Written by Lyn Fleet, MICB MICAN
There is an increasing and worrying trend for people to promote themselves as a ‘balanced dog trainer’. A fairly innocuous phrase you might think, particularly when seeing the word balanced. Something that is balanced means of equal measure, not loaded one way or another, doesn’t it?
A balanced trainer will tell you that they use rewards and punishment to train a dog. If you ask them to elaborate they say that just as you have to let a child know when it’s done wrong and punish them appropriately, a dog also has to be punished so it realises it’s done something wrong. All sounds logical so far doesn’t it?
Punishment means different things to different people. You may think that confiscating your child’s iPhone for a week is sufficient punishment or telling your dog off when it has eaten your Jimmy Choo or Christian Louboutin shoes. However, a balanced trainer will most often use severe physical pain as the punishment, by means of a choke chain, prong collar or an electric shock collar, euphemistically called an educator collar.
You may have seen these methods used on a TV show or perhaps at a local dog club. You are assured that this doesn’t hurt a dog because they don’t feel pain like we do. Really! If it didn’t cause pain and distress it wouldn’t have the desired effect.
They will emphatically tell you that this method is the only way to cure serious problem behaviours, particularly when dealing with cases of aggression. No really it isn’t!!!!
To the casual observer they will often see instant and seemingly miraculous results. If you knew that teachers at your child’s school used physical abuse to stop unwanted behaviours you would be mortified. Yes it works but it’s not ethical. I could stop you in your tracks for talking too much, by repeatedly slamming the door on your fingers and when you stop talking I will praise you. Can you see the comparisons I’m making?
Sadly, these days, people want instant gratification and are not prepared to invest time to achieve their goals. You only have to see the numerous television shows these days that promise, if you win you will achieve meteoric stardom and live the life of a millionaire for ever. This may happen for a very few people but the majority soon realise that show business is a cut throat world, far away from the realities of life and the likelihood of a fairy tale ending. True artists in any field will tell you that it has taken years to hone their craft and that’s how they have maintained their career, fame and credibility; for the rest they are cast aside like yesterday’s rubbish and never thought of again.
Balanced trainers seemingly ‘cure’ problems in an instant and all without the owner having to lift a finger. They ridicule other trainers that use positive reinforcement and accuse us of merely stuffing sausages into a dog’s mouth. Yes, I will openly say that I use force free methods and positive reinforcement; and yes this is sometimes a food reward, maybe a game with a toy or verbal praise. If the dog doesn’t do what I want, the worst thing I will do is to withhold the treat, toy or praise; never would I resort to violent methods because I don’t have to or want to.
To solve problems in an ethical and moral way you need to be knowledgeable, understanding and empathetic; whereas behaving like a bully or pressing a button on a remote control requires no talent at all!
I will always advocate using force-free and positive reinforcement when training; it’s kinder to the dog and makes training more enjoyable for the owner. If your dog is behaving aggressively out of fear, the addition of physical pain does not address the root cause. A ‘quick fix’ may stop the barking and lunging but at what emotional cost to you and your dog? Your dog wants to trust you, not fear you.
If you decide, for whatever reason, you can’t or won’t invest the time teaching your much loved family member and resort instead to the ‘balanced’ approach, well that’s between you and your conscience. Guilt is a terrible thing to live with.
There is a legal term Caveat Emptor meaning buyer beware! It is often assumed that this applies only to tangible goods that you buy, such as a car, or TV. However, services that you buy are also included. Dog trainers or car mechanics for example, are not obliged to explain the methods they use. It’s up to you to do your research and ensure the service you are going to pay for is exactly what you want. So check, check and check again because there is no point complaining after the event if you didn’t do your homework.
You chose to get a dog and all the responsibility that comes with it; your dog didn’t choose to get a human.