Dear Dog Trainers

It has been over six months since I have been paid to help other people train their dogs.  (Luckily for Moses and Alma, they’re not off the hook, and training continues at home regularly.)

Some photo ops aren't possible without a solid training foundation.

Some photo ops aren’t possible without a solid training foundation.

Working for a dog training company part-time on some evenings and weekends was part of my life for a few years, but like all good things, it had to come to an end.

To be honest, I thought I’d miss training a lot more than I do (I’m good at keeping myself busy). Actually, there are a few things in particular I don’t miss at all.

1.  The first thing I don’t miss is the self-inflicted pressure to have perfect dogs and be a perfect handler. Whether or not it was fair or completely rational, I felt as a trainer my dogs should be beaming examples of perfection. I mean, you wouldn’t necessarily want to take fashion advice from someone in mom-jeans and Crocs, would you? So why would you take training advice from someone who has been unsuccessful themselves? Of course, despite no longer being a trainer, I still have high behaviour expectations for Alma and Moses, but I do admit it’s relieving to no longer be representing an industry or business. If we happen to have an “off” day, I feel much less crappy about it. Similarly, I also care a bit less when I see someone else’s dog behaving like a maniac.

Moses and peers in the 'classroom' - sit-stay practice.

Moses and peers in the ‘classroom’ – sit-stay practice.

2.  I don’t at all miss the requests for free advice from acquaintances and coworkers. Talking about dogs is often an easy icebreaker when you don’t know someone very well, but if it comes out that you happen to train dogs when you’re not at the “real” job, the questions start coming. Initially my know-it-all nature loved this. However, I quickly noticed a frustrating and annoying pattern: no one actually applies the advice. I mean, sure, some people would sign up for a class after a good conversation, but they would be the minority. More often, I’d just get sporadic updates about an unruly dog battling the same challenges without reprieve – efforts to help completely futile. Even the most basic help, like “start by walking your dog daily” would fall on deaf ears. And it’s not like I’m going to give up a whole curriculum to near-strangers, anyway. I’m not about to hand out free access to information others pay good money for. I suppose if those cheap (or lazy) bastards really wanted to fix things, they would just enrol in a program. People definitely listen more closely if they’ve paid for your opinion.

Alma in class - also sit-stay practice

Alma in class – also sit-stay practice

3.  Lastly – and this is the big one – I do not, at all, not even one little bit, miss the politics in dog training.

Politics in the dog training community is ri-goddamn-diculous. It’s like a civil war in the overall dog community; it severs friendships, families, and business relationships.

It doesn’t matter who you’re talking about. The vitriol spewed by either camp at any given time is insane and enough to discourage the involvement of anyone with even a miniscule sense of reason or rationality. You can find more tact in the comments section of YouTube.

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It is difficult to speak of a middle ground between the two basic sides of positive reinforcement training (R+) and more coercive training (P+) (to over-simplify the distinction).

As is the case in most divisive issues, anyone attempting to create a middle ground and apply best practices from all corners of the quadrant might not successfully build any bridges at all, but instead can find themselves alone, with everyone remaining in uncompromising disagreement. Congratulations! Instead of having just one nemesis, now you have many!

operant conditioning

Which brings me to what I would like to say to ALL dog trainers:

Whether you practice positive reinforcement or coercive training, or a varying mix of the two, everyone needs to disregard egos and emotions and enlist only positive reinforcement (R+) techniques when it comes to dealing with fellow human beings.

A handy decision tree if this seems difficult.

A handy decision tree if this seems difficult.

This means your clients and potential clients. This means other pet-related businesses, from retail stores to rescue organizations. This mean other trainers.

We live in Canada – has no one learned anything from our elections process? Negative campaigns, gossip, and slander, while memorable, don’t actually prompt people to action. Negative campaigns haven’t shown to produce results in the undecided, and can risk alienating people. Positive messaging, however, has been proven to work for everyone.

There are many clichés that apply: negative messaging says more about you than it does about your target; take the high road; you catch more flies with honey; treat others the way you wish to be treated; losing ground follows from throwing mud. You’ve heard them all before. The fact is, rage-inducing or fear-mongering messages do not change minds, and often create avoidance in your intended audience. I don’t know about you, but when that crazy guy on the street corner is ranting about the End of Days, I don’t walk up to him and ask him to tell me more; I shuffle by quickly and avoid making eye contact.

"She said it was better to be kind than to be clever or good looking, I'm not clever or good looking. But I'm kind." - Derek

“She said it was better to be kind than to be clever or good looking, I’m not clever or good looking. But I’m kind.” – Derek

I truly wish more in the dog community would simply lead by example rather than create segregation and alienation.

Speak with your actions – use dogs you’ve worked with to speak to the validity of your training abilities and methods.

Rather than a correction-based trainer calling all R+ trainers “ineffective bribers”, why not just show – with real life examples and evidence – how their methods have successfully helped dogs?  Or rather than purely positive reinforcement trainers calling for the literal imprisonment of other trainers on account of animal abuse, why not just showcase how effective and safe their methods are?

[Aside: I am aware assigning labels in dog training treads in dangerous waters, and it’s essentially impossible to be extreme or absolute in any method. The terms are used here for effective communication. If you’d like a good perspective on the various dog training camps, I recommend reading The Dog Trainer Spectrum, by TheCrossOverTrainer.com.]

It boggles my mind that people think they can speak the way they do about, or to, other human beings when it comes to dog training. It’s often reactionary, emotional, and hostile. I understand that everyone gets that way from time to time; people can speak or act on an impulse when faced with something they strongly disagree with. I get that. I sometimes do that, too.

You just need to give people the benefit of the doubt (I know, how uncharacteristically optimistic and understanding of me). Even I know that sometimes people just don’t know any better or any differently.

For instance, if I see someone with their dog wandering off the sidewalk on a flexi-leash, instead of just thinking ‘my god, what a moron, control your dog!‘, I also try to acknowledge, ‘hey, any dog walk is better than no walk at all.’ Likewise, the training community could replace ‘omg look at that idiot using technique x, collar y, or company z for dog training,’ with ‘well, at least they have the foresight to seek professional help and want to make their dog’s life better.’

½ air, ½ water - technically, the glass is always full

½ air, ½ water – technically, the glass is always full

Sure, complete and total convictions in your methods and practices is admirable, if not a little impossible to execute in every facet of your life (see my post on hypocrisy here). Rigid fundamentalism at its core is, after all, unflinching, close-minded, and ultimately dangerous. A lack of empathy is a near requirement, regardless of what it’s about. Of course it is important that you and your business stand up for your principles and avoid unnecessary compromises, but it’s also crucial to acknowledge that no debate is about absolutes, and often there are indirect and subtle ways to effectively promote your perspective.

It is extremely frustrating that this Training War seeps into the rest of the pet world – affecting retail businesses, groomers, kennels, dog walkers, and rescue organizations. And the effect is damaging.

I never really understood how unwavering these convictions were until a few years ago when we were getting ASLC off the ground and this very thing caused me no end of frustration and befuddlement. We called Company X to ask if they would support the cause and host the petition, and much to my surprise, Company X immediately came back with a firm “No”. No, they would not support ASLC. Not because of the merits of ASLC or its founders – they absolutely did support the ban on a retail sale of dogs and cats and were glad to see us take on the cause. They did not want to get on board because they’d heard a rumour that Company Y was also going to be a supporter. And, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, companies X and Y train dogs differently.

This struck me as ludicrous.

"A dog is the most enthusiastic thing on the planet, if you go - do you wanna do this? It goes - definitely, that's my best thing." - Derek

“A dog is the most enthusiastic thing on the planet, if you go – do you wanna do this? It goes – definitely, that’s my best thing.” – Derek

Yes, the companies practiced business differently. But they also both strongly believed that breeding dogs and cats for sale in a pet store was categorically wrong. It did not matter, though, that the ASLC initiative is specifically focussed to one issue and purposely silent on other such matters. Simply because a perceived enemy or competitor also supported the good cause, they could not.

Are the issues connected? Sure, getting a pet and training it are pieces to the same puzzle; however, they are not so directly related that the positions of these training-only companies made any logical sense to me. They both ultimately want to improve the lives of pets, do they not?

Sometimes I wonder if the refusal to work with those who conduct themselves differently is a convenient excuse to avoid things that might be challenging, but then I remember to give the benefit of the doubt and think maybe just sometimes people let their piety get the best of them.

This divisive nature does a lot more harm than good. Emotional decisions are becoming a roadblock to taking action in the best interests of dogs – and of the pet community as a whole. Advocacy messages and rescue efforts are actually being harmed when the community can’t come together as a unified voice to support even simple causes they all actually agree on. Great opportunities for collaboration, promotion, and change are being refused.

How does that look to the public and to politicians when consensus cannot be reached due to unrelated issues?

Perhaps the segregation is the worst/dumbest part. Individuals and organizations decline to interact together on one thing because they disagree another. Well, you’ll never influence or educate anyone if you alienate or shame them.

If you’re trying to convince someone to abandon one training technique, or to see another within some context, you’ll never get anywhere with ridicule or avoidance. The best way to teach others – and to learn from them – is to spend time with people who see things differently than you. Otherwise, you also risk putting yourself in a bubble, and limiting your own knowledge and experience.

Bill-Nye

Bill Nye is a wise dude.

Insults don’t change minds. Leading by example does. Your training results will speak for themselves. Being a kind person who is pleasant to be around also helps a great deal. If you have common ground to converse over – rescue efforts, spay/neuter campaigns – the door opens for a bigger conversation. What happens when communication stalemates? Nothing. Exactly. So where’s the progress?

I know treating each person with respect can be a struggle from time to time – no one is more frustrated with stupidity and ignorance than yours truly – but it really comes down to representing the community in a dignified way.

Besides, I can guarantee average dog owners don’t know about the Training War that wages. Or if they do, they are more confused than ever, as companies now campaign to create suspicion around terms like “balanced”. Most clients aren’t, or don’t know to be, concerned with what philosophies a training company subscribes to as long as they can be helped with teaching their pups to walk nicely, to stop barking and chewing their stuff, and to not use the house as a bathroom – all while using a manner they’re comfortable with (whatever that may be). If they’re happy and get results, you have a client for life.

Not being an asshole definitely helps.

Not being an asshole definitely helps.

In Calgary alone there are dozens of companies offering a variety of training techniques – all competing for the same clients. Yes, competition among businesses makes sense and is ultimately good for the consumer. And as a working professional, you’re probably in it to make money just as much as you are to help dogs and dog owners (maybe more? or less? I don’t know. If I was in it for the money, I was doing it wrong). So, yes, please, go advertise that you’re the top local expert. Demonstrate why you’re better, more effective, and the best value for the price. But you can do all of this while rising above the slander and mudslinging with grace. You can make a strong business case without resorting to insults and without ostracizing others.

And if you’re going to engage in other parts of the pet community – rescue efforts, lobby campaigns – put the politics aside and do it for the animals directly. If your company demonstrates that it gives back without strings attached, you might even attract new clients and make some unexpected connections.

Remember when WWF Canada received flack for partnering with Coca Cola on environmental campaigns?

Coke & WWF

One example of apparent enemies collaborating for the greater good.

But who am I to say? I left the dog training world altogether – and not for any of the reasons described above. Any future role I might have from now on will be as a client, not an employee.

whatido

Second Anniversary of Alma

Two years ago today, the Husband and I made our road trip south of the border to Montana to adopt a dog from the Montana Companion Animal Network.

After months of looking at Pet Finder and local ads for adoptable dogs – and a lot of patience – we gave Alma her ‘forever home’.

Alma and Moses in her first month at home

Alma and Moses in her first month at home

Alma & Moses

Alma & Moses

A couple of water dogs

A couple of water dogs

The forever home comes with Canadian winters, but she doesn't seem to mind.

The forever home comes with Canadian winters, but she doesn’t seem to mind.

Fun with friends

Fun with friends

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Don’t let anyone tell you pure-bred dogs don’t also need adopting.

Alma's favourite sleep spot - the en suite

Alma’s favourite sleep spot – the en suite

IMG_5228Happy second ‘Gotcha Day’, Alma!

Monday Mischief 17: Calgary Blue Itself

Public art has once again started controversy in Calgary.

I’d written before about the Peace Bridge, which I like a lot and is growing into a city icon. And now there’s something new stirring up similar opinions about cost and aesthetics.

It’s called Travelling Light, but is better known as the “big blue ring”. So I decided Moses and I should check out what was behind all the ruckus.

Moses and the blue ring

Moses and the blue ring

Now, I’m not entirely certain it’s the best we could’ve got for the price tag, but if you watch this video produced by the city and the creators of the ring, you can really understand how it came to be.

Travelling Light

Travelling Light

But whether or not I like it, I also have trouble getting worked up about it too, and I know there are lots of Calgarians out there with nothing nice to say about the blue ring.

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But regardless of whether I like every installation, I will always support the public art budget and support iconic pieces being placed around the city.

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Moses - maybe the first dog to sit on the new art

Moses – maybe the first dog to sit on the new art (was a tight fit)

And then, since we’d already driven across the city solely so I could make an Arrested Development pun in my title (c’mon, you’d known all along)…

… I decided it was a good opportunity to check out a park we’ve never been to, and did the day’s walk at Confluence Park.

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Turned out to be a great place for a walk – very quiet and not very busy – but the constant planes taking off regularly ruined the serenity, since it’s rather close to the airport.

The park has a creek running through it, though, so it automatically gets Moses' seal of approval.

The park has a creek running through it, though, so it automatically gets Moses’ seal of approval.

This post is part of the Mischief Monday blog hop – to see what everyone else has been up to, click herehere, or here.

Monday Mischief

Black & White Sunday 13: Glenbow Ranch

I’ve shared photos from walks at Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park several times on the Soapbox (like here, here, and here, for example).  It’s definitely one of my favourite places to walk the dogs because it’s massive, close to our end of the city, a very interesting historic site, and picturesque with lots of variety for photo ops.

So without further adieu…

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Moses

IMG_5842 - Version 2

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Moses

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Alma

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Moses

Check out everyone else’s photos and the blog hop hosts here and here.

BandW

Wordless Wednesday 23: Checkmate

As you may remember from our ultimate Canadian Pilgrimage this summer, Medicine Hat, Alberta is home of the world’s largest teepee.

Moses & Alma

Moses & Alma

But what you may not know: they also boast a giant chess set.

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I kind of doubt it’s the world’s largest, but you never know.

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To see the rest of Wordless Wednesday, click here.

Monday Mischief 16: Two Tails in Two Cities

Okay, so I might be stretching for the Dickens reference.

Like a lot of Calgarians, the Husband has a job that takes him north for various periods of time. This time, to keep him company, he decided to take Alma with him. Because that’s the great thing about having two dogs – we can share!

Alma on a road trip. Get it? Road trip!

Alma on a road trip. Get it? Road trip!

They’ve been away for almost a week, leaving Moses and I here at home with the cats.

Alma & Husband

Alma & Husband

So while Alma is off galavanting northern Alberta, Moses is hanging out with me – where the weather has been warmer and drier.

Neighbourhood walk with Moses

Neighbourhood walk with Moses

The arrangement isn’t so bad, really. Separating Moses and Alma allows us to give the dogs some one-on-one time, which probably isn’t as frequent as it should be under normal circumstances.

Moses

Moses

I don’t know that there’s any particular mischief – beyond the Husband and I competing in fall photographs – to report, but the Newfs how have the province covered, should there be any.

Monday Mischief

This post is part of the Mischief Monday blog hop – to see what everyone else has been up to, click herehere, or here.

I’m a Big Fat Hypocrite

Breaking News, Calgary, AB: I am not the Pope.

I’m not even Catholic!

And as such, I – like every other blogger on the end of a keyboard – am just a person.  A normal, falliable human being who doesn’t always practice what she preaches. (When you were growing up, did you ever have that person who said “Do as I say, not as I do?”)  I don’t take everything too seriously, and sometimes I take things way too seriously.

Sometimes there are things written here on the Soapbox that I rant about as if they should be scripture or written into law – especially when it comes to dog-related issues. And the thing about writing hastily, angrily, absolutely, or passionately about something is that you can get caught in moments of your own hypocrisy.

Jen K: Guilty as charged.

All of us face cognitive dissonance – unless you don’t think you do, in which case, you should probably stop reading now because you’re running late for Unicorn Festivus with Ironman and Princess Peach (I hear Zack Attack is opening for Jesse & The Rippers, so it should be a good time!). Sometimes we remedy this dissonance, and other times we choose to ignore it, which then makes us self-contradictory hypocrites from time to time.

If I’m being honest, there are lots of things I’m a hypocrite about.

I will roll my eyes at someone’s poor taste in television and then go home and watch Survivor. I will have a salad for lunch in the guise of healthy eating and then have popcorn for dinner. As a pedestrian, I hate impatient drivers, but as a driver I’m annoyed by ambivalent pedestrians. I think it’s important to be politically correct, but I love stand-up comedy, which is typically anything but. I will counsel my friends on “cost per wear” when shopping even though my closet contains many items that violate that rule. I will pet Moses when he puts his head on my lap because I think it’s cute, even though I know it’s reinforcing a behaviour many would consider demanding, and would even advise others against similar things.

In fact, there are lots of times I haven’t exactly ‘walked the walk’ in my everyday life based on things I’ve written right here on the Soapbox.

Pull up a chair, because it’s Bad Pet Owner Confession Time. (I know, I know, I said I wasn’t Catholic.)

Emma

Emma

I got Emma from Kijiji. From a backyard breeder.

Yep, you read that right. Many years ago, before I knew any better, I decided we should get a kitten. I impulsively looked on Kijiji, found an ad with adorable pictures, and went right out to pick her up. I didn’t even wait for the Husband to co-sign the decision. It was the exact series of mistakes I’ve written about several times here and caution others against. Aside from being certain in retrospect that Emma was taken away before she was fully weaned, and reinforcing the backyard breeding of the people I brought her from, I’m still happy we have Emma. She’s cute, she gets along with Isaac and the dogs, and we’re happy to have her. Should I have gone to a rescue and adopted one of the multitude of cats looking for homes? Absolutely. And that’s exactly what I’ll do next time.

I’m a dedicated raw feeder… unless you’re talking about snack time.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that we feed all of our pets raw food and that I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I’ve also mentioned several times that Moses’ favourite snack is bread. That dog loves his carbs. Not once has anyone paused for a well-deserved WTF. A focus on species-appropriate and grain-free, and the occassional treat is grain-abundant bread?!  Yep. It’s contradictory and I don’t even pretend to care.

Moses

Moses

I condemn breed-specific bias, while harbouring my own.

I’ve written lengthy diatribes on the injustice of breed-specific legislation and how dogs shouldn’t be assessed based on their breeds, but instead based on their individual behaviours, since judging a dog based on its appearance ignores the real, major factors in a dog’s behaviours.

Meanwhile, I harbour my own appearance-based judgments when it comes to dogs. I’ve written about it before (here) and I’m talking about my own sized-based discrimination. When I’m walking Moses and Alma in my neighbourhood and I see a little dog approaching, I wait expectantly for the little dog to start barking, growling, and pulling on the end of its leash. Sometimes my expectations are met, and sometimes they’re not, but they’re almost always there. I try to mitigate this with the rational acknowledgement that there are lots of well-behaved small dogs out there, but, in the moment, the bias surfaces. I am aware it’s unfair and merely anecdotal, but it still makes me a big hypocrite.

I am an unapologetic stickler for spelling and grammar and yet also a human being.

It causes me physical pain when I (or readers) discover a mistake on the Soapbox after I’ve hit publish. They’re bound to happen, since once you read something a few times, your brain just fills in the gaps for you. I’m famous for missing words outright or leaving incorrect conjugations when I reword a sentence. Once found, I’ll fix them and then wallow in shame for half a day, yet I remain quick to notice and judge others for their mistakes. This makes me both a hypocrite and a jerk.

Alma and Moses at the library

Alma and Moses at the library in downtown Calgary

I break the rules – sometimes even knowingly.

This whole thing was inspired because a someone in the comments – quite rightfully – called me out on my own hypocrisy in yesterday’s Monday Mischief post.

I’ve written before about on-leash by-laws, and I will continue to write that people should obey leash laws, but I regularly post picture of my dogs off-leash in on-leash areas.

Provincial Legislature - Victoria, BC

Provincial Legislature – Victoria, BC

I was called out for doing this at a provincial park, but in reality, all of Calgary, and most of the paved, urbanized world, is on-leash unless specifically otherwise designated. So my bad behaviour actually kind of happens a lot in this respect; I probably should’ve been called out a long time ago.

Go back and look at many of the photos I post here. If you look closely, you may notice leashes tucked behind Moses and Alma in many photos, but you will also definitely notice that I’m not holding them, and that I’m usually way more than 6 feet away from them to get the shot.

And in addition to the photo ops, we break the rules when we’re training – especially when we’re practicing skills like sit-stays, down-stays, heeling while dragging the leash, and long-distance recall. I have gone to off-leash parks to practice this, though very rarely because I usually end up spending most of my time there explaining to other owners that we’re training and I’m not actually some mean ogre who “won’t let” her dogs play.

Instead I’ll practice these skills right in my neighbourhood, in green spaces, or just down the street. Because you can’t have a well-trained dog who can respond in any situation at any distance without practicing that very thing.

But you know what – it’s a matter of accepted risk. And that was what my main point in last year’s off-leash/on-leash rant. I am aware that having the dogs sit in the middle of downtown Calgary – and then backing away – has risks. It is significantly riskier than if they were next to me on a 6 foot leash. And I am absolutely ready to take ownership of any consequences.

Would I practice these skills or give my dogs off-leash privileges if they ran amok, harrassed others, chased wildlife, and didn’t stay close or check in with us? Nope. I also carefully pick and choose the time and place for said rule-breaking, and leash back up when circumstances change.

Sure, this means I break the rules while still writing about how others ought to follow them. That’s not likely to change since I have no interest in assuming liability for the poor judgment of others (my own is enough, thank you).

Does this make me one of those dog owners who breaks the rules and ruins privileges for everyone? Yeah, I guess so. I will reason that Moses and Alma are well-trained and actually good ambassadors for dog behaviour, but most people who break the rules probably think their dogs are just fine, too (I’d like to see their pictures to prove it). Hello, cognitive dissonance.

Like I said, I’m a big fat hypocrite.

Moses, Crosby and Alma off-leash in the heart of downtown

Moses, Crosby and Alma off-leash in the heart of downtown Calgary