Being Tough

One of the toughest dogs I know
One of the toughest dogs I know

I think one of the most interesting criticisms of force free training by trainers who use aversives is that we aren’t “tough enough” with our dogs.

What does “being tough” actually mean here and why should it be so laudable? I think it’s fair to say that folks touting toughness are touting punishment. Leash pops, shock collars, and a mindset that says the dog must be shown who’s boss.

Does “being tough” take special skill or practice?

Except in rare cases where a rather small person has a very large dog, we are generally a lot bigger than our dogs. We have a lot more tools at our disposal. We have the ability to control their environment, feed them or not, contain them, and make all their life decisions for them.

Yet it’s thought to be important to get tough or dominant with one’s dog whether you have a Chihuahua or an Akita; whether the dog is aggressive to humans or you are just trying to teach her to sit.

Folks promoting this approach often have a jeering attitude to trainers who choose less aversive methods. We’ve all heard it; I need not repeat it here. It seems to me they are claiming some sort of superior, moral high ground. They are the “real” dog trainers. And we clicker trainers, force free trainers, humane hierarchy trainers, least-invasive-minimally-aversive trainers, behavior analysis folks, and trainers who just want learning to be fun for both parties, whatever we call ourselves: we live in some sort of lala land and get walked all over by our dogs.

I’ve got news.

Being tough with a dog is easy.

It is not a skill that is available only to some elite group of wise people. It’s a reflection of our culture and how many of us were raised. It’s a meme that resonates seductively. It’s not some Masonic secret.

I’m not saying it takes no skill to train with punishment. Using any of the quadrants of operant conditioning well takes skill. But that’s not what the meme is about. And when you can squash down behavior in a crude way, you have less motivation to develop those skills.

It’s physically easy for humans to hurt and apply force to dogs. If you aren’t physically big enough, you can go to your local big box pet supply store and buy any number of devices to hurt your dog or grossly curtail her mobility. And because they have evolved as our companions for tens of thousands of years, they generally don’t fight back, and when they do, they often pull their punches. As horrifying as it is to read of maulings and even killings of humans by dogs, it is still exceedingly rare, given their numbers in our society and the mismatch between human and dog body language and communication. They are amazingly tolerant of the things we do.

More important, in addition to the physical ease, most of us have been psychologically groomed to punish as well. Punishing comes pretty naturally to us, I’m afraid. Our approach to many problems, not just with dogs, tends to be: how do I stop this? We notice what is wrong. We notice what we don’t like. Then we try to stop it. Here’s a post about fighting that tendency.

The corollary is that training a dog in a minimally aversive way takes thought, planning, and understanding. For many people it requires overcoming what feel like instinctual responses. Manipulating the environment and being mindful of our own responses can be hard work at first. Leaving the punishment mindset behind requires an epiphany of sorts. It requires a different way of thinking.

The Science of Dogs wrote a great post about Cesar Milan called “My Way is Not The Only Way.” This writer really put it better than I have here. Even Cesar acknowledges that there are other ways than his to train dogs. The writer asks, with very persuasive examples, why then, if there are alternatives, he chooses to hurt dogs.

I’m preaching to the choir, I know. I try not to write pointless rants or whines or be unnecessarily divisive. But I do have a final point here, thanks to a great friend and training buddy, who helped me with this post when it was all over the place. She said it so well I’m going to quote her:

In the end, positive trainers are MORE accountable for their training skills. Punishment based trainers get to blame the dog (he’s dominant, giving you the paw, blowing you off).  With punishment training you don’t have to accept responsibility for the dog’s behavior or work to improve your observation and timing skills. Just blame the dog.

In other words, people seeking to use the least aversive methods with their dogs are tough after all. We are tough on ourselves.

28 thoughts on “Being Tough

  1. Exactly!

    My mother always warns me that my nephews are “a handful” before I take them out for the day. They’re a handful for their mom and dad (my sister and BiL), and their grandparents (my parents), so she expects them to be the same for me.

    Not at all. Everyone else says “no”, or “don’t”, shouts, and smacks. Not I. I explain, I ask, we talk, reason, and bargain. My nephews are a pleasure to look after, as long as it’s me doing the looking after.

  2. Well said! For me, choosing to have a dog was to add more pleasure, affection and enjoyment to my life … so why would I want to counter that with a lot of negativity? Yes, it can be hard to plan and train positively, but I am also glad to learn how to counter my own negative reactions with positive behaviors. It’s a growth process for both of us.

  3. “The corollary is that training a dog in a minimally aversive way takes thought, planning, and understanding. For many people it requires overcoming what feel like instinctual responses.”

    BINGO! (although, I would change responsse to reactions in the above quote because I think isis more accurate)

    Positive trainers are those who are compassionate and intelligent. We need to stop and put ourselves in our dogs paws and think things through, this calls upon reflection and planning. PLUS, we live in a society that is control driven and wants everything NOW with minimal effort, and many are narssistic in that they think they should recieve unquestioning devotion and obedience for free.

    Aversive trainers tend to react, positive trainers think it is better to respond. Sad to say, but I have seen a prong collar on a Yorkie! I didn’t even know they made the that small.

    Learning shouldn’t hurt!

    1. Thanks so much, Marjorie. It really did take an epiphany for me. Not that we shouldn’t hurt dogs; that was always there, but in realizing how learning worked and cutting through what Susan Friedman calls the “cultural fog” about behavior and learning. Before that, even though I didn’t want to hurt my dogs, I accepted the methods that were presented to me at the time as “the only way that worked.” So sad about that forever after. Thanks for your astute and caring remarks, as usual.

      1. Eileen, I grew up with undetected learning disabilites and had many well meaning teachers try and squish my square peg into their round hole. I always thought I was the problem until I came across another square peg who was a very unconventional Vet at the time. I hung out and helped her at the barn and the clinic and she taught me more about animals than anybody. I was deep into horses at the time (almost 40 yrs ago), and she taught me that you “don’t break a horse you make a horse.” This applied to all creatures. She had a very different way of looking at the world (and she paid for that), but I have never found anyone who respected and understood animals more. I think our society and school system really needs to have a major shift in thinking about how we learn and inteact with others.

        1. Sounds like finding the one person who understood made the whole difference in your life. Thanks for sharing that. I have some square peg experience too, and was lucky enough to have some advocates along the way.

  4. One of the points I often end up making is that force-free, or clicker training, or LIMA, or whatever, requires us to be more proactive- if we’re reacting, something is amiss and needs to be reevaluated, rather than reactively applying an aversive. And yes, I do think we tend to end up being more responsible, which is only just and right.

  5. I see training, on a positive note, not trying to force a dog to do anything; but to interact with another species, and each being learning the language of the other, which results in a better life for both beings. This is called simply being connected with another; and enjoying great benefits, beyond our imaginations.
    Animals are remarkable, and punishment surely will not open their minds to ours.
    Yes, punishment does work, but so does dictatorship; but that is not what I would choose.
    Thank you for this insiteful article.

    1. Thanks so much for this, Helen. People who haven’t done this kind of training I think have no clue how exciting that communication and connection can be.

  6. hi eileen,
    i’ve been looking through your blog for a while now and i’d like to thank you for sharing so much insight and personal experiences in such an honest and open way.

    i particularly enjoy this post and agree with everything in it on a theoretical/rational level. putting lima into action is much harder though, especially considering i am unable to have a clean slate with my dog as impatience would get the better of me and i would react negatively to certain behaviors i find irritating. this said, do you think slightly compromised relationships can be mended and become as good as relationships that started out with lima in the first place??

    1. Monica, thank you for the kind remarks and I’m glad you are enjoying the blog.

      I must admit that your question stopped me in my tracks. What a great question. Certainly I think slightly compromised and even very compromised relationship can be mended. Our dogs are amazingly forgiving. But I don’t know about the second part of the question: whether they can become as good as relationships that started out with lima (Least Invasive Minimally Aversive) in the first place. Certainly it depends in part on the dog.

      I was thinking about your question and gazing at Summer, my crossover dog last night. She trusts me actually more than Zani, who I trained very differently from the start. And even though I was the one doing aversive stuff to her (Summer), back in the old days, it feels from my end like a journey we made together. There may actually be a special bond with one’s crossover dog. And I know how incredibly happy she was as my methods changed for the better.

      You may have prompted a whole post from me, Monica. In the meantime, I hope that you can accept that you are human and we humans just do get impatient and irritated. I think I can safely say your dog, like mine, appreciates every step you take in the LIMA direction, clean slate or not.

  7. All the dogs I’ve ever had, all rescue dogs & some more beaten & broken down than others have responded so well to love.
    I’ve always been able to get them to do as I ask for a big hug & lots of love. Some take longer than others to understand what you would like them to do.
    I would never use brute force to further break any of them. As long as their behaviour isn’t dangerous to them or others I’m happy to let them take their time & develop their own personalities. I think anyone who forces a dog to behave in their way will end up with a miserable, brow beaten dog, give me a dog with character & happiness in it’s heart.

  8. These people don’t want dogs. They want machines. I want a happy, confident dog that isn’t afraid to try new things. I want her offering all kinds of behaviours when I’m with her.
    I don’t want my computer to start opening programs at random, though, because I have no relationship with it. Watching it try opening and closing random programs until it found the one I wanted wouldn’t bring me any joy- just relief when it finally got it right and I did what I wanted it to do and nothing else. I imagine this is how a lot of those people feel. Not everybody, but a distinct subset.

Comments are closed.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson All Rights Reserved By accessing this site you agree to the Terms of Service.
Terms of Service: You may view and link to this content. You may share it by posting the URL. Scraping and/or copying and pasting content from this site on other sites or publications without written permission is forbidden.
%d bloggers like this: