This past week, one of the professional education groups I belong to had one of their continuing education meetings. In these meetings dog training and behavior professionals can ask each other questions and discuss topics as it relates to dogs and dog behavior. Though I missed the meeting, I went back to listen to the recording. One of the topics that came up from a colleague was the discussion of training tools, specifically shock/electric collars. What started as a question about trying to explain to clients why using tools like this are not necessary or could cause issues, turned into a really nice and professional discussion about how using punishment and tools can work, even if one doesn’t agree with the use and application of it in practice. Deeper discussions about putting personal and emotional feelings and opinions aside about the use of tools and punishment also came up in this conversation.
Part of this blog is from a post I had written in response to the continuing education meeting after I went back to watch it. I felt the topic of different training methods was worth a blog post based on my own exploration in understand different training methods and approaches.
Learning About Different Training Methods
About 2 years ago, I had made it a point in my personal growth as a behavior and training professional to learn and understand what other professionals of other methodologies do, how they work, what strategies they employ and why they choose to employ them.
As I look back, when I was first taught about training, especially positive based methods, as many of us have probably experienced and learned from, we were taught how to train and modify behavior with the intention of “being more humane”. Many of us took what we were taught as gospel or because we were told “there are studies proving xyz methods, strategies, tactics etc etc”. In many situations I would simply take the educators word for it. We are generally never taught to look at the other side or look at a different perspective. I have found it is generally never suggested to explore and understand what someone else from a different methodology might do and why they would do it.
Furthermore, many of us were told “there are studies on xyz” or “studies show this is why we do this and not that”. We just take what is said because we assume that since there is a study to back it up, it must be true. As a matter of fact, we don’t generally think to look at those said studies with a critical and objective eye. We also don’t think to ask questions about studies that focus on different training methods, tools and the pros and cons of it all. We never think to ask questions such as “Who was physically training the dogs in those studies?” “What skill level in training and behavior do those individuals have?” “What environments are the dogs being tested in?” “Was each dog worked with by the same individual or multiple individuals of different skill levels?” and so on.
Journey & I taking a sheep herding lesson with our instructor Paul Batz at Ox Creek Farm, Canandaigua, NY
Being an Objective Learner
I have made it a point the past 2 years to become a more objective learner and an observer, regardless if I agree or not with the strategies employed. I want to simply understand. I personally feel that having the knowledge of something I didn’t have before only makes me better, even if I might not choose to employ what I have learned. Understanding the specifics, the nuances, the application and concepts in their entirety makes me truly understand why one might choose to do something over another.
To be “objective”, according to the dictionary means:
- “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts” (Oxford Language)
- “expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
- “of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers : having reality independent of the mind” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
To be objective is actually very difficult because it involves being vulnerable, allowing yourself to see things you do not agree with and in many cases, to go against the standard, to have an independent thought and/or mind. So many professional in our field, on both sides of the aisle, decide why they don’t like something or choose not to do something without fully understanding those concepts, strategies and methods in their entirety. In many cases, many of us might see one, two or three professionals do something and we then assume everyone who practices that way or believes that method is an idiot!
I think, regardless of what position one takes, being able to step back and educate yourself about concepts or positions that you don’t practice or that are outside your beliefs can only help you. And in many cases, by being objective, you might actually walk away with some knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t mean you need to change your methods or beliefs. Knowledge actually means that you have learned and gained information, skills, and/ or facts about something or a situation. Even if you found that knowledge to be useless, you now have information and you can choose to do with it what you want. You can choose to apply it or you can choose to place it into the “Things I know I will never do” pile!
I find a lot of the training and behavior industry is so toxic with being split up, rather than seeking and learning to explore. And what is worse is that just because someone trains differently, for example, if a professional chooses to use a tool of some kind, or over uses food, it is assumed that they are an idiot, lack the knowledge and don’t truly care about animals. The reality is this cannot be further from the truth. Sure, there are professionals in any industry who choose to only know what they know. And newer professionals in many fields are limited in their knowledge because they are newer and may not have the full understanding, finesse or nuance that someone practicing for a longer time might have. Lacking knowledge or thinking differently doesn’t mean someone cares or loves animals any less.
Journey & I when we first started herding lessons
How did this journey begin for me?
This little exploration of mine all started when I was introduced to sheep herding. I had no clue about the first thing with herding. I stumbled upon it because of a Kelpie I almost purchased from a farmer, who is now my friend and herding instructor, Paul Batz. After dropping the dog back off to him, I asked if we could instinct test my Kelpie Journey. During the instinct test Paul said “yup, your dog is keen to work if you are ready to give it a go”.
As I got into herding, I learned about the concept of “pressure”. The pressure between the handler and dog, the dog and the stock, the stock and the dog and the pressure of the environment. (I will at some point write a blog on the concept of pressure to clarify it, as many feel it is a very aversive thing, when in fact it isn’t. Pressure even occurs in our own human lives on a daily basis. Anyway, I digress.) As I got more into herding, I started observing how others like farmers live with and work with their animals (dogs, stock etc).
Herding really put me on a path about learning and observing dogs and their personal “instincts” and “drives”. Specifically observing working dogs, seeing what their motivations were and starting to understand how it was more than just treats and toys. I started understanding how sometimes pressure was needed, and how sometimes you as the handler needed to step in to stop something that was occurring or stop something before it started to occur.
As I continued to learn and explore, Paul introduced me to his friend Amanda Farnsworth, who taught him about herding. Amanda is a full time trainer who falls more in line with “balanced” methods. We got to know each other as I started taking herding lessons with her. After many of our lessons we would have conversations about training and behavior. I was honestly so impressed with how knowledgeable she was. Embarrassingly, I found so many of my friends and colleagues in our industry made it out to be that a professional like Amanda didn’t have the knowledge base or understanding of behavior and training; but the fact was that she did. Her handling skills, training skills and timing actually could blow a lot of people out of the water that I personally know!
Just show me!
I became intrigued about the knowledge and information that Amanda had and the things she had to say. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am always willing to listen and that once I hear something that intrigues me, I must explore further! So that is what I did. Amanda gave me the names of people and places to check out (podcasts, trainer names etc).
After so much exploration, I decided one weekend while I was up for sheep herding lessons that I would ask if I could shadow Amanda training with private in-home clients. She said she would be happy to let me come with her. I was so impressed by her wealth of knowledge. Much of the information, questions and things she had to say was very similar or the same as what I would have said. There was definitely a lot more overlap than I expected. (I am very aware that some of you reading this will probably raise an eyebrow or fall backwards!)
I am the type of person where I want to see “it”, and understand “it” (whatever “it” refers to in the context/situation) for myself to understand and break down the information, without judgement and without someone else chirping in my ear; without having seen or having facts or true knowledge to back “it” up. To me, my outlook is that if you have something you feel works for you or something that you feel works better, than I want you to show me! Even if it is something I may not do, the knowledge gained can be powerful. Even if the knowledge is something that I won’t choose to use, I am better off for seeing it and understanding it.
For those of you who feel what I am saying makes you uncomfortable, you should take a step back and think about all the studies that are out explaining the pros and cons of specific training methods, the uses of tools, punishment, reinforcement etc etc etc. The reality is, those studies were done by having the same curiosities and questions that many of us who take an objective approach to learning have. And in order to do those studies, scientist and researchers, some of which do not even have experience working with dogs, had to do all those “things” to get those results that make you feel proud to say “there are studies out there proving or showing xyz”. So just keep that in mind when thinking about studies you read, learn from and refer to. In order to get the results from the studies, something had to happen, something and someone had to be tested on.
One of my favorite podcast interviews on being an objective learner, as well as taking a step back and really looking at studies with dog training and behavior, was an interview on the Canine Paradigm, which is a balanced training podcast that interviews professionals from all different methods. Many well known professionals like Dr. Ian Dunbar, Micheal Shikashio, Grisha Stewart, Roger Abrantes and many more have been interviewed on the show. The specific interview on this very topic was with training and behavior experts, Jo-Rosie Haffenden and Nando Brown. They discussed being objective learners, how to look at many training studies and why they choose the methods they choose to use. It is worth a listen in my opinion.
Journey and I working Amanda’s flock at Cherry Hill Training Center, Honeoye Falls, NY
What have I learned?
I was so grateful for Amanda’s generosity to allow me to observe her and to see what she had to say. There was so much more overlap with what we do then I have been led to believe as a professional. This experience set me on a quest of seeking to hear others out and being able to be objective. It has provided me with more knowledge to have conversations in greater detail about methods then EVER before!
I have done a lot of thinking about all that I have learned. As I reflect, a few things that I have learned come to mind:
- There is always something you can learn and take away, even if you won’t agree with it.
- Even if you don’t agree with someone or you have a difference of opinion, it is worth hearing it out and understanding. Information is knowledge and knowledge can be powerful.
- One thing the dog training and behavior industry needs to get better at doing is being less divided about our beliefs and focus more on good, quality dog training and behavior modification in order to help the dog and their family. As I have said, there are garbage professionals in every field. Just the other day I watched a trainer trap himself in a room with a dog that was terrified of him and he had claimed the dog was building confidence when in fact the dog was terrified and shut down. This was a good example of a garbage trainer. So I am not saying we need to change our beliefs or change where we draw the line, but I am saying we need to try to come together more so that we can move forward together. As my friend and mentor, Micheal Shikashio says “I can’t wait to see the day that it is just called dog training, without having labels and or having to divide based on methodology.”
- Not to sound negative, but the fact is that the dog training and behavior industry is a pretty judgemental place. Everyone needs to tell you why the other side is wrong. I was once told that “The only thing two trainers can agree on is what the third one is doing wrong.” Professionals are constantly bashing each other on social media rather than trying to learn from one another or have an open discussion to find out more. What good is really coming from that? What good does it do for our industry as a whole and what good does it really do for you as a learner? And for those of us that teach and coach others, what good does that do for us as a teacher? It is one thing to stand up for what you believe in, but it is another to spread hatred and shit on someone else because they don’t have the same beliefs or thought process as you.
- A friend of mine recently said something that stuck with me: “It is always easy to think your thoughts, methods and beliefs are the “best” and anyone who does it differently is just uninformed.” My friend has an excellent point here!
- I have learned to become more objective, more observant and that I can’t “just take someones word for it” all the time. Sometimes I need more then just that.
- Change starts with you! What this means to me is we need to be more open to learning and hearing others out, even if we don’t agree with something. No one is saying you need to change your ways or your beliefs, but to have the knowledge to back up why you do or don’t do something is a game changer!
- For me personally, if I wasn’t an objective learner and at least willing to hear others out, I wouldn’t have all the friendships and relationships with all the amazing people that I know.
Everyone is on their own journey. Everyone learns life lessons in their own unique way on their journey. Everyone learns their skill set and their craft the way they need to get there on their personal journey. Everyone needs to go at their own pace, navigate their own journey and do what they feel is right for them to get to where they want to be on their journey in life. My journey will be different then yours, and that is ok! This is my journey, and I’m sharing it with you!
Checkout De Marinis Dog Training & Behavior