Happy with management and love

Dalcash Dvinsky
The Bunny Years
Published in
6 min readFeb 4, 2024

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Now I’m done with dog trainers, and all there is to do is to forget that the last one managed to get attacked by my dog, and also to make all the social media algorithms forget that I once was obsessed with dog trainers. Maybe I need one more post as a clearinghouse, just to help me to forget. So, here is what I learned about dog trainers, without any particular order or structure, as a slightly more serious update on my last attempt to give advice on dog trainers.

To begin with, perhaps an apology: Maybe they don’t have a choice. My current working theory is that dog trainers are so frustrating to deal with because they have to earn a living. In an ideal world, a dog trainer spends hours in one-on-one session with each client, in person, regularly, over months. They do home visits, they go along on walks, they train with the whole family. But this is a business model that only works in a world with lots of very rich clients, say, in Hollywood. In reality, dog trainers have to take shortcuts. They do videos, they become influencers, they build online communities, they do group work, they explain why they are the best, they explain why the others are bad, and, first and foremost, they always apply one and the same method. Maybe this is the only way, perhaps. It would explain a lot. I’m not sure it excuses everything else.

The methodology matters. I figured that there is in fact a clear bimodality among dog trainers, but it’s not between ‘force-free’ and ‘balanced’, as people might want you to believe. On one side, there are people who want the dog to fail, to bring out the worst, as part of their method. They tear the dog down, before they (hopefully) build it up again. And on the other side, we have trainers who, first and foremost, put the dog in a position to succeed, and only increase the difficulty when the dog is ready. On one side are people who put all the pressure to adapt and behave on the dog, and very little on the humans. And on the other side are those who aim for a cooperation. It’s destructive vs constructive dog training. That seems important to me. And to him.

Pay attention to the breeds they mostly work with. Most dog trainers are good with some specific breeds. This doesn’t mean they understand all dogs. Of course they won’t tell you that, and nobody forces them to be open about that. Some may be great with guarding breeds, but don’t know herders. Most dog trainers really don’t have a clue what to do with dogs who transcend the usual master-servant doctrin, like sled dogs. Go to people who understand your dog’s breed.

Pay attention to what they are actually doing. Most will use positive reinforcement in some way, but to what extent? And how? Do they use tools designed to make the dog uncomfortable? Occasionally or all the time? Do they use confinement or food withdrawal? What are they actually doing? Unfortunately this is not always obvious from videos, and they won’t tell you, and sadly, they don’t have to. You have to go there and find out.

Don’t buy the science talk. I distrust any dog trainer who talks constantly about science. I also distrust those who openly shun any scientific finding that may have some relevance on dog training, but that’s just normal ignorance. The ones who use scientific buzzwords, who claim to read every paper, and who talk constantly about the dog’s hormones and genes and brains, those are probably more of a problem. There is just no need for this. Real evidence-based dog training works without the woohoo.

Forget politics. Almost all dog trainers deal with the politics of dog control and ownership and management. Some are very public with it. Some keep it to themselves. Ignore all that. Some good trainers have horrible politics. Sometimes it’s the other way around. And unsurprisingly, because I’m the judge here, many bad trainers have bad political opinions. But that doesn’t even matter.

Distrust simple explanations. The two most common ones are either fear and anxiety on one end of the spectrum or dominance on the other end. Those are really popular. My dog’s situational aggression has been explained as a result of fear on one side and also as a result of dominance on the other. Dogs are more complicated than that, probably. The behaviour of a dog is a combination of Learning history , Environment, Genetics and Self (altogether LEGS, all credit to Kim Brophey). Look for a dog trainer who goes deep, instead of fast.

Beware the reverse anthropomorphism. Of course also beware the anthropomorphism, looking at the dog as if it is human. But the opposite is also problematic, and more difficult to see. When people constantly refer to ‘the animal’, when talking about a dog, when they say you have a ‘predator’ in your house, when they refuse to credit the dog with any kind of human emotion, when they explain behaviour exclusively with genes or instincts, when they talk a lot about wolves and lions and sharks, that’s the sign of reverse anthropomorphism. It’s the other-ing of the dog, drawing a clear line to avoid dealing with their complex inner lives. In the end, we are obviously all animals.

Ignore the control gimmicks. They all have it. The little thing you have to do to establish that you are in control, that you are the leader. Eat first, go first through the door, don’t allow the dog on the sofa, throw your dog to the ground, never allow the dog to be in front of you, the muzzle grip, the knee grip, the neck licking, the Heel command, the Out command, the Downstay, whatever. It’s a long list. It’s interesting that they are so different. So many experts, and they all say THIS is what you need to do to control the dog. Forget all the other stuff. Well. Forget all of this.

Guilt tripping: Sometimes I got the feeling that most of what dog trainers try to do is to convince me that it’s my fault — unless I choose to work with them. Evidently, I am just ‘happy with management and love’, and shy away from the real work. I’m not ready to make the sacrifices. I choose the easy path. I use the wrong tools. I’m not giving my dog the life he is supposed to have. I am cruel and violent with the dog. And only that one dog trainer can solve all these problems. It’s a great marketing strategy. It’s also a great way to make everybody else feel bad.

And still: You can learn from everybody, something, excluding people who blatantly abuse dogs. I learned bits from some of the big names among America’s balanced trainers — Cabral, Beckman, Balabanov, Krohn. I learned from many UK trainers, online and in person. I learned from Malamute experts around the world. I learned from some of the creative pioneers of positive dog training, for example from Emily Larlham and Grisha Stewart. And I learned really a lot from Ian Dunbar. Because the thing is, no matter what, all these people have seen hundreds of dogs, and have helped hundreds of dogs, one way or another. They all have methods that work, in some way, despite all the nonsense and overkill. They just got stuck in a world that makes dog training very difficult. Not that this excuses everything.

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