I have always enjoyed a challenge. Whether I’m working on a complex behavioral case or brokering a workable deal among quarreling families, it’s a challenge I welcome and work hard to resolve. The most dedicated trainers are the ones that never stop learning, never sit back and think they know it all and always work to perfect their skills. Even after fifteen years of teaching, including eight years of It’s Me or the Dog, I am still growing and perfecting my skills with each new experience I encounter. Failing a case has never been an option and maybe it’s this trait that has kept me going for so long.
I’m not going to pretend the journey has been easy because however much I do, there is still so much that needs to be done to guide people towards a better way of teaching their dogs and improve the well being of animals around the world. This is one of the reasons I formed Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT). The VSPDT network is comprised of some of the best positive reinforcement trainers in the country dedicated to spreading awareness of humane methods to the dog loving public. If you are a trainer and are interested in joining VSPDT go to www.vspdt.com or if you are looking for a qualified trainer to teach you and your dog, please go to: www.positively.com/trainers
I still find it hard to comprehend how anyone can justify teaching a dog through pain, force and fear, when decades of research and a mountain of scientific and observational evidence continues to prove how destructive these methods can be. Teaching people to train their dogs in a humane way is not just a moral issue; it has become an issue of public health and safety. Punitive training methods are having a profound affect on our canine companions, making them more insecure, unable to communicate and more aggressive as a result. Mankind is destroying what was a beautiful relationship and putting their dogs, themselves and their children at risk as a result. There are approximately 10.5 million dogs in the UK and 78.2 million dogs in the US, and while education and humane training is not going to solve all canine problems, it will certainly go a long way to make things a lot better for our dogs and for ourselves.
While punitive trainers vehemently defend their use of forceful techniques, they are finding it harder to discredit the insurmountable evidence supporting the fact that hitting, poking, kicking, restraining, hanging, jerking and using electric shock to teach dogs causes pain, fear, anxiety, distrust, shyness, insecurity, increased likelihood of aggression, irritability, frustration, learned helplessness and in many cases, complete shutdown. And that’s just for starters. I can’t see how any sane person can validate using techniques that have such a high potential to cause harm.
Following extensive discussions with a number of notable human behavior experts on why people use force or feel the need to dominate other beings, I learned the following: The general feeling among these professionals is that some people use force and punishment because they need to be in charge and fear losing control. This might be because they have been or are being dominated themselves by a family member or friend, or because the tendency to dominate others is inherent within them. Other people simply don’t have the time or the desire to investigate what training methods are best and grab whatever is most available, even if they instinctively know the techniques they are using are inhumane. Whatever works to fix a dog’s behavior as quickly and as easy as possible is preferred and validated. Dog training is an unregulated profession, which means there are too many people advertising themselves as trainers that simply don’t have the qualifications and use force because they don’t know or don’t want to know any better. Because there is an ever-increasing amount of bad press about punitive training techniques in the media, some trainers use the ‘positive reinforcement’ buzzwords to sell their services to prospective clients even though these trainers still employ punitive methods in practice. Some trainers use positive reinforcement techniques to teach dogs what to do, but lack the knowledge and/or skills to use humane techniques to curb unwanted behavior. It is relatively easy to use positive reinforcement methods to teach a dog to do something, but it takes advanced knowledge and skill to stop a dog from doing something negative WITHOUT using punitive techniques. Viewers might be impressed by what looks like a heroic battle to ‘rehabilitate’ a deranged, aggressive animal on some television shows and copy what they see, but in reality what they are viewing is just an act of violence from a human to a dog, designed to suppress negative behavior through dominant control. The great tragedy in all of this is that when the dog finally submits to this force, his submission is labeled a ‘success’ even though he is not submitting calmly at all, but has been BULLIED and FORCED into submitting. A submissive dog’s stillness is often mistaken for calm, when in reality the dog’s body and mind have reached such a state of distress that the dog shuts down, ceasing all movement in an effort to avoid further violence. This state of stress, often mislabeled as a dog being ‘calm submissive,’ gives people a false impression of what the dog is actually feeling, including a belief that the methods employed to get him to that point, worked. This is not only desperately sad for the dog but very upsetting for those of us who really know what is going on in the dog’s mind.
I must make something clear at this point. I do agree that harsh punishment curbs negative behavior at the moment it is used, (unless the dog fights back, which is often the case and is why so many punitive trainers and their clients get bitten when they use domination), but here again is the reality: When you use pain, punishment and intimidation to teach dogs to ‘behave’ you are likely to see a difference in behavior very quickly and this will positively reinforce that what you did to get that difference did indeed work. This will make you feel good, even though you might feel slightly guilty that you used combative methods to get the desired result. But be aware, just because you might see an improvement in behavior, this does not mean that the behavior has been CHANGED. You might think your dog is behaving better, but this is only because your dog has been intimidated or dominated by you or your trainer into submission, and he is now ‘behaving’ out of fear of repeated force. He still feels the same inside, even though the outward expression of how he feels has been suppressed… for now! This improvement in behavior is labeled, by those who don’t know any better, as a success, a great rehabilitation; the dog is fixed or cured! But again, shut down, suppression and learned helplessness is NOT CHANGED BEHAVIOR. If anything, your dog is now even more insecure because of the treatment he experienced and worse still, by using punishment, you haven’t taught him anything useful. You haven’t given him a new skill or shown him that he can ‘be’ and ‘feel’ another way, which will help him behave in a more positive way in the future. That’s the beauty of humane training. Instead of putting the emphasis on punishment, positive trainers put the emphasis on teaching dogs new behaviors and new ways to cope in different situations, and yes, it even works with the aggressive ‘red zone’ dogs or dogs with high drive. It’s not about just stuffing a treat in a dog’s face, it’s about finding each dog’s individual drive and using that to help him learn and overcome any behavioral issues he might have.
If you use punitive techniques, be warned that your dog will associate you with negative experiences and distrust you as a result, even if it looks like he is still your best friend. Dogs are very forgiving! Forcing submission on your dog won’t change the way he feels inside and increases the likelihood that he will revert back to his former behavior at some point, and when he does, it will be much worse than it was before. This is especially true for aggressive dogs. After punitive handling, their aggressive response might be suppressed for a time, but when the stress becomes too much, the aggression will resurface again with a lot more intensity. If you fight fire with fire, you will get burned.
I can write numerous columns, books, produce videos, film TV shows, or do seminars all day on this subject, but that won’t help change things unless people are willing to learn, discover and change for themselves. We are creatures of habit and it’s hard to change our behavioral patterns. But I think it is time to ask the question: am I truly doing everything possible to ensure my dog is happy, trusts me, and is pain free and secure? Am I someone who my dog truly wants to be with or does he only follow me because he’s scared of what will happen to him if he doesn’t?
If what I write annoys or angers you and you think I’m wrong or are sick of being preached at by the British girl who trains dogs on TV, then I encourage you to read the numerous books and articles written by some of the brightest animal behavior minds in the business: Dr. Patricia McConnell, Suzanne Clothier, John Bradshaw, Karen Pryor, Dr. Sophia Yin, Jean Donaldson, James O’Heare, Alexandra Horowitz, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Nicole Wilde, Turid Rugaas, Dr. Ian Dunbar, to name but a few.
My biggest challenge is to continue promoting positive change, even though this sometimes makes me the target of ridicule by those who are threatened by what I say. I understand that it takes courage to change, but the more humane you are towards your dog, the better your lives will be. The right kind of knowledge is very powerful. As more and more people make the switch to gentler teaching methods, the canine and human nation will be safer and more stable because of it.