Being Open-Minded About Training

Has anyone ever accused you of being “closed-minded” because you base your training on positive reinforcement?

It’s pretty common. Some people come right out and say it. Others imply it by going on about their own open-mindedness. Here is a typical comment in that vein from a discussion group. The topic was solving a specific behavior problem.

I am not here for confrontation but I am against “one size fits all.” I go with what gets the best results. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and every dog is different. I stick to the techniques that help my dog but I’m open-minded and always open to learn.

This can sound attractive and reasonable, especially if you grew up in California in the 1970s as I did. I grew up in a culture that valued open-mindedness and I learned it as part of a moral code. “Don’t be critical.” “Learn about other people and other ways of doing things.” “Don’t judge.” (See the photo at the bottom of this post for my 1970s credentials.)

I may have added some nuance to that value over the years, especially the “don’t judge” part. I came to believe that being open-minded didn’t mean automatically accepting every thought and idea that came my way.  Because questioning statements and beliefs, especially your own, is open-minded too.

Ad Hominem

The quote above is an ad hominem response. It’s all about the personal qualities of the writer and by implication, those who might argue against her. Even with all that nice language about being open to learning and everyone being entitled to an opinion. Did you notice something? It doesn’t address the behavior problem or a training method to solve it. Whoosh! Now we are talking about who’s open-minded and who’s not.

Implying closed-mindedness is an ad hominem attack and an attempt to silence. The writer can say all day long that she’s not there to confront. I believe she truly may not want an argument–she’s doing her best to squelch one before it starts! The appeal to open-mindedness, when successful, can pre-empt any argument that comes against one. And it can be effective. What do you say to someone who ignores the substance of what you say and dismisses you as closed-minded? I’ll get to that below.

What Is Open-Mindedness Really?

I dislike the saying, “Don’t be so open-minded your brain falls out.” It doesn’t solve the problem. It’s also ad hominem. The saying implies that there are limits to open-mindedness as a virtue, but it doesn’t specify them. It’s just a return insult. We can do better than that.

Being open-minded doesn’t mean you can’t make judgments. It means willingness to consider all the evidence.

Here are some definitions:

Having or showing a mind receptive to new ideas or arguments.


Willing to consider different ideas or opinions.

Oxford Dictionaries:

Willing to consider new ideas; unprejudiced.

None of these implies that open-mindedness means avoiding coming to conclusions about evidence. None precludes judging something to be harmful or unnecessary.

Crossing Over

For many people, it required an extremely open mind to come to understand how positive reinforcement-based training worked and learn to see dog body language.[1]Others never adopted force methods, and I want to throw in a “Good job!” to them.

Meme openmindedness

Being open-minded means being open to learning about cognitive fallacies and cultural programming. Being open-minded means being willing to examine one’s own assumptions. It means being willing to open one’s perceptions to see the fallout and to leave old methods behind. It means living with the cognitive/emotional dissonance that precedes changing one’s beliefs. It means being open to the possibility that something formerly taken for granted is false.

Being open-minded about the possibility that we were wrong about how best to train our dogs is hard and can hurt.

A friend who made some painful realizations when crossing over from training with aversives wrote this:

I think a big part of allowing yourself to believe there might be a better way of doing things is coming to terms with the fact that you aren’t doing things the best way already. I think that’s a stickler for a lot of people. People try to do the best for their dogs, and it’s hard to acknowledge that they might actually be doing the dog harm.

Why This Post?

I’ve got two reasons. First, I want to offer a possible response to being accused of closed-mindedness.

Most of us who spend any time in Internet discussion groups have come to recognize an ad hominem retort. Something like, “Why would I listen to you? Your videos suck!” is an obvious personal attack and irrelevant to a discussion about ideas or methods (even if the videos do suck). A remark like that could also get the writer thrown out of a lot of groups that have a zero-tolerance policy for personal attacks. But a quote like I opened with at the beginning of this post would rarely get flagged as inappropriate. It usually passes under the radar when a writer claims open-mindedness and implies that her opponents in argument lack that quality. Open-mindedness often seems relevant to discussion. It is seductive. We don’t realize that since it’s a character trait, throwing it in it leads attention away from the actual argument.

Here’s a sample response to such an accusation.

  • A: You are closed-minded; there are lots of good methods out there. Every dog is different.
  • B: There certainly are a lot of methods, so let’s talk about them. We can do that better if we don’t get sidetracked into discussing individual character traits.

The idea is to politely turn away from character judgments and return to the original discussion. I would not repeat the term “open-minded” or “closed-minded” back. Leave those behind. Whatever you do, don’t get sucked into an, “I’m more open-minded than you” contest.

I don’t fool myself that Person A is going to get persuaded to open her mind to the things we might want her to. Not from this one discussion. For crossover trainers, our own journeys can tell us that. That kind of change can be terrifically hard. We need to remember how it was for us and have empathy for that. But the argument is not pointless. Remember that the lurkers, the folks in the background on the fence, are always there watching. They will respond to the things we say about positive reinforcement-based training, to our coolness in the face of unfair criticism, and to our patience.

And that brings me to the second reason for this post. Professional trainers who practice positive reinforcement-based methods are beleaguered. I watch it happening to you. You are still a minority in the training world. Time and time again you have to pick up the pieces after a force-based method has hurt a dog. You deal with both dogs and people who are hurting, confused, and sometimes desperate. You suffer from fatigue. And then you get on Facebook for a little R&R and someone is on your feed telling you how closed-minded you are.

This is my shout-out to the trainers who are not only open-minded but are also willing to review the evidence and make decisions. You educate yourselves. You are willing to admit your mistakes. You advocate for the dogs.

Thank you.

My 1970s California Credentials

Offering my credentials as a California child of the 70s, with my dad, Norman, and sister Gail.
Offering my credentials as a California child of the 70s, with my dad, Norman, and sister Gail.

Shout-out to reader Neil Joinson who politely pointed out that the preferred term is “closed-minded” rather than “close-minded.” I have edited the article and graphic accordingly. Thanks, Neil!

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© Eileen Anderson 2016


1 Others never adopted force methods, and I want to throw in a “Good job!” to them.

25 thoughts on “Being Open-Minded About Training

    1. I’ll do what I can about the pics. I bet I have one with my dad in a leisure suit!

  1. The next part of this for me is the philosophical part, where I decided that I won’t use pain and its sneaky brother, compulsion to play the Silly Human Games I want to play with my dogs. So I’ll be open minded about methods in the R+ sphere, but even if I could have “better” results with compulsion, I’m not going there. (This is a comment on dog sports).

    As far as manners training, I am firmly LIMA (Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive) all the way. Life rewards, lots of added R+ and sometimes life’s rules involve some P-, and rarely P+. (My older dog isn’t afraid of P+, but she is very judicious in her application!). Don’t need much in P side if I’m diligent with having a training plan and implement it, though. (She says, hoping good things keep happening with her 14 week terrier puppy!)

    And maybe this is your next post, anyway!

    1. Yes! I do use P- and am generally fine with that (especially after Jean Donaldson’s recent, excellent webinar), but I do note that I almost always end up using it when I have rushed something. Thanks for the comment!

    1. Aww, thanks. I kind of intended them that way and have a whole page of them. I’m never sure how often we can really change someone’s mind, but, like I say in the post, there are lots of people reading in the background!

  2. Eileen, I’m am going to ditto what Karianne says (“I just love you!”and even put several more !!!! behind it. You are a gift to the dog training world. I was just talking to a trainer friend of mine yesterday and commenting on how much you have brought to the table with your blogs and videos. This one is a gem; thank you for touching on a very important topic for those of us trying to offer another way of relating to dogs. I just posted your video of your little feral girl, showing what she learned the first two weeks you had her as a testament to positive training on our shelter page. I can only imagine how much time, effort, and thought go into your work but I hope you will keep it coming. Thank you!

    1. Cathy, thank you so much! You are so very kind to say these things. And I love that you showed someone Clara’s video! I watch that video myself sometimes just because she was so cute and I love her so much.

  3. Thank you for your wonderful articles. I’m one of those who crossed over, I used aversives because I didn’t know better. I thought it was the only way, but I read about other approaches and realized how wrong I was. Now I have happy and educated dogs 🙂

    1. Irene, brava! Isn’t it a great feeling when you realize you don’t have to use aversives? Joy all around.

  4. Eloquently written as always, whenever I share your articles I am at pains to point out that they are not written by me (we share the same first name :)) but I always hope that someone reading them might get confusted and think I wrote them.- wishful thinking…..- is that bad?

  5. Thanks for this excellent article.
    I do wish, however, that people would realise that the correct expression is “closed-minded”. When something is shut, we do not say it is “close”.

    1. I’m so glad you brought this up! I called myself checking, but I guess I didn’t. Merriam-Webster and have “closed-minded” and the Oxford Dictionaries (for both American and British/World English) have “close-minded.” I think I went with the latter (intuitively, as again, I didn’t look it up) because I’m auditory and it’s easier to say. But I’m generally a traditionalist for spellings and usage and may change them all. Thank you VERY MUCH for commenting. This kind of stuff is important to me. Glad you liked the article, too.

    2. I have changed the wording per your comment and acknowledged your suggestion in the post. I changed the wording on the graphic as well, but the older versions may hang around; I’m not sure how WordPress will handle that. Thanks again.

  6. Excellent post! All of your posts are good, but this one will help me tremendously when consulting with cclients (all of whom have tried aversion techniques without success). Thank you!

  7. Thank you so much for writing this. It happens to me all the time IRL, because the only people I have to train with all use force-based techniques, & there are a couple of newbies watching. I get particularly irritated when they claim the moral high ground of being a “balanced” trainer, but have not yet come up with a non-defensive response–so I don’t answer. Yet. As far as the newbies’ perceptions go I also need to deal with the fact that at least one of the other trainers gets better scores than I do–I would love to be able to find a way to demonstrate that that doesn’t prove her methods are better; it only proves that she’s much more skilled in using hers than I am mine (plus she has a larger pool of competition-based info to draw on–not too many R+ OTCHs out there yet, not in the Midwest, anyhow). And she’s a teacher by profession, & communicates well. And I don’t want to start a pie-fight, because i genuinely like her, at least after she takes the damned pinch collar off her dog. At least she doesn’t use a shock collar as some other “balanced” trainers do.
    So it’s frustrating….

    1. I hear you! I think “not answering” is a very good solution sometimes. Just keep on training as you do and sharing it with people as you are able. As I’ve said before, it will be a rare force-based trainer who will change her mind just from a discussion, although we never know when we might plant a seed. But I write about it because there are “other people in the room” who are trying to make sense of all this.

      It’s funny about the OTCHs; I have seen so many talented trainers leave the obedience world after crossing over because they are having so much fun with their dogs and there are so many other venues out there now. The precision of competition obedience is difficult to achieve whatever one’s methods. There are R+ crossover trainers who stay interested in training for that precision; others go on to different training challenges.

      Thank you for setting a good example!

      1. since you are making cultural references, I will add mine. I can’t help drawing a parallel between the process of coming out and discovering fear free dog training methods. During both processes I asked myself why did I have such a strong negative reaction and why did I believe what I believed. In both cases, the answer was quickly apparent that I was parrotting opinions, not science, of others that I had grown up with. When I thought about it without the emotional baggage it was easy to quickly change or open my mind. I definitely still think of myself as open minded since I also grew up in the seventies. But I also know that critical thinking is a really really important part of life that allows us to distinguish between what is true and what is not. The history of science is full of examples of this from Flat Earth to evolution. There are still believers in most concepts that have been clearly disproven. My feeling is that clinging to these beliefs are a type of security blanket for people who find it hard to think critically and openly about how they relate to others and where they find their personal power… a really scare place to go for most. And to take it a little further guess what? To change or open minds, force free or non judgemental education is likely the best method to use. I.e. smart dog training can change the world. OK. Will get off my hippie soap box now.

        1. Love your hippie soap box! Thank you so much for sharing this. This kind of introspection is so helpful to oneself and also to others when shared. Made my day!

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