I am nobody to tell you what is right or wrong about animal training. My role as a professional and tutor is to share with you my scientific and empirical knowledge and give you the privilege to think and decide by yourself.
In my online and in-person seminars or advising to professionals in various countries, I show my statistics, research, and daily study/work on the multiple topics of companion animals in human societies, within other advanced ethological and behavioural modification topics.
However, there are some topics I need to write about and give you my view of the current discussions in this field.
Changes will not happen as long as we limit our discussion to training materials or techniques.
Changes will occur when we look at the other species as a living being and, with the help of scientific and empirical knowledge, and question ourselves about the real consequences of our actions towards them.
The model of knowledge, education, critical thinking, continuous updating, proactivity and respect for all individuals (humans and non-humans), allied with the practice, will make the former one obsolete, no matter the kind of education you have, the modality of your studies (in-person, online, etc.), or the grade you got.
There are fallacies that we professionals should avoid in order to pass real information, without reinforcing the current trends or disinformation, misunderstandings, and incoherence. We should not tell what dog owners and current social mentality wants to listen to, nor our opinions biased by emotional speech. Instead, we should show facts, and be aware that, in the current social network days, we reach a lot of audiences that will somehow follow what we say. It is a big (ir)responsibility.
I will not criticize or condemn those who make these statements, because that is how they learned. It results from the politically correct tendencies, romantic discourses, statements, slogans, quotes, and other tricks appealing to human emotions for economic and political goals.
I prefer not to label myself or other colleagues as “positive,” “negative,” “force-free,” “aversive,” “balanced,” etc. I’m a “label-trend free.”
I do not need the support of the science or label my work to not provoke fear, intimidation or pain when I am communicating with other species, to force them to do anything because there are results or guarantees for humans to be presented or by other justifications that demonstrate our limitation of knowledge. It should be intrinsic. I do not use and will not use tools whose sole purpose is to create pain and discomfort for the dog, no matter the personal and professional sacrifices I have to make. I made my decisions and reflections over these years based on my experience and scientific study. We are permanent students.
There are trends that, as a professional, I refuse to follow for the sake of the non-human animals. I’d rather prefer to hear their arguments, show mine in case I do not agree, and each one makes our own choice of what they want to follow as long as we are consistent with what they say and do.
The way to change the current paradigm is to have a scientific education and individual critical thinking, to be productive and to question everything without fear of being criticized. It is not with insult, inquisitive actions or trying to minimize the others and saying that “I’m the best,” the other is “aversive” or “negative” that we will get some changing in animal training. Acting like that, we have just an ego recharge, we create more dissension, and a bad example for the other professionals, period.
Trainers and pet industry
The pet industry itself is influencing the society, both families and professionals. They create needs, present commissioned studies and promote a commercially necessary ignorance where people do not know for sure why they acquire or is they really need to acquire but the real message passed is they will be better people if they do. They sell design, not knowledge nor information.
It is my opinion that all the confusion and no official accreditation of professionals in the area is the most potent weapon for the pet industry, because there are more people in the area that can be used for promoting products, brands, etc.
This boom of trainers, educators, consultants, and other titles without regulation, and pet industry over the last ten years can be studied from different perspectives, where I highlight, from my research on the subject, the primary and complementary social needs.
The primary social needs results from the need of the families themselves to understand their dogs and to seek more intervening help, which is always recommended, by the professional, to buy specific toys or materials. Sometimes, even the trainers and other professionals on the field are prisoners / limited to these materials.
The complementary needs results from the demand that the pet industry itself has created in society for the purchase of products (most of them unnecessary), where the trainers are the “after shopping” characters to explain their functionalities.
About animal welfare
Animal welfare is typically measured by health, physiological and behavioral parameters. Natural behavior is evaluated according to the ethogram (descriptive list of normal behaviors) of the species.
At the moment, several vague studies on dogs emphasize the benefits of having them, and social blindness has never questioned the reason for such emphasis. Make a quick search about it and you’ll find it. Check who are the sponsors, use your critical thinking, and make your decision.
If animal welfare (one more banalized but a commercially successful word) really matter, I wonder why there are no studies about the increasing number of behavioral problems of dogs in the last 15 years due to the dogs being more and more indoors, in artificial environments and with families constantly implementing models of anthropomorphism and babymorphism? A bit inconsistent if we check all current “offers” in the market, isn’t it? I am not condemning this industry, only the factual commercial banalization that it is growing.
Dogs are used as a working tool in excuse of the benefits for the human. The survival of the species is pending by its usefulness, now camouflaged by social awareness and embellished with the most beautiful photos and words.
With the premise of its use for a social purpose, we do not even think of important details such as (1) the lack of training of the professionals in the area, (2) the economic factors involved, (3) subjects through several well-publicized “studies” that announce the benefits of dogs to human well-being, thus creating a mandatory need. However, I continue asking why there’s not a single welfare study and large research on animals used for social purposes?
I have introduced in 2009 a concept to my anthrozoological studies that I am still researching and developing, in order to classify and organize the current dogs’ use in society: The Fashionism.
Fashionism is a model that suggests that animals are used directly and indirectly according to social, personal, economic, political and/or cultural interests or trends. It can be temporary, permanent and adaptative. It is demonstrated by several communication channels, sometimes being manipulated with pseudoscience or with stakeholder-sponsored studies.
Fashionism is now much more present in many areas in the pet world. We live in an “all-in” era to achieve the goals of these trends, where the dog has to do a certain task for humans, regardless of which way can be taught for it.
There are some standardized tendencies in dog training (technical fashionism) I found during my research. I’ll write below some of them:
- Demonstrations of power (trophies, medals, diplomas, badges, “operational” equipment, etc).
- Incompatible /Lack of qualification or experience with the training or services offered, due to economics factors or Dunning-Kruger effect.
- Self-proclamation of titles or degrees only obtained in specialised institutions (specialists, behaviorists, etc…).
- Regular frequency on theorical courses, seminars, just to get a diploma (“Diploma Hunters”) and memberships just to have a certificate.
- “Professionalisation” made in events, seminars, workshops or other short-term activities, mostly theoretical, without evaluation or practice needed.
- Recognition of their glory by personal experience and/or “knowledge” through emotional philosophy and social readings on the subject (google research, seminars and imitation of existing professionals).
- The misuse of science as an absolute truth or a moralistic, emotional or dogmatic tool (the “off course” theory).
- The use of foolhardy marketing (the first of the country; one of the best trainers; guarantee of results; turn-key trainings; “quick fix”, etc).
- The misuse of science as an absolute truth or a moralistic, emotional or dogmatic tool. (“Off course” theory)
- Protagonism and / or social empathy by creating social projects and / or politically correct mentality, usually with narcissistic characteristics.
- Narcissistic attitudes in social networks towards the other professionals or non-professionals.
- Social conditioning done through groups, making prior judgments without the interest of researching on the subject, following the opinions of others, blocking, deleting, criticising and condemning texts or people without reading or seeking factual validity, valid argumentation and an healthy discussion.
About the training per se
First, I’ll give you my suggestion to define dog training: “Dog training compromises the dog’s behavior modification to adapt it to a specific human social environment.”
Second, it is my opinion that if we know the definitions, and how to apply them, we should use them to educate the owners with the correct terminology. If we want to make the difference, it is with knowledge and critical thinking, without “culinary recipes” training.
Scientific studies should be properly scrutinized. We should not limit ourselves to the title or the abstract. As professionals, we should keep our knowledge updated no matter the time of our experience.
Imagine that all professionals realize that we are all together with the same goal (give a good life to the other species).
After, we are more cooperative with the colleagues, sharing information, experiences, having solid discussions and argumentations, to improve our knowledge.
Then, we educate the families and show them the real nature of the species, their natural needs and try as much as possible to provide the species with an individual and adapted life to their natural characteristics, without the need to follow human tendencies.
Maybe, we will have a pleasant surprise at the end.
Professionalism and practical skills
It is essential to study hard during all our career, including some academical fields, to know definitions, to use and explain the correct scientific terms, and try to avoid some “tricks” I wrote above.
It is important the use of the correct terminology. We invested money, time, personal sacrifices for our education and continuous updating. We are professionals. If we use popular terminology, there is no distinction from individuals without education in the area. I am convinced that educating people correctly is one more way to change the current paradigm.
It is essential to share information and experience among professionals so that, together, we can improve the lives of non-human animals with human families.
I can understand the avoidance in speaking certain subjects because they are very negatively connotated, but the vast majority of people that avoid it do not know their real meaning, the result of all the social conditioning I wrote above. Make a quick search and you’ll see that. Again, I defend the real knowledge and individual choice, we all should make our personal and professional decisions without incoherence or social pressure.
The work of communicating with a different species gives us the responsibility to seek more and more scientific (trustworthy) information with a pragmatic view of everything, in order to learn even more and don’t make the mistake of believing in everything we read or hear from blogs, forums and personal opinions (like this article). Stimulating the natural behaviors of the species and not conditioning them to social wills and pressures should be the main thing.
Mistakes, we will all make throughout our careers and it is no shame to admit them. It is a sign that we are evolving and not standing still in time.
Animal trainer’s code of honor (©Roberto Barata- 2008)
During all these years, I pass the message to another colleagues about some topics. Some of them, told me that these topics should be a “code of honor” for trainers. I’ll write them below, and you decide it:
- All animal trainers should establish their technical and ethical limits, redirecting the clients to other professionals if needed.
- All animal trainers should respect the other professionals, even they don’t agree with some opinions. They should discuss it with sound argumentation and in a respectful way, even in private.
- All animal trainers should promote cooperation rather than competition.
- All animal trainers should take lessons from the other opinions to increase their proactivity and critical thinking about the subjects.
- All animal trainers should follow the science, having a sound scientific knowledge about all the subjects and research them with different approaches, be open mind and always questioning everything.
- All animals trainers should know that the animals are the best teachers we can have, so they must be treated with respect as individuals.
- Animal training must be always adapted to species individual needs, if training is really needed.
- All animal trainers must be clear and precise of the responsibility that the family will have, being necessary their total dedication and change of attitude/routines.
- All animal trainers must be aware that they are not seers to predict the future or magicians who solve everything in the first session. So, they must be realistic with the human expectations.
- All animal trainers must to show clearly in practice to the humans how they should proceed with their animals.
- After demonstrate it, their role with the humans is coaching and mentoring.
Animal training is doomed if trainers does not change. The activity itself (certification, education, etc.) will be delivered to monopolies from other generic areas of animal behavior, which discredit and diminish the knowledge and competence of animal trainers to sell solutions with more flashy names and titles, that want to establish themselves in this area. The disaster is announced and visible to everyone. It is up to us to decide whether we want to continue these senseless wars, or whether we choose to be really professional and fight for nonhuman animals. They will be the only ones paying for it. Sorry for the words, but there is no easy way to say it. The current disdain and unsuccessful virtual fights are filling a bubble that will explode as soon as we think.
We still have time. We can learn both from each other and be an example for those who are entering in the area, as well as encourage them and, through appropriate channels, discuss various issues that may be at odds. I don’t believe it’s utopia. I don’t wanna believe it…
In this constantly developing world, nature itself shows and aware us in several ways that there must be a balance to everything work.
The balance for all professionals should be the endless searching for knowledge and respect for all living beings.
Don’t be what society wants you to be, or give in to their pressures. Respect other species and communicate with them, not by opposition, but because there is natural feedback. Knowledge is a powerful tool and it’s free. Lack of knowledge is expensive.
After all these years, there is just one thing I’m sure: It is much more than training.
Think about it.
Note: This article is the result of all my empirical and academic knowledge in the area. If you have any suggestion to improve this article or any question, please contact me.
Last update: September 2019
This article is a revised and enlarged version of several personal records:
- Barata, R. (2005). Scientific or Moralistic Training?. Personal Portfolio (unpublished).
- Barata, R. (2007). Why do I train animals?. Personal Portfolio (unpublished).
- Barata, R. (2008). A Professional or A Pirate?. Personal Portfolio (unpublished).
- Barata, R. (2009). Training tools and Fashionism. Personal Portfolio (unpublished).