Animal Exuberance

Dog Training Without Dogma

Her royal bunkness, Barley. Queen of my heart.

Her royal bunkness, Barley. Queen of my heart.

Like a (happily growing) crowd of others, I take shelter under the "positive trainer" label. If you asked each of us to define that term, you'd get a wildly varying array of answers, and I think that's a very good thing. Imagine polling a roomful of people on their definitions of "good parent" or "loving spouse." You might hope to hear some significant overlap in their respective definitions, but if they all started parroting each other and delivering recipe-like formulas, you might get seriously creeped out. I would, anyway.

Whenever we're navigating the tangled world of relationships (and animal training is certainly part of that world), I think we're wise to respect their living mystery. If we don't want to invite a smackdown in the cosmic game of whack-a-mole, we've got to acknowledge that none of us will ever fully figure this shit out. And then we've got to keep trying all the same.

So that's part of my definition of being a positive trainer - staying humble and staying awake. If I had to pick a two-word phrase to substitute, I might choose "loving pragmatist." When I enter a training relationship, I try to shed the assumption that my human identity confers some special moral status. (It turns out that even God thinks we're overrated.) I don't believe in dominion as a spiritual concept, only as an evolutionary fact: these days, we're pretty much running the planet (running it right into the ground, unfortunately). We have the misbegotten power to decide what lives or dies, what flourishes or withers.

Thus many of the species that continue to thrive do so because they have evolved or learned to live on our terms - Canis familiaris being one of the most obvious and compelling examples. Dogs have shaped our world in the process of adapting to it, but in almost any relationship between an individual human and dog, the dog will depend more heavily on the human for her well-being than vice-versa. Our responsibility to other animals isn't god-given; it's the product of an inescapable power imbalance. To say that a dog or any other animal "should" act to please me - or to pretend that any training method will bring our desires into perfect harmony - is to dodge the discomfort of our position. To dominate our dogs with brute force is to indulge in a cruel redundancy. Shelter statistics tell the tale: dogs live as we like or they don't live at all. I want them to live - I want them to thrive! - so I'll do what I can to align their needs and desires with those of the people on whom they depend.

When I train, I also try to shed the assumption that my human identity confers some special intellectual status. I like to think I'm pretty smart, but even in the human realm my intelligence has betrayed some major limitations. There are many places you could set me down where I'd be dead inside of a week, and very few where I wouldn't splash around in a panic as I tried to keep my head above water. I'd learn, but how quickly? I know I'd have much less sense than the most pampered dog about whom I could trust to help me swim. However much I learn about dogs, they will never be as transparent to me as I am to them. Thus in my training life, as in so many other arenas, I am bound to get outwitted, and often. I can only learn from those moments if I loosen my attachment to what I think I know.