In the early 2000’s, TV dog training experienced a bit of a resurgence. Even though TV has often featured dogs and dog training, with the advent of social media (taking its baby steps) and the super slick presentation of Cesar Milan, and a helluva lot of TV-magic, TV dog training was booming. Internationally and appealing to all…all over.
In just 45 minutes, look what can be achieved with both the dog and their humans…miracles at work!
The style of training demonstrated, and clearly most successful on TV, had never gone away. It’s been around forever and some of us had started to move away from this culturally appealing attitude to dogs a decade or even decades before. Battling the quick fixing had become the talk of trainer town, as those of us who had moved away from it struggled to sell our wares, to appeal to the masses, to bring them away from TV approaches to teaching dogs.
In those days we spent a lot of time, on Yahoo Groups and trainer-Twitter as far as I remember, talking about how we could help pet owners so enamored with the possibilities, to work with their dogs without pain, startle, intimidation, and confrontational attitudes.
We tried to bamboozle with “science”, which became our USP, impress with qualifications & post nominals, we tried to show that our way could be easy and quick. Just like dog whispering.
And we’ve been chasing those marketing coat-tails since.
I’m just musing here. We closed for a long time due to lockdowns and mental health, but when I came back I was certain that I wanted to do things differently. My thoughts may not resonate or appeal, and that’s just fine. I’m not sure they’re clarified terribly well.
Evolution is good, and is needed, and critiquing our own performance, without contrarianism, is essential as our industry matures.
I recently saw a TikTok video from a trainer who appears to be specifically active on that platform. It was a short clip demonstrating “one of the most important lessons” a dog should learn.
The application of aversives is often related to life or death scenarios in many species (including humans).
The trainer held open a front door and when the young dog approached the gap, the door was deliberately closed over, startling & bumping off the dog, physically moving them. Sorted!
Dog protected from running loose, and possibly dire consequences, all in the time it takes to scroll to the next video.
I can’t offer quick and easy solutions like this. Sure, I can work through some fun exercises using food rewards, and ultimately, the function of the dog’s behaviour, to reinforce various versions of waiting or engaging at open doors. But, I can’t do that in 30 seconds and make such bold life-saving claims.
The Battle of the Quick Fixes.
Quick fixes are attractive to pet owners, as they are to all humans. Pet owners are easily convinced of the appeal of the quick fix.
We are convinced that just one or two or three small changes, tweaking what we’re doing, will lead to big changes with minimal effort.
With TV training, what could be achieved in 45 minutes was the selling point…with social media though, that’s been cut down to 30 seconds…as we speed-scroll.
I can’t offer that. I can’t apply intimidation, tighten a slip lead, or bump up the social and aversive pressure. That’s not what I choose to do.
We have spent a couple of decades chasing the tails of quick fixers. Why are we marketing that? Why are we offering “just these three steps” to “fix” this or that?
Why would they choose your presumed quicker fix over another?
(I mean, we can talk about the whole “fixing” thing at another point, but suffice to say, your dog doesn’t need fixing, he or she ain’t broken.)
The Battle to Dumb it Down.
Not only is quick fixing for sale, so is easy. We like to make sense of the world, and when we don’t understand something, we fill in the gaps in knowledge with whatever works.
That’s pretty much what’s happened with our understanding of canine behaviour down through the ages. We didn’t know, so we explained the mysteries with stories, folklore and magical thinking (and not just about dogs).
Gosh, it’s so much nicer when our understanding fits with our biases, right?!
Not only can you seek advice to “fix” your dog quickly, but also with just these three tips, a magic recipe, cookie cutter teaching, it’s easy too.
We have been chasing these tails too. Why? Behaviour is complicated, and pet owners need at least some knowledge and skill. Doesn’t mean we have to overwhelm them, and we can still present those complexities in a digestible manner, but we don’t need to pander to dumbing down dog behaviour.
For example, Explain One Concept, Five Levels of Difficulty playlist.
Do we need another guru?
Easy peasy quick fixers are elevated as gurus, as sages. The dog training industry is diverse, with people entering from all sorts of backgrounds. This means standards lack clarity and we see a lot of fads and bandwagon jumping.
We jump from cause to cause, at the whim of social media popularity… the latest quick and easy.
Critical thinking isn’t always at the forefront, and consilience is easily abandoned. The wheel gets reinvented. A lot.
And it’s an easy sell to a vulnerable population who may not yet understand the bigger picture, or understand our industry beyond social media.
We don’t need another guru selling quicker, easier, snake oil.
We have higher expectations of dogs than ever before. We expect dogs to live more and more like us, and less and less like dogs. The further we keep them from their very doggieness, the more we must provide, often on a contrived basis.
And this means the needs of dogs have become more complex to meet.
Pet owners, if you want to help your dog, you’re going to need to develop some skill and knowledge, you’re going to need to put the work in. We have higher expectations…we have to step it up too.
Invest in people.
So, it’s not easy and it’s not quick. Doesn’t sound like the greatest marketing tagline.
Why are we promoting that which we can’t deliver? That’s not so great either.
Instead, how about we try investing in support structures, in skill building, in knowledge development.
Rather than putting the emphasis on selling selling selling quick fixes and all the trimmings, let’s try teaching, guiding and supporting throughout the journey, which can take some time, and will require dedication and commitment (Williams & Blackwell, 2019).
We can invest in supporting pet owners developing skill and knowledge so their dog is safe and their needs are met.
Fly in the face of marketing.
We have to sell. We need to eat & live. Our dogs need cool stuff.
But I also want to change the tide. I know that quick and easy get views and clicks and likes. I know that the terms pet owners use to describe behaviour and “problems” are going to find me but then the proliferation of inaccuracy continues.
And what about their expectations? I sell you quick and easy but in reality, I can’t necessarily reproduce that.
Dumbing down dog behaviour is not what I do, not what I can offer.
Unrealistic expectations, particularly about the work that will be required to live with and love a dog, contributes to dogs becoming unwanted (Hawes et al, 2020) (Diesel et al, 2010) (Diesel & Brodbelt 2008).
I’m not selling quick and easy, but I am offering unwavering support, tons of guidance, a new and revelatory understanding of your dog.
You need to feel supported, you need to feel that you understand what we’re going to be doing, but we can still recognise that adherence is shockingly low particularly as we will be asking for lifestyle changes (Lambe et al 2018) (Talamonti et al, 2015) (Casey & Bradshaw 2008).
Not quick and easy.
This isn’t about training methods. I don’t participate in trainer wars. If you are offended or feel your training approach is targeted, that’s not the intention. Don’t feel the need to defend what you do, that is totally up to you and I’m not interested.
This is about what I can offer, what trainers who teach like me can offer. Effectiveness isn’t enough, but it is important.
I want effectiveness relative to the dog’s needs and that might mean pet owners understanding their dog’s behaviour a little more.
My route to balancing the needs of humans and dogs is through support. Being there for the long haul.
Be the change.
We can acknowledge that we will need to ask a lot of dog owners. They probably didn’t think they were signing up for that when they got their dog, but I want to be able to realign their expectations with reality.
Most of the dogs I see are demonstrating multi-layered behaviours of concern. To help build relationship, there will be lifestyle changes required, we will tackle broad areas to meet needs beyond our demands of dogs, and beyond quick fixes.
When I came back to work, and reopened, after a long COVID related closure, I vowed to do things differently. I often give out about our tendency toward reinventing the wheel but at the same time I don’t keep doing what I’m doing just because that’s what we’ve always done.
I continue to move to a more educational model, recognising the needs of pet owners, minimising blame, providing support and guidance. And it’s not quick and it’s not easy.
*Describing training as “simple, not easy” is from Bob Bailey who argues that, while training is the application of simple principles, balancing the needs of the humans and the animals add complexities.
We should be simplfying each step, adding precision to cues and reinforcers, and where there are problems, look to timing, criteria and ROR. Be a splitter not a lumper! Sounds simple, right?!