Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dog Training as Morality?

Training methodology and philosophy are often a hotly discussed and debated topic among those who train dogs with any degree of seriousness.  Particularly among those of us who enjoy discussing training on internet groups and lists.  The debates can get quite emotional at times, complete with indignation and hurt feelings flying high and fast.

I understand the intense interest in the subject.  I definitely have a philosophy that influences my own training and handling choices.  I enjoy discussing this with others of like mind.  And sometimes I enjoy discussing it with people who are not of like mind, especially on the rare occasions when the debate is objective and logical, and assertions are backed by solid first hand examples.

Some have compared training philosophy to religious practice.  As a seriously active and practicing (and even professional) Catholic, I do see a great many parallels between the two.  They are not exactly the same, of course, but there are certain similarities.

For example, although this would be considered a very unpopular assertion, I actually think of training philosophies as a type of morality.

Did I really just say that?  Yes, I did.

Just a few days ago, in my classes at school, my students learned this definition of morality:

Morality - what we ought to do and who we ought to be, according to God's Law

A training philosophy really is what an individual trainer holds as what he or she ought to do (to and for his or her dog) and who he or she ought to be (as a trainer and handler).

For example, just as I hold, as a Catholic Christian, that I ought to respect the property of others and so I ask to borrow something rather than take it without permission, I hold, as a dog trainer/handler that I ought to give my dog an active role in the learning process and so I use training techniques that provide opportunities for the dog to have input into his or her training.

I believe that this is one of the main reason why training debates among those who adhere to different training philosophies are often so heated and emotional.  The discussions aren't just about methodology, nor about what "works", nor what is the fastest way to train.  Dig down a little bit deeper and it is clear that we really are discussing the manner in which each of us believe that a dog ought to be treated and handled.

Few people are going to take kindly to a perceived implication that the manner in which he or she believes that a dog ought to be treated or handled is considered to be "wrong" by someone else.

Moreover, it is culturally unacceptable, at least in this country, to come right out and say, "I don't choose to train or handle in this way [insert methodology here] because I consider it wrong to treat a dog that way".  We have to dance around it, try to find a way to express it that sounds like that isn't actually what is being said.  

But, when it comes down to it, when one looks at things from a moral perspective, there are going to be some choices that one considers to be right and other choices that one considers it to be wrong.  And, when it comes down to it, there are training choices that each individual trainer considers to be right and other choices that one considers to be wrong.  If that were not the case, we would not be having these debates at all.

The whys and wherefores of those choices will vary from one trainer to another.  Some will base the rightness or wrongness of a particular approach or method on behavioral results alone, some on the speed of the effectiveness of the technique, some on the effect that the technique has on the dog's confidence and attitude, some on both the dog and handler's enjoyment of the training process, some on the track record that the method or approach has had with other handlers in certain types of competition, some on the role that the dog plays in the learning process, some on what has been tried and found successful by themselves, some on what is being taught or promoted by a particular trainer, some on what has traditionally been done in a particular discipline, etc. etc. etc.

But in the end, we are all making choices for our dogs that are driven by what we hold to be right and wrong for our dogs and ourselves, and I don't consider this, in itself, to be a bad thing.  Perhaps if we were to acknowledge this more openly, we could find ways to make our discussions of training, and our own training philosophies, more objective, logical, and fruitful.


  1. Excellent post! It's remarkable how often these discussions of dog training methodology become dogmatic (this is impossible, that is cruel) without a whole lot of attention to what is actually going on. I love trainers like Denise Fenzi and Patricia McConnell who have both a clearly stated value system for their training and a deep curiosity about what sorts of things might work within that value system. And a realization that others might have a different value system that they are comfortable with.

    For me, my basic value system is that both the dog and the trainer should be having fun. That has led me to some choices that positive trainers deeply disapprove of (one dog had to wear an e-collar off lead in situations where his recall couldn't be trusted) and some that traditional obedience folks might not understand (recently retired same dog from obedience with one leg in utility because working away from me in the environment was too stressful for him.)As I learn about ways to train I'm on the lookout for things that make it more fun for both me and the dog. Clicker training definitely added fun for all parties concerned. More recently I'm learning about incorporating play in training, which is fun for everyone until the play biting gets out of hand ;-)

    We would all be better off if people both were clear with themselves about the values on which they based their training and if folks realized that other people might have different values.

  2. Denise Fenzi has really caught my attention lately. I really appreciate the courage that it must take for her to speak as openly as she does about choosing approaches that are often outside the box of traditional Obedience training. She is the first traditional Obedience trainer that I have felt that I can look to for information that will help me to improve as a trainer in Freestyle.

    And I don't think there has been a more accessible work on the biochemistry of fear in dogs than the one that Patricia McConnell wrote in her book, "For the Love of a Dog". That chapter really opened my eyes to the involuntary aspect of fear and that led me to reassess how I approach fear in dogs.

    Dovetailing off of this reflection on training philosophy and morality, I have some thoughts on communication between trainers who adhere to different philosophies, based on the same idea. If I can get it together in my brain, I'm going to try to write it out sometime soon!! It is definitely along the lines of what you said - being clear and recognition of differences.