Recently, I have read some things that I’ve found a bit upsetting, and have been trying to remind myself that this mission we are on is a marathon and not a sprint. Here, I am talking specifically about our mission regarding making reward-based training the norm. We are making headway, though, as a “movement”, and individually as trainers, and I see evidence of that daily, from the client who tells me he kicked his dog in frustration and really doesn’t want to be “that person”, to the one who knows what she is doing isn’t working. I hold on to those moments of recognition in which someone realizes they want to be better and do better and sometimes, that’s enough. Sometimes, though, the other stuff seems louder and more insurmountable. There’s a lot of throwing crap at the wall to see what sticks, a lot of “experts”, a lot of defensiveness- it’s basically the Wild West for dogs out there. And by out there, I mean the internet. We all turn to the internet for answers and it’s a fantastic resource. The problem is there’s no one fact-checking a lot of stuff and so people fall prey to false information, critical thinking falls to the wayside and myths persevere. Here’s a few examples:
– A post in a Facebook group aimed at sharing information amongst reward-based trainers and members of the public interested in learning about the methods used, wherein someone stated that they wanted to punish their dog for countersurfing. Uninterested in learning how to teach the dog to do something else, or manage the situation (or perhaps simply looking for an opportunity for a fight. Because, internet.), this individual erupted into name-calling. I had left this group before and promptly did so again. I try to limit my exposure to ugly.
– A picture that went around and around and around of a baby kissing a dog wearing bunny ears, where the dog was clearly uncomfortable. I was about to write an entire blog post on that one, but, thankfully, Eileen Anderson took care of that for me and did so beautifully.
– An article on PetMD, which though retracted, remains on the website. This strikes me as rather curious and convenient, though I can only guess it serves to continue to try to drive traffic to the website. This piece advocates for this nonsense:
- With your puppy facing you, sit on the floor and hold it using both hands just behind the front legs. Now, hold it away at arm’s length and look directly into its eyes. If the dog struggles, make a growling sound and hold it with a strong grip until it stops.
- Again, sitting on the floor, cradle the puppy with one hand under its head and the other supporting its back. The dog will be on its back with its feet in the air and its belly exposed to you — a position of submission. If the dog struggles, use the same animal growls you used in step 1, making certain not let go until the dog stops struggling and relaxes
Wait. What? Are we still living in the 70’s? Have we learned nothing? Growling in a puppy’s face? With a strong grip? Forcing a puppy into submission? Sometimes, I really want to yell “Stop the Ride!” because the lack of knowledge, the holding on to old ideas for dear life and the wanton manner in which all of this gets spread is absolutely crazy-making. In her book, The Other End of the Leash, which I loved, though I don’t agree with all of it, Patricia McConnell notes that the main author of How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend from The Monks of New Skete, which inspired millions to perform alpha rollovers deeply regretted giving this advice. Progress.
And yet…there really is hope. Because the comments on that post in the Facebook group were by and large thoughtful responses to a common problem, there are people like Eileen who deconstruct something in a respectful and well-thought out way and PetMD did retract the piece. And I meet clients like the one I mentioned above and this website has hundreds of thousands of views and our articles have a ton of shares. So do lots of others like it. There is mounting evidence that people are beginning to get it. Dogs have needs- emotional needs, mental needs, behavioral needs, physical needs and we are the ones who can meet them and force is not the way to do it. Left to their own devices, dogs will countersurf, they may bite that child (and it won’t be out of nowhere), they may take over your household (but it won’t be because they think they are alpha, it’ll be because you didn’t teach them what you want them to do *instead* of that other, more natural, thing like scavenging for scraps wherever they can find them, even if that means hopping up onto your beloved granite countertops) and they will certainly not have their needs met, not the least of which is a feeling of safety.
Dogs are not props. They aren’t robots. They are a domesticated species that we take responsibility for when we bring them into our homes. Because of this, they are reliant on us. We would serve them well to remember this. And if you find yourself frustrated and behaving in ways that you don’t like in response to your dog, take a deep breath, call a professional, tap into those critical thinking skills (it really is a skill!), get over the idea of the sprint and commit to the marathon. Your dog does not have deep-seated resentments or plans for a massive takeover. He’s not laying awake at night plotting how he can make your life miserable. I promise. Become mindful of your own behavior and how it impacts your dog. This little pearl of wisdom from Dr. Patricia McConnell sums it up so very well:
And as for the use of force in general, Steven Pinker makes this beautiful statement less than a hundred pages into The Better Angels of Our Nature:
“Another major change we have lived through is an intolerance of displays of force in every day life. In earlier decades a man’s willingness to use his fists in response to an insult was the sign of respectability. Today it is the sign of a boor, a symptom of impulse control disorder and a ticket to anger management therapy.”
The times are changing. We may be but a few miles into the marathon, but it’s one worth running. The lives of the dogs we purport to love, and the happiness of those lives and therefore our own, depend on it.
Keep running, friends.