The Other Dr. Spock

Twenty years ago when I entered the profession of dog training and began teaching classes, I was hard pressed to find much variety in the methodology and literature.  There was a plethora of information about choke collars, leash jerks, scruff shakes, ear pinches, alpha rolls, and of course, alpha roles.  There were few, if any, references to the principles of behavior modification, and training with food rewards was often discouraged.

The array of books and other training materials today is nothing short of amazing.  Dog owners (and trainers!) are bombarded with books, videos, websites, blogs, webinars, podcasts, and television programs about dog training, many of them touting a different approach.  So, it is no surprise when new owners come to puppy class, they have lots of questions about methodology.  They ask the questions about housetraining, jumping up and how to deal with needle-teeth puppies, but they also want to know what we think about the book by Ima Trayner, or our opinion about the trainer on TV, because they want to train their puppy “the right way.”  Some are so overwhelmed that they are afraid to start the training process before they come to class for fear of “ruining” their new pup.

I have lots of thoughts on this subject and I always make the case for humane and positive training, but I try to encourage them to use their observation skills and their best judgment when deciding upon the approach they’ll use.  I ask them to consider the following four questions: 

  • Is the puppy learning and making good progress?
  • Are you and the puppy having fun?
  • Does the method or approach to training make sense?
  • Will the training method result in a good relationship between you and your pup?

And then, following the advice of someone who wrote a life-changing book for all of us, I tell them to trust their instincts, because over the course of their dog’s life, they will receive a lot of well-intentioned advice from friends, they will continue to encounter other books, teachers, websites and television shows, and they’ll need to determine whether it’s good information – or not.

In 1946 Benjamin Spock wrote and published a book called Baby and Child Care, which broke with traditional child rearing policies and practice.  The first words in this book communicated to parents, “you know more than you think you do,” and he encouraged them to trust their instincts and use a common sense approach in raising their children.  This advice was practical, it made sense, and it changed the way parents raised their children.  Rigid feeding, sleeping and toilet training schedules gave way to flexibility, and parents were reassured that showing affection would not ruin their children. 

Ironically, this advice works well in our field of training as well.  For those who might be offended by the comparison of raising children to training dogs, I would make the case that living and working with other beings on this planet requires a bit of cultural competence and some understanding about behavior.  It doesn’t matter whether those beings are spouses, children, significant others, puppies, supervisors, co-workers or friends.  Each of has needs and when we understand the needs of others, we make our way through life a little better.  Supervisors who punish and intimidate employees may get their work accomplished, but they are not likely to build good relationships with employees.  Read almost any book on leadership and teamwork these days and you will find the inferences that people don’t leave jobs, they leave relationships.  On the other hand, there are those employers who establish rules that are fair, and provide positive reinforcement for productive and effective performance.  These leaders accomplish their goals, retain employees and generally have good relationships with their staff.

When training a puppy or adult dog, owners can choose training techniques that overwhelm, “dominate,” or even frighten their dog, or they can set realistic expectations for the dog (there’s another entire blog!), show a little patience with their progress, and remember to appropriately reinforce good behavior.  Although dogs (and people) will respond to both approaches, only one of these approaches is likely to pass the “Four Question” test.

I am, admittedly, a control freak, and I would like to be able to convince everyone who comes through our classes, that our approach is the best one.  But I am also a practicing realist and know that after pet owners leave my class, they will be making decisions about handling and training their dog for a very long time, and that they will be influenced by many others.  Ultimately, we must teach well, make a case for using positive methods and set an overwhelmingly good example when using those methods.  Then, we can encourage our clients to trust their instincts, and be confident that they will know good training when they see it.