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The Importance of Disagreement

The world of dog training has devolved into two factions: one has a cult-like adherence to a positive only training philosophy, and the other is pretty much everyone else.

I bring this up, not because I believe that the positive only folks are wrong - they may be right; given the right trainer and the right set of circumstances, any dog can be trained using only a single behavioral quadrant - just because I haven't seen it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Nor do I believe that seeking force free alternatives is a waste of time. I will seek them out as often as I can. I try very hard to adhere to a force free philosophy.

Having said that, I also believe in knowledge. I believe that the vast majority of dog trainers that I bump into have something to offer, and something to teach me. I believe in a full toolbox even if I never see a need to reach for any given method or technique.

What I do not believe in is vilifying the other side. In stating that any form of punishment relies on pain and fear. Punishment can be as minor as closing a fist on a treat. The dog feels neither pain nor fear when this occurs. If you are walking towards your dog's crate to let her out and she begins flailing around like a trapped bear and barking enthusiastically and you stop until she quits, and you only let her out when she's acting civilized, you are punishing the silly behavior. Your dog is feeling neither pain nor fear.

And while I do not advocate pain and fear in training, I also do not see these things as life crushing events. You feel fear before you try something new. That fear does not make you weaker, and overcoming it actually strengthens you. "Butterflies" are fear, but we face them often before events that we may seek out and enjoy very much. A dog faced with a novel situation may experience fear (most of us do) yet, if they have a history of overcoming such fear, and knowing how to face it, they will march on and conquer the situation without pause and with joy.

I assume that when a sheep turns on my dogs they feel a thrum of fear, after all the sheep outweigh them three-to-one and have heads like granite. Being walloped by a sheep is no fun. And yet, my dogs have learned to face these sheep, they have been rewarded for standing their ground in the past with the sheep abandoning the fight and my dogs prevailing. Winning can only happen if there is the possibility of failure or loss.

No one seeks out pain. Or at least, one would think this, however, every athlete in the world seeks out pain. Not broken leg pain, to be sure, but lung searing, legs trembling, arms exhausted pain. And they seek it out time and time again. People who belly flop into the pool are seeking out pain. People who do yoga are looking for that 'stretch' which is a form of pain. Diving into a cold ocean or lake, or into a hot spa causes pain, apparently even tickling lights up the same sensors as pain in the brain.

I would never actively inflict pain on my dogs, but they run next to the ATV and I assume feel that same lung-searing muscle exhaustion we all do when we exercise. Tagg has bitten her tongue playing disc, Ruby has damaged her pads playing with the flirt pole. I can only assume both hurt when the adrenaline from the game subsided.

I cannot speak for most corrective tools used on dogs because I have never been trained by skilled trainers how to use them, and therefore will not compare my ham handed ideas on their use with how they are likely used by folks who use them regularly and with skill. I will say that head halters use torque which is uncomfortable, and a halter on a horse uses the same. I can say that when using whips on horses in dressage training they were almost never used to inflict pain, rather they were annoying (much like someone tapping you trying to get your attention, or a fly buzzing around your head) and annoyance alone is a form of punishment, but my horses never fled my whip in fear of pain because there had never been that association. To conflate a tool (whip) with pain because if used with aggression it can cause pain does not mean that all uses of the tool cause pain, any more than the idea that the millions of drivers using cars every day are murderers because some folks have used cars for that purpose.

People dislike the 'if used properly' caveat, because their argument is that if the tool is necessary it by definition must cause pain to be effective (I believe this about head halters and extreme bits in horses), however, until you have seen a tool used in every circumstance by every trainer, I don't think the argument holds. A whip can certainly be used to inflict pain and fear. It can also, and in the hands of many good trainers, be used to tickle, pester, and annoy - both are forms of punishment, to be sure, but I think conflating a child who pulls on a hem of a parent to punish their inattention is a far cry from one who pulls a knife!

To state, unequivocally that punishment means using fear and pain is ridiculous, untrue, and extreme.

And 'extreme' I think is where the issue lays. I believe in disagreement. We grow when we meet someone with whom we disagree. Or we should. We cannot grow if we have labeled the other person a dog torturer because they use tools that we do not (and may not even fully understand). If we cannot meet every trainer as a fellow traveler and a possible source of knowledge, then we have failed. We have failed ourselves, our profession, and our dogs.

I love the idea of positive fluffy training, and if there are those who can do it every time in every situation with every dog, great! Good for them! They are growing our profession, helping dogs, and helping their fellow trainers. But if they cannot be respectful of the millions of dogs and trainers who have worked together using other methods for thousands of years, then I must doubt their claims. How can you excel without asking those who have gone before? How can you grow without disagreement, conversation, questions and answers, trial and error, and the power of surprise insights?

I love my dogs. I work hard to adhere to an ethical standard that balances their emotional well-being with their ability to live freely in my house and in my life. I do not pretend to have all the answers, and I know and hope that every belief I have will be challenged if not today, then tomorrow, and that I will be open-minded and curious enough to ask the questions and find the answers and take value when I find it.

It is hard in the era of social media and siloing ourselves with like-minded folks to reach out to the other side, whether we are talking dog training, child raising, or politics, and seek answers. But the only way we can be better at what we do tomorrow than we were today is to reach out and find disagreement, relish it, explore it, be respectful of those who are expressing it, and learn. Lean in to fear, just as we ask our dogs to, and challenge your beliefs.

So, lets all learn to disagree

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