Making force-free training the norm

Originally posted on Mutt About Town

Image_25 Lately, when in conversation with friends and colleagues about dog training, I find myself trying to answer the same question: Why do we face such an uphill battle to make every dog a force-free dog? Whether it’s banning breed-specific legislation (BSL), encouraging the ban on shock, choke and prong collars, or convincing people that popular dog training television programs are promoting abusive, inhumane and unscientific training techniques, it often feels like an endless hike through an unscientific, myth-infested muck.

But … why? Why must it be so difficult to encourage people not to abuse their dogs? Why does someone with no scientific background in animal behavior create a dog training television empire based on faulty methods? Surely, common sense should prevail. And yet it doesn’t. Although the force-free community is making great strides, every day dogs suffer from the fallout and shrapnel of improper training and misguided laws.

There are, of course, many reasons as to why we don’t live in a force-free world. In fact, it could provide the curriculum to an entire college course. However, thanks to an article in The New Yorker, I came across one answer that could have much impact on how we train dogs in the future.

In the article, titled “Slow Ideas,” author Atul Gawande explores the reasons why important, even life-saving ideas that could provide massive benefits to society take a long time gaining momentum. The answer, according to Gawande, lies in how we communicate these ideas to society, as well as the extra work these ideas impose on the individual.

Expensive Ideas

“This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas,” Gawande writes. “They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful.”

Although Gawande was discussing health care in his article, the dog training community faces a similar conundrum. In this scenario, the stalled ideas are not about germ-reducing procedures in hospitals or eliminating pain during surgery, but about the use of scientific and pain-free methods to train dogs.

To a dog trainer, the concept that training force-free  produces more effective, long-lasting behavior change and also eliminates the risk of more behavior problems down the road seems simple. But to another person dealing with a leash reactive dog, this might not be the case. Say this person meets with a force-free trainer and learns that, among other things, she has to carry treats and a clicker on her person, stick to a training plan, practice and rehearse the training procedures with the dog, and maintain these behaviors for a lifetime. Sure, the phrase “It’s science!” is nice, but this is very expensive (read: time- and energy-consuming) behavior.

Say this same person decides to place a prong collar on the dog. Each time the dog growls and lunges on leash, she pops the collar. As an immediate reaction, the dog may stop growling. And, the owner thinks that as long as the collar is on the dog, she can use it at any time to stop unwanted behaviors. Of course, as a force-free trainer this situation would make me cringe, but I recognize its allure. To some, it certainly seems so much easier to put a prong collar on a dog because of its immediate benefits and the relief of not having to do all the expensive behavior mentioned earlier. Not to mention the fact that many compulsion trainers unethically promise guarantees and immediate results – again, very alluring to the harried dog owner.

Of course, what this person may not predict is that by using the prong collar as a quick-fix solution, the dog will not overcome the leash reactive behavior, and is likely to develop even more aggressive behaviors down the road. In fact, this dog may end up biting another dog or person because the behavior was never actually addressed. But this may happen years later – long after the owners had met with the force-free trainer -similar to the “big, but to most people, invisible” problems Gawande discussed in his article.

Communicating Expensive Ideas

So, if making the argument that force-free training is a “slow” idea, does that mean the situation is hopeless? Far from it. In fact, Gawande argues that honest, compassionate communication does wonders. He presents three different types of communicating great (but slow) ideas to an unconvinced public:

  1. Public service campaigns or, as he terms it, “Please do X.”
  2. Punishment or, as he terms it, “You must do X.”
  3. Offering incentives to soften the punishment of “You must do X.”

The problem with these options? According to Gawande,“neither penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day and and day out, even when no one is watching. ‘You must‘ rewards mere compliance. Getting to ‘X is what we do‘ means establishing X as the norm.”

And, as far as the force-free community goes, we want to get to “force-free is what we do,” too.

1174922_10102382079031407_570710568_nI agree with Gawande’s argument that forcing compliance or pleading for compliance aren’t viable long-term solutions. After all, force-free dog trainers realize that pure punishment does not create effective behavior change, nor does pleading with a dog. What does work? Motivating the dog and showing the dog what behaviors lead to desired outcomes. We need to do the same with dog owners: Motivate them to train force-free, motivate them to change their training behavior patterns, and show them how using science-based training methods provides better, long-lasting results for their dogs.

Unlike forcing compliance and pleading, motivation gets to the root of behavior change. Instead of finding mistakes, which will only put dog owners on the defensive, we need to give them good, solid reasons for adopting non-traditional training techniques. These reasons need to be more enticing and more powerful than the potential drawbacks (time, money, carrying treats around, changing routines for the dog, letting go of previous habits and beliefs).

We also need to communicate at an individual level because each person’s source of motivation will be different. “To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms,” writes Gawande. “You have to understand what’s getting in their way.”

Here are two examples of how trainers can create new norms for dog training clients:

  • A client uses a prong collar for her rambunctious pit bull. She is also dealing with pressure from friends and family to train with traditional methods and “get control” of her dog, and is hesitant to be criticized or ostracized. This person needs encouragement to communicate why she is training force-free, and also needs the confidence that these force-free methods will produce the behavior change her family and friends are looking for.
  • A client has an aggressive dog and he is afraid that without a shock collar, his dog may run away and get hurt or killed. If this person realizes that he can build a much more solid recall through force-free training, he will be much more motivated to drop the shock collar.

We have a long ways to go before we realize the goal of a force-free training society. But as the history of slow ideas has shown us, with the right communication and motivation, it’s possible. And that’s quite motivating.

-Maureen Backman, MS
Maureen is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco, and founder of The Muzzle Up! Project to provide education and awareness about muzzle safety.

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Making force-free training the norm

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