The Bunny Years
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The Bunny Years

The Great Man Myth of Dog Training

The Great Man Myth is the idea that great leaders are born, not made, and that progress predominantly happens through a few selected individuals, all great, all men, of course. The Great Man Myth is everywhere, in business, in science, in history, in sports, in tech, everywhere. And in dog training. As a young man, I fell for the Great Man Myth of Dog Training.

My first contact with organised dog training happened on the field of the local dog club in East Germany. Mostly German Shepherd, Rottweiler, Dobermann, and some exotic breeds, like our Boxer. Although at home my mother did all the dog training, there weren’t a lot of women in that club. In my childhood memories, it was a lot of strong men, a lot of shouting, a lot of chain rattling, a lot of barking. It was absolutely fascinating. It was also, from all I know today, animal abuse, but that’s another story.

Later, in my teenage years, I spend lengthy afternoons with my parents at various boxer clubs. There was more diversity, more women, extremely competent women as well, but that didn’t deter me. I still watched mostly the men. I was already infected by the Great Man Myth. I could blame either Einstein or my grandfather, but that’s another story. In any case, I felt strongly that some men had the innate ability to communicate with dogs, and dogs just did whatever they asked them to do. These men were undoubtedly good with dogs, but I had no idea why. They just had something. I just attributed it to a god-given talent: The Great Man Myth of Dog Training. Great Men are not created, they are born. The natural extension of that idea is of course that I am one of these people. Got to. (Just today I heard that idea again, this time with the added wrinkle that it is martial arts training that allows men to do that, which is ugh.)

After I turned 20, I became a devoted fan of Günther Bloch, the final stage of my journey to the Great Man Myth of Dog Training. Bloch talked about dogs in a way that I had never heard before. He took dogs that didn’t listen and suddenly they followed. (With hindsight, that is not surprising at all, it’s almost like a trick. The dog trainer is always more interesting than the owner, for a moment.) Fortunately, dog training had changed dramatically from these early days in East Germany, and I learned a lot of useful skills from Bloch — clicker training, the correct use of food rewards, long line training, and so on. But dominance theory was still everywhere in dog training, and Bloch taught the muzzle grab and the alpha roll, and lots of other ideas he seem to have learned by watching wolf packs in the wild. I loved wolf packs. I fell for it and didn’t harbour any doubts. The idea of dominating a dog and being the alpha linked up very nicely with the Great Man Myth of Dog Training. To some extent it’s the same idea anyway. It’s a good story.

What followed was a twenty year long hiatus from the world of dog training. I had no dogs to train and I didn’t follow the science. As a result, I could afford to coast with the old concepts and ideas. It was easy to continue to believe that I’m an expert. It’s always easier in theory. And that I had the gift. And then Bunny happened and showed me the light.

The truth is that dog training, like every other thing, is a skill that requires a lot of hard work. There may be talent, but mostly it is the desire to work for it. Surprisingly, it has a lot to do with timing, movement, body positioning, and the ability to deliver cues at exactly the right moment. It also has a lot to do with compassion and patience and observation. None if this was ever mentioned anywhere by my childhood dog training heroes. And therefore, I have to admit, I am not listening to the Great Men of Dog Training anymore.

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