Change Is Coming: The New Era of Dog Training
Over the weekend, I was listening to a live chat with two great minds in our field. Generally speaking, the topic was the state of dog training and how with all the advancements in our field, there's still an element missing that is creating welfare implications and unattainable expectations for our dogs and ourselves.
We're getting inquiries for more behavior cases than ever, to the point that there are not enough trainers to go around. How did we get here?
Problem #1: Inappropriate Breed Selection
When selecting pet dogs to add to the family, we rarely think to ourselves:
"This breed is a bad-ass vermin-hunting machine! There are lots of bunnies in our neighborhood that we're going to encounter. This breed is likely to lunge at them on our walks. Am I prepared for this?"
Or, "This breed was developed for driving cattle over long stretches of terrain and is purposefully bred to herd by biting. Plus they have outstanding stamina. How is that going to play out when my kids have their friends over and they're running around in the yard?"
Instead, we see a cute puppy and consumerism kicks in. "Must have that puppy!" Marketing has tricked us into believing that all dogs are created equal and if there's ever a problem, surely it's the dog. We rarely look to the environment we've plopped them into and the expectations we now have for them.
When they hit adolescence, and one is going apeshit on leash walks every time he sees a small critter -- because he needs to express the behavior he was born to do -- and the other is biting the kid's ankles when they're playing -- because she too is expressing the behavior she was born to do -- we think, "This dog's broken and needs to be fixed." This brings about problem 2.
Problem #2: The Fix-It Mentality
If the general consensus is, "My dog is broken," then surely we can fix this, right? Marketing kicks in yet again. Marketing tells you that Yes! Everything is fixable!
But... What if they're not actually broken?
These dogs are doing exactly what they and many generations prior were selectively bred for. One of the purposes of selective breeding is to exaggerate certain behavior tendencies to a highly specialized degree to serve a functional purpose. Thus, they are not actually broken.
Our job as ethical trainers is rarely just about the dog. Hands down, the most difficult aspect of the job is creating realistic expectations for the families who fell under the spell of an adorable puppy that might not be the best fit for their household, and now have to modify their own habits and the dog's surrounding environment in order to bring about reasonable resolution.
It can be a hard sell, but we have an obligation to be honest, accurate and ethical in our approach. At least we should strive for this.
Problem #3: Confirmation Bias
The whole purpose of marketing is to make the sale. Marketing tells you exactly what you want to hear. Marketing also exploits confirmation bias. Tell me, consumer, which offer would you go with?
Offer 1: "Yes the dog is broken. I will fix post haste!"
Offer 2: "He's actually a completely normal terrier, but if we change his environment and our behavior a bit, we can bring this to a manageable level over time."
We are primed to go with the allure of offer #1 because it is counter-intuitive to consider the other. Confirmation bias says, "don't spend your energy doing pesky things like thinking about this, this person already agrees with your assessment and just like you saw on TV the results will be practically instantaneous!" Unfortunately, even those with highly developed critical thinking skills can fall prey to this at times. It's safe to say that at this point we all know the dangers of confirmation bias run amok, and let me tell you, it's a widespread issue in the training world too.
But here's the thing: Dogs aren't products. Dogs are companions. They are captive animals fully dependent on us as their caregivers and guardians. They have emotions, they have needs and we are morally obligated to treat them with kindness, understanding, and as the family members that they are.
By heading into training with the mentality that the dog is broken -- an incorrect assessment -- it allows for all kinds of horrific acts to be bestowed upon the dog in the name of fixing it. So what are we fixing if the dog isn't actually broken?
On the one side of the training world, we have an approach involving suppression of behavior. Punish it out. This approach is one dimensional and does not account for the dog's experience. By leaving the dog with no outlet for expression, the dog tries another approach. That behavior is in turn shut down. Eventually we shut down so many expressions of behavior that the dog is boxed into a corner. They aren't allowed to be a dog. Punishment as a standalone option is not ethical. The initial behavior is now long gone but at what cost? What is their quality of life?
We don't have to look far for relatable examples. Remember the initial phase of the pandemic when we were on a full lock-down? Even though it was only a couple months in that phase, and even though many of our sacrifices were relatively small, people lost their minds. Then we went into partial restrictions for another year. Even the most introverted introvert started to struggle. Now imagine 12 years of that first phase. Except in your house, maybe you can't even talk. You also can't creatively entertain yourself because it's annoying or messy to your housemates. There's no TV, books aren't allowed, and certainly no hobbies. When you do go out, you're not allowed to explore your surroundings, because exploring is bad! Would your mental health suffer? Of course! So why in god's name are we doing this to our dogs?
Like all us sentient beings, dogs should be looked at thoughtfully, factoring in their breed specialties, the household environment and all the members of that household during the selection process. Like introverts and extroverts in our own kind, some dogs are better suited for certain environments than others and if the environment is too restrictive, all will suffer.
We have moved to a mentality that dogs are like trinkets that we take out when we want and shelve them when we don't. Couple that with a belief that all dogs are the same off the shelf and when one becomes problematic, it's broken and we need to fix it. It's a recipe for disaster.
On the other side of the training spectrum we have modern dog trainers. Modern dog trainers strive to protect the dogs under their charge from punitive corrections that simply shut down behaviors and instead look to treat the emotion the dog is feeling because the emotion is causing the symptom and when treated, the <insert observable behavior problem> goes away.
Even in modern group classes with behaviorally healthy dogs, the objective is still to teach the dog to do this skill when I say. This falls short.
Society still believes in placing dogs in a subservient role. As such, if you're trying to sell services, you are at the mercy of societal expectations.
While we do need to teach functional behaviors to be able to keep dogs and our communities safe, there is much more to these relationships that gets missed by focusing solely on this approach. Many of the behaviors families think they want out of a class aren't all that useful for today's pet dogs. This, dear reader, causes loads of heartburn for most of us trainers. We feel stuck.
We're keenly aware of societal expectations, and that we need to shift a bit, but our livelihood is very much tied to meeting these expectations. If you ask almost any modern dog trainer, they'll describe the hours they've spent agonizing over this, because most of us already know there's more to a successful relationship than the one-sided approach that is expected in today's classes. We know that dogs are still drawing the short straw even though we've moved away from physically hurting them in the name of training.
For me, I have my ideal curriculum all laid out in my head. It looks at the entire life of a pet dog and the situations they're most likely to experience stress, and seeks to protect them from that. There are still behaviors taught that help us to direct them appropriately and keep safety at the forefront, but they are significantly pared down from what our current curriculum offers. In place of the less useful behaviors, we would focus on breed-specific needs and on their need to feel safe in situations that are inherently difficult for them. This sounds so hippy-dippy, but the reality is that happy dogs, dogs whose needs are met and who are shielded from fear don't generally exhibit loads of behavior problems. Are there exceptions? Of course. But by and large this approach is a win for both the dogs and the families.
Sadly, my dream curriculum would absolutely bomb as an offering on my website in today's marketplace. We as a society haven't caught up to this way of thinking, but change is coming and my students are already seeing bits of this trickle in and the reception has been positive.
Evolution of the Field
With the sky-high numbers of behavioral challenges we're seeing, practitioners recognize that the one-sided approach to training is failing dogs. The new era of dog training seeks to meet the dog in the middle. We give a little, they give a little, everyone is happier for it. It looks at the individual breed characteristics both in selection for the household and it helps to create a lifestyle under which both the humans AND the dog can thrive.
In the talk that inspired this writing, they discussed a simple but incredibly powerful question. A question that allows us to shift our mindset when engaging with our dogs. I ask that when interacting with your own dog, you start to ask this question as part of your everyday engagements. It will enable you to become part of the movement to increase their welfare.
"What is my dog experiencing right now?"
By asking this question, we're taking time to understand their experience, and it shifts the dynamic from control to support and understanding.
It's what we want in life, right? Why would our dogs be any different?
What is my dog experiencing right now? It's time to start asking this question and shift our thinking on how we relate to our dogs.
Thank you so much to Andrew Hale - Dog Centred Care and Kim Brophy - The Dog Door for this inspirational talk that led to this writing. I look forward to exploring this concept further and integrating more of this into our programs. For more information on selecting the right breed for your household, check out this wonderful book, Meet Your Dog - by Kim Brophy.