For dog’s sake: What is happening with dog training?

At the early beginning of the 2000s in Portugal, I and some colleagues started in the dog training world. We were strangers to the old colleagues since we never did, or had, a sport or competition background, in a world where everyone had a medal. It was a hard beginning, and we were humiliated, despised, and a reason for jokes among these trainers. But we never gave up. We were not perfect, and we knew it.

Our education was some books (mostly in English), enjoying being with dogs, and challenging practice with several dogs. Over the years, more educational opportunities have emerged, and some of us have continued our studies. As the years passed, I had several professional experiences within military dog training, sport, breed clubs, pet stores, boarding, and shelters, among other places.

As I remember, we never used a label or slogan to make us seem better than others. We all had our differences, and we still have them, but never to the point of being disrespectful to others.

These days, with a large quantity of information, severe marketing strategies, an excessive way to show the real life in the virtual world, where everything written there that comforts us is true and cannot be questioned, some colleagues from that time prefer to continue their lives without too much discussion about the subject, maybe because of their cautiousness with their clients, sponsors or inserted group.
I feel the duty to step up, and I ask all my colleagues from that time to do the same.

We are reaching a stage where we cannot even question a study or article about a training tool or technique. Science in dog training is being used as a useful marketing tool directed by some groups from both extremes, that don’t make an effort to use a little critical thinking or, at least, read the studies a bit further than the title or abstract.

Twenty years later, I have to repeat myself almost every day about the 101 of ethology or behaviorism, not only with students but also with professionals in the area about elementary concepts and subjects extrapolated by a new inquisitive generation with personal agendas. It is sad for me that in this century, we have to discuss slogans or memes that only destroy an excellent movement started at the end of the ’70s. On another side, some of the precursors of that movement also helped create the actual “monster” of ignorance and hate. A magical and comfortable world created in dog training is destroying the scientific model and relationships among trainers. It promotes several communication barriers, disregarding the differences in culture, language, environment, and conditions that create several variations, influencing opinions about some subjects.

One of the main pieces of advice I give to my students is to question everything, look for scientific knowledge, and not follow crowds that limit our critical thinking. They need to develop their style and have immense respect for all living beings. A few of them cannot deal with the inquisitive pressure and use the same slogans, labels, and political correctness argumentation, not to educate companion animal owners, but to please other trainers and remain in their group, and if you don’t follow the guidelines, you are automatically considered either “positive” or “balanced,” which as a natural science graduate, I cannot understand how “balance” is a blasphemy these days.

The kindness, empathy, and respect only apply to dogs, not to humans anymore. That makes me assume that the dog became a great marketing product, an emotional tool for humans, and a victim of our society.

It makes me sad and worried when I receive messages from other professionals feeling helpless amid so much hatred from other colleagues. I don’t understand the purpose of such behaviors. Shouldn’t we avoid making personal attacks? I repudiate this type of action entirely. We need healthy discussions to grow together, not hate. We all have points where we diverge, as well as points that unite us.

The truth, in science, is an error not yet discovered. Science is a process. Each study or research (when not funded by the pet industry) raises even more questions far from being answered. Science and moralism are paralleled for the sake of impartiality and unbiased research. As professionals, we must keep this in mind and be consistent in our actions towards all species, including us.

I see with great concern the fragmentation of this area in favor of various interests, including other fields that establish themselves and absorb the essence of the art and science of behavioral modification of companion animals, transforming it into other titles to minimize the dog training activity.

A professional dog trainer is not limited to “obedience exercises” or the wonderful world presented in the virtual or television world. A professional dog trainer has both theoretical and practical training, not limited to academic knowledge, easy and quick training, or the creation of several titles to justify this gap or, even less, try to demote the entire activity. There is a lot of work and continuous study, preferably with several professionals to cooperate and share their experiences. Cooperation and humility is not competition and humiliation. A dog trainer is, above all, a human being susceptible to errors and his technical and ethical limits. Some successes and failures sometimes require support that is still scarce among professionals.

There are personal sacrifices and the psychological pressure that sometimes exists, especially when we are the frontier between the permanence and the elimination of a living being from this world.

Instead of labels, criticisms, and “cancel culture” groups, that promote division and discord, I appeal to critical thinking and resilience without judgment as a common point for everyone to start a discussion with solid arguments, questions, and other topics that allow evolution and growth for all of us, with the transparency and humility that we do not know everything and will never know everything. We are eternal students, and we must never give in to social pressure, agendas or interests of any kind.

Knowledge matters, diversity in the study matters, the language used matters, field experience matters, and a sharing of experience among all professionals matters. Our responsibility is to defend this activity and not let other social and economic interests continue to establish themselves within the activity. The current situation obliges me to refer to the “ESS – Evolutionarily Stable Strategy” and the consequences of their lack of balance.

With great concern, I am increasingly aware of the abusive use of words such as “academic institution”, “academic course”, “scientific models”, including a new fashion of reducing trainers to low stages in order to sell them new titles. These models in general are used for commercial purposes.

People mustn’t deceive themselves and increasingly question schools and individuals about their certifications and research them, because you can quickly get a logo from an international institution through the annual payment of a ‘membership’, done in five minutes on a website.

The lack of regulation and legislative blindness for this situation is endangering not only dogs but their families. A trainer does not graduate or specialize in social media, four-day courses, seminars or workshops, reading books and DVDs, with trophies or theoretical courses, much less with appearances on television or publications on social networks. At the most, these can be only parts of a long career process.

Some time ago, I was one on the front lines for creating some regulation in dog training. Now, in this time of fanatic ideologies, ego-centered education, and personal/political agendas, I’m worried about future regulation or legislation.

When I do a critical analysis of studies or articles, the analysis is about the arguments, not the authors. I make it very clear that it is an exercise in critical thinking since I do not like, recommend, or support some of the articles’ tools. However, I do not disregard the public to the point of saying that I do not use certain words because they do not understand the scientific definition of “punishment,” “aversive,” etc. After all, that would make me a person who could not pass on teaching and knowledge that people pay to acquire. It is not demagogy or altruism, it is an attitude of wanting change without imposing criteria that say what I am, and if I don’t follow that, I am not.

This snowball effect will have severe consequences for everyone, including professionals who have dedicated themselves to long years of learning and a lot of personal and financial sacrifice to obtain legitimate knowledge.

Changes must begin by example, and it is up to each of us to decide what we want to be. We still have time to change if we are willing to change. The problems, we already know. Will we work together on the solutions? After all, who are we fighting? Wouldn’t it be better to have an “education culture” based on (real) science and shared empirical knowledge within all trainers?

I never imagined the current situation in dog training 20 years ago when I started. I always fought against the system at that time, and I always saw a way to improve, to communicate clearly and kindly with other species, especially companion animals.

The question is, where have we failed?

Author’s note: Jessica and Michael, thank you very much for your valuable feedback and help. All opinions are my own.