Should We Even Talk To ‘The Other Side’?

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the pros and cons of engaging (publicly or privately) with people in the dog world who hold views different from your own. This can be an especially thorny topic when the opposing (or at least not compatible) viewpoints relate to a core belief of yours – beliefs that we often safeguard and protect more dearly than anything else. This got me thinking about the best ways to handle such situations, and I figured I’d share my thoughts with you here.

Nothing is more important or sacrosanct to me and all of us at Positively/VSPDT/VSA than the reputation we’ve worked for over a decade to build as a leading voice for progressive, force-free, positive dog training. If anyone were ever to question how fervently we work every day to promote positive dog training, they need only look at my entire body of work as an educator, TV presenter, author, speaker, product developer, spokesperson, board member, and dog trainer to be reassured that every step I take personally and every decision we make as a brand, educational institution, organization, and company is 100% committed to the mission of helping dogs and owners through a more full understanding of canine behavior using science-based positive reinforcement tools and methods and the complete avoidance of compulsion or traditional training philosophies which include the use of pain, fear or intimidation with dogs. This is my core belief and it’s powerful enough to drive me and our whole team every day.

So the question is, what should happen when someone like me with such strong views is provided an opportunity to engage with another person who holds different views? Maybe not diametrically opposed, mutually exclusive approaches, but certainly significantly divergent enough to create a ripple here or there.

All positive dog trainers have the same mountain to climb these days in the battle for the hearts and minds of dog owners in terms of positive training. Not only do we at Positively share the passion required to scale that mountain every day, we have made countless decisions – both big and small – which have resulted in taking the more challenging path every time. I do not shrink from any fight or any opportunity to speak on behalf of the well-being of dogs, especially when it comes to the use of positive training and the avoidance of traditional methods.

That said, I do believe that it is important to reach those who have not yet been exposed to our message. Often, by engaging intelligently with someone from another camp, you benefit from the opportunity to reach a wider audience that might otherwise be less accessible for you. I feel that it is irresponsible to shy away from opportunities to connect with those who may need your message most – even if they’re not aware of that need. In my work with police dog handlers and K9 units, for example, I have regularly worked alongside handlers that use more aversive methods than I prefer – and I tell them about it. We open dialogues and challenge each other to think about things differently. My sole reason for doing this is to try and make a dent in an industry that is overwhelmingly (in the US anyway) dominated by traditional aversive tools, methods and thinking. As a point of reference, we are seeing the slow-moving ship of the police dog world starting to show signs of an increased willingness to listen, learn and possibly even change.

If we preach only to our own choir, those who need to hear us the most will never have the chance. By making decisions that limit our ability to truly make a difference in the grand scheme of things in the dog owner/dog training world, we do a disservice not only to our mission and purpose, but also to the dogs that need our help.

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