Choose Your Tools
I have become increasingly anxious about the misuse of certain tools within the dog training world. I am not talking about the tools that we use to train our dogs, those leads and collars and clickers. I am talking about something that is far more important than mere trinkets.
Some of you may use tools others of you don’t. Some of you may even disapprove of the tools others use. But I bet you all talk to each other about it, don’t you? Further, because you compete in Working Trials, whether you are involved in the ‘dog world’ in any other capacity or not, you earn a certain degree of kudos. You go out every day and train your pets to do some amazing things; therefore I bet ‘pet people’ often ask your advice, don’t they?
Just like a dog training tool can be misused, so too can the words we use. I have spent a long time around professional dog people and around pet dog people and there is a world of difference between them and their understanding of dogs. This is no more apparent than in the vocabulary they use. Now, I can say with confidence that we are all dog lovers and as such want to see all dogs, whoever they belong to, be happy. By helping pet people with their training we are improving the lives of dogs everywhere. But here is where my anxiety comes in.
We all have a pretty good idea of what we mean when we talk of a ‘dominant’ dog. We know that ‘dominance’ is not truly at the heart of the matter, however it is a convenient word that most professional dog people have grown used to and understand. The problem is, every time I hear someone refer to a ‘dominant’ belonging to a pet owner my heart sinks. Why? Because I know the image these words conjure up in their minds: the evil dog behind the sofa plotting to take over the house, looking for any opportunity to usurp the pack leader by any means necessary. This is not a helpful perception for a pet owner to have of the relationship they have with their beloved pet.
In fact, is their dog in actuality a ‘dominant’ dog? Surely the plotting, aggressive and reactionary dog we call dominant is far from the real dominant dog who, by their very nature must be calm and confident. Just as training tools can accumulate negative misconceptions, so too can the words we use. The word ‘dominant’ is a common example: it has become a jargon for any dog who is displaying problem behaviour, normally as a result of a lack of proper training or socialisation.
I have a degree in Animal Behaviour and have been training dogs for over ten years. I do not tell you this to show off, but to illustrate a point. I know what ‘dominance’ does and doesn’t mean. I know the difference between ‘reinforcement’ and ‘punishment’. I am aware what a clicker does and how to use it. I’m sure the same is true for you. But what about the people who ask you for advice; what about your clients?
I work as a College Lecturer teaching Animal Care. This means I am fully versed in teaching and learning but, more importantly it means I am fully aware of the ignorance surrounding dog behaviour and the mixed signals we as a community send out to the dog-owning public. You would be amazed at what snippets of information an otherwise ignorant person will choose to pick up on and remember. ‘Dominance’ is just one of those things that has leeched into the public psyche and had its meaning diluted along the way.
Does the average pet owner understand that modern dog trainers using "only positive methods" rely a lot of the time on negative punishment? Do they know the difference between an "old-fashioned trainer" and a "clicker trainer"? Do they know the difference between the APBC, APDT, ADTB, BIPDT, KCAI?
If we are not careful, we can inadvertently create confrontational situations because we are giving people a bit of advice and they are filling in the gaps with what they have seen on the television or read in magazines. Who was it who said "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing"?
These pet owners look to us for advice because we are talented at communicating with dogs, not people. Nevertheless, as many trainers are replacing tools they have used for many years with new ones, I would argue that the most effective tool we have at our disposal is the words we use – so choose them carefully.