Dog Training Offers Valuable Lessons in Humane Education

Dog training can have a much broader agenda than most people realize.

Posted Oct 21, 2019

This guest essay was written by Boulder, Colorado force-free certified dog trainer Mary Angilly.

So much more than "sit"

When people hire a dog trainer, they’re often looking for help with teaching their dog to learn or unlearn and discontinue certain behaviors. For dog trainers, it’s so much more than that. They’re on the front lines of helping people understand and bond with their companion animals, working to encourage people to create an environment where their dogs can be successful and content and teaching dogs the skills they need to better fit into human environs.

As a dog trainer who is passionate about advocating for force-free, regulated training methods, I spend a lot of time encouraging people to examine how they train, interact with, and think about their dogs. Might this thought process spillover into how people think about and interact with other species? Let’s take a look at the role qualified, force-free trainers can play in the well-being of all animals.

Myth-busting dogs as a species

Long gone are the days when dogs and other nonhuman animals were considered unfeeling machines. In fact, research concluding that dogs and other nonhuman animals (animals) have rich emotional lives has burgeoned in recent years. As research on dog cognition and emotion continues to develop, so too should our relationship with dogs and how we treat them while they’re in our care.

Unfortunately, many misconceptions about dogs still remain in today’s society. For example, I often hear statements such as, “My dog should always do what I say, because he wants to please me,” “If your dog walks in front of you or gets on the bed, he’s trying to be the alpha,” or “My dog peed on the floor while I was away from home to get back at me.”

Updated research has long debunked dominating dogs and invoking pack theory as ways to explain dog behavior. However, they have yet to disappear from many training manuals, and misleading popular press, including television, continue to perpetuate these myths. (See “Critics Challenge ‘Dog Whisperer’ Methods” and “Malignant Behavior: The Cesar Millan Effect.”) 

Dog guardians are continually being told to “be the alpha” and “show the dog who’s in charge,” practices that often lead to an adversarial relationship based on fear and discomfort. (See the "Dominance Position Statement" from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and "Dominance and Dog Training" from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.)

Teaching dogs how to fit into the human world

Jumping. Chewing. Digging. Sniffing. Many behaviors that frustrate people the most about dogs are simply normal, dog-appropriate behaviors that aren’t considered acceptable in human society. Dog trainers maintain a delicate balance by encouraging guardians to give their dogs opportunities to act like dogs (in legal ways) and by helping dogs acquire skills that are admissible among humans.

The paradox is not lost on many trainers. While teaching dogs to live successfully in human-centered environments is one of the most important things they can do for the dog's and their guardian's well-being, it’s still a form of controlling natural behaviors, and sometimes limits both choice and agency.

When we provide dogs with the ability to exhibit natural behaviors and teach them a repertoire of desired behaviors, we can give them the opportunity to respond to human requests and, therefore, gain more access to the outside world and desired activities.

Don’t be afraid to give your dog some of their favorite foods just because you want to, rather than only when they do something you want them to do. Tell them they're a "good dog" when you're simply hanging out with them and enjoying their company. And it’s OK to let your dog hump their favorite playmate, as long as everyone is having fun and agrees it’s OK.

When our dogs are elderly, graying, and we’re wishing we had more time with them, we won’t regret giving them that extra treat, letting them sniff that pee-covered tree (or another dog’s behind), or allowing them up on the couch or bed with us. 

If people can learn to understand their dogs better and have empathy for their companions as a species, is it such a far leap to have empathy for other species? When you consider who dogs are and why they matter, the same feelings can be offered to individuals of other species. They matter because they're alive, have intrinsic value, and are feeling beings. 

Viewing dog training as humane education can help bridge the empathy gap

If time can be spent helping people appreciate dogs as living, feeling beings, perhaps dogs can be ambassadors—a gateway species—who provide a glimpse into the animal world as a whole and help us give thought not just to how we treat dogs, but also to how we treat other animals and one another.

Somewhere, people draw a line separating one animal from another, making decisions on which individuals are treated kindly, who should be given the most “consideration,” and which individuals are permitted to be subjected to highly compromised and often miserable lives. Even among our beloved companion dogs, some are forced to endure very harsh treatment, including aversive training techniques. (See “Should Dogs Be Shocked, Choked, or Pronged?”). Nevertheless, dogs are widely accessible and can readily provide us with a glimpse into the minds and hearts of other animals.

While many or most people may never observe the inside of a factory farm or actually see a poacher killing an elephant, dogs are everywhere, and dog trainers can play a positive role in the moral dilemma of who we “value.” They, along with people who live with dogs or who enjoy their company, have the opportunity to help people empathize with dogs, cross the empathy gap, and extend that empathy to other animals.

Think: Would you do it to your dog? If not, why would you do it to another living being?

As Don LePan writes in the Afterword of Animals: 

"Those who posit a clear dividing line between human and nonhuman have often suggested the one uniquely human quality is... the power to imagine ourselves in the place of another being and to modify or change our own actions in light of that imaginative experience. Whether or not such a quality is indeed the unique preserve of humans, I don't know. However, if we fail to right wrongs when we realize the effects our actions are having on others, then we are helping to sustain a system founded on almost limitless human cruelty."

If we continue to share our world with domesticated dogs and a myriad of other nonhuman animals, it is our responsibility to compassionately help them adjust to our world. This is often easier said than done, but one excellent place to begin is with our dogs and the various way in which we can easily enhance their lives while they’re in our care. 

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