When I was in college writing my senior thesis on the human-canine relationship, there was not exactly a wealth of solid material on canine behavior and learning from which to work. There were, of course, the dry presentations of Skinner and Pavlov as it related to general learning and conditioning, many animal behavior studies that informed peripheral insights about dogs, and a myriad of anecdotally satisfying though pointedly unscientific books on the subject of dog training and behavior. There were a mere handful of quality resources drowning in a sea of unsubstantiated and often dangerous ideas. Any legitimate research that had been done was largely confined to the desks of a few committed veterinarians and scientists or was referenced in related fields such as Service and Therapy Animals. What reliable data I did find was mostly included in materials and methodology applied to the training of these specific kinds of working dogs, not in sources intended for pet dog training applications. While I now know that there were a small number of exceptional books that had been published at the time, I certainly couldn’t readily find them in my four years of searching through every available dog training resource I could get my hands on.
My young Australian Shepherd, burdened with the unfortunate occupation of being my senior thesis project, became the reluctant guinea pig for what information I did glean from this initial collection. As a puppy and for a number of years to follow, she would bear the brunt of the unpleasant if not abusive results that dog training advice has so often historically yielded. And though, in hindsight, she should have bitten me in self-defense on dozens of occasions, she would only cut her eyes at me after some clumsily executed alpha roll or other foolish attempt to convince her that I was not only a dog but a dominant one (despite my upright posture and opposable thumbs). It is amazing that she had the patience to wait until a few years later when I “crossed over” as they say, after stumbling upon the book, Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson. When I read it, my mix of regret, excitement and ponderings kept me up for countless sleepless nights, and my poor dog probably sighed in long-awaited relief. At least now, my continued errors inherent to my own learning curve (those moments when I would still be too harsh out of habit in our relationship) would cease to be rationalized and excused by those mainstream theories I had once embraced completely as I attempted to raise the bar for myself as a trainer.
Jean Donaldson is an example (as are Ian Dunbar, Patricia McConnell, Karen Pryor, Pat Miller, Karen Overall, Pam Reid and countless others) of one of those individuals who symbolizes the pendulum swing not just for me but for countless other trainers, and for the field of canine learning and behavior. As someone who has made a point of keeping up with the most current available information about dog behavior and training for the last 12 years, it is incredibly impressive to see how far we have come. Much progress has been made to scientifically validate and inform theories and practices in the world of canine behavior. The field of dog training, once consisting only of contagious popular myths and historical frameworks largely obsolete when applied to the modern family pet, has been redirected by a new group of professionals that includes animal behaviorists, veterinarians, trainers, and behavior consultants. These individuals are committed to the study of and methods reflecting the true science of learning and behavior in dogs, particularly as it is relevant to how humans relate and live with them today. The result is a growing trend away from socially condoned animal abuse in the name of dog training and towards effective, practical dog-friendly methods that reflect a “first do no harm” philosophy built upon a strong foundation of science (the two happen to be inextricably linked). The body of information from which all training and behavior professionals can draw is growing fast. Individuals in the field who are devoted to their education and to providing exceptional services to clients now have the tools needed to truly help people and dogs live with each other in the 21st century, without sacrificing the integrity or well-being of either party. We have successfully raised many bars – for ourselves and for the field as a whole. This is cause for true celebration, as the necessity for such intervention in human-dog relationships grows in tandem with and as a direct result of rapidly changing modern lifestyles and environments.
So why is the public so completely unaware of these developments and the implications for them and their dogs? Why do so many myths and wives’ tales still dominate the public perceptions of dog training and behavior? If we know so much more than 10 years ago, if we now hold in our hands the tools to train and resolve problems without playing behavioral Russian roulette with dogs, why are we still so often “shooting the dog”?
We are at an unparalleled polarity in the public eye as a profession, and there are far too many dogs still waiting for their owners and trainers to get the right information. While we have made these enormously consequential strides forward on the cutting edge of the field, the body of the blade seems to be stuck in some twisted combination of outdated practices and the modern media culture. We are in the age of Hollywood’s romantic embellishment of archaic attitudes and assumptions that are addictively consumed by the American public in well-produced and edited television shows and infomercials (Stillwell being the glaring exception). In many ways, the great dilemma in the world of canine behavior and training is personified in those individuals that have no formal education, no credentials, use techniques dangerous to humans and dogs, and yet are the most “pop”ular dog trainers in the world. What is immediately impressive (the outdated “dominance” threat-based model of controlling behavior) has been sold as reliably true and without side effects (despite its documented fallouts), and we as a culture have totally bought it. Viewers are told that a person is a behavior expert, and have no reason to question whether the advice they are receiving from the program and materials is even safe for them or their dog, much less if it is the most scientific or helpful. The result is a very confused and disserved public, with very little guidance or recourse when it comes to their experience with dog training and behavior resources. While I personally have a great appreciation for the apparent natural talent some of these trainers posses, I feel it is utterly wasted and ultimately damaging when combined with a complete lack of a formal education or credentials. It is tempting to condemn trainers who do not practice from a strong knowledge base of current behavioral science, but we should instead invite these persons to share in the process of learning with the rest of us. Since it is impossible to force this evolution of certain professionals and what is therefore communicated by them to their audiences, we must focus on what we can do from where we stand as individual parts of our greater industry – creating standards for all professionals working with dog behavior and communicating this to the American public.
Our problem as the professionals working within this field, then, is two- fold – within and without.
As an industry, we need to have consensus in clear definitions and specific standards, along with the respective credentials, for the professionals who provide training and behavior consulting services (rather than numerous low value certificate programs indiscernible from the few legitimate measure certifications). We must then, through community education and advertising, be able to provide the clarity and transparency that clients need when hiring a professional which then affords them access to legitimate services related to their dog’s behavior. So we need to set aside what small differences separate those individuals and groups who share the interest of providing professional, scientific, and ethical services to humans and their canine companions and come together in creating this profession in order to protect dogs, owners, and our jobs. Let’s look in detail at a few of the organizations at the forefront of these efforts so that we can better understand their value, how they complement one another and might work together in the future, and why we should individually support their work through membership and certifications.