Ideologies Versus Principles

Ideology knows the answer before the question has been asked.

Principles are something different: a set of values that have to be adapted to circumstances but not compromised away.
— George Packer
Bucky and Moose, considering each other’s viewpoint.

Bucky and Moose, considering each other’s viewpoint.

I don’t envy the average pet owner looking for help with their dog. The sea of options and opinions floating about the internet, social media, from your neighbors and at the water cooler are overwhelming. One could easily drown in confusion, trying to sift through the infinite deluge of advice.

“Next time rub his nose in it.”
”He just needs to be socialized. Throw him in with the big dogs at the dog park so he can figure it out.”
”Stop feeding him treats; he should do it because you are his master/alpha/pack leader/etc.”

There are many slick websites out there, guaranteeing what they can do with your dog in two weeks for the low, low price of $2995. Or, a pack of group lessons that will cure all your dogs’ ills over six hours and for a hundred bucks. How do you know what is best for your dog, and your family?

Ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. Most trainers have a “code” upon which they guide their daily training processes and decisions. An adept and experienced trainer will be willing to not only answer your questions, but have open-ended discussions about how and why common methods work, even if those methods are not regularly recruited from the trainer’s arsenal.

If a trainer tells you that their way is the ONLY way, run. If a trainer tells you that their method ALWAYS works, the first time, every time, run. If a trainer says or shows you a one size fits all method, run.

If your personal ethics do not seem to align with the trainer’s, don’t question yourself or bend your own rules. Thank them for their time and keep looking. You have to do what feels good to you, not doubt your gut feeling in the name of someone else being an “expert”.

Beyond what we know to be immutable; i.e., we all need air to breathe and sustenance to survive, there are no absolutes when dealing with dogs. Dogs, just like humans are all 100% unique in their genetic makeup and upbringing. Yes, there are trends, between breeds, environments and training styles. And yes, we can typically predict what behavioral outcomes will be when applying the laws of learning theory. But not always. Any dog trainer or behavior consultant worth their salt knows that there are always exceptions to the rule.

Principles are rule sets and structures that we can work within. Learning theory is a set of principles on how ALL beings learn. Learning theory has been proven by science, again and again. We know, via a multitude of studies that positive reinforcement training works. But, positive training” should not be an ideology or dogma. Learning theory includes other options and how to interact with our dogs, and it is up to us to decide, from a personal, ethical perspective, what sits best with us.

Beware of the extremists from any camp or those that feel as if they are selling you a magic pill. Treat your dog as you would your close friends and family members. Be fair, be honest, be good to them. The rest will sort itself out.