I want to make something crystal clear: I do not hate anyone. There are some methods I don’t like. I don’t like seeing dogs in a pinch collar, a shock collar, or a choke collar. I believe these methods to be harmful to the dog, and to the dog owner relationship. I never like to see a dog that was trained with fear and punishment. That being said, the trainers that use these techniques are regular human beings, like you and I. How do I know this? I was once one of these trainers.
Those of you who have known me long enough know that the face pictured above is my beloved beagle, Molly, who was trained using a shock collar. I have no bigger regret in life than I put my baby girl through such a thing, but I did so with the best of intentions. I had always, and will always, believe that a strong recall can save a dog’s life. And I thought back then I couldn’t get that without the use of force. It’s what those who taught me to train told me, and they were taught by others. We were all in the same boat of doing things we regarded as “right” for the dog according to what we had been taught and what was common practice, but we were wrong. Not bad people, not sociopaths, not people who would ever tolerate animal abuse (as we defined it in our ignorance). Just people who loved our dogs, and wanted what was best for them.
I won’t even tell you I didn’t see it. There was a part of me that had to turn a blind eye to what it was doing to my girl. I knew no other way, and I wanted my girl to be safe off lead, and so, even though there were times my stomach tightened when I had to use the equipment, I thought it was necessary. And I convinced myself it wasn’t hurting her. I convinced myself it was best for her.
It was not until I spent time with several wonderful trainers who used reward based training that I truly was able to acknowledge the damage I had done to my Molly girl. They did not judge me. They did not berate me. They simply showed me ways I could do it in the future without the use of painful and stressful tools.
One day I saw an advertisement for a workshop with Gail Fisher. I admit I had no idea who she was, but my friend and mentor Maggie told me to go to the workshop. I was a little horrified when I walked in and realized it was a clicker training workshop. I had not anticipated that. But Gail was fantastic, and she showed how, with good timing and lots of positive reinforcement, you could train a dog to do just about anything. I left a convert. I have never looked back.
But I always look forward. I look for new information, new science, and new techniques everywhere I turn. I have even learned from some trainers that I don’t agree with, and been able to modify their techniques to fit my own convictions. I firmly believe you never need to cause fear or pain to a dog in order to train it. I didn’t always believe that. I wish I had started with Gail. But even she used punishment and fear at one point in her career. She is very open about it. And I want to be very open about it.
I know trainers that use aversive techniques can be terrific people who love dogs. And, for their sake, and for the sake of the dogs that they work with, I hope they love to learn, and will be open to new ideas. And when they see that dogs can be trained without fear, pain, and intimidation, I hope that they will give up the traditional training methods and opt for methods that are fun and rewarding to the dog. Positive reward training works, but it doesn’t make me a better person than someone who uses punishment. It just means I have seen the power of positive reinforcement, and the damage that can be done when fear is used to motivate. I know because I have been there. I wish I hadn’t damaged my Molly in my learning process. But she, being a beagle, has forgiven me, and loves me with all her heart.