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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Rainbows & Butterflies & Puppies, Oh My!


Fragile! Handle with (Extreme?!) Care!

Having been a professional in the field of dog training since 2006 (and with shelter dogs since 2000), I have seen my fair share of trends come and go. It's really great when fun new stuff comes out, like shaping by successive approximation, Control Unleashed, Nosework and Barn Hunt to name a few. 

One recent and very popular trend is the idea of "consent" with dogs and other animals tended to by humans. The example that stands out in my mind from Clicker Expo 2016 in Portland is that of a horse voluntarily submitting his hoof to be picked. When he wanted (an understandable) break from standing on three legs, he signaled his groomer and was allowed to place his foot down and rest. Then he would reengage with the process by performing a "start button" behavior, such as nudging the handler, to indicate he was ready for his foot to be picked up again. 

As a former equestrian and lover of all animals, I thought it was fantastic! Horses might fight hoof cleaning not because they are inherently ornery or intolerant, but perhaps because it was uncomfortable to be a tripod for as long as picking four hooves takes. The creation of a communication system between groomer and horse on this matter blew my mind! There were other great examples at different seminars and workshops I attended at that conference and I came home inspired. 

This type of training is now being promoted in the pet dog field through "cooperative care" type classes for dogs and their owners. Basic medical procedures are covered and dogs learn to "opt in" to the procedures they are given.

This attitude is also spreading to the field of dog training as a whole. In some cases, it is being argued that all dogs should have choices in all areas of their lives and that "opting in" and/or "start button" behaviors must be used for all interactions, including training sessions. In addition, there seems to be a growing movement for dogs to feel absolutely no stress, frustration or other negative emotions whatsoever in their interactions with humans and other dogs, especially as part of the learning process. 

As a self-proclaimed "positive trainer," I am 100% committed to using effective force-free, fear -free behavior modification methods with dogs whenever possible (which is pretty much all the time). However, to adhere to a standard of no stress PERIOD is something that I struggle with. As we humans know all too well, stress is an often unpleasant yet necessary part of life. We simply can't avoid all of it, all of the time. And if we do somehow grow up and live in a stress-free environment, what coping mechanisms have we learned if that environment were to change? 

I worry that positive dog training is becoming so hands off and careful that we are creating fragile dogs ("dogs in a bubble," if you will) who have not learned to be resilient if and when something moderately stressful occurs in their lives.

I am all for consent. I am all for human/animal harmony and two-way communication. Heck, I don't even eat animals! But I am wary of this new trend toward all things rainbows and butterflies in regard to training dogs, especially young puppies. 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts! 

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