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A Story about Politically Positive Training, Censorship, and Sharing Ideas

Updated: Apr 12


Current day note: This was written in late 2019, when I first moved to Portland. I sure wish this article was no longer relevant, but it still is.  


While living in Portland, I met a lot of these trainers. They mostly all also happened to be really into hiking and loved taking their dogs with them. Time after time, I heard about dogs running away and being lost in the woods for days, or running away and being hit by cars - including personal dogs of professional trainers who were anti-e-collar. I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. 


The dog training cancel culture in Portland was so extreme that I was blacklisted for my beliefs even though I had 0 clients that used prong or e-collar the entire 2 years that I lived there. 



I am a dog trainer and lover of the science of behavior who just moved to Portland, OR. I am currently on the hunt to work for a dog training business. I didn’t know a whole lot about the training scene in Portland before coming here, but had some guesses as to how it would be based off of the stereotypes of the people in Portland in general. Liberal, which for some reason does translate to positive-skewed training ideology. Maybe lovey-dovey and idealistic, I thought. And I hoped for behavior modification plans as creative as the population’s hair and fashion. 


I will say that every trainer that I have spoken with so far has been notably bright, enthusiastic, and pleasant to talk to. Every single business owner I spoke with wished me the best of luck and success on my search for the right fit, even if it wasn’t with them. And that was even true still for one phone call that left me feeling sick to my stomach. 


At the beginning of the call, everything sounded great. The owner and company believed in science, empirical evidence, without the narratives and myths that often get in the way of good dog training. The owner even had a background in researching animal behavior. We both shared a love for training with rewards, markers, and the use of good management. She loved that I had just learned about puppy socialization and working dog skills at a Dutch Herder breeding kennel. Yay! Combined with the proximity of the business to my new apartment, the growth of the company, and the emphasis on teamwork and wellbeing of staff, I was ready to scream, “Hire me!” But in retrospect, I was also ignoring red flags. 


I expressed my passion for dog sports and interest in potentially being involved in IPO in the future, with my next puppy. The owner responded enthusiastically. I did ask about tool restrictions, and she told me that they used harnesses, flat collars, martingales, and gentle leaders. I didn’t think much of that, since that is a trending preference in many circles, and I understand the benefit of “branding” your company with those tools, even if plenty of people use a martingale or gentle leader in the exact same way that some people use a prong collar. (I am of the mind that the technique is more relevant than the tool in many situations.) 


Towards the end of the phone call, the owner warned me of one caveat with my involvement in sports. If I were to work for this business, it would be important (imperative) that I would not be featured in a photo or video with another person and their dog if that dog was wearing an e-collar. 


Record scratch Wait, what? 


I could not be seen associating with someone that trained their dogs in a different way than this business owner did.


This, from a person that supposedly had a love of learning. 


And actually, she did not say “e-collar.” She said “shock collar,” which is a wonderful way of making an entire, huge population of dog trainers see red and grow soundproof skin over their ear-holes. Because, Oh-Trainers-who-Love-the-Words-“Science-Based: “shock collar” is inaccurate. E-collar stimulation and shock is not the same thing. If you don’t know what I mean, you can simply feel one for yourself to understand. The most popular models of e-collars have 100 levels, and the nuance of sensation is not accurately encapsulated by the word “shock,” particularly if you are conditioning and using the tool with modern techniques. (And sure, people can use e-collars to do evil things, but people can also use regular collars, their voice, their hands or their feet to do evil things as well.) 


Even if you don’t believe in training with the intentional use of pressure, correction, punishment, or whatever word you want to use – there is no reason to ostracize and cut off an entire, large population of people who still can also train with their heart in a place as right as yours.


If the last sentiment made your eyes glaze over, please stick with me. Remember what I said about human progress. 


At the announcement of this rule, I was shocked and lost my interview-head. So, I blurted out, “Well, I use an e-collar on my own dog. You know, for off-leash hiking.” You know, like I definitely knew at that point that she would NOT know, but I was freaked out, and part of my brain somehow thought I could change a person’s entire world view with a couple of clever sentences. We shared so many values! How could there apparently be this huge schism in what was so seemingly an overlapped ideology? 


The conversation did not last much longer, and the business owner remained as sweet as ever, wishing me nothing but the best. We were not a criteria match on the issue of tools, but in a way, it was much bigger than that. We both believed in focusing on motivation and reward. We believed in management. In preparation after preparation, backed by Plan B, C, D, and E. 


I told her that my dog works at level 4-15 out of one hundred and twenty-seven levels of stimulation strength. The electronic stimulation I use does not scare my dog, does not hurt her. I wouldn’t use it if it did. It is a negative reinforcement training tool, just like many techniques with the pressure of a leash and harness, but I also trained it with food. The sensation predicts a different, older and formal recall cue, which through an Entire World of training, always means she will come back to me for something good.


I like the idea of using this instead of just my voice, because maybe, while we are out hiking, someday we will accidentally run into The Most Tempting Thing My Dog Has Ever Seen. I don’t even know what that would be, which is why I can’t exactly train and proof specifically for that. But she is a dog – a herding dog, no less – and the world is sometimes, randomly, an incredibly exciting place. The example I gave to the business owner on the phone was a random pack of 100 squirrels who cross our path and run to someplace that would be dangerous to my dog for reasons I previously did not realize. Here, to get my dogs’ attention, I could cue her. She is a pretty darn well-trained dog, but there is no such thing as completely foolproof training. If she is having an out-of-body experience like she has never had in her life chasing this pack of squirrels, I can hope to use my voice in a way that startles her (which would probably have to be more along the lines of “HEY!!” than “pu pu puppy”) and hope that that buys me space in her brain to cue her again. If that doesn’t work, I’m out of options. Maybe she is even so far away by now that she can barely hear me, and thus my voice is going to be that much less relevant. 


But, wait. She is wearing an electronic collar. And it was set to level 10 out of 127. There’s a pretty good chance that if I stim her at level 20-25, it will startle her a little – not like a panicking startle, but like a “wait, what?” startle. It is kind of like screaming her recall cue really loudly. And, because I have properly conditioned the physical sensation as a cue to do something very specific, I have a lot better chance of her leaving those Never-Before-Seen-Tempting Suicide Squirrels. 


Is this ideal? NO. Is dog training always an ideal situation, when you’re actually using it in the real world? NO. Is this situation likely? No. Is something like it possible, or could it be even more possible if I had a quirkier dog? YES! Can I sometimes be an incredibly risk-averse person that goes to ridiculous lengths to protect their dog’s health and safety? Yeah. 


At the top of the humane hierarchy is health. I believe the physical and mental health benefits of off-leash freedom are off the charts. Additionally, it is my job to protect my dog’s safety as much as possible. The chances of us doing off-leash hikes and her never getting hurt are probably pretty good. But no recall is 100% reliable, and most trainers and people are going to fall back on some sort of pressure (social, physical, loud noise) in an emergency, if it seems it will help a dog avoid harm. But, sure, if you use this method with poor technique, you can surely mess a dog up. Which I don’t go around advocating for using an e-collar willy-nilly. I also don’t advocate for letting your dog off leash in an unfenced area willy-nilly. I’m risk-averse about what my clients are doing as well. 


Actually, even though this is the role that the e-collar has fallen into in my life with my dog, my primary motivation for using it was that I wanted to understand the tool better. Thousands of people use this tool, and enough of them get successful results in their dogs that I was interested. While I interned at a working dog kennel, I met the people that breed and train working dogs that go overseas and perform what I consider to be some of the most amazing, high-performance tasks of any dogs in the world. They are bomb-proof – literally. Detecting explosives, surveying property out of sight of the handler and controlled by walky talky, apprehending assailants, working for days straight, working overnight, riding in helicopters, all while wearing an e-collar. There’s something to be said for that.  


I saw people using the tool in a way that my heart did not tell me was cruel. I didn’t really need it at the time. I just wanted to learn, and be a better contributor to conversation and a better contributor to the world of behavior at large. That’s my M.O. if you haven’t gotten that yet.

 

I know my dog so well. I knew I wasn’t going to harm her in any way. And I didn’t. And I learned things. And now I find the tool to have a valuable use for me, and I am open to hearing about how it has valuable uses for other people. Maybe in a year, I’ll feel differently. I felt differently one year ago. I’m allowed to evolve and change my mind.


The tendency on either side of the dog training world (“force-free” and “balanced”) is to be alarmingly dismissive to the other, and it’s not productive. While interning with a working dog kennel, I met a handful of successful (famous, in the working world) people that used compulsion in their training programs, and that after receiving (a lot of) harsh criticism online, no longer posted content including corrections. I attended a seminar where the presenter, a friendly person who clearly loved what they did and the dogs they trained, reminded us several times throughout their presentation to not post anything from the seminar online, because they had essentially been cyberbullied for their training methods, which I can say I did not find to be cruel and unusual, even if they are not my preference. This struck me as not only sad, but wrong – dangerous, even. Trainers are shutting down communication with one another and promoting secrecy and distrust. And I don’t think they mean to, but that’s what’s happening. 


I get that it can be hard, because a lot of us care so, so much about what we’re doing. And, for some reason, as dog trainers, a lot of us tend to think that we’re so, so right all the time. (I’m not exempt from this. It’s the Dog Trainer’s Disease.) So many trainers from the far away left, who think that time-outs are evil, or cry “abuse” if a dog yawn in a training video, come from such a place of love. They care about the animals! They want to protect the animals! I also follow pressure-only trainers whose explanations for their methods are thoughtful and wholesome-feeling. We need radicalism to keep our philosophies in check. That concept is mirrored all over human history. 


As corny as it sounds, having an open mind is the main message here. We live with our dogs in a way that we never have before. I think that the world of behavior and learning (for both people and animals) is a little behind. And we’re never going to get ahead if we use up all of our energy shutting people down, censoring and shaming. Most trainers do want what’s best for the dogs and their people, and we’ll all be better if we share our ideas with one another freely.

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1 Comment


Wow... I completely relate to this.


As a dog trainer, in the past I've agonized over what the right (not only techniques) but philosophy is when it comes to training. I don't mean do I go with the "Purely Positive" crowd or the "Balanced Training" crowd...but what personal philosophy and techniques are appropriate...or perhaps even "okay" to use. I don't believe it can be thought of in black and white terms.


I think we're on the same page, I also very much focus on rewards, but do incorporate techniques that could be considered corrections... even audible interrupters (such as the "tscht" or "eh-eh") are technically mild corrections...and I do use them, calibrated to the individual dog (I use only what's…


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