Why I Sympathize With the Grooming Dog Trainer

This is not about dog training and behavior. This is about human sympathy. And a mission. And justice.

A couple of days ago, I was forwarded a public YouTube video of a dog trainer working with a dog who had previously bitten and shown aggression, especially while being bathed and groomed. The trainer proceeded to work with the dog using some occasionally difficult-to-watch methods and techniques, accompanied by a narration of his opinion regarding what the dog was thinking, feeling and learning.

The purpose of this post is not to re-hash the pros and cons of his method or approach to dog training or understanding of dog behavior – I covered my opinion of that pretty exhaustively already.

I'm writing this to express my sympathy for the trainer. I mean that without an ounce of insincerity – I truly feel bad for him and what he has gone through since the video of him working with the dog has gone viral.

In the days since the video was posted publicly and since I gave my professional opinion on what I witnessed, I'm sure that at least his professional life has been turned on its end. I know, because as someone in the public eye for over a decade, I've certainly experienced my share of negative feedback and rough days, including threats that have been made towards me in the last couple of days since I posted my analysis. To his immense credit, although the trainer has effectively doubled down and defended the questionable techniques used, he has, unlike others, largely refrained from personal attacks against me – a relatively sizable and easy target. Having been in the midst of a traditional media and social media poopstorm or two myself, I truly appreciate and respect the restraint he's shown in his public responses during this issue.

To be clear, I vehemently and passionately disagree with huge portions of his approach and dog training methods. So much so when I was first shown the video, I immediately recognized it and wrote about it as a valuable 'teaching moment'. I never asked (although in retrospect perhaps I might have suspected) that people would seek out the trainer online or offline and verbally assault him in any way. As a victim of bullying in my childhood myself, I do not condone bullying in any format, including online, and I would never support such behavior. In fact, I flatly and emphatically condemn the words or actions of anyone who threatened the trainer, the dog's owners or anyone else involved in this episode, including those who have made disturbing threats towards me. There's no excuse for that behavior, and even less when one hides behind a keyboard and computer screen to do it. I didn't even know the trainer's name or location when I wrote about the techniques on Facebook and on my site, and I certainly did not expect or encourage anyone to make any personal attacks. (According to the trainer and others, threats have been made by many.)

I don't attack people, but I will never stop attacking outdated and potentially harmful ideas and techniques, especially when it comes to training dogs.

I've built a life and career based on a passion for promoting positive, humane training. For the record, positive training is not just about treats, and it's not only relevant for 'obedience training' or cute and fluffy little problem pooches. You can read a comprehensive (and hopefully easy-to-follow) description of what I mean when I refer to 'positive training' (which is not a scientific term) by clicking here. I strongly encourage anyone who is reading this to read it. So when I'm presented with an opportunity to share content with my audience which clearly defines and delineates how to or how not to approach a given situation, I will use it as a teaching opportunity.

Much debate has ensued regarding the trainer's more traditional, compulsion-based methodologies versus the effectiveness of positive training. Of course, as is always the case in such debates, there is an almost staggering amount of misunderstanding and disinformation about what positive training is, how and why it works, and why it's far preferred over traditional methods, especially in the case of more severe, 'red-zone', aggressive dogs.

What is interesting to me from a sociological perspective are the nature of the three groups which materialize from passionate debates like this one. It's much like politics in that you've got two relatively die-hard groups on either side of an issue, but the group that's really in play and is eager to be swayed by a convincing argument is the one in the middle: the 'undecideds' or 'independents'.

Those who still believe in dominance and punishment-based techniques (especially when combined with a stout allegiance to a particular person or group) will very rarely be convinced that there's a viable alternative, because they see what they believe to be results - a cessation of the behavior. I'm not saying that punitive techniques don't work in the short term - they do - because while some dogs will bite back while being trained with force, most dogs are so intimidated that they 'give up' or shut down, and this is then labeled a success.  But success can be short lived, as behavior has only been suppressed, not changed, and therefore is very likely to occur again the future. Those who have found their way to truly understand the power of positive training and what modern behavioral science has proven, understand the difference between suppressed behavior versus truly changed behavior and have an equally passionate and unwavering commitment to what they know is right.

My mission (along with thousands of others who have dedicated their lives to promoting enlightenment and enhanced understanding of dog behavior) is to try to reach those in the middle, who may not even know that they need to 'pick a side'. That's the challenge that we face every day as positive trainers: to convince those who may not even know that they need to be convinced that there is a new path that has been endorsed by scientific study and legitimized by countless pet owners who have had their lives and the lives of their pets changed positively.

So the question is, what has this whole affair done to move the ball down the field and help reach those undecided independents? The good news is that I've already heard from plenty of folks who saw the video, read my frame-by-frame analysis of it and recognized that there is another road that they'd like to choose. So in that sense, this has been a success.

Meanwhile, I can't help but feel genuine sympathy for the trainer in the video regarding the maelstrom he's endured over the past few days. I can't say I'm not at peace with my choice to comment on the video and hopefully open a few eyes, but I truly feel bad for him that he's suffered threats to the point where I've heard he apparently needs to close his Facebook account. I obviously don't know the man, and all I've seen of him is a nine-minute video of his work with an aggressive dog. Contrary to what some have suggested, those nine minutes of video are quite enough to reveal to me that in my professional opinion and based on my work with countless aggressive dogs, I vehemently and passionately disagree with huge portions of his understanding of dog behavior. Those same nine minutes plus the relative grace with which he has conducted himself publicly also lead me to conclude thus far that he is a man that seems to truly mean well for people and the dogs he works with. From what I've seen and read, he appears to genuinely believe he is doing good things for these dogs and that he wants the best for them.

Does that mean I agree with how he works with dogs? Absolutely the opposite. But does he deserve to be threatened? Of course not.

Without an ounce of sarcasm or piety, I encourage this trainer and others in similar situations to seek new information. There is a case of a guy named Jordan Shelley in the UK who went through an even greater hell after an appearance on national TV in the UK during which he used and promoted similarly outdated and traditional methods. Following a national public and media outcry against him, Jordan was graceful and humble enough to take it upon himself to identify why there were such an outcry against the techniques he used and contact some leaders of the positive training community and learn from them. He has since become the poster person for 'crossover' trainers and is a huge advocate for the power of positive training with all dogs and any issue. The strength he showed while going through that process has been an inspiration to me and many others, and I sincerely hope that out of the negativity surrounding this situation, this trainer and others like him might follow a similar path.


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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.


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