A Change is Gonna Come...

Reality TV fans will already know that this year on American Idol V, Taylor Hicks began captivating the audience with a 30-second audition, singing, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Love or hate Taylor, this unlikely, gray-haired Idol’s originality is sure to change the music industry for quite some time.

Change can be a good thing for any profession, whether it be singing or dog training. Dog training is continuously evolving. The sometimes harsh training techniques of the past are giving way to increasingly positive methods based in science and learning theory. These changes are good for trainers and, especially, the dogs and humans they teach. I know that I am a better trainer now than I was 20 years ago because of this shift in training philosophies. I also know, however, that I owe somewhat of a debt to the methods of the past.

I am not proud of some of the methods I have employed to “train” dogs over the years. Many of them I would never use again in any situation. On the advice of a still popular training book, I held the head of my poor Sheltie, Katie, under water in a hole she had dug in my back yard. I also dragged her on a choke chain in an effort to “teach” her to walk on a leash. I pinched the ears of my Sheltie, Shadow, in an effort to “teach” her to retrieve a dumbbell in AKC Open obedience, just to earn a ribbon, trophy, and certificate for my office wall.

I never stopped to consider the absolute boredom Katie must have felt waiting in the backyard for me to come home from class. It didn’t occur to me that I was punishing her by dragging her before she had ever had the chance to try to walk on that leash for me. I never thought to show Shadow that retrieving that dumbbell could be a very fun game for us to play together. Obviously, I have thought about those things quite a bit now…

So exactly what debt do I owe to these needlessly harsh training methods? First, I can tell you that any training can be stressful to a dog—and that stressed dogs do not learn. I can tell you from the first ear flick or averted glance when a dog has become too stressed to learn the lesson, or to even accept a cookie. Most importantly, I can tell you how beautifully a dog can smile when it has that “AHA!” moment of understanding.

I have made a conscious decision to never train that way again. I look for the underlying causes of problem behaviors—and realize that they are only a problem for me, not the dog. I am not alone in feeling this way. Many crossover trainers have tremendous guilt over their actions in the past. I refuse to become a prisoner of my guilt. Instead, I do my best to learn valuable lessons from my mistakes.

I urge all trainers, from new graduates to seasoned pros, to be open to the changes in our profession. Take advantage of the pioneering trainers and teachers who write wonderful new books for us, and deliver fantastic seminars for us to learn from: Dr. Ian Dunbar, Dr. Patricia McConnell, Pat Miller, Terry Ryan…the list goes on. Join your professional organizations, such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, which actively sponsor continuing education for all of us, encouraging continued professional growth in our industry. Refuse to consider other trainers to be the competition—network with them, learn from them, whether or not you agree with all they have to say. Ask questions of your mentor trainer— both now as well as 10 years from now. Learning both the old and the new can only make you a better trainer. As Taylor sang, a change is going to come. Embrace it.