Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Integrity: a response to Drayton Michaels

Yesterday, I read this blog post by Drayton Michaels:

It contained quite a bit of critique of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) for not taking a tough enough stance on enforcing the use of positive, science-based, humane training methods among its members.  Around paragraph #432 (kidding, but it IS long) I started really thinking about Drayton's message, and what points I agreed and disagreed with.  I too am disheartened when "the trainer down the road" uses heavy-handed methods like choking, alpha rolls, and shock on a dog-reactive dog, and I later see that same dog and owner as a client - and need to deal with the havoc that trainer's methods have made of the situation.  And sometimes it's nice to hear someone forego the sugar-coating and just speak from their heart (and speak, and speak, and  Of course, Drayton's chosen tone will likely only strengthen the resolve of anyone in disagreement. 

So what do I want, from fellow trainers, and from professional organizations?

As I was composing some comments, it dawned on me that a common theme in my collection of thoughts is INTEGRITY.

Our perspectives are shaped by our experiences of course...

While not his main point, the author seems to convey that EVERY dog trainer should have skill and knowledge for EVERY situation, referencing behavior modification, taking detailed behavioral histories, and a long list of things the APDT should require before allowing a person to be a member.
From a dog trainer, what I really want is INTEGRITY.  If a trainer only dispenses advice they are qualified to give, and can identify and refer other problems to qualified trainers or behavior consultants – well, I think that’s not only adequate, but more reasonable to achieve.  If we as a community focused on this one thing, made this one of our core cultural values, if we regarded saying “I am not qualified for this” as a badge of honor rather than meeting it with scorn, and if we developed better and more cooperative networks of trainers in our communities – well not only would we be better off, but our clients and their dogs would be too.  Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant are two different roles; a person can be both, but if we required all dog trainers to be both, we would lose many wonderful dog trainers who have no interest in being everything a dog owner could ever need in one package.  (And, just putting myself in someone else’s shoes -  if it were me, I’d be more likely to refer cases and ask questions if my local expert didn’t call me a “cookie tossing hack.”  Just sayin’.)

From a professional organization I want INTEGRITY.  I have to say this about APDT – I don’t see them professing to be something they are not.  They provide good information to pet owners about choosing a trainer, and they are very clear about what their various levels of membership mean – and do not mean.  They offer information to pet owners about more stringent memberships and certifications conferred by other organizations.  Their position statements are easy to find by both members and dog owners.  They have a good track record of continuously improving their educational offerings and services to members.  It’s not everything, but it’s something, and I think they accomplish the things they claim to do with a reasonable degree of success.

When a trainer describes their methods, first and foremost I want INTEGRITY.  I don’t want to hear about the “static tickle” of a shock collar, but I also don’t want to hear about your “100% Positive” dog training, either – neither of these adequately informs the client about the trainer’s chosen methods, and neither is helping the dog owner truly understand dog training.  Of course, it can be hard to describe your methods honestly, at least in a concise way, since no one agrees what positive is, but we should try to be as accurate as we can.
Which leads me to my last comment:  I think the problem with having an Association of “Positive” Professional Dog Trainers is defining “positive” in a way that enough people agree with, to form a sustainable volume of membership. 
The spectrum of commonly used training methods is quite a rainbow from choking and alpha rolls, to shock, to traditional leash pops, to a spray of water, to scolding, to a mat on the couch that beeps loudly and scares the dog when the dog steps on it, to tucking a dog gently into a sit and time-outs and penalty yards.  Any attempt to divide the vast spectrum of methods into “positive” and “not positive” immediately splits trainers into two camps - Too Little and Too Much - and the trainers are then focused more on their differences than their similarities.  I wonder sometimes if some of the positive training groups that have started, might possibly not be able to get enough traction due to just how far along the spectrum they are.  Uniting less members means an organization has less power to make any impact at all.  It’s hard to tell where the “perfect” balance would be, where the restrictions on methodology would still allow for a large enough supporting membership to make the organization large enough to forward the goals of the professionals in its membership.
Do I wish the ADPT could wave a magic wand, and help the dog training community evolve more quickly?  Sure.  Do I wish there was an alternative nationwide association or professional designation with the same size and offerings that the APDT has, that could accurately capture exactly *my* definition of “positive” and promote my own professional standards?  Sure.  But whenever you unite a large group, there is some element of compromise needed, and the APDT helps me to be better at what I do, which I why I am a member.  To some degree, I think we’ll all have to settle for making our own culture change, with our communities, by volunteering in ways that advance our profession, and with the dog and person in front of us.
Any maybe, just maybe, an APDT webinar on how to use science-based and kind methods to deal with dog-dog reactivity is just what "the trainer down the road," or a potential protege', needs to choose a new path.
Ann Withun, BS, CPDT-KA