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.