Golden Rule Dog Training

Proudly serving Toronto, Ontario


One of the words I find myself using most often when dealing with clients is "trust."  The first time I use it is in reference to the trainers and behaviorists that I admire and whose example I try to follow.  I let clients know they can trust people like Karen Pryor, Sophia Yin, and Ian Dunbar.  They can trust them because they are proven experts that have spent their lives working with animals; they have the respect of their peers, they've all done groundbreaking research, and their work can get published in peer reviewed academic journals. 

Who can you trust?
There is a lot of contradictory advice out there on dog training. It can be hard to tell who is and who is not an expert if you aren't one yourself.  You may have to do some research, and even then there are no guarantees you will get it right.  It's also possible for the experts you've identified to be wrong.  Experts make mistakes too, but they are the ones that have done the most serious science, and they have earned our trust with decades of reliable research and a lifetime of hard work.  Fortunately, canine behavioral experts have started to arrive at a consensus in recent years.  The real, trustworthy experts are, for the most part, saying the same things.  They all recognize that dogs learn by association, and by trial and error (also called Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning), they all use reward based training as their #1 tool, and they all reject the dominance theory approach you may have seen popularized on TV.  Expert consensus can still be wrong of course, everyone is fallible and we're constantly learning.  But a decades long scientific consensus is going to be far more trustworthy than anything you see on a reality TV show or find with a quick Google search.  You can trust science. 

Losing Trust
The second time I mention the word trust to clients is when they ask about punishment.  Many people want to know if they should use a leash correction or some other physical punishment to let their dog know something they did was WRONG.  The answer is no, and the reason is trust.  Dogs don't have the same sense of morality that humans do, it is very unlikely that your dog will understand a leash correction or jab in the throat is "for their own good."  You can tell them that, but they have no idea what those words mean.  What the dog knows is you hurt them when they did a particular act.  That may make the dog less likely to engage in that same act in the future, but they will NOT learn the behavior was wrong, they will learn the behavior results in YOU hurting them.  At that moment, they have started trusting you less.  They may continue to suppress the unwanted behavior out of fear, but when the source of fear (you) is not around, the behavior is likely to return.  Even worse, the dog may resort to a more extreme behavior instead; a dog that gets punished for barking at scary things will often decide biting scary things is a safer option. 

Earning Trust
On the other hand, if you give a dog a click and a treat every single time they engage in a particular behavior, they will engage in that behavior more often.  Think of the click as a promise that a well earned reward will immediately follow.  If you keep that promise every single time, you will have earned your dog's trust.
I think we all tend to spend a little too much time doubting the trustworthiness of others; our dogs, other people's dogs, other dog owners, trainers, etc.  I'm not suggesting you start trusting everyone, all the time, that would be disastrous.  No one wants to get taken in by a scam, no one wants to get burned.  But there are a lot of people out there doing hard science and dedicating their lives to advancing our knowledge and understanding of dogs, and that kind of work deserves our trust.
After we have identified legitimate, trustworthy experts, we don't need to spend a lot of time pointing out who is not trustworthy, and we probably shouldn't.  Sometimes non-experts actually benefit from having their errors proven wrong because it gives them extra attention.  People also often get defensive when their errors are pointed out, and their views can become hardened.  Instead, we should concentrate on making ourselves more trustworthy.  I am reminded of a famous biblical quote: "Why do you notice the splinter in your neighbor's eye, and not the beam in your own eye?  Remove the beam from your own eye first, then you will be able to see more clearly and remove the splinter from your neighbor's eye."  Instead of attacking other people for their trust issues, we should all work a little harder at fostering trust in ourselves and those around us.
 You can earn your dog's love and trust by refusing to engage in behaviors that might shatter that trust, like using fearful or painful tools on your dog as discipline and learn about reward based training instead.  You can earn the trust of your neighbors by teaching your dog polite greetings and calm behaviors.  You can earn the trust of your fellow dog owners by refusing to judge them if you see them struggle.  Finally, you can compliment trustworthy behavior whenever you  see it.  If there is one thing that positive reinforcement training has taught me it's this: Recognizing and rewarding good, trustworthy behavior produces more good trustworthy behavior in others and in yourself. 

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