Packing Up Their Toys

boy with a small black dog bowing at himThere was a blog post going around recently that could have easily been parody as serious. It was written by a volunteer trainer at a shelter who was declaring he was never going to volunteer at an animal shelter again because of his recent experience at one. The reason for his defection? Were dogs being mistreated? Were the conditions gross and unsanitary? Were too many dogs being euthanized? Was the staff being disrespected? Nope. The reason he was never going to volunteer at an animal shelter again was because the dogs were going to be clicker trained. Apparently this was so distasteful to this trainer that he was out the door never to return.

His litany of reasons for this decision included many of the old faithful, and incorrect I will add, missives regarding why force-free training and the use of food in training kills dogs. They included:

Force-free trainers sit around flipping through magazines waiting for good behaviors to reinforce while a dog gobbles down the food off the counter, chews the leg off the dining table and pees on the Oriental. 

Dogs in shelters are there because their owners, patient saints each and every one of them is, never told a dog “NO!” or yanked on their leash. Never having been reprimanded the dog has become uncontrollable and dumped at a shelter. 

Dogs in shelters are there because force-free trainers advised the aforementioned saints not to prevent or interrupt their dog’s inappropriate behavior, but instead to grab a magazine and wait for an appropriate behavior to reinforce with the bits of filet mignon they are schlepping about in a treat pouch. That studies of dogs left at shelters have shown that upwards of 94% of pet owners never even consulted with a trainer about their dog’s inappropriate behavior is insignificant. Of the 6% (or less) of the pet owners who did contact a trainer all were handed a clicker and treat pouch (and a magazine) and instructed on how to create a dog they will want to dump at a shelter. 

As I read I kept waiting for “SURPRISE! only kidding.” I am not going to walk away from shelter dogs for similar reasons that boys walk away from their sports team, because someone (who never knows as much as they do) decided to let girls play. Or quitting the typing pool because your typewriter is being replaced with a computer. This guy was leaving because the shelter management decided to introduce a training method that is less stressful to dogs. Full stop. Period. It’s like the fellow at a hearing about our local nuclear power plant declaring that he’s, “Lived next to the plant for 30 years and he’s ok.” But what about the spent fuel rods sitting in a pool on the property sir? Any suggestions as to what to do with them? Or someone boasting they’ve been smoking a pack a day since they were 15 and didn’t get cancer and see this as enough reason to keep on smoking and recommend Marlboros to friends.

I admit I only read the post once, glanced through the comments, shook my head and left the page. The requisite “all dogs learn differently” myth was tossed out as further evidence that one dare not attempt to use force-free methods with them. I’m assuming that this is because dogs, unlike any other organism on the planet, NEED to be trained using aversives. There were the head spinning, tail chasing comments about how trainers who advocate positive reinforcement also use punishment by depriving dogs of food treats when they don’t do the right thing, justifying the use of any number of collars designed to hurt or impede oxygen intake, or whatever form of positive punishment they prefer. Terms like “balanced” were used to describe trainers who I’m assuming do not have the mechanical skills in place to put behaviors on dogs using primarily positive reinforcement, tipping the scales to unbalanced in favor of force-free.

For those of you unfamiliar with the world of force-free dog trainers, allow me to share this with you. Many of us spend hundreds to thousands of dollars a year on continuing education. We study with some of the world’s best animal trainers. We practice the mechanical skills of training with some of the great names in animal behavior. Do you honestly think that trainers who can teach a multi-behavior chain to a chicken, hamster, fish, horse, lion or dolphin can’t teach a dog to walk nicely on leash, sit on a mat when people come into the house, watch quietly as other dogs go by, without using positive punishment? When “balanced” trainers choose to call us “treat dispensers” I want to channel Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men and shout, “Show me some goddamn respect!”

If you want to pack up your toys and go home because the 21st century of animal training has arrived on your doorstep, go. You have as much to lose as the dogs you claim to care so deeply about.


41 comments so far

  1. Natasha on

    Wow. He just can’t handle the truth.

    • Debbie Jacobs on


  2. Karen Wylie on

    The 21st century can’t come quickly enough for some dogs. My heart ached reading your blog. I didn’t see the original blog you’re referring to, but would love to know who wrote it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You can versions of the same throughout the blogosphere Karen. Unfortunately.

  3. Mel on

    Ugh! That is so sad I can’t even begin to write what I want to say. I guess he missed the dogs that found homes because of clicker training or the dogs who felt better because they were able to use their brains instead of being stressed out in a shelter environment huh? Great post Debbie. Thanks for fighting the right fight.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks Mel!

  4. Kim on

    Love!!! I will admit I often get so frustrated reading those posts and comments. One does not even know where to start. There is so much false information in them it will make your head spin.

    But you did a lovely job!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      That is exactly what happened to me Kim. There was no place to start as far as making a comment. But I realized that the insult inherent in many of the arguments “balanced” trainers use against R+ training is based on a complete lack of understanding of what we do and how we do it.

  5. Jennifer Cattet, Ph.D. on

    Great blog! When you feel that you master a trade, it’s hard to look at what you do objectively and be open minded enough to be willing to change.

    As Bob Bailey says: you can either consider dog training as a craft, transferred from one generation to the other, with very little change in over tens of thousands of years; or you can see it as a technology, based in science, with constant revisions and updates for better and quicker results. Both work of course, but let’s be real, you can only perfect anything if you are willing to question, measure, collect data, observe and keep working at it. If you chose to settle for the same old techniques, your ego may be fulfilled because you can get really good at it, but you’ll be very limited in how far you can take the animal’s training and will have to deal with many pitfalls.

    Our choice to keep up with progress or repeat the same old techniques. The results ultimately speak for themselves.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment and for providing me with just the right link at the right time. Trainers like Bob Bailey and even some 14 year old girls posting videos on youtube of the behaviors they’ve put on their pets (with a clicker and/or a handful of treats), remind me that I can do better. And provide the inspiration to do it.

    • Natasha on

      Excellent comment – that describes a good teacher in any area!

  6. genevievebergeron1Genevieve on

    Thank-you for this blog post! I am sharing it. Frankly to stomp off in disgust because you were told the dogs are now going to be treated humanely is very telling. What kind of person gets offended by being told to be kind to dogs!? One who should never be allowed to handle them for sure!

    • fearfuldogs on

      As I read it I kept thinking, “Seriously?” Yup. Reward-based trainers are the cause of all the ills shelter dog face. As if many of them were ever exposed to one before they landed in the clink.

  7. genevieve on

    Haha. The person who wrote the blog your are blogging about just shut down anymore comments and said everyone should go off and use their own methods….typical.

  8. Marie on

    I read that blog, shook my head and walked away. Your reply Debbie is absolute genius. Thank you!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Marie. Your comment sure makes me feel good. But if I’m such a genius why do I manage to burn the oatmeal almost every morning?

  9. Natasha on

    Genevieve inspired me to search a little and aha, found something similar on, surprise, a Ger Shep site. And most cited are men. This goes to the history of education in Germany, well actually, Prussia. My B-I-L (whose family is from Germany) taught college physics for a while and I heard him talk at length about the traditional style of science education based on this system. Beyond patriarchal, beyond competitive, he talked about the “saber mark” method, the military model, like boot camp. A great teacher left his saber marks on his follower/students. A graduate student was not worthy unless they survived the saber marks, they were expected… And of course the next generation’s attitude was “I survived it, you must also be tested.” He, my B-I-L, left teaching because he didn’t like this system. As Debbie has stated many times, if other methods work, why teach through cruelty and humiliation?

    • Catherine McBrien on

      That is really just unbelievable. He would undoubtedly pass out when I stuff treats in a growling foster’s mouth. But I would love to show him how quickly she improved!

      • Debbie on

        No doubt!

        Debbie Jacobs

    • Debbie on

      I think a main reason many stick with what they do because the other, less invasive methods don’t work for them or maybe they never bothered to learn about them. It takes time and effort to become proficient at training so that it is easier for dogs to learn. This doesn’t mean reward based training is inaccessible to “average” pet owners. Most dogs respond well to it.

      When you have a dog who is behaving in ways that are scary or frustrating a better understanding of behavior and the skills to modify it without resorting to force or punishment, make a huge difference in potential success. But even if one is still learning, simply by not adding more stress to the dog’s life, in the form of aversives in training, can play a big role in preventing further degradation of behavior.

      Debbie Jacobs

  10. Kari Neumeyer on

    I had a similar reaction when a woman who runs a rescue told me about all the dogs killed after positive training failed, landing them in shelters. I wish I’d asked her about all the dogs who get euthanized after prong collars and shock collars exacerbated their aggression. Instead I told her about my experience with clicker training working after a prong collar didn’t… And then wrote an angry blog about her.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Aren’t we lucky we have angry blogging to keep us from throwing in the towel completely and becoming gardeners? (nothing wrong with gardening mind you)

  11. Carolyn Turner on

    I believe I read the same blog you did, although I can’t at the moment recall who wrote it.

    He said that he delivered his resignation after the shelter director, who was not a trainer, had attended a 2 day workshop and then announced to all the volunteer trainers that, henceforth, they would ONLY train using clickers. No other methods or tools were to be used, EVER.

    Clickers certainly have their uses, and I am not a professional trainer, to say that I can never use a verbal correction, followed by a redirection to the desired behavior is a bit extreme.

    • fearfuldogs on

      So what if the director who was not a trainer consulted with a professional trainer and decided to go with clicker training? Anyone in a management position is wise to find educated, skilled people to help them since their job encompasses such a wide range of responsibilities it’s impossible to expect them to be an expert at all of them. I found the author’s emphasis on the fact that the director wasn’t a trainer naive. And again I would say, so what if someone said that verbal or physical corrections were no longer going to be used? Both verbal and physical corrections are aversives to dogs. The degree to which either will be aversive will depend on the dog. A “soft” dog may find being told “No” aversive enough that they will cease to experiment with offering new behaviors. Dogs in shelters are stressed, really stressed. In fact it may be among the most stressful things we can do to a dog. If someone develops their skills enough they don’t need to use verbal corrections (in the case of corrections often the dog does not understand exactly which behavior they are being punished for performing so they simply stop offering a number of behaviors which if they happen to include the behavior the owner or trainer didn’t like, the human is happy and deems it a success).

      Happy, safe, pet dogs are not the same as dogs in transition. I can tell my dog to stop trying to eat cheese off the coffee table, step on their tail by accident, trip over them, or do any number of things that they might find aversive and our relationship will remain trusting and positive. We have a history of lots of good experiences together. A “quiet down!” now and then is not likely to send them tumbling into depression. Shelter dogs and dogs in rescue often do not have this history of positive experiences with people. They have never figured out how their behavior in response to the cues of humans can lead to wonderful things. They’re stressed, worried, anxious and unskilled. Asking someone who considers themselves a skilled trainer to avoid using any kind of aversive in training doesn’t sound extreme to me, it sounds like it should be a requirement before being allowed to interact with dogs in a training capacity.

  12. Carolyn Turner on

    “BUT to say that”
    Sorry, left out a word.

  13. rangerskat on

    It’s hard to get the dogs to articulate (being unable to form human words i a problem there) what they feel like when treated harshly vs treated with positive reinforcement but kids can be very articulate. This is my small contribution to the battle for humane treatment. I found the experiment very telling especially the kids who became more and more defiant.

    • Debbie on

      Thanks for sharing! And contributing to the change.

      Debbie Jacobs

  14. ldmaking on

    My dog is perfect example that force-training doesn’t work on all dogs. For the first year and a bit I had my lovely rescue pup I was taught to use force-training. I had seen it work on other dogs so I figured it would work on my girl. But she progressively got worse and worse. I was at my wits end and questioning whether I’m right for her.

    Then I met another trainer who taught be positive reinforcement and I’ve seen my fear aggressive dog change in just three months. She still reacts to some things but the response is not as intense as it was and she recovers faster. Step-by-step and all I see is success.

    While I can’t speak for other reactive dog owners I do know what is working for me and my puppy. It’s a shame others aren’t as open to learning new approaches.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Debbie on

      Thanks for sharing! I think you mean force-free does work for all dogs.

      Debbie Jacobs

  15. EngineerChic on

    I’m suprised and yet, not surprised by this person’s reaction to clicker training. This morning I looked online (in vain) for some clues as to why my dog seems to quiet & feel more secure when I squat down & he can put his front feet on me. Maybe I suck at Google, but I couldn’t find anything that explained this as something other than “alpha” behavior.

    My dog is no alpha. Trust me. He cowers & expresses his anal glands when strangers come in the house too quickly. But in the yard, he will bark & bark at approaching strangers *unless* I squat down, rub his chest, and he stands his front feet on me. In fact, he seems to like standing on me in one form or another whenever I’m on the floor.

    Long comment to say … just when you (or I) think the world is catching on to understanding our dogs instead of assuming the worst … well, we get proven wrong.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      I think the answer to why your dog likes to be in contact with you is simply, it’s “reinforcing.” I’d feel safe in assuming that it “feels good” for one reason or another, but until our dogs can tell us what that reason is, all we have are our own, often biased, ideas about them.

  16. colliebrookcrossing on

    Really? Because of clicker training?! Clicker training was the easiest for my border collie! He caught onto it almost immediately, and even though we stopped using the clicker (except for when he learns new more complex behaviors) he still listens. Once he got his confidence with clicker training he started learning hand signals and voice commands without me actually trying to teach them to him. Clicker training was a great base for him. My boyfriend managed to teach him to “wait” for treats without a clicker in about 10 minutes now that Ranger has gotten down the basics. People are so radical sometimes. It should completely depend on the dog, the human, and their relationship. There is no ONE right way to train a dog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m not sure what someone means when they say there is no “one right way to train.” It seems to imply that every animal is unique in the way they learn new behaviors and we know this is not the case. Behavior is lawful and we understand those laws AND we are committed to behaving in humane ways ourselves with animals, we follow plans that are primarily based on positive reinforcement. If we decide to use other “ways to train” such as the use of negative reinforcement, positive or negative punishment, it’s because we have determined that they are necessary. Unfortunately many trainers deem some techniques “necessary” because their own skills are lacking in applying positive reinforcement. They then correlate their own lack of skills with the dog’s slow process, but the dog is the one who it is decided is falling short.

  17. Matthew (a different one) on

    Your last paragraph touched on a truth about training. real training takes effort, knowledge and skills development.

    sounds like someone didn’t want to put out any effort.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s hard to know the motivation behind this trainer’s decision, but I think he really thinks that clicker training isn’t as good as the way he trains.

  18. Ocean's Edge on

    it’s probably just as well – at least better for the dogs, if he does pack up his toys and go home

    • fearfuldogs on

      It might be, but it’s too bad when someone motivated to put in the time with dogs doesn’t find the same motivation enough when the opportunity to punish is removed.

  19. powdersmom on

    It’s such a shame that some people are so determined to prove they are right and not admit there are better ways to do things. It’s like they are in a damn cult or something. Shock treatments were once advocated for mental patients too. Tmes change, we evolve, science and research progress. I am personally glad as a person with a disorder, I have other choices that are not “extreme” to help me overcome. I’m pretty sure the dogs feel the same way about force-free training. I’d much rather take meds, have some cognitive therapy, versus a good old brain shock or hey a lobectomy. Come on folks, this isn’t based on some wimp wanting to spoil their dog and not say no to Fido. It’s based on science. Deb thanks for your blog you have really helped me grow so much in my approach to my own dogs including my recent foster failure Polly who was a partially feral junkyard dog…who now loves to sleep in my bed and jump in the car to head off to nose work classes. I couldn’t have done what I did with her with fear/punishment based training. It would have destroyed her. Keep doing what you’re doing and keep being real! We love it!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for the words of encouragement! At the least I shall remain persistent 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: