Most things get better with time. Take medicine, or technology for example. The more our knowledge improves the better these things get. I can still remember those old, clunky computers that lined the back of the library at my elementary school in the early 80’s. Boy, us kids sure thought those things were great. No one had computers at home then, so we were really impressed by the fuzzy graphics on the screen and the pings and clicks those old things made. I recall how very impressed we were that if you made a mistake all you had to do was just backspace and, BOOM, the mistake was gone. No whiteout required!
If I could get my hands on one of those old Apple computers I am certain that my children would be very unimpressed by the same machine that so impressed me. Why? Because things should and do improve with time! Dog training really should be no different! So why is it?
Why are so many trainers and owners holding on to out-of-date understanding of how our dogs’ brains work? Let’s just take a really simple example: potty training. Who remembers being told you must rub a dogs nose in their own feces in order to teach them not to go in the house? I sure remember that! When I was in third grade my family got a dog for the first time. She was just a small little mutt we adopted from the Humane Society. This would have been around the mid 1980’s. When we adopted her the shelter gave us a little two paragraph sheet on potty training. It said that there was a new way to potty train, and that the best way to do it was to confine the dog in a small space and then take her out every hour. The flyer asked us to make sure we told her ‘Good Dog’ for going outside and said to ignore indoor accidents. WHAT?! that couldn’t be right! We all knew you had to rub a dog’s nose in accidents, right? Well, luckily for our little pup my parents had only grown up with outdoor dogs on a farm and had never potty trained a dog before. They weren’t committed to the old technique of potty training because they had never done it before. They didn’t have the voice of old Uncle So-And-So in their heads telling them this ‘new positive training junk is all hogwash’. So, we trained our new dog the “new way”. It worked! In fact, it worked amazingly well! Within just a few days potty training was well under way in our home! Can you believe that 30 years later people are still rubbing dogs’ noses in potty?
I am a big fan of knowledge. It is a really powerful tool that is there for anyone to use, all we have to do is seek it out! Sometimes I think dog training has gotten stuck in a bubble. I’m not sure why. I suspect ego may be playing a big factor in it. It is hard to admit that maybe there is a better way to do something, especially if you have been a promoter of a different way. But, don’t our dogs deserve improvement every bit as much as our computers or phones? I am not the same trainer I was when I started out. I’m not embarrassed by that. On the contrary, I’m proud of it! I’ve improved over the years! I’ve learned new things and let go of ideas that have been proven wrong. It is time we as trainers and owners stopped getting stuck on pride. Our dogs deserve to have the most up-to-date science and training techniques applied to them. I hope that in 10 years I’ll will be a different trainer than I am today because I want to continue to learn, to reach out and grab a hold of the knowledge that that is ever changing and ever improving.
I would ask trainers and owners out there to take a moment and ask yourselves if your style and techniques have changed over the last 10 years… or 5… or 2. If they aren’t changing, are they really improving? Dogs are not computers. They are living, breathing, feeling creatures. My hope is that we are as excited about new information for working with our dogs, as we are about the latest smartphone to hit the shelves, because our dogs are much more important.
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