One Trainer's Path to Change

Drayton Michaels recently posted an impassioned condemnation of trainers who employ training methods that involve fear or pain and advocated forcing people to adopt more positive training methods.  I’ve felt that kind of frustration myself.  There are some truly horrific and abusive trainers in my area who I would love to put out of business (and worse).  I’ve seen quite a few dogs whose minds and spirits have been destroyed by a small number of self-styled local dog trainers.  I’ve looked into the eyes of owners who saw me as their last hope and told them that I didn’t know how to undo enough of the damage to make their dogs safe.  One dog traumatized by these abusive hacks injured my wife badly as we worked to undo the damage.  I watched the woman I love endure months of pain due to their cruelty, stupidity, and greed.  I understand the rage.   

I also fear the rage.  That kind of anger leads to one of our darkest and most basic human impulses:  tribalism.  It leads us to divide the world up into us and them, good guys and bad guys.  Once we’ve drawn the lines, we stop seeing people on the other side as individuals.  We start generalizing about whole groups based on the worst actions of fringe members.  I see a lot of tribalism in pet dog training.  I see it in the way Drayton paints everyone who uses any level of pain or fear in dog training with one brush, labeling them “pain trainers.” I see it in the way he claims that Those Others can never be persuaded, and must be forced (through unspecified mechanisms) to train only with positive methods.    

I’m living proof that those pain trainers who Drayton makes sound so evil and callous can be persuaded.  Fifteen plus years ago, I was one of them, but I don’t recognize even a shred of my younger self in his post.  My experience was a lot more complex than the black and white picture he paints, and it has led me to a very different approach to advocating positive training. 

I got my first look at dog training in the mid-80s as a college student working part-time in a pet center that offered traditional competition obedience classes.  It seemed too controlling and harsh to appeal to me.  That’s probably why I never even considered taking an obedience class when I adopted my first dog of my own as a 23-year-old graduate student in 1993.  That puppy turned out to be a Catahoula Leopard Dog who was way too much for a student and first time dog owner. 

I reluctantly enrolled in obedience class when she was 8 months old at the insistence of my roommates.  The class employed similar methods to what I’d seen at my college job, but the trainer was a lot more fun.  We used food in class.  He frequently cautioned us against over-correcting our dogs.  When I struggled getting my dog to heel, he gave me a head halter and suggested that I use only very short upbeat sessions with the choke chain to wean her away from it.  The class was far from perfect, but it was also a long way from “choking the dogs into submission.”  Some of the dogs undoubtedly suffered emotional fallout from all the collar corrections, but most of them bounced back , working happily and confidently.  I’ve no doubt that one or two also wound up staying in homes they otherwise would have lost. 

Unfortunately, I also bought into the ridiculousness of pack theory at this time, and did some stupid things that my instructor never taught me.  I occasionally inflicted an “alpha roll” or scruff shake on my poor dog.  I still feel guilty and embarrassed about that, but I never enjoyed it or did it lightly.  I hated it in fact, but I thought it was what you had to do.   Fortunately, my dog responded wonderfully to training in spite of all my stupidity.  She was an exceptionally resilient, happy, stable, and obedient dog who went everywhere with me. 

A couple of years later, I adopted another Catahoula who – at 4 months of age – had a significant bite history and was afraid of almost everything.  Thanks to the advice of the “pain trainer” Brian Kilcommons, whose book Good Owners, Great Dogs was my early training bible, I read – and fortunately followed – his wise advice to avoid meeting aggression with aggression.  Through a process of trial and error that started with Kilcommons’ advice, I helped that dog turn around and learn to really love people and live a wonderful life by respecting her fear and creating opportunities for positive experiences.

For the first time in my life, I got excited about training dogs.  I saw that it could be done with a lot less confrontation than I’d ever believed, and seeing shy dogs blossom was an incredible thrill.  I did not, however, undergo an immediate total transformation.  I still relied on choke chains to teach leash manners, although I combined it with the use of treats and spent more time building a foundation in low distraction environments.  I still occasionally responded to counter surfing or destructive behavior with an “alpha roll” or scruff shake.  I still knew no alternatives. 

In 1996, I started training with an AKC obedience club.  My mentor was also moving from more traditional methods towards a lure-and-reward approach.  We adopted change slowly.  Unlike the villains in Drayton’s piece, we were constantly asking what was wrong with our approach and how we could make it better, but my mentor also demanded (and got) results.  She had a skeptical club of successful competitors to convince, and she wasn’t going to do it with rhetoric.  It took us time to become comfortable and proficient with positive approaches to everything we taught, but I can assure you that no attempt to force us would have been productive.  I was only part of the club for a couple of years, but my modest never preachy mentor attracted the right people to quietly build something huge with that club.     

In 1998, I read Jean Donaldson’s seminal book Culture Clash.  I read it in one of the more memorable nights of my life.  I grumbled my way through the first 2 chapters making notes in the margins about weak and hyperbolic attacks on traditional training.  I might have closed the book at that point, but - thankfully - I enjoy analyzing arguments that push my buttons, so I kept reading.  As I dug into the meat of the book, Donaldson’s experience and the unassailable logic of her more substantive arguments was undeniable.  I stayed up ‘til 4 AM on a work night reading it straight through, and I knew when I finished that everything had changed, but it still took some time to digest and implement it all.    

I became committed to using positive methods.  I subscribed to a zillion email lists and joined the APDT.  I couldn’t get enough information.  When I got a puppy a couple of months later, I viewed him as my test case.  The pup turned out to a genetic mess with serious aggression issues.  When BJ started lunging at strangers on walks, I didn’t know what to do.  He didn’t seem scared.  He didn’t listen to commands.  He was just lunging.  I was devastated, confused, and filled with doubt about my training approach. 

I was learning a lot, but I still lacked the intellectual tools to understand BJ’s behavior.  Like anyone experiencing fear and confusion, I fell back on what I knew.  This, I thought, was just plain dominance.  It was time to get serious and correct this behavior.  I didn’t take the idea of giving BJ his first corrections ever lightly.   My gut just told me it was the way to go. 

At that point, APDT let me – and my dog - down.  The organization’s listserv had been my primary source of support and education as I adopted positive methods.  It was a real life line for an eager new trainer looking to make a change.  Unfortunately, my crisis of confidence in positive training came during a brief period when the listserv was controlled by someone who advocated force over persuasion as the way to convince humans to forego force in dog training.  They banned any favorable comments about aversive training methods on the list.  When I tried to discuss my doubts with the community that had helped me come so far, I was forbidden from doing so.  I could, of course, have asked people for their thoughts, but I wasn’t allowed to offer my own opinion for others to engage.  I had no interest in such a discussion.  I wasn’t looking for someone to preach to me.  I was looking for dialogue. 

I didn’t just give up.  I found a BBS with an aggression forum moderated by a positive trainer.  She attempted to persuade me that that I was about to make a mistake with sound, logical, respectful arguments.  She failed – at least at first.  I went out and corrected my dog for lunging anyway.  He responded poorly.  As his aggression escalated,  so did my corrections, with disastrous results. 

It only took a few times for me to realize that I had screwed up big time.  The words of the one trainer willing to engage me in respectful dialogue were fortunately fresh in my mind.  The fallout she warned of actually occurred.  I have only myself to blame for my mistake.  Still, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if APDT’s ideological moderator had allowed to me to engage with the community instead of being more interested in repressing any deviation from the prevailing orthodoxy.  I’ve also wondered how much worse it could have been if not for that one trainer who engaged me with respect and patience. 

It’s really easy to demonize people we don’t know, but it tends to grossly distort the truth.  Most people who train with methods that involve some fear and pain are good people who love dogs.  Yes, they do some things that I find disturbing and needlessly screw up some dogs.  Yes, I long to convince them all to adopt a kinder approach.  On the other hand, some of them are really excellent humane trainers who do a lot of things better than I do.  Most of them help far more dogs than they hurt and are open to new ideas presented with reason and respect.  Many won’t change immediately and some will never change, but you never know when you’re planting a seed. 

I don’t know if I ever would have changed my stripes if not for people like Ian Dunbar who are willing to engage people where they are and work to change behavior with gentle respectful persuasion and proven results.  I think that Dr. Dunbar had the right idea when he founded the APDT as a non-judgmental organization offering quality education to all comers, and I think he has the right idea in the seminars he’s doing today pushing positive trainers to raise our skill level and make our case with concrete results.  I think that we’ll do a lot more good for dogs by bringing more people to positive training educational events, by going out and winning competition titles, and by treating skeptics with respect than we ever could by issuing ever stronger condemnations.  This approach has led the APDT to become an organization with hundreds of members who could tell stories like mine about how APDT helped them change the way they train. 

I like the idea of a certifying organization that I could reliably count on to provide referrals only to competent humane trainers or a certifying agency that would test trainers’ skills and vet their methods to be in line with my ethical and professional standards.  I would join such organizations if they were managed properly, and I would encourage people who are passionate about the issue to go out and create them.  Just leave the APDT alone.  It’s an educational organization, not an advocacy group or a certifying body.  It has a different mission; one that’s been wildly successful and has influenced more people towards dog friendly training than any other organization by a long shot.  If you see a vacant niche, go fill it.  There is plenty of room for fierce advocates and fiery rhetoric in the positive training movement, but gentle persuasion has a pretty good track record.  It’s a strategy that I’ll stick to and I’ll support the APDT as long as it does too.