This beautiful morning on a hike with my dogs, I passed a couple of women jogging, and this was the snippet of dialog I heard: "She thinks she is going to take my dad to the cleaners. We
hired a really good lawyer, so she can think again."
This was overheard after I had been reading some exchanges in the dog community. Highly competitive dog sports enthusiasts were criticizing the skill level of pet dog trainers and agility trainers. Ring sport (or Mondio) trainers, which I would have to say, are probably indeed the most proficient and elite of dog trainers, have different criteria. This exchange all derived from discussion of a video that was posted by a TV dog trainer, not the one you would naturally conclude. This one likes to wear boots and has a nice accent. Yes, it wasn't the best example of how to teach a dog something. But this is a TV celebrity, trying to convey some principles, not necessarily a dog trainer.
The field is not unlike many, I suppose. A neurosurgeon may think of a general practitioner as less than. But a neurosurgeon is an amazing mechanic, who deals with people when they are asleep. A gp has to deal with a whole person, and needs to have amazing detective skills, people skills. They are as different in their abilities as can be. Comparing top ranked ring sport trainers to pet dog trainers is a little like comparing Lance Armstrong to a fitness bicyclist who is trying to feel good and keep the arteries flowing, or Tiger Woods to a weekend golfer. The amount of time a highly ranked person spends on training their dog in the competition world tends to rule out a great deal of other life activities. The dog one chooses for the competition is not a dog that most regular people actually want to live with. They are not choosing a quiet, reserved Whippet to train. A driven, working dog is very prepared to be a soldier, to work and work, to take constant direction. They are more than ready to cycle 100 miles a day, or to putt 100 different lies on a green, to reach the top of their game. The trainers that work with them are ready to spend every day working, repeating, refining, repeating, driving miles and miles, living and breathing their sport. Very admirable.
Pet dog trainers and instructors have a very different task and a very different skill set than the highly competitive. They have to be creative, have to have patience with people, have to figure out how to help build a happy connection between someone who is only willing to commit to maybe a half hour a day to their dog in their very busy lives. I have trained with a few trainers who are highly ranked, travel nationally and internationally to compete. It doesn't last long, because there can be a tendency to be much kinder to dogs than to people. The focus and perfectionism can be one of the things that takes them to such a proficient level. They are impressive in their dedication, commitment, skill level. But the patience required to help a pet owner who is just trying to get a dog to lie down or not pee in the house is probably not something they would be willing or able to tackle. I have also trained with very competitive trainers who get the top titles, but who don't devote their entire lives to competition. They train the breed they love because they love the breed, they work with people who are learning because they know the people love their dogs. They enjoy people, they have patience with people. They are wonderful to learn from. Thank goodness for all the varied interests and different skill sets.
The divisions will ever be thus, but when it leads to a lack of listening to others, it is not productive. When it leads to one camp being the superior one, it closes the door for better understanding and communication. The "balanced trainers" pull their hair out when the "purely positive" say they use only positive training. I can watch a person with a dog who makes this claim for 10 minutes, and pick out several places where aversives were in place. So honesty and careful word choices are important. I understand the frustration among those that are criticized for using punishment, because they are asking for honest appraisal of the work of those that claim they are using only positive. And when they in turn call trainers "cookie pushers" with derision, it further slams doors. Both camps tend to shut down any chance for exchange, learning from one another. In the end, we all choose what best fits our own style and personality, but listening to others can always add value to our own choices, whether we think it through and discard, or adapt it and use it to benefit our own training. Those who abuse dogs in the name of training are not part of the equation.
Dog training has to be practiced and practiced consistently for one to reach a decent skill level. And it has to be maintained. I would not consider myself a very good dog trainer any longer. I have not maintained it. I have not put the time and effort in. I can still do the big picture stuff that pet people want, and then some, but my focus changed to welfare a number of years ago. I admire those that have excellent timing and are able to slice training to such thin pieces, the ability and interest to pay attention to extreme minutia. It isn't for me, but I sure can learn from it and admire it.
But back to the joggers I overheard this morning.....we are only human, and it comes with a lot of flaws and tendency toward confrontation. We don't seem to be evolving too rapidly away from that tendency, but then again, sometimes growth and new knowledge arises from the differences, and from those that are willing to fight over it. I just know I would hate to be involved in the hiring of the lawyer cited above. I would be much more fond of hiring a mediator, because growth and understanding can result from this as well, and the acrimony can be left out of it. It is one of the reasons I tend to avoid joining the dog profession's organizations. I see a tendency toward so much group think in some of these organizations, limiting growth for oneself, opening the door toward acrimony.