Sometimes, when we holdfast to rigid ideology or to an idea that we believe in whole-heartedly, we lose the ability to think critically and to analyze situations fairly and without bias. This problem is exacerbated considerably when we add an emotional element to the paradigm. And while it's been increasingly popular for well over a decade now, the last 5-6 years I have seen a significant rise in pet dogs falling out the back door of Positive Reinforcement training schools and coming to us with severe behavioral and emotional issues.
The increasing trend and similarities in the mental instability of all these dogs caused me to launch my own investigation in an attempt to find some sort of answer as to why these dogs were so unstable even after spending years in PO training. Keep in mind that this has not been a small sample of dogs, we're talking close to 100 dogs displaying almost identical behavioral patterns coming out of PO schools over the years.
These behaviors included:
1. A complete inability to walk on a loose leash
2. Inability to sit calmly for more than 30 seconds
3. An OCD like obsession with jumping on their owners as a coping mechanism for dealing with...(life?...new environment?...leaf blowing?...weird noise?...person approaching?...stressful situation?...seeing their own shadow?...well, you get the point.)
4. Reactivity to virtually everything including whining, barking, lunging
5. Inability to relax, always on and always alert.
So these examples are the common denominators that were present in every dog coming to me from PO schools and of course each dog had their own unique behavioral issues on top of these issues.
I had a few major questions that I needed answers for:
1. If Positive Reinforcement Training is scientifically proven to work, why are so many of the dogs I am seeing completely out of control?
2. If Positive Reinforcement Training is the only training that does not abuse dogs, why are the dogs that I'm seeing so mentally unstable, fearful and constantly anxious?
3. Can Positive Reinforcement Training prove effective at rehabilitating severe behavioral issues in dogs?
In order to find these answers I set out attending PO training classes, calling trainers (from across Canada) and reaching out to them for help with "my own" behavioral and aggression issues. ( I also did this with more compulsion based "balanced dog trainers", the contrast was incredible, but that's for another blog)...ok, back on track! The results of my research were pretty astonishing to say the least and the conclusions that I took away left me feeling terrified for the future of dog training in general. It also left me with far more questions than when I had originally set out in the first place. Mainly, how is it that a training paradigm that lacks any sort of substantive result as it relates to behavior modification, managed to become so popular?
The answer to that is a pretty simple one. I think most dog owners today really, really love their dogs. It's no secret that most couples are choosing dog ownership over starting families, thus dogs truly are becoming our children. We spend billions on them, care for them and love them deeply (as we should!). No sane person wants to be labelled a dog abuser. No dog owner wants to physically correct their dog when they are told that doing so may completely destroy the relationship they have with their best friend.
We justifiably have horrible feelings towards the word "abuse" and often think of abuse as an act and/or action of physically or verbally adding something unpleasant to another person, or in this case towards a dog. In the eyes of a PR trainer, abuse would include any type of verbal or physical correction including but not limited to;
-leash and collar correction
-saying "NO!" to your dog
-utilizing an electronic training collar
-using a noise corrector
-physical correction using your body ie. putting your knee up to stop a dog from jumping, pushing a dog off of you if they have jumped on you etc.
Before going further it's important to note that Positive Reinforcement plays a hugely important role in all aspects of dog training and has countless benefits. I personally use Positive Reinforcement more than anything else in my training programs. It's also wonderful for individual dog owners to train their dogs using PR and there is no issues with people using this method with mentally sound dogs. The issue comes when professional dog trainers, agencies and associations rigidly enforce that you only use PR as everything else is abusive, even when it's a) clearly not working, or, b) clearly exacerbating the behavioral issues.
One has to ask themselves, "Is abuse deeper that simply physically correcting a dog? Could I actually be abusing my dog by not correcting him?" The answer to this question is absolutely, unequivocally, YES! The fact is, by not correcting a dog you are abusing that dog. Plain and simple, end of story...abuse.
Ideas have consequences and the idea that we cannot correct a dog who is engaging in socially harmful and self harmful behaviors, and instead must ignore these behaviors is not without devastating consequences for our dogs mental health and well-being. A dog that is reacting out, biting, aggressing, or living in continuous anxiety and arousal must be corrected and then given alternate behaviors. Not doing so forces a dog into a lifetime of a)self abuse, the dog is abusing themselves by being constantly aroused and anxious b) owner abuse, the owner is continually abusing the dog by not addressing the behavioral issues and allowing the mental instability to manifest.
The consequences of not correcting a dog are swift and severe. We have overwhelmed animal shelters, (most of which holdfast to PR training because of it's political correctness at the dog's expense). We have dogs that cannot go for walks in the light of day because of their unaddressed anxiety and reactivity. We have dogs living in utter solitude because they cannot function as well mannered members of their households. We have dogs that never get to socialize properly because they have severe and unaddressed issues with other dogs. In addition to dogs, we also have humans being abused by PR dog trainers who are often some of the meanest and nastiest people I have ever encountered when it comes to talking to and teaching human beings. We have people who are desperate for help and who are investing hard earned money and time and getting nowhere.
Though Positive Reinforcement training sounds nice, it has devastating consequences and it inflicts abuse on all of the behaviorally challenged dogs that it subjugates.
Through my research I did not see one dog overcome or even come remotely close to overcoming any behavioral challenges in PR schools. I saw dog owners continually being blamed for their dog's lack of progress because the owner "must not be trying hard enough". I saw countless owners break down in tears because of their dog's behavior and lack of progress. I saw dog trainers tell owners that they must "lower the expectations that they have for their dogs." I saw dogs continuously being reinforced for engaging in socially and self harmful behaviors. I saw countless dogs labelled as "untrainable." I saw countless dog owners being asked to leave class early due to their dog's unruly behavior, yes, classes that they paid for. I saw a consistent spouting off of scientific terms and language with absolutely no common sense or practical knowledge and experience to back any of it up. I saw professional PR dog trainer after professional PR dog trainer who's own dogs were out of control, reactive and human aggressive. I spoke to a trainer with "my own" behavior modification issue who told me that his rate of success was only 50%. Price for a one hour consultation with this "expert"? $700.00.
Ideas have consequences.
Unfortunately, whenever your dealing with an issue that involves emotion it's almost impossible to break through to the other side. I do hope that at some point we can start questioning things, even when they sound good and sound right. If you're not making any progress and your dog is an emotional train wreck, you need to come to the realization that due to you unwillingness to bend you are causing and perpetuating the abuse and suffering of your dog.