As reward based trainers should we fight against those who choose to use tools?
I don’t think I’m the only one right now who is confused. The dog training industry has always created a great divide, mostly consisting of those who use tools and those who don’t. But now it seems to have split further, to those who want to bridge the gap and welcome those who use tools. And those who believe we should still speak heavily against those who choose to use them.
To be honest, I can’t seem to make my mind up. And I don’t think I’m the only one. So I’m going to chuck my thoughts down.
The argument that we should learn from, welcome and support one another is important. I do listen to a variety of trainers. I don’t just switch them off if I don’t agree with them. I’ve seen others do that and miss out on some great lessons. Learning does not mean we have to agree, in fact if we strongly disagree with something, we should learn everything about it so we can confidently back up our arguments against.
I learn from assistants with fresh eyes and I learn from people teaching me the same subject I’ve heard over and over again. Everything is a learning opportunity.
A lot of reward based trainers are cross over trainers. We started with the use of tools and evolved into not using them. I was one of those and I can honestly say, the more experience and knowledge I gained the more I moved and still move away from the use of them. Before I was stumped by challenges like owner capability, willingness and challenging environments. I should have passed on the cases I couldn’t handle, but the truth was, I was too cocky and the training world isn’t always friendly and open enough to do this. It takes an amazing new trainer to this this and is a sign they are going to be incredible.
But I was that person once, looking for the right way to do it and being easily influenced. So I can definitely get on board with being welcoming to all. The more we allow all onto our pages and show our results, the more curious they might become.
I don’t think everyone thinks the same way, but I know from a young age I was always looking for a kinder way.
But what about the choice to use such tools? Prongs? Electric shocks? Well this is sometimes what triggers me. I’ve been zapped on an electric fence and the feeling is horrible. There’s no doubt I am absolutely terrified of them, sometimes a little irrationally. Why would anyone think it’s okay to use something so horrendous and something I would go to jail for if I used it on my child.
Well to understand this I like to think of crates. I like crates. Not every trainer does. And while they aren’t for every person or dog, I’ve seen them massively help terrified dogs in rescue and families develop safer boundaries while dogs felt more safe and secure.
But it’s a cage. And if I was to put my child in a cage, I would again, probably go to jail. Some people can’t understand why I would ever suggest using one.
If a dog was hating a crate or distressed. Of course I would never put them in there. And we don’t see actually often see dogs distressed by tool use. Sometimes we can point out body language. But actually, some dogs get more confident because they get a kick out of evading a shock or a jerk. So we aren’t always seeing suppressed, scared dogs. But confident dogs who just evaded a punishment.
I also look at the point of those who are maybe facing behavioural euthanasia. It might happen anyway but maybe they wouldn’t forgive themselves unless they tried everything. When I was 13 I had an amazing horse who had suffered years of abuse. And sadly, he was dangerous. I wanted to give him the kindness, safest place to live. But I did in the end, try some more forceful equipment. Because I was cruel? No, because I wanted to do anything I could to save that horse and I lacked in knowledge. Training knowledge yes but also the experience of facing behavioural euthanasia. And this is something I only really gained fully working in rescue.
So those are my points of being open, welcoming. Because people will only ever change when they’re ready, when they see something they want to be a part of. Just like loose lead walking, when we stop the pull on our side, the dog stops pulling back and is more willing to walk by our side.
So what about where I struggle to be open? Well I really believe tools have no place in training and I definitely believe they shouldn’t be available to owners.
On one of my learning journeys I listened to a trainer who forgot to turn the shock down on his dog’s collar and as a result. When he shocked her, she jumped up and bit him. Badly. This is a trainer, who practices daily. Because human error and poor timing will happen and when they happen with these tools, we are facing, sometimes irreparable damage. And don’t get me wrong, reward based training can go wrong too, but the damage is much easier to repair.
I have seen some really awful cases of these tools used the wrong way. They have been damaging both emotionally and physically. Including one in-bedded in a dogs neck. I don’t trust my own timing, after practicing daily with thousands of dogs and multi species so why would I ever expect an owner with a life and different passions to have perfect timing?
But at the same time, I don’t think you need a tool to harm a dog. To cause fear or discomfort. Some of the worst things I see are hitting, yelling, jerking. It’s sometimes not to do with the tool so much as the person. I think there are some people who will harm dogs no matter what’s in their hands. And I think some people truly believe they are helping because they are providing clarity, and have seen a change in their dog. I don’t believe it always comes from a bad place or even a lack of knowledge.
The truth is reward based training is hard. It comes with great rewards but it’s challenging.
I watched my friend shut her baby in the room one night, while they cried my friend sat down with a glass of wine. I don’t practice the cry it out method, I have always rocked my daughter to sleep and it’s rewarding and I know more emotionally beneficial for her. But man did I envy her. It’s an easier life and who can blame anyone for sometimes wanting to choose that option.
But if we wanted to choose the easiest option when caring for another being. Maybe we should question whether we should have them at all and I definitely don’t think we should be choosing a profession working with them.
If we are using tools just to amp up for sports, should we really be doing that sport? If we are using for wildlife, shouldn’t we use a more reliable method such as a lead. Because I’ve seen too many dogs run repeatedly through electric fences to get to prey. Predators are designed to push through pain and danger.
But the main point of it all is discomfort, fear, abuse or whatever you might want to call it. Is only that in the eye of the one receiving it. And we can never ask our dogs, never really know. So I want to provide the least aversive option I can because we just don’t know how much is going on inside. They live in a parallel universe of scent and far surpass us on intelligence in so many areas.
And what kind of trainer am I? Well I hate labels. Force free? Is that even possible? I sometimes have to force my dog at the vet, move him away from a trigger, broken glass. It’s kind, but it’s force. Positive reinforcement? Well if a dog bites me and I hit it, and the biting increases. I’ve positively reinforced that behaviour. So while it’s usually a good thing, it doesn’t have to be, it just has to increase a behaviour. I suppose I would say I’m reward based because I do a lot of rewarding!
So it’s still a tough one but what I can say is that over time my cartoons have moved away a little from bringing up tool use. I still will argue against a lack of knowledge, failure to evolve and downright abuse. But I understand there is a different breed out there who have the best intentions.
Because when things get hard we are easily influenced and we want to try everything. And if something works for us when everything else has failed, of course we will respond to it. We are all on our own journeys and we are the only ones who will ever walk that path.
So I still sit a little uncomfortably as to what I feel. But I do want my page to be open to everyone and I welcome kind discussions.
I will return now to sitting quietly and staying out of it for the most part. Because that, most importantly, is okay too.