The Road to Success is not Paved with Intolerance

Our basic obedience class is called C.H.A.R.M. School™. It stands for changing habits and reinforcing manners. The first week we have everyone leave their dogs home for orientation. It’s an hours worth of positive reinforcement theory and method and a dish best digested free of dog distractions.

I’ve been co-teaching and assisting in classes but my first C.H.A.R.M™ class starts next week so to get some practice I covered the orientation two weeks ago. It was my first one and I could never have predicted how it went.

Anyone who knows me knows talking about dogs and clicker training for an hour is not hard for me. For that matter talking about it 24 hours a day wouldn’t be a problem, but when you are the instructor and have 6 students staring at you it all seems different. The night before I kept dreaming that I went 15 minutes over time and then realized I never gave them the clicker or told them how to use it. I never told them to clicker charge their dogs before the next class and as they were all headed out the door I was trying to shove clickers into their hands and cram the info down their throats. It was all very reminiscent of those dreams I’ve heard about, but never had, where you’re naked or lost on the first day of school.

Well I didn’t go overtime, but it did end up being exciting. After everyone filled out their enrollment forms where it explains we don’t allow any prong, shock or choke collars, I asked each person to introduce themselves and tell us something they love about their dog. Most people say their dog is smart, a good snuggler or something of the sort. Then we talk a bit about their dogs’ story and challenges.

This is where it got a bit sticky. The second man was a big guy, the sort of tough looking guy where you know his personality is going to follow his looks or he’s going to end up being a big teddy bear inside. I’ve decided not reveal the breed of his dog or their names to protect privacy. His dog was a bully breed and though I dislike stereotypes I must say he had the look of a guy stereotyped to have a bully breed.

He introduced himself then said, “Am I to understand you won’t let me use my pinch collar here? ‘Cause I’ve trained bully’s for 15 years and they can’t be trained without a pinch.”

Can you see my deer in the headlights look? As if I wasn’t nervous enough! So my head trainer explained that we don’t allow metal collars of any kind, but we’ll be happy to fit his dog in a no-pull harness.

That didn’t go over too well. He said, “You can’t train a bully without a pinch and If I can’t use my pinch here I’m in the wrong place and I want a refund.” Everyone else started nervously squirming. It was very uncomfortable.

So my head trainer tried again by explaining we just graduated one of his bully breed last week and he did great with positive reinforcement training. It was a no go.

He said again, “Well if I can’t use my pinch I’m in the wrong place and I need a refund.”

At that point she shot me a look like, “You got any better ideas?”

I din’t really have anything better than what she’d already said so I just told him I couldn’t give him a refund right then, but he was welcome to call the next day and talk to one of our owners. Yup, when in doubt cop it off and the boss, that’s my theory. I just told him, “You’re already here and if you want to stay and listen tonight you’re welcome to see what we’re all about.” I was sure we’d be giving him the refund the next day.

Lately there has been a lot of talk on various blogs and FB about not blasting traditional trainers for being dog abusers, that it’s better to kill them with kindness than with slander and negativity. Trust me it would have been easy to tell this guy, You’re right you are in the wrong place, give him his money back and not hassle with him. I don’t know how he’d even slipped by our initial screening process and didn’t know he couldn’t use a prong collar. But at that point I could easily have sent him on his way just so I didn’t have to deal with the hassle. That’s not my way. I agree that labeling all traditional trainers as abusive helps no one, not them as trainers and certainly not their dogs. I wanted to reach this man. I wanted him to understand that there are other ways, better ways.

So he stayed and listened. I threw in a few things that I thought would reach him, appeal to him. Still I never thought we’d see him again. Guess what? He decided to come to class and this week he was there! On top of that they are a superstar team! It was so awesome! We gave him front clip no pull harness to try and the next day they bought one. I feel like I made my first real convert. I was thrilled. It’s not the first dog I’ve saved from a choke or prong collar, but it is one that I’ll always feel particularly pleased about.

I guess the 4legged lesson is to save a dog from forceful training methods you have to reach the human first. That applies wether they’re a dog owner or a dog trainer. I’m not preaching tolerance. The bottom line was we is not tolerant of prong collars at our center. We do not allow them in class. However this guy also showed me, once again, not all people who use prong collars are dog hating abusers. This guy loves his dog. He was having a blast working with him in class, one of those quietly proud dad’s that stills looks tough, but with a happy gleam in his eye. It wasn’t intolerant ranting that reached him. It was rational argument and appealing to the fact that he loves his dog and obviously wants the best for him, otherwise why would he be in class? It was the scientific method of positive reinforcement and being reasonable about it.

In orientation after everyone got through telling us about their dogs and what their challenges were my response was, “Obviously we are all here because we love our dogs and obviously we all have things we want to improve on with our dogs. Our goal is to help you do that.”

The next time I have to make a choice wether to blast someone for using forceful methods of training or appeal to their reason I, for one, will remember it’s likely they might not even know a better way. It’s also likely if I condemn them they won’t be back and I won’t have a chance to help them improve their relationships. That’s an opportunity I don’t want to miss. Plus I just like me better when I’m not intolerant.