Your Cart

For Dog's Sake: What is Happening with Dog Training?


Date: Nov 28 2020

How to cite: Barata, R. (2021). For Dog's Sake: What is Happening with Dog Training? Human-Animal Science.


In the early 2000s, some colleagues and I ventured into the dog training world in Portugal without a background in sports or competition. We were initially met with ridicule and disdain from established trainers who took pride in showcasing their medals. Despite this challenging start, we persisted, relying on self-education through English books, hands-on practice, and our genuine love for dogs.


Over time, we accessed more educational opportunities, with many of us furthering our studies. I amassed professional experience in diverse areas of dog training, including military, sports, breed clubs, pet stores, boarding, shelters, etc.


Throughout our journey, we refrained from viewing ourselves as superior and consistently upheld respect for others. Yet, today, I feel the urgency to voice my concerns and urge my former colleagues to do the same. This article aims to inspire future generations and offer reflections for readers, with the hope of sowing seeds for the future.


For years, I collaborated with esteemed colleagues to bring dignity to an activity overshadowed by a fixation on diplomas, medals, and "hard-hand training." We faced numerous challenges, often without immediate success. Still, these "David vs. Goliath" battles, even when facing friendly fire, enriched us with invaluable experiences. Thus, I pen these words free from hesitation, resentment, or vested interests.


While I hold everyone in high regard, personally and professionally, I pledge always to present arguments rooted in factual information and scientific evidence, steering clear of mere emotional appeals. I will distance myself from the "science" frequently misused in dog training and subjective theories lacking rigorous validation.


Regrettably, some extremist factions have concocted their version of "science," repackaging techniques vasty well-documented in scholarly literature with catchy new terminologies. This practice has, unfortunately, undermined the value of ethology and behaviorism, promoting canine slang, subjectivity borrowed from social sciences, and unfounded moralisms. The root of this confusion lies in the terminology's vague and inconsistent use. The remedy? Proactively seeking and referencing reliable sources.


In the scientific domain, truths are perpetually evolving. Science, by nature, continually prompts further questions, especially when research remains uninfluenced by pet industry funding. As professionals, we must maintain objectivity, distinguishing genuine science from moral preaching. Consistency in our treatment of all species, humans included, is vital.


When reviewing studies or articles, I focus on the content, not the authors. This approach embodies critical thinking. Sometimes, the tools or techniques highlighted diverge from my preferences or recommendations. We're at a juncture where critically examining an article on training tools or methodologies is imperative. The marketing power of "science" in dog training is frequently manipulated by extremist groups who often neglect in-depth analysis or discussion.


After two decades, I noticed that I continued recurring reliance on foundational principles of ethology and behaviorism among peers and students. Oddly reminiscent of simpler times, this trend is intensified by an ongoing debate marred by personal biases and emotional outbursts. It's disconcerting that contemporary discussions are rife with overused slogans, undermining the progressive movement initiated in the late 1970s.


Regrettably, some precursors of this movement inadvertently birthed the current "monster" and atmosphere of ignorance and hate. The fairy-tale portrayal of dog training detracts from the scientific model, strains trainer relationships, and forebodes consequences for dogs and their owners. This mindset fosters communication barriers, overlooking significant cultural, linguistic, and environmental factors and other complexities.


As a teacher, I emphasize the importance of critical thinking, scientific inquiry, and individuality to my students. Respecting all life forms is non-negotiable. Yet, some students struggle to withstand the mounting pressures of dogmatic ideologies and the current inquisition of "cancel culture" and resort to catchy slogans and superficial arguments to appease their clientele and fit in. Why should anyone be pigeonholed as "positive" or "balanced" merely for diverging from mainstream views? As someone with a background in natural sciences, I grapple with the vilification of the concept of "balance." Yet, what is the antonym of "balance?"


It's troubling to see that principles of kindness, empathy, and respect, championed by specific factions, are seemingly reserved for dogs and not extended to humans. This selective empathy implies that dogs are merely tools for human gratification, placing them on an unattainable pedestal (Dog-God Syndrome) and often reduced to mere reflections of our anxieties and fears. In essence, dogs are being unwittingly used as pawns in our societal game.


It's disheartening to witness colleagues feeling overwhelmed by hostility from their peers. I staunchly oppose such conduct. Constructive dialogues, not personal vendettas or online harassment, should be our modus operandi. Despite our differences, there's more that unites us than divides us.


Additionally, I'm alarmed by the ongoing splintering of our field to cater to vested interests. New subfields, like "clinical ethology" (an inherent oxymoron), threaten the core essence of behavioral modification, which absorbs or minimizes the nature of the art of behavioral modification, giving the impression that a dog trainer is merely an ignorant "walking treat bag." The misuse of terms such as "academic institution," "academic course," "scientific models," and "science proved," coupled with a new commercial trend of reducing the competence of trainers to low levels to sell them new titles, is deeply concerning.


A professional dog trainer's role extends beyond teaching mere "obedience exercises" or projecting an idyllic image on digital platforms. It necessitates rigorous theoretical and practical training, continuous learning, and peer collaboration. Cooperation and humility are not synonymous with competition and humiliation. The journey of a dog trainer involves personal and emotional challenges, particularly when confronted with life-altering decisions for a living being. Successes and failures necessitate a type of support still in short supply among professionals.


I advocate for abandoning divisive labels and criticisms. Instead, let's champion individual critical thinking and mutual respect. We can collectively grow and embrace humility by fostering open dialogues rooted in sound arguments. Remember that our knowledge is finite, and we must never succumb to pressures, agendas, or interests.


Pursuing knowledge is crucial, and diversity in the study, language, field experience, and sharing experiences among all professionals are necessary. As professionals, we are responsible for safeguarding this activity and preventing other social and economic interests from establishing themselves within this realm. The current situation compels me to refer to the "ESS - Evolutionarily Stable Strategy" and its implications from an imbalanced state.


Clients should critically evaluate trainers, verifying their credentials and methodologies. A simple online membership or logo isn't a testament to expertise. Our profession demands more than brief courses, seminar attendance, online visibility, emotional speeches, and presence.


Legislative blindness or extremist banning laws towards this situation not only jeopardizes dogs but their families as well. A trainer's proficiency or expertise is not attained through social media, four-day courses, seminars or workshops, reading books and DVDs, trophies, theoretical courses, or appearances on television or publications on social networks. These aspects may be components of a long-term career process.


The modern era is flooded with a plethora of information, pervasive marketing strategies, and an overabundance of showcasing real life in the virtual world, where everything is portrayed as unquestionable truth. The velocity of information compromises the quality of content and valuable information, prompting some colleagues to opt for the easy and quick methods of acquiring knowledge. It's alarming that we have to urge some professionals to engage in thorough reading and research.


In the past, I was actively involved in shaping dog training legislation. However, the landscape of dogmatic ideologies, self-centered education, and dubious affiliations masquerading as scientific bodies makes me apprehensive about future regulations.


It's paramount for professionals to derive information directly from academic sources instead of secondary interpretations that may be biased. Misunderstanding or misrepresenting technical terms can be detrimental. We must strive for clarity, avoiding demagoguery.


Using semantics and the decontextualization of technical terms from a discussion, as seen in anthrozoology, can be considered dangerous. As professionals who deal with living beings, we must provide correct information by learning the scientific basis from academic literature rather than relying on books or seminars where data is filtered and influenced by the author's opinion. We need to learn more if we cannot convey, explain, clarify, or raise awareness about trivializing specific terms. It is not a matter of demagoguery or altruism but rather a question of attitude. This attitude of providing change without impositions defines who we are, and if we do not adhere to it, we risk being subjected to an inquisition that will label us as something we are not.


It is not my intention to appear condescending or to hold a superior position by avoiding the use of certain words or phrases, such as "punishment," "aversive," or misleading and decontextualized popular comments, such as "punishments don't work," "I'm 100% positive," "I need to be the alpha," "I don't use punishments," "reactivity," "force-free," and so on. Instead, I acknowledge the complexity of changing routines and how people perceive other species, which requires a multidisciplinary aptitude from professionals, not just a fondness for dogs.


My colleagues are aware of my straightforwardness on these points. I've always been candid about my stance on these issues. As a professional, I oppose introducing subjectivity to well-established topics and resist the stubbornness that can emerge in these contexts. I do not need to use labels, tags, and slogans for my work to inform me that I do not use coerciveness, nor do I see the need to create them to integrate myself into a group of people. 


It's essential to clarify that when I mention "dishonest discussions," I'm critiquing the nature of the conversation, not labeling individuals as dishonest. This distinction is evident to any professional familiar with animal communication theory.


The ongoing polarizing trends in our field have far-reaching implications, especially for those who have dedicated years to acquiring knowledge and expertise. As professionals, we must decide what legacy we wish to leave behind. If fostering positive change is our goal, the time to act is now.


The challenges we face are evident. Will we channel our energies into devising solutions or continue exacerbating divisions and biases? It's imperative to prioritize education rooted in empirical knowledge and natural science. Achieving this goal will require considerable effort from everyone, including stepping out of our comfort zones and challenging our beliefs.


We should embody respect and coherence in our interactions, avoiding divisive, sensationalist rhetoric or hateful speeches about those who think or act differently from us, as this behavior does not reflect positively on our field. Instead, we must be coherent in our thinking, speech, and actions and avoid trying to please everyone, especially when we have a predefined ideological agenda. We should also be aware of groups, associations, or institutions that promote "the" change but have incoherent speech, no resilience, and a fake educational theory that will create more division and barriers among trainers. By doing so, we are deceiving ourselves and others. 


Our focus should remain on our primary goal: The other species and their human families. This requires individual work to teach humans how to interact with their pets rather than merely providing them with cooking recipes. As professionals, we must exemplify dedication and prioritize our time and energy for the cause. This may require personal and professional sacrifices, but it will ultimately be worth it.


As for my part, you can expect coherence and balance (in the real sense of the word), never extremism or politically correct tendencies.


In reflection, two decades ago, I couldn't have foreseen the current state of dog training. Dog trainers know more about less. At this rhythm, one day, they will know everything about nothing. The central question still needs to be answered - where did we fail?


Author’s note: Jessica and Michael, thank you for your valuable feedback and help. All opinions are my own.