Jean Donaldson, Director of The SF/SPCA Academy for Dog
Dog training is a divided profession. We are not like
plumbers, orthodontists or termite exterminators who, if
you put six in a room, will pretty much agree on how to
do their jobs. Dog training camps are more like
Republicans and Democrats, all agreeing that the job
needs to be done but wildly differing on how to do it.
The big watershed in dog training is whether or not
to include pain and fear as means of motivation. In the
last twenty years the pendulum swing has been toward
methods that use minimal pain, fear or intimidation - or
none at all.
The force-free movement has been partly driven by
improved communication from the top. Applied
behaviorists, those with advanced degrees in behavior,
and veterinary behaviorists, veterinarians who have
completed residencies specializing in behavior problems
are in greater abundance than in previous decades, and
there is much more collaboration between these fields
and trainers on the front lines. These two professions
are quite unified on the point that the use of physical
confrontation and pain is unnecessary, often detrimental
and, importantly, unsafe.
The big watershed in dog training is
whether or not to include pain and fear as a
means of motivation.
On a more grassroots level, trainers have found more
benign and sophisticated tools by boning up on applied
behavior science themselves. Seminal books like marine
mammal trainer Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog made
the case that training and behavior modification can be
achieved without any force whatsoever.
But dog training is currently an unregulated
profession: there are no laws governing practices.
Prosecutions under general anti-cruelty statutes are
occasionally successful but greatly hampered by the
absence of legal standards pertaining specifically to
training practices. Provided it's in the name of
training, someone with no formal education or
certification can strangle your dog quite literally to
death and conceivably get off scot-free.
It's not a complete wilderness: three sets of dog
training guidelines exist, one in the Association of Pet
Dog Trainers (APDT) Mission Statement, one published by
the Delta Society and one by the American Humane
Association (AHA). All state that less invasive (i.e.
without pain or force) techniques must be competently
tried and exhausted before more invasive techniques
attempted. Such guidelines are not yet mandatory but
they're a start.
And so the current professional
climate is one laden with some remaining fierce debate.
There's an ever-expanding group of trainers that train
force-free (ad. literature will be some variation on the
theme of "dog-friendly" or "pain-free"), trainers that
still train primarily with force (ad literature:
"no-nonsense" or "common sense") and trainers that
employ liberal use of both force and rewards (ad
literature: "balanced" or "eclectic"). From a consumer's
standpoint, the choice in methods is wide. You can hire
a professional to train your dog pretty much any way
that suits your fancy and it's all legal.
The force-free movement gains momentum every year and
a sure sign of this is that many trainers in the other
camps resort to murkier and murkier euphemisms to
disguise their more violent practices and retain their
market share. Stressed dogs aren't "shut down," they're
"calm." It's not strangling, it's "leading." As a
committed devotee of the "dog-friendly" camp, I am
therefore, along with my colleagues here at The San
Francisco SPCA, somewhat agog at the stunning success of
"The Dog Whisperer". This is pretty ferocious stuff by
anybody's standards. The National Geographic Channel
even runs a disclaimer banner at the bottom of the
screen admonishing people to "not try this at home," a
warning notably absent on home improvement shows or
"Nanny 911". Many have suggested that the cloaking of
corporal punishments and hazing in mystical language,
promise of instant results, high octane telegenicity of
Cesar Millan and lucky connections with Los Angeles
celebrity clients are sufficient explanation for the Dog
Whisperer phenomenon. The one with the best buzz words
wins. But I don't know.
Janis Bradley, my colleague here at The SPCA, sagely
points out that the positive reinforcement trend has
become a big enough juggernaut to warrant a backlash and
Milan represents exactly that. Like the frazzled Los
Angelinos in the film "Crash" (which, notably, took Best
Picture honors at The Academy Awards last year), people
are fed up with having to be politically correct in a
chronically frustrating and disconnected world. Couldn't
we just "get real" and stop being kind and tolerant all
And here we positive-reinforcement oriented dog
trainers are now telling everyone they have to be nice
and politically correct to the dog? Well, yes.
Jean Donaldson's article was first published in The
Woofer Times, September 2006