Force-Free Trainers! Just Keep Talking!

There are plenty of professionals who are routinely frustrated by the beliefs held by their clients or potential clients. Researchers studying climate change are likely among them. Humans are complicated creatures. On one hand we seem to be capable of stunning thoughts. Whether in the arts or sciences, we can come up with remarkable ideas. On the other hand, we are also bound by a brain that seems to have a mind of its own.

Ask a roomful of people if dogs need pack leaders and I’m going to guess you’ll see more hands raised than not. Why is this? Chances are that the only reason they believe this to be true is because they’ve heard it before. It turns out that we are inclined to believe a statement is true because we’ve heard it before, regardless of whether it is true.

Brain scientists call it the illusion of truth effect. In some cases it may be absolutely benign, believing that when you die you go to heaven doesn’t hurt anyone and likely provides comfort to many. Whether it is true or not doesn’t matter (except of course once you’re dead). The problems arise when someone is repeatedly exposed to slogans or edicts which are not true, or should be questioned.

The ray of hope that force-free trainers should see from this is that so long as we keep talking, keep putting information out there about how animals, even snarling, aggressive ones, can be trained without persistent punishment or coercion, people will start to believe it. So don’t despair, just keep talking. We’ve got more than illusion to back us up.

28 comments so far

  1. Sillyshishi on

    And… After the media says that pit bulls are dangerous, people cross the street to get away from my well behaved, loving babies as we are walking.

    Good information.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Hopefully your dogs can be ambassadors for the breed.

  2. Kirsten Rose CPDT-KA on

    Thanks for this article.

  3. Jamie Robinson on

    This blog post reminds me of when I went to a lecture at a highly respected University. The lecture was on myth’s and legends and what generates them. The audience were mostly scientists and degreed researchers. The speaker asked everyon
    e a question. He asked for a flash answer, the FIRST thing that pops in your head. Don’t discount it, it’s the first thing and it’s the answer he wanted.

    What is the moon made of?

  4. Cindy Ludwig, M.A., KPA-CTP on

    Nice post – thank you.

  5. Jennifer Ticsay on

    Why does the word leader imply force? A leader shows a dog how to behave in a situation, a leader is encouraging and keeps a dog safe. A leader never uses force or pain. A leader is a parent or a guide. The problem with confrontational training is that people believe that leadership is forced. The leadership is not the problem the force is.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I agree with you Jennifer. Words and labels impact our behavior. I have had others explain to me the definition of what a true leader is and in their mind it has to do with access to resources, and maintaining that access however is necessary. So ‘leader’ does not need to imply force, it just often does.

  6. robann on

    I have to agree with Jennifer regarding the concepts of leader. I believe that leadership is very important- but it isn’t something that is created by force. True leadership is based upon respect. My dogs and I have had many wonderful experiences together, and I think one reason we’ve enjoyed our journey so much is because they trust me to guide them in unknown circumstances. They trust me to treat them fairly. They trust me that I will help them figure things out, when needed. In return, there are times when a leader knows when it’s appropriate to trust the dog to make the right decisions. This comes up in herding all of the time. Without this type of leadership, I don’t think our relationship would be nearly as complete.

    • fearfuldogs on

      No doubt you have a fabulous relationship with your dog. Let me ask this question, if I may- do dogs ‘need’ leaders in order to have good relationships with their owners or each other?

      • robann on

        Yes, I believe they do need the type of leadership I described. I’m a believer in positive training, but the negative connotations regarding leadership among some in the “positive” community has been a disservice, in my opinion. Positive training is not a concept mutually exclusive with sound leadership.

  7. Linda Blauch on

    I still shudder when I think back on the training methods I was first introduced to many years ago. My trainer had me put a prong collar on my 20 lb terrier because she was aggressive towards other dogs. The first tug and she yelped. I wouldn’t stand up to my trainer because I thought she knew so much more than me. So instead I went out and bought little soft tips to put on the prongs. What I wouldn’t give to have the knowledge today back then.

  8. Cybele on

    Maybe “guide” would be a better definition than “leader” in the relationship I have with my dog. “Paths” or “routes” seems a more appropriate than word than “rules”. As many have commented here, the journey to more enlightened ways to communicate with, listen to, and better understand my dog leaves a few dogs in my wake who were raised in the Dark Ages of canine training not to mention psychology.
    There are people who use a guide dogs to manouevre the unseen, unknown dangers of the world around them. After all these years a life with dogs I like to think my dog has a “guide person”.

  9. Debbie Jacobs on

    Thanks! Good thoughts regarding the leadership topic.

    It’s not so much a question for me that dogs need to learn the appropriate skills for living with people, they certainly do and have done an amazing job of it. As have many owners done remarkable jobs of teaching their dogs to perform useful behaviors. What remain an open questions for me is whether or not dogs ‘need’ leaders in order to organize themselves successfully in a group, or if they are ‘pack’ animals in the sense that most people use the term?

  10. Debbie Jacobs on

    Here’s an interesting blog post by Patricia McConnell which addresses some of what I have been thinking about in regard to dogs’ need for leadership.

    • Cybele on

      Interesting post by Patricia McConnell. (What would Freud say about her thoughts on autonomy on the day she’s getting married?)Just kidding.
      But, it seems how much autonomy a dog has is an agreement reached between the human, the dog, and local laws.
      We’ve had Goldens and Labs who were totally up to the task. They had perfect recall and could be trusted off leash in any rural environment.
      Our present Walker Hound, however, is extremely sound reactive and a slave to her nose. As much as I miss the good old days of long off-leash walks on beaches and mountains I wouldn’t dream of releasing that clip at the end of her leash. She puts her own life in jeopardy when in the flee mode and I would die if anything happened to her I could have prevented. It’s dog parks (not my favorite place) with tall fences for her.
      On the other hand, she can decide where we will be headed on our walks. She doesn’t have as much autonomy as some dogs but I think she has as much as she can handle. But she’s young. The more confident she becomes (and so far confidence seems to continue to grow in her) the more autonomy she will gain.
      It would seem the more autonomous a dog is the less it’s thinking in pack mentality. And that takes us back to CM and his control freak “training” methods.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        I don’t think anyone would argue that safety should be compromised in exchange for autonomy.

        Do dogs even think in ‘pack mentality’? How would we know?

  11. Cybele on

    I thought that dogs operate by “pack mentality” like wolves has been debunked by scientific observation.
    What is “pack mentality” exactly? I think of wolves working with enough organization to surround a weak buffalo and harass it until it succumbs to the final attack. We’ve all heard stories of a pack of stray dogs attacking cows, horses, etc.
    Maybe, relatively well adjusted dogs who are comfortable in their living arrangements with their humans think more in “family mentality”, a way of thinking that seeks and even expects to please in return for enough security (pleasure) they can relax, explore, and learn about their world without a fear or hunger driven agenda.
    What drives people to act in “pack mentality”?

    • Cybele on

      Also, in a “family mentality” there’s a “give and take” attitude where the members allow for leeway all around.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        My question is more about defining ‘mentality’ for an animal we have no way to validate what we come up with. That dogs are social animals is not in dispute, and there are certain behaviors which facilitate social interactions, and those that do not. The ‘whys’ of a dog’s behavior can be hypothesized, we can do that to no end, but whenever someone starts talking about a dog’s mind, energy or mental state, my own mind sends up red flags. Because they can say anything they want about them, we have not yet come up with a way to confirm or disprove them.

  12. Cybele on

    Yes, it’s true. How can humans possibly really know what’s going on inside a dog’s head? Are we always simply projecting with our dogs? Are we imposing our own mentality or mental state on our dogs? Therein lies a lot of the abuse aimed at them in the name of “obedience training”.
    Have you read Temple Grandin’s book on how she thinks animals think (just for a different approach?).

    • robann on

      I actually found the concept of “energy” to be an interesting and useful one when relating with my dogs in many contexts. High volume agility trials reverberate with energy, which in turn has a huge impact on the behavior of most of the dogs in attendance. The same is true (at least for my own experiences) in herding. Have you ever witnessed someone’s behavior when they are nervous? And releasing all kinds of nervous energy? In such cases, the person often chats mindlessly to the dog, sometimes in high pitched tones, and often accompanied by nervous motion. This kind of behavior from the human often causes confusion for dogs. I agree- such conclusions may not be scientific, but I’ve found them useful nonetheless. One of the most fascinating things to do is observe how handlers interact with their dogs when doing activities such as herding and obedience, and notice in turn how the dog responds.

      Can we “know what is going on inside a dog’s head”? Can we understand the dog’s mental state? While we will never know what it’s like to be a dog, we can learn from the rich body language cues that dogs offer us. But we need to learn to be much better observers. Dogs, on the other hand, are more gifted in this respect.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        I agree that noticing behavior at events is interesting (and often incredibly frustrating!). Anecdotal evidence is also important and useful.

        Saying someone is ‘releasing nervous energy’ is less instructive to me than saying someone was speaking in high pitched tones and moving erratically. I’m not trying to split hairs, honest! I know that we talk about energy and probably understand what someone means pretty well. But there are trainers who are making their living off of telling people about dogs’ energy and how changing that energy will change behavior. Their approach is often accompanied by all kinds of reasons for the dog’s behavior, from the desire to be dominant to being pulled by prey energy.

        I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having discussions about dogs that take us on tangents beyond the documented research. I love them. But when I see a dog who is being given up because the owner was unable to become a good enough pack leader, or failed to tap into their wolf energy, I feel angry. It’s all well and good when the dog can figure out what is expected of them, but often the mumbo jumbo doesn’t give the owner concrete information to base their own change of behavior on. “Stop moving so much and try to shut up,” is more helpful feedback than admonishing a handler to adjust their energy somehow. IMHO.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      I have one of Temple Grandin’s books but found some of what she wrote to be a stretch, as far as knowing what is going on in an animal’s head.

      • Cybele on

        Re: Temple Grandin’s “insights”: another human projecting but without the usual amount of emotional baggage.

  13. Heisy Blinebury on

    Excellent article !

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