I am notorious for not being able to just let things go. I’m working on it. Really. But I have a couple “hot topics” that I can’t just turn a blind eye. Dog training is one of them.
Other trainers I know – better trainers than I – tell me I need to work on my zen. “You couldn’t pay me enough to join a conversation about training on Facebook.”, or “As long as people have the option of positive training versus negative, that’s the best you can do!” Here’s the thing: they’re definitely right. But here’s the other thing: I can’t.
I get so easily sucked into the vortex that is a debate on Facebook or Reddit about training and methods, and I have such a hard time just moving on and letting it go. Partly, probably, my stubborn nature; partly that I think that animals can’t speak for themselves, so I will speak for them – as loudly as I have to. I’m never aggressive or rude, I just… won’t be quiet. It’s a running joke between my partner and I that if I come home grumpy, I probably got in another internet fight.
The reason that my partner, and my trainer friends, are right (and more zen than I am) is because you don’t ever win. On the internet, everyone has an opinion, and everyone can be anonymous. And most people are a lot meaner than I am.
But, that means that – both as a dog trainer and an animal welfare activist – it is so satisfying when people actually listen and are thoughtful.
I was humbled recently to have a conversation with a woman who works with Bahrain Strays. I have talked a lot about the problems surrounding dogs and animal welfare in the Middle East, and one of those problems is that they don’t have the same access to training and science based trainers as we do here in the West. That means that there are really good people working really, really hard to save dogs lives every day who are working with behaviour information that is a good thirty years out of date (yes, I’m looking at you, trainers who dominate, trainers who push dogs over threshold into helplessness, “pack leaders”, and yes, that means you, Cesar Millan).
So, here, in North America, I still get in (stupid, unnecessary) fights regularly with “dog trainers” who have no real education, who believe in being “pack leader” and “alpha” even though that is scientifically incorrect. A recent debate was with a trainer here in Toronto who told me that positive reinforcement is all well and good to begin with, but you have to “proof” the behaviour using correction to make it perfect, especially with big working breeds. My favourite response to this is always, “Um, hi! Meet my Doberman Athena. She’s a therapy dog, service dog, scared of yorkies when they get barky, and doesn’t know the word ‘no’.”
In the Middle East, this is even more prevalent. People, as a whole, don’t like dogs. Even those who do don’t have the access to information they need to keep up to date with the science.
Someone posted on the Bahrain Strays Facebook group a video of Cesar Millan, saying “I’ve learned a lot from him!”
I replied, (remember how I can’t keep my mouth shut on these things?), “Guys, please, please don’t listen to Cesar Millan about dog behaviour. His methods are cruel, and about 30 years behind in the science of dog training. Dominance theory does not work. He has been sued multiple times. If you have any questions about handing problem dogs, please post here or message me, and I’m happy to help as best I can :) if you are looking for some good training resources, I highly recommend “The Culture Clash” by Jean Donaldson, and “Reaching the Animal Mind” by Karen Pryor.”
On a lot of dog training groups, on Facebook or Reddit, full of people from this end of the world, this would have been a cut throat argument.
From Bahrain Strays? I got a private message from one of the most active members, who feeds dozens of dogs. She is literally a hero in my books, and she loves Cesar Millan. But you know what? She loves dogs more. And in our conversation, she was polite, and curious. She didn’t buy everything I said – that’s part of the problem with dominance/punishment based training; you can see immediate results – but she was open to it. She even asked, “I would love to see how other trainers who think that Cesar’s training is just outdated or wrong, how they do and how they handle all the problems with dogs… do you have any trainer’s name?”
This just gets to me. Here, in Toronto, where our dogs are (for the most part) living with silver spoons in their mouthes, we hear far too often about dominance, and leading the pack. There, where dog fighting is still prevalent, and getting the government on board to actually deal with animal abuse is an ongoing struggle, people listen and are open minded, and are more concerned with what is best for these street dogs that what is the flashiest training.
I just wish people here were as receptive to learning simply for what is best for the animals as people there are. I think it is easy to see why I want to be in Bahrain, and why my heart has been stolen by the dogs of Bahrain. Can we all just take a leaf out of their book? Let’s listen, and keep an open mind, and learn, and be kind. Let’s not hurt other creatures, even for their own “education”.