Friday, September 20, 2013

Are +R Trainers Really Big Bad Meanies?

A good measure of conflict has existed for some time now between those who train dogs as exclusively as possible using positive reinforcement (hereafter +R trainers) and those who hold that some incorporation of aversives/positive punishment/correction, is necessary to effectively train dogs (hereafter All Quad trainers).  The points of debate between the two groups have included many long-enduring assertions and objections.

But this past summer I came upon a new one that has left me quite astonished.  The new rallying cry of a particularly vocal segment of the All Quad training community is "+R trainers are MEAN!!"

Now, it is important to note that practitioners of all of the different training approaches include some individuals who are rude and disagreeable, just as there are many practitioners of all of the different training approaches who are polite, eager to engage in discussion in a true give and take, and strive to be objective.  The fact of rude trainers is not strictly a +R training phenomenon.  I do not deny that there are +R trainers who could use some work on their people-skills - but I would say just as firmly that All Quad trainers who could stand to work on the same people-skills exist in at least the same proportion.

However, there is one extra little barb that is inserted into the objection directed at +R trainers, and it is often worded like this: "how can you say you are +R toward dogs when you don't use +R with people?"  

I give the All Quad folks a lot of credit for finding a slam that will really pack a good punch.  This is actually a personal attack (you are a mean, rude, etc. person) veiled as a criticism of the training approach (the trainers use of +R with dogs).  As such, it is very, very clever.  Granted, I would maintain that choosing to use aversives in training does not give a person any more right to be rude to other people than +R trainers, but that really isn't where I'm going with this.  The accusation boils down to, "there is no way you can actually do what you claim to do as a dog trainer because I don't like the way you treat me as a person".  Frankly, that doesn't add up.  But it does come off as if a valid point has been made.

When it comes down to it, we should treat other people with respect because it is right to treat other people with respect, not because one chooses to train a dog in a certain way.  Being a +R dog trainer does not somehow imply that  an individual now has an obligation to be Mother Theresa but that those who incorporate aversives/positive punishment/correction can be as rude as they please!  Choice of training approach has no bearing on this, actually.

Now I am going to say something that might be very controversial, but I feel strongly that it needs to be said . . .

I do not believe a prevalence of rude +R trainers is actually at the root of this particular accusation.  I strongly suspect that something else is happening here.

Sure there are rude +R trainers.  But there are rude All Quad trainers out and about on the online forums, as well.  Nobody is sending out a mass rallying cry against them.

I believe this accusation is actually a response to the fact that there is something that the vast majority of +R trainers will not and cannot, in good conscience, do.

It is a fact that no matter how much an individual All Quad trainer loves his or her dog, no matter how well he or she takes care of his or her dog, no matter what titles and accomplishments he or she achieves with his or her dog, most +R trainers will not and cannot say, "Even though I choose to train in a different way, I am perfectly fine with your personal training choices".

I believe that for those who choose to train using aversives - even to the most minute degree - that stings a bit.  The unspoken implication is there - "I would not choose to do what you do, therefore I am, on some level, not really perfectly OK with what you are doing".


When looking at things from that perspective, the over-exaggerated cry of "+R trainers are mean!" makes perfect sense.  It does seem mean.  Total approval from an entire population of dog trainers is being withheld and the reason why probably doesn't quite make sense.

Many +R trainers and All Quad trainers share a lot in common.  We train and compete side by side, harmoniously, in almost every dog sport.  We use a lot of the same techniques, especially in the early stages of training a dog.  We all want good things for our dogs.  We all have goals and we are all looking for results.  Many of us have put forth a lot of effort to try to understand those who make different training choices, even when we do not agree on this approach or that approach.  I realize it must be utterly confounding that +R trainers will not just make nice and offer a complete and resounding endorsement of at least an All Quad training approach . . .

But that doesn't make the "mean" designation accurate.  It is actually not mean or rude to hold true to one's personal standards.  There are training approaches that All Quad trainers use that +R trainers choose not to use because they do not consider them to be appropriate things to do to a dog.  In doing this, and even in saying so, one is not being "mean" to those who consider such approaches acceptable.  It's not really about them, actually . . .

The fact is that the vast majority of +R trainers are out there training dogs, working with clients and client dogs, helping people learn how to help their dogs overcome behavior issues, coaching competition handlers, and preparing their own dogs for competition.  Most promote +R training to those who come their way for training, many of whom have tried methods that incorporate aversives and have not gotten the results they hoped for.

Of the ones who are on the internet forums, many engage in debate with All Quad trainers in an objective and helpful manner.  If you aren't finding those +R trainers, I would suggest you explore some different groups.

No, we aren't really big bad meanies.  We are excited about +R training, we promote +R training, and we are committed to excellent use of +R training.  Rude individuals best represent themselves as rude individuals, not the entire +R training population.

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