I feel like I was lied to. I was told that I needed to be the “alpha” to my dogs. That they needed a firm hand or things would quickly get out of control. I was taught to “scruff shake”, “leash pop”, “alpha roll”, and many other techniques. All of it was supposed to make me a better dog trainer.
It turns out that the reasoning on which all of these techniques is based is, in fact, complete bullshit. Once I took the time to actually read the research on the biology, ecology, and behaviour of dogs, it became clear that this kind of training wasn’t grounded in facts.
I don’t think anyone was trying to deceive or swindle me. At least not on purpose. All of these techniques “work” to one degree or another depending on how they are used and what a dog owner might be trying to achieve. They were “folklore” passed down from one generation to another. Never the less, they were lies. They didn’t work the way people explained them to me. In a very real way, the people who taught me had been lied to as well.
Once that band-aid got ripped off, once I saw the truth behind the folklore, It made me skeptical. Of EVERYTHING. Even stepping into modern training with books like The Culture Clash and Don’t Shoot the Dog was an exercise in caution. I wasn’t going to take the word of Jean Donaldson or Karen Pryor any more than I would those people that taught me about scruff shakes and leash pops. I was going to keep reading and testing until I was satisfied that it was true.
You see, it’s ok to fool me if I’m the only one who gets hurt. But my dogs are innocents who are depending on me for their safety and well being. It’s not ok for them to have to cope with the unpleasantness of some folklore that makes me more comfortable than the facts. I may want to believe in some story of how dogs are because it makes me feel good but that’s not fair. My dogs deserve better than that.
I wish I could say that the lying has stopped since I moved to more reinforcement-based training. But I don’t think it has. Like the force-trainers who unintentionally passed on false information to me decades ago, some modern trainers have begun to develop new folklores of their own. Sadly, they do it for the same noble reasons – they want to believe things about their dogs that make them feel good; not just feel good about their dogs, but about themselves as well.
No one is trying to flim-flam or cheat me. I’m sure it is all done with the best of intentions. It seems to be about trying to be kind, generous, loving, and humane. But that fantasy, like the “dominance hierarchy” fantasy can lead to some pretty unpleasant places. It’s still just about helping us feel better about ourselves rather than looking for the best ways to help our dogs live better lives.
So, I remain the skeptic. I’m not going to do something with my dogs just because everyone thinks it’s the latest way to “respect” my dogs or be “force free.” There are some very good and dedicated people out there trying to learn all they can about the dogs I love so much. I have learned so much from them and there is so much more I have to learn.
But my dogs depend on me to see through the lies. They depend on me be their advocate and their guardian. They depend on me to understand them for who they are and to provide for their needs even if that means giving up some of my needs.
Being a cross-over trainer has come at a cost for me. I was shown in stark terms that I was so very wrong about dogs and training once. I can never let that happen again.