Learning about the most effective and humane ways to work with fearful dogs has given me plenty of opportunities to ponder why people behave the way they do. I am not the first to wonder why it is so difficult for people to give up- or even less- question why they continue to believe the things they do when evidence mounts against them. I am also not the first dog trainer to be confronted with the death grip people have on using force or punishment-centric techniques to train dogs, when routinely new studies and research come out proving that it’s time to let go.
For the past several months I have had foster dogs. I have also been responsible for finding and choosing their new owners. This means I have to read and interpret answers to questions on an application form. I haven’t had a lot of them but I have been both surprised and disappointed to read the answers responding to how new owners would deal with challenging behaviors. Some people lack experience, they are not sure how to deal with some of the behaviors they are asked about. This is neither surprising nor disappointing, and is less of a concern than the others with lots of experience and describe the ‘old school’ methods of changing behavior; scold the dog for peeing in the house, yank on the dog for growling, to name a couple of the red flag responses.
People who are not sure how to respond, but are still interested in a dog who requires they know how to respond, are usually open to suggestions. The others folks often less so. I recently turned down an application for a dog in my care. Instead of beating around the bush and figuring out a way to let them down gently (and not in a completely forthright way) I decided to lay my cards on the table-I am not comfortable adopting a dog to anyone who chooses to use training techniques employed by Cesar Millan, as this person had mentioned they would do in their application. For force/coercion-free trainers this will seem like a no-brainer, but for others, the routine use of punishment to change behavior does not have the same implications. For me those implications include an underlying misunderstanding of dogs and why they behave the way they do. This lack of knowledge becomes more important the more challenging a dog’s behavior is likely to be, as is the case with fearful dogs.
But there are some things that no matter how nicely you try to say them, are going to be upsetting. “It’s me, not you, but I don’t love you anymore and I’m leaving,” is one example. “I’m sorry but I will not adopt a dog to anyone who uses CM training techniques,” is another. Nonetheless I do try to say things nicely. I learn as much by the response I get as I do from the original answers. It’s one thing to think that something is true and hang on to it so tenaciously that blood starts to ooze from your fingernails scraping the skin, and it’s another to be able to loosen your grip and reach out and consider something new and potentially exciting, eye opening and effective.
You can always go back to your sinking ship when it comes to training dogs, but be sure you have tested the waters of force-free training before you do.