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 was explicitly taught 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.
The first thing to realize about the quote above is that it 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 that your opponent is closed-minded is an ad hominem attack and an attempt to silence. The writer can say all day long that she’s not there to be confrontational. 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?
OK, the next part is where some might say, “Don’t be so open-minded your brain falls out.” Except that is also ad hominem. It 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.
The thing is, being open-minded doesn’t mean you can’t make judgments. It means being willing to consider all the evidence. Here are some definitions:
Willing to consider different ideas or opinions.
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.
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.
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 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 are trying 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. I think this is because open-mindedness seems relevant to discussion. It is a seductive argument. 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 without bringing in 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 are” 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 who may be on the fence, are always there watching. They will respond to the things we say about positive reinforcement 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 often suffer from compassion 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 you. Those insults that people hurl are wrong. You are not only open-minded: you 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.
My 1970s California Credentials
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
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Others never adopted force methods, and I want to throw in a “Good job!” to them.|