacies. The opposing sides commit either the ‘naturalistic fallacy,’ ‘the moralistic fallacy,’ or both. We cannot glean normative statements from descriptive premises, nor can we deduce facts from norms. The fact that something is does not imply that it ought to be; conversely, just because something ought to be does not mean that it is.

(4) Social conditioning and emotional load. As a result of inevitable social conditioning and emotional load, some terms develop connotations that can affect whether we like or dislike, accept or reject them, independent of their true meaning.

(5) Unclear grammar. The term dominance (an abstract noun) leads us to believe it is a characteristic of certain individuals, not an attribute of behavior. The correct use of the term in the behavioral sciences is as an adjective to describe a behavior, hence dominant behavior.

Bottom line: We need to define terms clearly and use them consistently otherwise rational discussion is not possible. We must separate descriptive and normative statements, as we cannot derive what is from what ought to be or vice versa. Therefore, we cannot use the scientific concept of dominant behavior (or any descriptive statement) to validate an ethical principle. Our morality, what we think is right or wrong, is a personal choice; what is, or is not, is independent of our beliefs and wishes (we don't have a choice).

Solution to the problem: The present dispute focuses on whether we believe it is right or wrong to dominate others (as in, totally control, have mastery over, command). It is a discussion of how to achieve a particular goal, about means and ends. It is a moral dispute, not a scientific quest. If both sides have similar goals in training their dogs, one way of settling the dispute is to prove that one strategy is more efficient than the other. If they are equally efficient, the dispute concerns the acceptability of the means. However, if either side has different goals, it is impossible to compare strategies.

My own solution of the problem: I cannot argue with people who believe it is right to dominate others (including non-human animals) as, even though I can illustrate how dominating others does not lead to harmony, I can’t make anyone choose harmony or define it in a particular way. I cannot argue with people who think it acceptable to hurt others in order to achieve their goals because such means are inadmissible to me. I cannot argue with people who deny or affirm a particular matter of fact as a means of justifying their moral conduct, because my mind rejects invalid, unsound arguments. With time, the rational principles that govern my mind and the moral principles that regulate my conduct may prove to be the fittest. Meanwhile, as a result of genetic pre-programming, social conditioning and evolutionary biology, I do enjoy being kind to other animals, respecting them for what they are and interacting with them on equal terms; I don't believe it is right to subjugate them to my will, to command them, to change them; and I don't need a rational justification as to why that's right for me*.


To read the whole article, please click The whole article gives the full argument for the five points above as well as a list of realted articles and references.


I really enjoyed this well written article that brings up a great point. This is a subject my girlfriend and I talk about all the time and I agree with everything you said, thank you for this article.

Thank you so much for this Roger. This is something I have been saying for years now. The "positive" method folks like myself should not down the old school "dominance" folk's training methods. The fire just pushes the average person to the most visible form of training and rehabilitiation which unfortunately happens to be the dominance method. Rather than fighting with the dominance folks, we postitive method folks need to prove our methods are just plain better for the dogs - and clearly base these methods on science and perhaps a combination of nature as well. 


I believe that teaching a dog is better than a leash yanking correction. But I have to clearly demonstrate that through known scientific methods, rather than tearing down another dog trainer or rehabilitatior methods. 

Unfortunately, I can't just "agree to disagree" when dogs are being harmed by abusive training.  I prefer capturing/shaping/prompting over food lures.  Those who use food lures, however, are still training humanely and using valid applied behavior analysis.  I can agree to disagree.  However, those who use choke, prong or shock collars, or other forms of intimidation, are hurting dogs.  I will not just stand by and stay quiet on this.  We need to continue the fight to eradicate all forms of abuse in the name of training.

Leah Roberts Family Pet Trainer

While I can be civil to those who are genuinely on a learning curve, as Leah Roberts points out, I think that it is unwise to condone abusive behavior by remaining silent.  Recently, a very compelling video of a Belgian Malinois being beaten by his "trainer" made the rounds on Facebook.  The man has been banned from competition (I wish it was permanently instead of for the year).  Because his fellow trainers/competitors have remained silent for so long about the abuse that takes place by some (thankfully not by all) in their sport, this man apparently thought he had license to act in such a manner.  At least someone recorded it and acted to stop him.  
It is only the definition of abuse that differs from trainer to trainer, and science *without* ethics is unacceptable.  Effectiveness, or winning, should never be the only criteria by which we judge what is or is not humane.  If you allow shock collars, someone will always turn up that juice - always.  Therefore, I am willing to risk not being part of the kumbaya movement.  Trainers who inflict pain on dogs have had decades to learn to do it better - APDT couldn't change them, IACP is virtually encouraging them, and in my mind, PPG is the ONLY group that has taken a stand on this, one which I am incredibly proud to support.  

I think the pendulum is being swung way to far here. Extreme brutality teaches nothing, but damages everything. However there is another extreme that also provides zero feedback to the dog. What I am talking about lies in the subtle middle, and is quite open for interpretation.

I know a dog trainer that teaches one to break focus by gently touching the dog on the shoulder. Another positive based trainer thinks that is abuse. Who is right? In their own minds, they both are. A gentle touch does break the focus, but the positive trainer insists it is a jab. Well, a jab has force, the touch pressure. Is a dog harmed by pressure? I don't think so, or I would not hug my dogs - and they would be afraid of the hug(which they are not). These are moral judgements, not scientific based ones, and this is what Roger is pointing out. He is not advocating abusive methods, he is just pointing out some things are more morality based than scientific based - and that is a fact.

When it comes to differing training technique(lure versus shaping and capturing), neither way is the right or wrong way. It is a matter of training choice and style. When it comes to breaking the focus of a dog(jumping consistently at the door when company comes) there are many safe and positive ways to handle that. You may have a specific way, and somebody else may think it is cruel(moral judgement not scientific).

Roger is just asking us to seperate moral judgements from established scientific concepts. Mixing the two together just creates to much ambient noise that makes it harder to dissiminate fact from fiction. If you read the entire blog post, Roger plainly does not support silence when a dog is being abused - that is a different subject altogether than this one.


Well you know there are some jokes about this :

Want three opinions on how to teach something ? Ask any two trainers. (and in some cases you only need one trainer. )

There are only two things that any two trainers will agree on. One is that a third trainer is doing everything wrong. The other is that it's much harder to teach people (handlers) than it is to train dogs.


Bening more serious :

Dr Abrantes is right of course that science (facts) and ethics (beliefs) are two different inquiries. One lives best when one's ethics are not incompatible with the relevant facts of nature. But many people see facts through the distorted vision of strong preconcieved belief. "My mind is made up, don't bother me with facts".

While "dominence" describes behavior -- and I very much like Patricia McConnell's statement that the one holding higher social rank has the right to claim preferred access to resources that the individuals involved see as being both valuable (valuable = both really want that resourse) and scarce (scarce = not enough for both of them) -- it's also true that some individuals, those who are both highly self-confident and self-assertive, will easily claim the rights of dominence against those of less confident and less assertive disposition. This is true for humans and for dogs.

If you live with dogs in groups of two or more, especially three or more (because there are not three opposite sexes), and if you are at all observant, if you sit back sometimes and just watch the dogs interacting ("being Jane Goodall in your living room and your backyard"), you have to become aware of dogs at times going after the same resource (a toy, a stick, digging rights at a hole, a person's attention and petting). Sometimes only one of them wants it seriously and then there is no display of dominance, no assertion by one and deference by the other. Sometimes the dogs think there is plenty of that resource, as in several toys or more than one water bowl (or an ever-filling float valve bowl that they both know will continue to have water regardless of which of them drinks first), and if so again no need for any dominance to enter into play. But other times there surely is an assertion by one and a deference by the other. It can be extremely subtle. Just a slightly strong eye contact as assertion and a slight turn away as defernece. It can easily be so subtle that the person watching misses it entirely. And if you are reading a book or watching something else, of course you miss this . Other times it is much more blatant and any fool should be able to see that something is happening. On the other paw, there are some very dramatic interactions that are purely play and have nothing to do with social rank. A toy may be involved as an important part of the game, eg in Tug or in Keep Away, and the action may be hugely amusing and dramatic, but it's not an issue of dominance. (Except that I suspect that play does keep dogs aware of relative physical strength and relative mental determination, and thus stabilizes the hierarchy. Play also is so enjoyable that the dogs like one another more and more, and personal friendship tends to mitigate and soften the workings of hierarchy.)

Now I like the term "leadership" as being a good description of the human role. There are other terms other people find more appropriate metaphors for the human role vis a vis the dog. Different metaphors work for different people with different dogs and situations.
"Parent" is one of them and it works well for those who are benevolent and can judge how much guidance a situation and individual child/dog requires and who understand the difference between dog and child in cognitive capability and in potential future development (child is to ultimately become an independant adult, but dog remains dependant on owner/guardian). But we know there are some very bad parents : the dictatorial tyranical, the non-guiding totally indulgent, the mentally or physically abusive.

In many homes it is relatively rare for there to be resources that are both highly valued and perceived as scarce. Thus no dominance. If you have multiple water bowls, no issue over who gets to drink first. If you separate dogs into crates or rooms or other spaces before you give each his food bowl , there's no oppertunity or need for dominance (and you also have the benefit of being able to tell if any individual is "off" in appetite, which can signal illness). In many homes there are always multiple toys on the floor or ground or in toy basket. In many homes the only resource that the dogs might compete for is being the center of attention of a person, either their owner/guardian or an interesting visitor (all my dogs assume that visitors came for purpose of petting dogs).

So between dogs , dominance exists, but often it is very subtle and seldom called into play. And it's not likely to be anywhere near as serious for dogs, who mostly get most of their needs provided by humans, as for wolves who have to make their own living and have to take life very seriously.

Topic of relevance of natural packs (related family) of wild unconfined wolves and unnatural (unrelated) confined wolves to the situation of groups of dogs living in human homes and unowned dogs living on streets or at garbage dumps is one I won't deal with here. Except to say that each of these is somewhat different from each of the others, though of course they do have some relationship to each other.

So as to the relation between dogs and humans, dogs and the owner/guardian , "dominance" is a dirty word if it gets transformed into "domination" and "domineering" and bullying and unnescesary levels of physical force. It's a term that has become contaminated by those who are inclined to behave in a dominating fashion -- and those who think that dramatic domination makes good television (but as we recently learned, it's great television when the dominator gets bitten and sent to the ER).

That doesn't mean that there are no dominance interactions between dogs and people. These can be extremely subtle. There's a great 3 panel cartoon in one of Volhard and Fisher's books : first panel the man is reading the newspaper but notices that the dog is eyeing the cat in an about-to-chase fashion, second panel the man shoots the dog a "don't you dare" eye contact and grumbles "ahem", a mild growl equivalent, and third panel the dog sighs and totally abandons his evil intentions towards the cat, lies down. Now that's a perfect assertion and deference. I did much the same the first time my dog Chelsea thought about hopping up on my roommates forbidden sofa : just one forbidding eye contact from me, half a second. This is using the dog's own native language and behavior.

So if we don't want the D word, then we still need some metaphoric term to describe the relationship and indicate the terms and limitations on which the human influences or controls the behavior of the dog -- and vice versa too of course.

Peraonally I like the term "leadership", though alas that term too is easily contaminated . (every term can become contaminated).

To me the essence of being a good and legitimate leader is that the leader leads mostly for the benefit of those she leads, not merely for her own aggradisment or ego. (that lets out most political leaders, doesn't it?) There's a Bedouin saying "a leader must be a river unto his people". That's a great metaphor in a desert culture : the leader must provide for the welfare of his (her !) people.

A leader of dogs must be both TRUSTED and RESPECTED. To be respected without being trusted is to be feared. Machievelli was not a dog trainer. : it is NOT "better to be feared than to be loved". To be trusted without being respected is to be a pushover who may get ruled by the dog.

As leader of my pack I am both "She From Whom All Blessings Flow" and "She Who Must be Obeyed". And that is perfectly consistent with training via positive reinforcement (= something dog wants or enjoys begins as consequence of dog's desired-by-trainer behavior or response) and it's inevitable other side of coin, negative punishment ( = something dog enjoys or wants is ended or withdrawn as consequence of dog's undesirable-to-trainer behavior or response). It's consistant with any of the 31 flavors of NILIF. The blessings flow when the leader is obeyed (or leader's standard of conduct is obeyed) and cease when she is disobeyed (dog's behavior undesirable).

The other ruling principle is that AUTHORITY derives from and balances RESPONSIBILITY. This goes back to the leader's function to provide for the welfare of the dogs she leads. I have the authority to require my dogs to pause at doors and gates and getting out of the car, pause and wait for permission to proceed through or out, because I have the responsibility (duty) to keep my dog safe, keep dog from running into danger. There are a lot of situtations where I have the responsibility to excercise some degree of control over my dog's behavior, either to get dog to do something or to refrain from doing something, because of my responsibility to care for the dog's welfare.

And in a lot of other situations, the dog can do as he pleases (or within a few outer limits) without any direction or control by me. As I type this 3 of my 4 dogs are doing whatever they please (which is mostly resting in comfortable spots with occasional trips through the dog door to go pee or poop or to check if any squirrel or rabbit or bird is in the yard and stupid enough to wait to be caught) while the 4th is confined to an x-pen with multiple layers of cushioned bedding and with non-sill container of water and a toy or two because our vets have instructed me that he needs to be on minimal activity for a month to allow a medical condition to recover (note : he is napping too, as he would be if not confined. difference is that his potty breaks will be supervised and on leash).

I really believe that if someone takes the guiding principles of (1) TRUST plus RESPECT and (2) AUTHORITY derived from RESPONSIBILITY for dog's welfare, that person is not likely to go very far wrong. Of course we will make some mistakes, but they shouldn't be big or bad mistakes.

And Dr Abrantes, if you ARE able to create Peace in the Dog Training World, maybe next you could tackle Peace in the MidEast, and then for the finale see if you can create cooperation between the Democrats and the Republicans in the US Congress.

Drayton Michaels has been working with dogs professionally for over a decade.  He honed his dog training chops while working as dog walker in both NYC and Seattle.  In May of 2007