The Lighten Up Mission
Way back when I started working with dogs in the shelter, I despaired of ever being able to do anything much. I spent thousands and thousands on training courses to help the dogs I was working with, racking up qualification after qualification, course after course. What I needed was hope. I also needed tools. I got some of the tools I wanted, but with so little hope and inspiration, it was a frustrating and expensive process.
I wanted to work kindly. That was my primary goal. Despite what unprincipled dog trainers might say, positive reinforcement methods are not the reason dogs end up in the shelter. For over 10,000 dogs, using food and toys has never, ever resulted in their relinquishment. Not once. Nobody has ever brought in an unruly dog and handed the dog over with a clicker and a treat pouch.
Using punishment frequently results in relinquishment. I’ve worked with pre-surrender dogs wearing three different shock collars: one bark-activated, one for an invisible perimeter fence and one for remote “training”. I’ve worked with dogs surrendered in prong collars with muzzles we couldn’t remove. I’ve worked with dogs who’ve arrived with a shock collar and a prong collar. These tools fail dogs and cause problems.
Having studied behaviour at Masters level, I know why. I don’t need 100 years of applied and theoretical science to tell me why. Still, with the absolute weight of results, you’d think we’d have learned our lesson. Sadly, it seems like we’ve got a long way to go.
Working kindly was both an ethical and a technical pre-requisite.
Yet as I studied, every time I said I worked in a shelter or I went on a course, the lack of efficacy and reliability of outcomes left me frustrated and despairing. I saw woolly and inaccurate theory, a massive lack of consistency, huge conceptual misunderstandings. When I started working with shelter behaviour, I used to think that it didn’t matter. As long as you were working kindly, you were golden.
I don’t believe that any more.
I can’t accept glacial results. I just can’t.
I can’t look at a dog and think to myself that what I’m about to suggest to their guardian might take months or years, and that it might not work at all.
I can’t recommend techniques I picked up on those $$$$ courses when I absolutely know how hard they are to implement properly. I live with two emotional dogs. Heston has big, shouty emotions. Lidy has impulsive, wild emotions. I’m also a dog trainer and a certified behaviour consultant. I know how hard things are to implement because I live and breathe dog behaviour from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. Honestly, I detest the fact that I had to spend thousands on my own education so that I could end up with a very expensive toolkit where most of the tools wouldn’t work. I detest the fact that I still see trainers who promise kindness and efficacy touting training that is dangerous and ineffective.
Our shelter dogs relied on us to help them navigate the world. My clients in private practice relied on me to share methods that were reliable. I felt the weight of that responsibility in ways that I’m sure those people marketing fancy training for thousands of dollars hadn’t really considered. Or, they’d tell me it wasn’t for dogs in the shelter, that it couldn’t be done. It simply wasn’t acceptable to see dog trainers telling clients that it’d take months or years to resolve their dogs’ behaviour when dogs have such short lives with us. I couldn’t live with that.
At the same time, I found the human prerequisites to be increasingly cumbersome and restrictive. If you hadn’t a post-grad in behaviour science, ethology, canine behaviour, neuroscience and several years of application in the field, you hadn’t a hope of being able to do anything much. It had become byzantine in its complexity: unintelligible, incomprehensible and unachievable. How could we mere mortals possibly meet the standards required to change how our dogs felt about the world?
In many ways, I saw these two problems as two sides of the same coin. If you weren’t seeing results, it was because you weren’t good enough as a trainer.
It was also always so earnest and sober.
Going back to the textbooks, I realised that a lot of what is commonly understood in the dog training community is actually misunderstood. That’s why it’s not working. We’ve not really been doing it right.
Guess what? Simplifying things and going back to the science made all the difference. Lots of trainers say they’re science-based, and they aren’t, not really. I can’t stomach the perpetuation of myths and half-baked science any longer.
We were also seeing only half of the picture. Working with the negative emotions, we never once thought to bolster the positive. I see emotions like muscles: the more you exercise them, the more they get a workout. What I saw were people permanently stuck in Upper Body workouts. If you’re a gym bod, you’ll understand what I mean by that… you know the people who have giant arms and puny legs. I also saw trainers engaging in practice that, at best, wasn’t helping, and, at worse, was making things worse. It was also joyless, staid and flabby.
I can’t accept this anymore.
It cheats guardians. Above all, it cheats dogs. It steals them of peace of mind and opens them up to chronic exposure to unpleasant experiences in the name of modification. Helping is never benign. It is never neutral. It is always for better or worse.
For that reason, I put what I was doing under the microscope. That meant putting my own knowledge and skills to the test. It also meant admitting I didn’t understand things. It also meant admitting that the dog training world that I had spent so much on had failed me. It failed to teach me important stuff and it also perpetuated unhelpful myths and half-understood methodology.
This is why I decided to launch Lighten Up Dog Training. Over the coming months and years, I’ll be sharing thousands of pounds worth of content for you. Much of it will be free. Most of it will be incredibly cheap. All of it will be absolutely rooted in the foundations of knowledge and in substantive learning. It’s aimed at dog trainers, because you’re the ones who can take this out in to the world and make it meaningful for your clients. Sometimes, that’s going to mean that I’ll be asking you to question your own understanding and skills, just as I did. From that, though, we’ll arise. Out of the murky, muddy fog of convoluted and quasi-incomprehensible ‘wisdoms’, we’ll find the bright and shiny scalpel that will help us become even more effective, even more efficient, while remaining forever ethical.
One more thing: it may also be fun. Hold on to your hats, ladies, dogs and gentlemen, because it’s going to blow your mind! Like the page, share the post and watch this space!
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