Dog Gone Good
Positive-only training – how positive is it really? Part 2
By Mike Wombacher
A few days after my January column on positive-only training appeared in the Marina Times, I received an e-mail that epitomizes the whole problem. This gentleman had taken his female Doberman, who had been showing signs of aggression at the neighborhood dog parks, to an area “behavior specialist” responsible for running a large, local dog-related organization. This specialist, a proponent of “positive-only” training, spent a significant amount of time working with this dog by putting blinders on her so she wouldn’t see the other dogs, sticking treats in her face when she was lunging, and leaving her so stressed out that it took her hours to recover after each session. After months of work, no results, and the advice that he should simply never bring the dog around other dogs, this man finally called it quits and, to his credit, hired another trainer.
This trainer advocated a middle of the road approach that involved positive reinforcement, relationship building, and compulsion where necessary. Within a very short period, he was able to take his dog off the leash at Fort Funston, Crissy Field, and the many other great off-leash places in the City without any problems. Even his on-leash problems diminished to the point of being little or no issue. All this after a handful of sessions using a balanced approach!
In my business, I get three to four cases like this every month, often from individuals who were told by their positive-only trainers to put their dogs down because they were untrainable. (Wouldn’t it make sense to try another approach rather than going from positive-only to death?)
So it is not surprising that this gentleman wrote, “I am downright curious to know why it is popular when it is clear it usually doesn’t work.” Good question, and one that I have pondered for years.
What I have realized is that this is part of a much larger cultural problem of political correctness, a particularly virulent affliction of the postmodern mind. Postmodernism surged to the cultural forefront with the advent of the counter-cultural movement of the ’60s, which on the whole amounted to a rejection of authoritarian and unquestioned hierarchies that had oppressed not only vast numbers of humans, but almost the entire animal world as well. If we look at training in the 1950s and earlier, it was a rather brutal affair – as was child rearing, the treatment of women, the treatment of indigenous people, and so much else. Clearly something had to change, and thank God, so much did. But the pendulum has swung too far. In its mistrust of authority and emphasis on universal equality, the hierarchical nature of life in so many areas has been denied. This is particularly true in dog training. One popular positive-only book flatly states in its opening pages, “… we no longer believe in the dominance model of dog behavior.” That’s kind of like saying we no longer believe in gravity. Such denial forces severe distortions upon reality that have very serious, real-time consequences, all of which are far from positive – as for example, in the case of the dog above.
Looking a bit more deeply under the surface, one might find even more subtle and particularly unpleasant motives for advocating such an approach, even when it is clearly not working. Specifically, being an unyielding advocate of such an approach allows one to feel very good about oneself – as being the gentle, caring one – while demonizing everyone else. That many dogs end up being put down simply due to an unwillingness to try a different approach when yours clearly isn’t working is a testament to how insidious this problem really is. Now, I’m not saying that this is conscious. I do believe that the advocates of this misguided approach believe they are doing the right thing, that they are responding to the use of brutal training methods that do indeed still exist. But the ethical gymnastics that are often employed to justify this as “the only correct approach” are nothing short of shocking.
For example, when I received the above-mentioned e-mail, I was struck by the irony of the fact that the positive-only trainer that this individual had used had spent some time with me a few years earlier using an electronic training collar on a dog chasing and killing deer. During this meeting, it came out that this individual was quite expert in the use of e-collars, knew they were effective, and had spent years professionally training using a combination of compulsive and treat-based approaches. He actually admitted that the balanced approach was the most effective one. But, he lamented, he wouldn’t be able to keep his job if he said so. Hmmm! Is that care for animal welfare or pure capitulation to political correctness for exclusively selfish ends?
Not only is all this an indictment of what I view as a failed training methodology, it is an example of the worst kind of political correctness – of what I have come to call “liberal fascism,” (and I’m a liberal, by the way). To me it’s a microcosm of a problem plaguing our entire culture. I look forward to the day when common sense will gain the day, not only in dog training, but on the political and cultural stage as well.
Mike Wombacher offers dog training classes at Bow Wow Meow and Muttley Crew in San Francisco – find out more by visiting www.doggonegood.org.