Positive Training Supporters Can Be Their Own Worst Enemy

Cesar Millan is in town tonight hosting one of his big dog training extravaganzas. In a different part of town several positive reinforcement trainers are holding a free Q&A session in hopes of swiping some of Mr. Millan’s audience. I thought about attending the former just for curiosity’s sake, but decided against adding my money to the celebrity pot. Then I considered going to the latter to show my support. In the end, I chose to stay home with the puppy. I don’t need another night of negativity.

Does this sound confusing? How can positive-based trainers be negative?

It has nothing to do with the trainers themselves. All of them hosting the free event are excellent people who give practical advice. Some of them are my friends. I would recommend any one of them to someone looking for assistance with her dog. I think their idea of a free education session the same night as Mr. Millan’s is a good one. My concern doesn’t lie with them. It lies with some of their not-so-positive supporters.

Dog training methods are polarizing. One is either pro-dominance theory or staunchly against. There is no middle ground. Don’t get me wrong, I stand firmly to the one side myself. I wave my clicker in the air with pride. There are very valid reasons for getting emotionally involved in the issue. The anger is justified.

I just don’t think it’s helpful. Which is one of the reasons I am staying home.

My concern with the positive reinforcement session is that it will turn into an all-out Cesar rage-fest. There is a place for that, to be sure. I have been known to crack a sarcastic joke or two about alpha rolling. And I am the first to jump on the soap box against the trainer who shall not be named. But I try to keep it to certain circles, such as amongst good friends who share my philosophy or on my website where most of you already know how I feel. Ranting is cathartic and sometimes has a purpose. But it has no place at an educational session for the general public. A session held by trainers hoping to change minds. In my experience, ranting only serves to push people away.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been there. I watched Cesar Millan’s show and believed in it. I watched the dog training bully and believed in him too. What changed my mind wasn’t someone telling me I was horrible or yelling at me for abusing my dog. Ultimately, I became a positive trainer because theΒ  dominance-based methods didn’t work. Not even remotely. I leash-popped, attempted a sad attempt at an alpha roll, and on another dog not my own, I even pressed the button on an electric collar. There was no change. Then, I attended obedience classes with a clicker trainer and almost immediately I had success. The methods were working. The more I practiced, the more I learned, the more it all made sense.

I was won over by science and logic. By someone showing me how I could do it better while also improving my relationship with my dog. It was revolutionary.

Most people who attend training events aren’t looking to rehabilitate aggressive dogs or become professional trainers. These people aren’t evil or malicious. They don’t deserve to be yelled at. They are just looking for ways to get Max to stop barking out the window.

Cesar Millan is a big name. Without more knowledge, it’s natural they are going to turn to him. Of course, tickets to his event aren’t cheap. This is what the positive trainers in my community are counting on. They hoped that by offering a free event on the same night they could get a larger audience and turn them in the right direction. I have no doubt they could be very successful at doing so. As long as the angry supporters in the crowd don’t turn people off.

My fingers are crossed. But I can’t bear to watch.

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39 thoughts on “Positive Training Supporters Can Be Their Own Worst Enemy

    • Ha! I didn’t even make the connection until I saw your comment. Chose “Max” because it is such a common name and sounds better than Fido.

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  1. I worked at a big time boarding/training facility and there was tons of leash popping I hated it. I always ignored their tactics and clicker trained. I ultimately quit working there and now offer to help friends and people by word of mouth with positive training. The magical clicker is amazing.

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    • I agree and I am so glad you found your own way. If I wasn’t lucky enough to find the right trainers, I worry I’d still be popping leashes to no effect today. 😦

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    • To clarify, because I am not sure I did. It is not the trainers themselves who yell or judge but some of the people who support these trainers. The trainers are wicked people who have done a lot for me personally as well as dog training in my community. Some of their supporters, unfortunately, can take their support a little too far. I’ve been to a number of seminars that turned into people just ranting, through no fault of the trainers holding them. It made me feel uncomfortable because I know that wasn’t the purpose. Hopefully the session last night remained informative and the judgmental members of the audience kept their thoughts to themselves.

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      • Thanks for clarifying. I kind of thought you meant the visitors, but that still would have turned me off. Then again, so did the “not-so-humane” training methods at the first place I went to with our dobe, as you know. I guess I am very jaded about trainers nowadays, even some of the positive ones have not been great to deal with person to person.

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  2. It’s often said that the only thing two dog trainers can agree on is that the third one is wrong. I think you are wise to stay away from both events. The anti-Milan group doesn’t seem like they are really helping themselves, but I could be wrong if they approach their event in a positive, agreeable way.

    I don’t see any snowflakes. I’m using a Chrome browser.

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    • That is probably not untrue to a certain extent. But it’s not the trainers who bother me – they are excellent at getting their points across without making others feel bad. It’s the small mob of positive-only audience members who sometimes take over that I find off-putting. I understand their anger but there is a time and a place for it.

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  3. It’s unfortunate that so many people see his ways as the answer. Using a clicker is just so EASY! I’m so glad that someone sent us to a positive trainer – I can’t imagine my sensitive dog responding well to his tactics. I would have stayed home too . . .it’s just too frustrating to attend events like that!!

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    • It is frustrating! Especially when the message I so strongly agree with gets a little drowned out. Hopefully that wasn’t the case last night. I just didn’t have the energy for it, unfortunately.

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  4. although i get his newsletters i rarely read them….i have watched him on tv and am not a big fan….i am not a big fan of most of the trainer’s to the stars…..i just have big doubts how they can magically get a dog to do something, in a few minutes when the no one else can…seems a little wonky….

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    • It does seem wonky, doesn’t it? Real behaviour changes take a lot of work and understanding. To actually help a dog takes more than a few leash corrections. Sometimes it can take years. But the work is well worth it.

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  5. oh, why do people have to get so pent up in arguing with each other? anyway I have met a lot of positive-trainers by hanging around doggie circles and most of them will only offer their opinions on Caeser if prodded – they know that keeping clients means not offending them or challenging them too much, just leading by example and demonstrating what works!

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    • Absolutely! It’s all about showing instead of simply just telling. That’s what changes minds. After all, that’s what changed mine.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  6. There are 4 learning quadrants of operant conditioning and things can’t be click and treat all the time. Sometimes, positive punishment is needed to refocus a dog to get it back on track. Sure I use a clicker, but I also use a pinch collar for training sometimes. Dog training is a mixed bag of “tricks” and not every method works for every dog.

    Positive-based trainers being negative? I find that a lot. Ever notice how EVERYONE bashes Cesar, but Cesar has never, ever said anything nasty about another trainer? Hmmmmm. Here’s a little read if anyone is interested.

    http://www.johnvanolden.com/why-are-positive-reinforcement-dog-trainers-so-negative/

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    • It’s true in a sense. Every dog is different as every dog is motivated by different things. In the same fashion, every person/handler is also different. Positive punishment methods will never work for me because I never felt comfortable using the techniques and was not able to apply them appropriately. Pinch collars are tools and need to be used correctly in order to work and not just be useless or worse. I am not the person who can use them correctly.

      I don’t hate Cesar Millan for the reason you described. However, the dog training bully I won’t name actually does bash positive reinforcement trainers a great deal and its one of the reasons I can’t stand him.

      Thanks for the link!

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  7. I was wondering if you would be attending. Someone even posted on FB and asked if anyone was going to the positive training session.

    I am with you. I am all on the side of positive training. I also would not want to attend a bitch-fest. I briefly dabbled with the whole Caesar Milan philosophy, but never really used it. I found I was extremely uncomfortable with it. Thankfully, I had already been exposed to positive methods at my shelter and elsewhere, so I already had a direction I was heading, but I can see how someone on the fence could be tipped to the other side if they attended a session that was all about attacking the other guy. I hope it wasn’t that. I really hope.

    Attending the Suzanne Clothier sessions this past weekend really expanded my mind and my thoughts. I wish every dog owner had a chance to see and observe and learn from her. I think showing and doing go a long way towards changing minds.

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  8. I’m with Karen. There are as many ways to train dogs as there are dogs. Using common sense and an understanding of the nature of the dog I’m dealing with works better for me than any Prescribed Method.

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  9. Monday night I was on a local radio program with Honey’s trainer. I felt so privileged to listen to him sharing with the audience about building a relationship with your dog.

    Not once did he mention other techniques or trainers. He kept entirely focused on how dogs view the world and how we can learn to understand them better.

    I wanted what he was offering. And I bet other listeners did too.

    One of the things I mentioned on the show was that Russ (our trainer) was as kind to people as he is to dogs. (He’s a professional social worker.)

    Unfortunately, many people work with dogs because they find people difficult. It’s rare to find someone who is equally gentle with dogs and people.

    I appreciate your perspective on the event in Halifax. If you know anyone who attended, I’d love to know what it was actually like. And were the positive trainers able to remain positive?

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  10. I’m a relatively new reader here so I’ve been surfing your archives to learn more about your blog. I have to congratulate you on great writing on a difficult topic. I have gone through all the stages of training myself over the years, from choke chain collar poppers to prong collars to alpha rolls (at a camp run by a nationally recognized & published trainer – not Cesar) to clickers (which sadly I am too uncoordinated to use properly) to my current method of positive reinforcement (using mini treats). With Gizmo, I knew I could train him myself, but wanted him to have the experience of at least one group class…so I search all the available trainers in our area and was very happy when I finally located one who relied totally on positive reinforcement (clicker optional). It was a great time for us both…Gizmo learned and so did I…methods do update and improve. My big problem is when I see owners with ill-behaved dogs. I have to bite my tongue a lot to keep from offense. They and their dogs could be much happier with some positive training, but it’s not my place to criticize…I’m glad I’m not the only one who faces this. Thanks for writing.

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  11. I feel like anyone who owns a dog and spends a little time trying each method will quickly realize which side works for them. Most leaning towards positive training for the simple reason that these pets are our family members, our best friends, and treating them positively and with respect we quickly finds not only works, it makes us feel like we’re working together. I remember raising my first dog when I was 11, back when all anyone did was leash pop for a sit, or hit when a dog was bad. And then all these years later I got Oly and I just couldn’t do that. I couldn’t act like that when it was so much better to give her positive feedback and watch how she loved to make me happy. Maybe Cesar works for some, but for most all people I know our age with pets, it seems they all very quickly realize positive is the way to go.

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  12. I so see where you are coming from on this. Here are my thoughts (and I know how you hate unasked for advice, but it is just a suggestion to the trainers you know.) The next time they want to schedule a free training session they could ask for people to pre-register, in the registration process they can ask, what specifically that person is trying to accomplish for their dog. Then they could contact a few people and ask them to bring the dog. Showcasing a dog they’ve never seen and teaching it with the clicker would be beneficial. Also a caveat in the beginning that it is positive based training and therefore any input should be positive might help. But I hear you, once people start with the negative, it is kind of hard to stop. πŸ™‚ Sorry for the rant, you can block me if you’d like. πŸ™‚

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  13. Great post, and very well said. I can definitely see the frustration of talking with people who aren’t already on team positive-reinforcement. I’ve got these neighbours…. ugh, I’ve got these neighbours! I just want to take their dogs away from them for a month and be like, SEE?! See what I did? BUT trying to guilt people into doing things the way I do them is silly. It just makes people angry, and expressing my anger does nothing good or useful to help their dogs. Instead, when people say they’re looking for a trainer, or a dog class, I mention the ones I’ve done, and how much Gwynn and I enjoyed them. Because seeing really is believing, and someone can rage at me as much as they want about how amazing something is, but I’ll asume they’re an angry nutter until I see that it is, indeed, amazing.
    I hope the positive reinforcement session goes well – and also that it doesn’t only happen when CM is in town.

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  14. I hope the positive trainers had a great turn out. Education and understanding – not alienation – is the key to changing peoples opinions about the best ways to train their dogs. It’s too bad we couldn’t just require all those people heading down the wrong road to read your blog!

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  15. I completely agree with you. I wonder about those people who are there because they want to get Max to stop barking out the window (There are more dogs named Max than Fido, don’t you think?). What if they start using some of the aversive training measures and create reactive behavior in their dog? I think my dog Isis was genetically reactive, but we used a prong collar on her when she started lashing out and dogs during obedience class. Her dog reactivity escalated out of control. Could I have curbed it earlier with positive reinforcement? Probably. Did the prong collar make it worse? I think so.

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  16. I completely agree with you! I feel like the snarling back and forth doesn’t do anyone any good. It gets the same way in the dog food circles. People get so hostile and there I am, baking cookies and crying “Can’t we all just get along?!”

    The Daddy actually bought me tickets to the Vancouver show. He was very good about it when I declined to subject myself to an evening of bad information.

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  17. I do tend to get my dander up about CM when I’m among friends. Outside my friends if someone starts talking about CM, I’m usually quiet and just let them go though I might offer positive reinforcement suggestions in the conversation. There a saying I’ve heard and feel rings true- “Those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still.” I prefer to let my dogs be proof of what positive reinforcement training can do especially with my reactive dogs. Their actions are the best argument.

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  18. See…I feel like there IS a middle ground. One time when I said that in front of an anti Caesar person she clearly thought I was uneducated. Maybe I am. I guess I just believe that positive reinforcement is good for your dog if it works and should always be your first go-to. However, in my experience, some dogs don’t respond to “always positive reinforcement” and need to be shown who is boss sometimes. The bottom line is that use whatever works with your dog. That being said, some of the “bully” techniques out there are a little too aggressive and extreme.

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  19. It’s good to have this reminder; thank you for posting it.

    I’m guilty of going to the screechy extreme from time to time (although I do try to keep it to select audiences — i.e., when around friends — because who wants to look unhinged in public?). I think it’s because, like an allergen, I’ve gotten more sensitive with repeated exposures.

    I spend a lot of time in dog rescue. Because I have more training experience than most of the other volunteers, I’ve gradually shifted into the role of adoption counselor; I also get assigned a lot of the “iffy” applications for in-depth interviews to determine whether we want to adopt dogs out to homes that show a few red flags. And I foster dogs in my own home all the time.

    I can’t tell you how many dogs I’ve dealt with who were damaged, sometimes badly, by use of positive punishment. I can’t tell you how many well-meaning but ignorant people “had to” give up previous dogs because they tried dominance-based methods and, surprise, those methods didn’t work and the dogs reacted defensively and suddenly Fido seemed like a danger to his family so they gave him away or put him down. I’ve been yelled at by people who have been training dogs with choke chains and shock collars for 40 years and think dogs “need someone to show them who’s boss” or they won’t listen, and who am I to tell them otherwise when I haven’t even been ALIVE as long as they’ve been using those methods. (And yet, somehow, for all that experience, their expectations are remarkably unrealistic…)

    You see the damage often enough, up close enough, and you really start to lose patience with people still clinging to those ideas in this day and age.

    So sometimes I do react poorly. But you’re right: it doesn’t win converts, it is not the best approach, and it’s good to be mindful of that. Even if I’m sometimes grinding my teeth real hard behind that smile.

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  20. Snowflakes are beautiful! Way to techy for me to figure out how to do that! I have lots of friends on FB, most hate the training methods of Ceasar. My opinion is that Ceasar’s methods do work for larger aggressive dogs, I have used it before. For small breed dogs I only use positive praise. I raise my dogs as I have successfully raised my children. A time + place for sterness and a major time for love…Now most my doggies do all I want just cause I love + respect them!!!

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  21. You know, I’ve had this talk with friends many times. I was “introduced” to clickers and positive methods from a very well respected trainer. But she was so militant about being a force free trainer that she made it seems difficult for the average pet owner. She could be unforgiving of mistakes (I mean, who hasn’t yelled “NO!!” at their dog in the heat of the moment)? Not to mention she came across as very arrogant because of how wonderful her methods are and how great they work and how she works with a nationally known behaviorist who has written books. *barf*

    So I did my own things for a while. Then a fellow pet owner who just enjoys working and reading about dog training got me to try the clicker again. And it worked! But it took a much more subtle approach.

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