By Susan Nilson
The Pet Professional Guild (PPG) Advocacy Panel was launched in August and has already held its first three sessions, where the panel discussed How To Best Advocate for Positive Reinforcement Methods, How to Reach and Work with Your Local Veterinarians, Your PPG Advocacy Panel at Work! Advocating to Let Dogs be Dogs, Cats be Cats, Equids Be Equids, and “Being Nicer” While Advocating (links to all podcasts and videos below).
Panel members to date include Beth Adelman, Kristi Benson, Dr. Laura Donaldson, Dr. Eduardo Fernandez, Dr. Robert Hewings, Aaron Jones, Judy Luther, Linda Michaels, Pat Miller, Helen Phillips, Kim Silver, Dr. Kristina Spaulding, Claire Staines, K. Holden Svirsky, Dr. Zazie Todd, Dr. Karolina Westlund, Monique Williams, Beth Adelman, Laurie Williams and Sam Wike.
Sessions are moderated by Shock-Free Coalition chairman Don Hanson and PPG president Niki Tudge, with discussion topics announced at least four weeks before the scheduled air date.
Advocacy Panel discussions are streamed live on PPG’s public Facebook page and are released afterwards as podcasts on the BARKS Podcasts platform. The sessions are designed to be free flowing, giving each participant the opportunity to answer key questions and supplement other panelists‘ responses. Audience members are encouraged to participate with comments and questions, making it an interactive, educational and enjoyable experience all round.
The Advocacy Panel’s key mission is to support pet guardian education and make it accessible to a wider audience. We present here some of the many highlights from the first session, which discussed How To Best Advocate for Positive Reinforcement Methods amongst clients, pet professionals, social media, and the wider community.
How Do We Advocate for Positive Reinforcement Training?
Niki Tudge: How often do we hear that positive reinforcement training doesn’t work, I’ve been to three trainers and they all failed? That’s not positive reinforcement training not working, that’s the application of positive reinforcement training.
If you truly want to advocate for positive reinforcement training, get a good education because then you know what you are doing, you are doing it properly, and you are getting the results. And once people have got the competency, that is advocacy.
Pat Miller: People care about their dogs. People who use aversive methods care about their dogs. They’re not doing it because they want to be mean to their dogs. The majority of my clients that have been using some sort of aversive method on their dog (because some other trainer told them to), for the most part they’re relieved that, not only do they not have to do that, but to learn that we can be very effective training their dog without doing that.
When you assure people that you don’t have to hurt your dog to train your dog, you can frequently get buy-in fairly quickly with that – especially when people see results.
Dr. Eduardo Fernandez: I understand the purpose of LIMA and the Humane Hierarchy but I see them as being a bit divisive in a certain sense. There are some inherent problems I see with them turning people off, people that may otherwise be interested in rewards-based training methods – because they’re being told that they’re already doing it wrong.
Sam Wike: When we’re having conversations with people, if the first thing we do is put them on the defensive, then it’s kind of like trying to reason with a drunk. It can’t be done.
It’s one thing for us to understand the science behind things but if all we’re doing is using the science and the jargon, no matter who we’re talking to, for 99% of the population, professional or otherwise, they’re all of a sudden going to feel “less than.” I deal with a lot of severe cases and even then, I ask people, ‘What do you like about your dog?’ And we’ll proceed from that.
Pat Miller: It’s really important that we don’t try to tell people that those old-fashioned aversive methods don’t work. Because they do. They come with baggage and not the relationship we want to have with our dog, but if we say they don’t work, we destroy our credibility when we are talking to a client who has used them in the past and used them successfully.
Dr. Laura Donaldson: You’re not going to change someone’s mind with a position statement and I decided a long time ago that life is too short to argue on Facebook.
I work with clients every day and I do not only work with people who agree with me. If you only work with people who agree with you, you’ll have a pretty small client base.
You probably wouldn’t be surprised at how many clients are desperate enough to use shock collars, prong colors, citronella, or whatever on their dog because that’s the only way they tell me they can control the dog. So I’ll ask them why. Basically, I want to know why they feel compelled to use this.
Kim Silver: Often what I hear from people who have done aversive training with other trainers is that they are doing what they’ve been told they should do. I tell them that I’m not going to tell them what they should do, but help them decide what they would like to do next. So it’s always from the client making that decision.
Dr. Zazie Todd: One of the things we know from science communication is that positive messages really work and they can work to change people’s minds. One of the disadvantages of talking about what’s wrong all the time is that you’re not really talking about your own agenda, so you really want to focus on the positive message instead.
K. Holden Svirsky: When we come at this holistically, we have the academic levels, but we also need to have boots on the ground; there should be good representation so that we’re not coming at someone from an ivory tower. It’s been really helpful in my practice finding out what the guardians of the dog can do, today. What’s a very simple activity they can do with their dog, while I’m with them, that creates instant behavior change?
Not that we’re going to overcome fear of strangers or separation anxiety in a single session but, can their dog pick up a piece of food off the ground and do a find it? Can their dog do a hand target? Something very simple in real time where they can enjoy themselves and not feel judged and actively interact with their dog. That’s where I usually start.
Helen Phillips: I don’t argue and I don’t say that what people are doing is wrong. What I do is show, so people can start to see and ask, ‘What method did you use then to get that?’ ‘How come your dog does that better than my dog?’ So if you can do that and just chip away a little bit at a time, then you are making headway.
Pat Miller: Our discussions so far have really focused on one-on-one communication within our own community and I don’t want us to overlook the value of writing. If you’re not up to writing books or articles, perhaps contact your local newspaper and maybe you can get a column where you’re reaching people you would never actually see face-to-face.
Dr. Robert Hewings: The UK police force banned the e-collar (and the spike color or pinch collar) in 1999. That’s how far forward we were. It was banned on the understanding that we engaged in a police order and if we used that equipment, it would be the end of our career. So we didn’t use them and it’s as simple as that.
It’s easy in a uniformed hierarchy to say, ‘Don’t do this,’ ‘Don’t do that.’ But come out into the pet world and we can’t stamp down with that size 10 black boot. So you go into a conversation politely, and you understand the person you’re dealing with, and then you can turn around and walk out. If you go in aggressively, you have to up the ante to win in the end.
Any piece of education you pick up, you must go back to your community and share it, share it compassionately, share it with people who are going to listen and understand. Rather than tell them, ‘You will,’ or ‘You won’t.’ If you’re involved in a positive reinforcement entrenched community, you’ll never break out of it and go and share some ideas with positive punishment entrenched communities.
We’ve got to break up those communities and start talking to each other.
Claire Staines: The first question we ask the client should actually be, ‘What do you want?’
Kristi Benson: In my mind all this comes together, so if you’re a positive reinforcement trainer who, like me, sees things online and sees things on Facebook, and feels the need to argue by spending a lot of time and mental effort arguing on Facebook, I feel there’s an opportunity – and we should all take this opportunity – to do a little self-anthropology and say, maybe this isn’t wise from a human behavior change standpoint.
Maybe I’m not making a difference. Maybe this is actually hard on me.
We all only have so many hours in the day, so if we spend a lot of time arguing, maybe it’s not appropriate, maybe it’s not the best use of our time. And it may not be helping dogs. It may even be hurting dogs. It may be turning people off our community.
So maybe it’s time to do something positive, for example, write a blog. People read. Dog owners are so in love with their dogs and they’re hungry for good information. There’s a lot of ways we can engage with pet owners that is probably going to be more useful and that is going to be more gentle to ourselves.
Don Hanson: It’s not just about educating pet owners, it’s also about educating those other folks that influence them. Every Christmas I give all the vets in my community my favorite book of the year. I’ve gone through a wide variety of different books over the years. I often include shelters too.
Sometimes the book is about training, sometimes it’s about behavior, sometimes it’s about animals having emotions. I explain my rationale in choosing that particular selection, and then I hear back that people passed them on to their staff and that they’re starting to recommend them to other people.
One of the youngest vets in our community told me 25 years ago that animals don’t have emotions, and I went, ‘What?’ But that’s how he was trained and that’s what he learned in school. Giving the books is something I have found works really well.
That same young vet who was so locked into animals not having emotions and dominance theory – after I gave him The Culture Clash (Donaldson, 1996), which was one of the first books I gave away, he called me up and we sat down and had a long conversation. He was basically saying, thank you for helping me learn what I should have learned in vet school.
So that can be incredibly powerful and it’s helped me change minds in a wide variety of subjects, but it involves being willing to have that conversation and also providing people with some really great tools to use.
If You Have Five Minutes with a Client, What Is the Most Important Thing to Get Across?
Kristi Benson: It’s okay and it’s acceptable to let our clients allow their dogs to be dogs. I think a lot of people don’t have that messaging intrinsically. I think they feel they have to have the perfect dog with some sort of control, and they secretly want a dog who’s just joyful and free and loose and doggish, but also think, ‘There’s a dog trainer in the room and she’s going to judge me.’
I just want to make it clear that I’m not going to judge them and I love it that they’re letting their dog be a dog. Let’s do that in a way that’s going to be safe and make you happy.
K. Holden Svirsky: I’m going to find something that the guardian is already doing right and I’m going to reinforce the heck out of it.
Helen Phillips: Relationship and connection. Get them to see the dog for what the dog is and get them to enjoy the dog.
Kim Silver: I focus on building a rapport with the dog and with their person, I think that’s the most critical piece. So with the dog I’m capturing any good behavior I can find and I’m also managing expectations with the client that their dog feels safe, that they feel safe, and that their dog can do no wrong in my presence.
Pat Miller: A good percentage of my practice is with clients who have dogs who have aggressive behaviors, so one of the things I will frequently say is, ‘You do not have an aggressive dog. Your dog is not a whole being described by the label “aggressive.” You have a wonderful dog who has some aggressive behaviors. I know that you care about your dog and I’m going to help you with that.’
Judy Luther: I try to teach people to have fun with their dogs and build that relationship where you have fun. It’s not a big deal if the dog does something the client feels is inappropriate.
One thing I also ask every single pet parent I work with is, ‘Why did you name your dog what you named your dog?’ When you know that, it can be very eye opening. And when we can open our eyes to what people have inside themselves and how they feel about their dogs, we can approach it individually and it tells us a lot.
Don Hanson: It may sound cliche but I ask them, ‘How can I help you?’ Because that’s why they’ve called you. And also, ‘What do you like about your dog, what do you enjoy doing with your dog?’ You’ve got to make that connection with people and so I typically go there before I start.
Sam Wike: Whatever happened in the past is information. Now let’s move forward.
Dr. Zazie Todd: It’s okay to use food to train your dog. It’s efficient, it works, it’s fun, and it builds up your relationship with your dog too.
Dr. Laura Donaldson: One way or the other, I want to help that person recover their relationship with the dog. I want them to realize that the dog is a thinking, feeling partner; not a robot to be dominated, not a surrogate human, not a mini me. And that dogs aren’t ethical.
I actually say that at every first session: ‘Dogs don’t speak subjunctive, so there’s no, “I should have done that,” or “I shouldn’t have eaten that pork tenderloin on the counter.”’ It’s bringing a dose of optimistic realism, but also recovering the relationship.
Dr. Karolina Westlund: I would try to find a way to connect with that person, to make that person curious and feel good, and that would give me an opportunity to keep that conversation going. And that would be different, depending on the person.
The PPG Advocacy Panel currently meets once a month. See PPG Advocacy Panel for details of upcoming discussion topics.
Catch Up with All the Advocacy Panel Discussions to Date:
Advocacy Panel Discussion #1 (August 27, 2021):
How To Best Advocate for Positive Reinforcement Methods
Discussion #2 (September 24, 2021):
How to Reach and Work with Your Local Veterinarians
Discussion #3 (October 22, 2021):
Your PPG Advocacy Panel at Work! Advocating to Let Dogs be Dogs, Cats be Cats, Equids Be Equids
Discussion #4 (November 26, 2021):
Your PPG Advocacy Panel at Work! “Being Nicer” While Advocating
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, November 2021, pp.11-13. Read the full article:
About the Author
Susan Nilson BA (Hons) DipCABT PCBC-A is editor of BARKS from the Guild and a Reuters-trained journalist with over 15 years’ experience in print and digital journalism in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. She also studied feline behavior at the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE) in the United Kingdom in 2003 and completed her diploma in companion animal behavior and training with COAPE in 2005. She is also an accredited professional canine behavior consultant through the Pet Professional Accreditation Board. In 2019, she co-authored Pet Training and Behavior Consulting: A Model for Raising the Bar to Protect Professionals, Pets and Their People.