Comments on Dog Training.....

There have been several comments lately on various dog lists regarding inaccurate perceptions of dog sports such as Schutzhund, assuming in general that because dogs are learning to "bite" that it must be an out-of-control and bad thing.  I began to realize that this was bothering me on a deeper level than perhaps it should - but why?  And then it occurred to me. 

I have always, as a professional trainer, thought it very important to be as knowledgeable as I could about as many aspects of dog behavior and training as possible.  I made it a point not to comment on things I didn't really understand and never to teach something to a client's dog that I had not mastered myself.  That way I felt I was being "honest" about what I was offering.  And way back in the beginning we weren't hindered by political correctness - because dog training as a profession was way too unorganized to even have created any such perceptions!  So one could learn without worrying about pressure from peers - which is an odd thought, because one shouldn't have to worry about something like that!  And yet it has evolved in that manner, somehow.  An unpredicted consequence of that wonderful day way back when Ian Dunbar began the concept of the APDT.

And although there were always many trainers in the area - there was nothing like the proliferation of trainers that exists now. This is a good and potentially wonderful thing, yet it has also created what I might call a "new" sort of trainer.  This new trainer found that it was easy to "train" using lure/reward techniques; so easy in fact that one could soon call oneself a Dog Trainer and start charging money for your services!  But, as we all know, it's necessary at some point to move past lure and reward, to move past a visible food treat held in the hand.  But alas, a large percentage of these new trainers just weren't learning how to do that.  And along with this phenomenon, there came a vivid hostility against certain tools and methodologies.  There are many good reasons for much of this as new experiments in training showed that it is just not necessary to train with avoidance as had been done for so long - but I am talking more about a fervor not based on knowledge; rather based on an emotional reaction to the thought of causing animals pain - and to the perception that certain tools or techniques always will cause pain and are *never* justified.  In dog training as in so many things, with enough experience you will find that it is not wise to use the word *never*.

So this brings me back to my reaction to statements regarding sports such as Schutzhund.  Here we have a sport which is much misunderstood, especially by those who know nothing about it except that it involves teaching dogs to "bite" and therefore must be a bad thing.  This is a sport where the dogs are taught to focus on the sleeve (the best tug toy ever invented in their regard) rather than being taught to focus on biting the man; they are taught advanced offleash responsiveness; they are taught to follow a track and indicate articles on that track.    They must be under control - and they will not pass the preliminary BH test if they can not successfully make it through the many social exercises in that test - therefore weeding out dogs with poor and unstable temperaments.  As in any endeavor you will find those that do not represent the best aspects of the sport - but there is still much to learn for those who have never trained a dog to off-leash reliability; for those who need to instill impulse control into an overly rambunctious dog.

Therefore, when I read casual, uninformed remarks about this sport (and others) thrown about with the expectation of applause from fellow  like-minded trainers - what I see instead is a group who is not thinking about being  knowledgeable before making pronouncements; who would rather say the "right" thing as they perceive it than expand their abilities; and I see the narrowing of dog training in general.  I see dogs who no longer are given the chance to respond without a leash, head halter or no-pull harness (yes, in spite of leash laws there are so many reasons why it's a good thing to train to off-leash reliability); and I see a wave in the future of trainers who have not competed themselves in any dog sport and will never compete - and who even if they don't choose to do so, do not train to higher standards than is easily reached with lure/reward techniques.  And I also see a group who would rather argue over the correct academic verbiage than actually get out there and train a dog.

I find it frustrating to see the profession I have loved for so many years moving in such a direction.  I find it frustrating as well to see a divide between those who rely so much on academia and those in the trenches working with dogs.....and it's the dogs who reap the results, one way or the other.