By Beth Duman
Have you watched any of the popular dog training shows that are on TV right now? Have you ever felt queasy while watching the tough and sometimes violent ways that the dogs are trained? Have you ever wondered how the dogs felt about these methods?
Violence and the abuse of power seem to be acceptable shortcuts in our society. The message put forth by these shows is that suppression and fear are the quickest and most effective ways to solve problems.
On the other hand, as Mahatma Gandhi said, you can judge the moral character of a society by the way they treat their animals.
There are plenty of other methods used in the dog training community that could be showcased instead. They aren’t violent and they probably wouldn’t make good TV, but they work. So, for those of you who are hoping that the world can be a better place, with more empathy, nurturance and less violence – I’m here to tell you there are other ways!
As a dog trainer, biologist, educator and mom of a lesbian, I have seen what suppression and fear does to both people and dogs. As a result of this, I take both training methods for dogs and interactions with people seriously. I work hard to help people learn that there are positive, non-violent ways to change their dog’s behaviors and hopefully through these lessons they learn a little bit about interacting with people as well.
Some dog trainers along the way got the misguided idea that hanging out with your dog was all about dominance. You had to be the “boss” so that the wily critter couldn’t get the best of you. It was as though your treasured pet was just waiting to take over the world, starting with their owner. A lot of training that was developed was strictly regimented. People “commanded” their dogs to do things and accused their dogs of “blowing them off” and being disobedient if the dogs didn’t respond instantly to their wishes. This mindset led to training methods that involved sternness at best and torture devices, like shock collars, when taken to the extreme. When you step back and think of it, these are very strange ways to treat your best friends.
Of course, the fallout from this treatment becomes more evident over time. The dog starts getting testier about meeting new friends, gets sneaky about doing what pleases him most, and decides that learning is no fun at all.
Today, progressive dog trainers are moving in new directions that are dog friendly and help the owners be compassionate rather than dominanant and violent. Rather than bullying our dogs, we are helping them to learn using positive reinforcement and management. It may not make the cut for a TV show, but it is certainly more humane to everyone involved.
My daughter, Kate Runyon, has two adopted kids, Kaddi and Dowda. They are beautiful street dogs from her Peace Corps village in The Gambia, West Africa. Kaddi lives with Kate’s dad and I and has been an amazing teacher for all of us. Kaddi seemed to come in to the world with a chip on her shoulder. She was tough and pugnacious, looking for a chance to cause trouble with her dog siblings and snarly toward people, especially kids. We received a lot of advice from folks still living in the dominance paradigm. They instructed us to “correct” her and let her know we’re the boss. Something about this didn’t sit well with us, so instead, we trusted our wisdom and decided to use positive reinforcement rather than suppression to shape her behavior. We rewarded her for turning away from conflict. We played training games with her that rewarded calm, thinking behavior over impulsive, unfocused behavior. We understood that her aggression was based on fear and became sensitive to keeping her safe from situations she was not ready to deal with.
In a short time, we could see that our intuition had served us well. By rewarding acceptable behaviors and helping her to get the answers right rather than punishing her for things we didn’t like, we saw her grow into a beautiful, confident and gentle being.