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

At the early beginning of the 2000s in Portugal, I and some colleagues started in the dog training world. We were strangers to the old colleagues since we never did, or had, a sport or competition background in a world where everyone had a medal. It was a hard beginning, and we were humiliated, despised, and a reason for jokes among these trainers. But we never gave up. We were not perfect, and we knew it.

Our education was some books (mainly in English), enjoying being with dogs, and challenging practice with several dogs. Over the years, more educational opportunities have emerged, and some of us have continued our studies. As the years passed, I had several professional experiences within military dog training, sport, breed clubs, pet stores, boarding, and shelters, among other places.

As I remember, we never used a label or slogan to make ourselves seem better than others. We all had our differences, and we still have them, but never to the point of being disrespectful to others.

However, I feel the duty to step up, and I ask all my colleagues from that time to do the same. So, I will exceptionally publish this article about the subject, and I don’t intend to write more about it. I’m not sure how to classify this article. However, I hope that it can inspire the next generations, be used as a seed for the future, or be a deep reflection for the readers. 

I fought for many years with great colleagues on my side to bring some dignity to this unrecognized activity still concerned by diplomas and medals. We faced the system, all its tentacles, and Pandora’s boxes. However, we didn’t have success on that time. However, as a result, we gained enough experience through the failures of the “David vs. Goliath” fights, often hit by friendly fire. So, today I can write these words, without doubt, resentment or personal/professional interest.  

I respect everyone as a person. Still, as a professional, I will continue showing facts, even if they are against my opinions or beliefs, on specific arguments and information given to the public that are pure slogans, appealing to emotions and statements that do not follow the scientific method. I’ll not use the “science” (ab)used in the dog training world and subjective theories that still are far from being tested and verified.

Indeed, I see that extremists groups have “their” science, a comforting one, allowing them to use “new” attractive names for techniques that are already exhaustively described in academic literature. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why ethology and behaviorism were minimized and replaced by “canine slang,” subjectivity from social science fields, and false moralisms. The reason? Because their terms and definitions were never adequately explained but demonized due to all the confusion created. All the confusion could be quickly resolved with proactivity in researching and reading in the right places.

The truth, in science, is an error not yet discovered. Science is a process. Each study or research (when not funded by the pet industry) raises even more questions far from being answered. Science and moralism are different areas for the sake of impartiality and unbiased research. As professionals, we must keep this in mind and be consistent in our actions towards all species, including us (humans).

If I do a critical analysis of studies or articles, it is all about the arguments, not the authors. I make very clear that it is a  critical thinking exercise, as I do not like, recommend or support some of the tools or techniques described in these papers. We are reaching a stage where we cannot question a study or article about a training tool or technique. Science in dog training is used as a powerful marketing tool directed by some groups from both extremes that don’t make an effort to use a little critical thinking or, at least, read the studies a bit further than the title or abstract.

Twenty years later, I see myself repeating the 101 of ethology or behaviorism with students and professionals in the area about elementary concepts and subjects extrapolated by an inquisition with personal agendas. It is sad for me that in this century, we have to discuss slogans or memes that destroy an excellent movement that started at the end of the ’70s. On another side, some of those precursors of that movement fed the actual “monster” of ignorance and hate. The comfortable Disney world created in dog training destroys the scientific model, relationships among trainers, and predictable consequences to the dogs and their human families. It promotes communication barriers and disregards the differences in culture, language, environment, conditions that create several variations.

One of the main pieces of advice I give to my students is questioning everything, looking for scientific knowledge, and not following crowds that limit our critical thinking. They need to develop their style and have immense respect for all living beings. Some of them cannot deal with the inquisitive pressure and use the same slogans, labels, and political correctness argumentation to the clients and please other trainers to remain in their group. Why? Suppose you don’t follow the inquisitive guidelines. In that case, you will be “skinned alive” by the canine inquisition, and automatically considered either “positive” or “balanced,” which, as a natural science graduate, I cannot understand how “balance” is a blasphemy these days. After all, what is the antonym of “balance”?

The kindness, empathy, and respect concept spread by some movements only applies to dogs, not humans. That hypocrisy makes me assume that the dog became a great marketing product and an emotional tool for humans that put them on the highest pedestal and limiting the explanations about the species to fear, anxiety and stress. In other words, a victim of our society created in our image.

It worries me when I receive messages from other professionals feeling helpless amid hatred from other colleagues. I don’t understand the purpose of such behaviors. Shouldn’t we avoid making personal attacks and stalking on the web? I repudiate this type of action entirely. We need healthy discussions to grow together, not hate. We all have points where we diverge, as well as points that unite us.

I also see the continuous fragmentation of this area in favor of several interests. Other fields with strangers titles such as “clinical ethology” establish themselves in the dog training world, absorbing or minimizing all the essence of the art of behavioral modification. So, they give the idea that a dog trainer is an ignorant “walking treat bag.” Also, the abusive use of words such as “academic institution,” “academic course,” “scientific models,” “science proved,”  including a new commercial tendency of reducing the trainers’ competency to low stages to sell them new titles. 

A professional dog trainer is not limited to “obedience exercises” or the wonderful world presented in the virtual or television world. A professional dog trainer has both theoretical and practical training, not limited to academic knowledge, easy and quick training, or the creation of several titles to justify this gap or, even less, try to demote the entire activity. There is a lot of work and continuous study, preferably with several professionals to cooperate and share their experiences. Cooperation and humility are not competition and humiliation. A dog trainer is, above all, a human being susceptible to errors and his technical and ethical limits. There are personal sacrifices and the psychological pressure, especially when we are the frontier between the permanence and the elimination of a living being from this world. Successes and failures sometimes require a kind of support still scarce among professionals.

Instead of labels, criticisms, and “cancel culture” groups that promote division and discord, I appeal to an individual critical thinking and resilience without judgment as a common point for everyone. Then, you start a discussion with solid arguments, questions, and other topics that allow collective growth, transparency, and humility that we do not know everything and will never know everything. We are eternal students with our technical and ethical limits, and we must never give in to social pressure, agendas, or interests of any kind.

Knowledge matters, diversity in the study matters, the language used matters, field experience matters, and a sharing of experience among all professionals matters. Our responsibility is to defend this activity and not let other social and economic interests continue to establish themselves within the activity. The current situation obliges me to refer to the “ESS – Evolutionarily Stable Strategy” and the consequences of their lack of balance.

The clients mustn’t deceive themselves and increasingly question schools and individuals about their certifications and research them because you can quickly get a logo from an international institution through the annual payment of a ‘membership,’ done in five minutes on a website. Sometimes they aren’t even interested in the mission or the values of these institutions, only the logo or certificate.

The legislative blindness for this situation is endangering not only dogs but their families. A trainer does not graduate or specialize in social media, four-day courses, seminars or workshops, reading books and DVDs, with trophies or theoretical courses, much less with appearances on television or publications on social networks. At the most, these are only parts of a long career process.

These days, we face a large quantity of information, severe marketing strategies, an excessive way to show the real-life in the virtual world, where everything is written there and comforts us, is an unquestionable truth. I believe that all the information speed is jeopardizing the quality of content and valuable information, and that’s why some colleagues prefer the easy and quick way to get information. It is concerning to see that we need to ask some professionals to read…

Some time ago, I was one on the front lines of creating some legislation in dog training. Now, I’m worried about future legislation in this time of fanatic ideologies, ego-centered education, fake diplomacies, and personal/political agendas camouflaged in associations and institutions “in the name of science.”

Using semantics and decontextualizing technical terms from the discussion (I see it with anthrozoology) is also dangerous. We cannot forget that we are professionals and we deal with living beings. Therefore, we must give the correct information by learning the scientific basis from academic literature, not from books or seminars where the information is already filtered and according to the author’s personal opinion. If we cannot convey, explain, clarify, or raise awareness about the trivialization of specific terms, we do not know the subject enough. It’s not demagoguery or altruism. It’s a question of attitude. This attitude of providing change without impositions defines what I am, and if I don’t follow them, I’m not. We will fall into an inquisition that tells us that we are what we are not and we are not what we are.

I do not despise or reach a condescending point of saying that I do not use certain words or phrases because people will not understand the scientific definition of, for example, “punishment,” “aversive,” and misleading or decontextualized popular words such as “punishments don’t work” or “I’m 100% positive”, “I need to de the alpha,” “I don’t use punishments,” “reactivity,” “force-free,” etc., etc. Ironically we see a lack of professionalism by publicly criticizing and demeaning these same families in social media, not considering the complexity of changing routines and how people look at other species differently. It requires from the professional a multidisciplinary aptitude, not only “like dogs.”

My colleagues know how straightforward I am on these points. As a professional, I completely reject this kind of amateur stubbornness and tendencies to bring subjectivity into appropriately documented topics. I don’t need to use labels, tags, and slogans for my work to inform me that I don’t use coerciveness, nor do I see the need to create them to integrate myself into a group of people. Quickly confirm it in my bio and services provided.

The same applies when I use the term “dishonest discussions.” I’m not calling the person dishonest, but the communication. This kind of communication is widely described in any animal communication theory manual, so a professional will understand the meaning of such a term when I use it in a discussion.

This snowball effect will have severe consequences for everyone, including professionals who have dedicated themselves to long years of learning and a lot of personal and financial sacrifice to obtain legitimate knowledge.

Changes must start by example, and it’s up to us to decide what we want to be. We still have time for a change if that’s our goal. The problems, we already know. Will we work on solutions, or will we create even more problems and discrimination among the professionals? After all, who are we fighting? Wouldn’t it be better to have a culture of education based on (real) science and empirical knowledge shared with all trainers instead of absolute truths and semantics around likes, tags, and shares? Yes, it will require a lot of effort from everyone, and it will mean getting out of the comfort zone of what we think are absolute truths.

Theory and practice are together as a daily spectrum in our career, so we need to show in practice that it is possible to do something different. Do not limit yourself to ideological, sensationalist, childish, and hate speeches about who thinks or acts differently from you. That kind of behavior doesn’t dignify the activity. Be coherent with your thinking, speech, and actions. Don’t go through diplomatic juggling, trying to please everyone, especially when we already have a predefined ideological agenda. Be aware of groups, associations, or institutions that promote “the” change but have an incoherent speech, no resilience, and a fake educational theory that will create more division and barriers among the trainers. By doing it, you are deceiving others and yourself. Don’t worry about the others. Natural selection itself will do its work with those who are incompatible with the activity. The price you pay for being coherent is personal and professional sacrifices. As a result, we will be an example of dedication, and we have a mission to those who matter, and it should be our primary goal, focus, and time and energy value: The other species and their human families. Far from a utopia, it’s mainly an individual work of teaching humans. Don’t sell them cooking recipes. Teach them to cook.

From my side, you can only expect coherence and balance (in the real sense of the word), never extremism or politically correct tendencies.

I never imagined the current situation of dog training 20 years ago. I still don’t know how to answer this central question, and I believe the answer is the solution: Where did we fail?

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

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