Today I want to talk about something that all trainers are familiar with, but few dog owners are. There is a rift in the training community, and I’d like to address it in terms of strategy for both dog trainers and for our clients to help everyone be better. The rift exists between advocates for different training styles and it’s important for knowledgeable trainers to know how to address this schism, and for our clients to know how to navigate it.
Between the 1940s through the 1960s, the concept of the Alpha Wolf was born. It was largely popularized by Dr. Mech in his book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” first published in 1970. He has since pleaded with his publishers to pull the book from print. Today the concept is frequently referred to by those in the know as the alpha myth.
The problem with this myth is that it influenced a large faction of the dog training community. Clients frequently erroneously talk about dominance, television celebrity trainers base their methods on these myths, many “professional” trainers follow suit, and the myth perpetuates. Because results are sometimes seen, the myth is reinforced in the minds of those who have obtained those results on it. When counter-evidence is presented, confirmation bias and the backfire effect tend to prevent the minds of those already convinced from changing. We’ve all been involved in ideological arguments where facts seem to hold no sway. Dog training is no different.
If the alpha concept is a myth, why does it work? The basic principles of operant conditioning still apply, and if you break down “dominance” strategies of dog training it becomes apparent what’s going on. Punishment is used heavily. Punishment works, or else it wouldn’t have been part of Skinner’s model. But even Skinner made a point of discussing that the subject will seek to avoid the source of punishment. So it isn’t that coercive punishment trainers (sometimes referring to themselves as “traditional” or “balanced” trainers) are scientifically wrong. It’s that they're basing their techniques on incomplete understanding. Punishment works. But it also has a high incidence of consequences that are undesirable. Reinforcement works, too. It doesn’t have that propensity for undesirable consequences. I went over that in more detail a while back.
What to do
If you’re a dog owner, it’s buyer beware. Dog training is an unregulated industry, so ask questions. Ask about certification, I wrote a guide to those. Ask about education; about methods; about experience, but beware. Because there are no regulations, experience can (but not always) translate into experience in doing it wrong for decades. I have had teeth for 30-something years, and no cavities; but a first-year dentist is a better choice than I am for your root canal. The same is true for dog trainers. I also have written a guide to methodology you can use. Personally, my order of importance would be methodology, experience, education, certification.
If you’re a dog trainer, it depends on where you are. If you’ve developed your skills from the traditional methods, open your mind to evidence. Try to argue from an intellectual place, not an ideological one. Honestly, that’s good advice for everyone in any situation. The role of reinforcement trainers is likely the most important in affecting change in our industry.
If there is one thing I would impress upon reinforcement trainers it would be this: the vast majority of people do not want to hurt their dogs. Compulsive trainers do not use their methods in an attempt to be cruel. They use their methods because that’s what they’ve learned, that’s what they’ve seen results from, and that’s what they honestly believe is the best way to do things. Clients use those methods for the same reasons. Our job as reinforcement trainers is not to argue with them, not to condescend or to call them out for gaps in knowledge. Our job is to demonstrate that our methods work and to show why they work better. It’s not enough to say it is so; we must show it. Clients are motivated by seeing results. Other trainers open their minds when we show them that we can do the same things without coercion. To dispel the myth that “you can’t do that with treats,” demonstrate that “yes, we can.” For every example I’ve heard that can’t be taught without shock, I know someone who does teach that very thing without shock. I teach boundary training without invisible fences using treats. I know people who teach hunting recall with rewards; who teach defense training with rewards; who teach SAR with rewards. Most of them have videos on YouTube demonstrating the basics of their techniques.
It’s important that we embrace the science of dog training and combine the science with ethics and animal welfare. Rather than get into ideological debates about why one way of looking at something is wrong, show why yours is the best. If you can’t, learn more about what really is the best. And remember that no matter where you are, there’s always more you can learn. Be the change you want to see in the world.