Dog training is a huge and unregulated industry, and there are many different approaches to teaching dogs to adapt to living in a human-oriented world.1 I'm a fan of force-free positive methods, and even within this area, there isn't one "right way" to work with dogs of different ages and different personalities. Among the methods that have caught my attention is one developed by Billie Groom, which addresses emotions driving behaviors through exercises that harness cognitive skills to change perception. I'm pleased Billie Groom could answer a few questions about what she does.
Why did you develop your approach?
More than three decades ago, I noticed the challenges pet parents and rescuers faced with dogs in the adolescent stage and in addressing behaviors associated with anxiety, aggression, and ones common among adopted dogs, often resulting in surrender, euthanasia, neglect, and abuse. I wanted to learn why the challenges existed and devise a solution. I developed a methodology by working hands-on with hundreds of dogs over six months of age and, years later, learned the formula adhered to the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy.
How does your approach relate to your background and general areas of interest?
Early in my journey, I was employed for a short time at the Metro Toronto Zoo, where I studied under a veterinarian who taught me to recognize emotions that drive behavior, the importance of addressing the reason for the behavior, not the behavior itself, and to allow animals to choose to change their behaviors based on changing their perception.
How does working in an unregulated industry affect your business?
Regulated industries have boards and a systematic process for approving innovative products and methodologies. Because that is not an option, I took the route of scientifically proving my methodology by working virtually and live with over 150 clients per year for more than a decade, keeping records, statistics, and videos. My clients include veterinarians, psychologists, and professionals, as well as industry professionals and pet parents.
All the certification courses teach conditioning methods. About 98 percent of my clients hired one to three certified trainers or a behavioral veterinarian. They are seeking a different method and appreciate my grassroots credentials and extensive experience. I am knowledgeable about conditioning methods; however, my interests are in psychology, cognition, animal welfare, humane education, and canine neuroscience.
What are some of the methods you weave into your approach to training, and what are some of your major messages?
Conditioning methods are designed to teach, encourage, and discourage wanted and unwanted behaviors respectively, using reinforcements, associative techniques, and desensitization. They are commonly effective with puppies and some older dogs but can fall short during the adolescent stage and with adopted dogs.
My approach is designed to acknowledge preconceived thought patterns and emotions driving behaviors. By establishing exercises that harness cognitive skills, we change perception first, which allows dogs to change their self-perceived need to do a behavior.
One method isn't better than the other; they simply have different goals and, therefore, different sets of principles.
Mainstream dog education is now encouraging harnessing cognitive skills, respecting intelligence, recognizing emotions and individual personalities, taking a proactive and holistic approach, focusing on the reason for the behavior, and enabling decision-making. To achieve this goal, the intent of the method must support the mindset they are encouraging. Continuing to rely on conditioning methods is like "trying to fit a square peg into a round hole."
Simply weaning off of reinforcements or providing agency through predetermined options, such as allowing the dog to choose a direction on a walk, which toy to play with, or to lay down or get a treat instead of barking out the window, are approaches that adhere to conditioning methods and canine enrichment. I fully agree with allowing dogs to make decisions and love these suggestions, but these approaches do not change perception and therefore do not align with what I do. It is important for pet parents to realize the difference between the methods and approaches to make educated decisions.
Why is positive, force-free dog training the best way to educate dogs?
Methods and tangible tools that cause emotional or physical pain, although sometimes effective in the moment, cause immediate and long-term negative effects and often lead to surrender or euthanasia. Fortunately, leaders such as yourself have made huge strides in educating trainers and pet parents on the importance of using only positive, force-free methods.
Because the industry is dominated by experts who adhere to positive conditioning methods, it gives a false impression that positive, reinforcement-based methods are the only non-aversive, effective methods. My approach is inherently positive and force-free. There are no reactive reinforcements. The only tangible element relies on is the dog's brain.
The reliance on avoidance, distractions, coping measures, and patience are indicators the system is struggling to meet the needs of adolescent and adopted dogs. Dogs will continue to be surrendered, euthanized, and subjected to harmful methods and tools.
Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the amazing lives of dogs, they will treat them with more respect and dignity?
Inarguably, education and awareness are vital in improving the lives of dogs. As much as there are people who still refuse to recognize dogs as sentient beings, there are many dog lovers who see dogs as intelligent and soulful companions.
When standard methods prove limiting or lead to increased unwanted behavior, as is common with dogs in the adolescent stage, people feel frustrated, defeated, and blame themselves for failing their dog. If they surrender or euthanize their dog, they are often accused of being impatient, disrespectful, inconsistent, and unrealistic in their expectations.
Instead of placing blame, it is essential to provide people with proven solutions. When they see progress, feel a bond with their dog, and are given effective methods, they become inspired, motivated, and patient.
I strongly believe that through collaboration, open minds, and a genuine desire to act in the better interest of dogs, all people can learn to treat dogs with the respect and dignity they deserve.
In conversation with dog trainer Billie Groom.
1) For discussions of dog training being an unregulated industry, see "Dog Training's Dirty Little Secret: Anyone Can Legally Do It" and "Choose a Dog Trainer as Carefully as You Would a Surgeon," and for discussions of various forms of force-free positive dog training, click here.
Science Shows Positive Reward-Based Dog Training Is Best.