by the Pet Professional Guild Advocacy Panel
This article was excerpted and edited from the PPG Advocacy Panel discussion on January 18, 2023.
Don Hanson: Chair of the PPG Advocacy Division and Shock-Free Coalition, board member of the Pet Professional Guild, and owner of Green Acres Kennel Shop in Bangor, Maine
Niki Tudge: President and founder of the Pet Professional Guild
Debbie Sheridan: Owner of Debbie’s 4 Dogs in West Hartford, Connecticut
Sue Kocher: Owner of Hendo Dogs in Hendersonville, North Carolina
Kim Silver: Owner of Building Bonds in Tucson, Arizona
Judy Luther: Chair of the PPG Canine Division and owner of Trust Centered Training in St. Louis, Missouri
Beth Adelman: Owner of a cat behavior consulting business in New York City
Don: Today’s topic reminds me of the Maytag repairman. For those who are too young to remember, the Maytag repairman was always lonely. As I prepared for this panel, I came across a Facebook post made by veterinary behavior consultants which included a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King that is right on topic: “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our souls when we look the other way.” The impetus for today’s panel is to show how others have advocated and successfully marketed their businesses by being force-free.
Niki: This Advocacy Panel is very much a part of what PPG does consistently, which is to advocate for ethical and humane training methods and philosophies. To put this out there right off the bat, nobody is suggesting that advocacy is bullying or harassment, nor is bullying or harassment advocacy. And finally, I personally don’t struggle much with labels because in our world everything is labeled, everything has a name, and it’s all part of how we understand each other in terms of references we’re making. What is important is when we use labels like force-free that don’t have a generic or common understanding, that we define those labels. If anyone goes to the Pet Professional Guild’s Guiding Principles, we have a really nice definition there about what force-free is.
Don Hanson: Thank you, Niki. I’m going to start us off today with a little history about myself. Back in 1991, I was not a pet care professional. I was one half of a team of my wife and I, who had just adopted a 12-week-old Cairn terrier, a puppy. On the advice of my wife’s boss, who was a veterinarian, we enrolled in a dog training class, and the very first night in class, I was handling our puppy, Gus, and I was told to ask him to sit. I thought, “Okay, this is fine and good, and this is why we’re here, isn’t it?” So, I asked him to sit, and he didn’t sit, and the two instructors explained to me that he was being dominant and that I had to alpha roll him immediately. Not knowing any better, and having read the Monks of New Skete book, because that was the book we were told to read, I did. Within seconds, I had a snarling, terrified dog that I was holding down, and then I was told, “Put your hand around his muzzle and hold it shut.” A little part of me said, “Well, that would be incredibly stupid.” But the trainer was the expert, so I did what I was told. Gus bit me. I bled profusely all over the place. The two instructors looked at me and shook their heads, and one went to get ice and a towel. I handed the leash to my wife, and Gus and I did not interact for probably two weeks. The bond we had created had been totally destroyed. A couple of years later, I started working with him again and we had a great time. Gus is probably the biggest reason I got into this profession. We bought a business Bangor, Maine, and became the new owners of Green Acres Kennel Shop. They had an existing training program that used what I’m going to call “gentle choke caller training.” No shocks were used, but it certainly wasn’t reward-based training. Having just bought the business and knowing the community was rather “conservative” when it came to animals, there was no way we were going to change it, so that’s what we did for two years. We got the business going, and I finally had time to read The Culture Clash [by Jean Donaldson], and I went, “Oh, my!” I took some clicker training seminars, and in the fall of 1997, we launched our first clicker-based classes as an experiment. We were still doing things the other way, but after teaching two of the new classes, I said, “I can never do it another way.” I knew that I could be harming my business, but I wanted to be able to sleep at night, and I had learned enough to know that I could no longer train the old way. … I also learned that in the kennel and dog daycare business, a lot of people were using shock collars, squirt bottles and citronella collars on dogs in their care, often without telling the owners. Rather than just silently go about the business of selling products and services, my wife and I wanted our business to be a trusted source of education. We started a printed newsletter, and now it’s an email newsletter. I was asked to do a radio show, which has now become a podcast. I [advocate] politely. I use the science. This is another thing we have to remember—science is on our side on this issue. All we have to do is know the science, and we’re in a very, very good place.
Beth: I want to address something you said, that early on a trainer asked you to do something with your dog that made you feel uneasy. You didn’t want to treat your dog that way, but you did anyway because the trainer was an expert. I often meet clients who’ve already worked with someone who told them to scruff their cat or squirt their cat with water or, often with litter box problems, lock the cat in the bathroom for two weeks. If anyone suggests that you do something to your pet that makes you feel uneasy, you’re right and they’re wrong, no matter how many credentials they have. Find someone else to help you. You don’t want to mess with the bond you have with your pet. Don’t be bullied or intimidated into doing anything that is going to mess with that bond. Unfortunately, sometimes pet owners get bad advice from their veterinarian. Your vet may be the best medical professional on earth, but if they’re asking you to treat your cat in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t do it. In terms of pain-free and fear-free training, the science that applies to dogs applies to cats as well, and we can very much rely on that science. One problem that we see a lot with cats is advice about flooding—forcing cats to experience things so that eventually they will just get used to it. Not only does behavioral science not support flooding, it also shows very clearly that it’s not effective. Unfortunately, flooding is very much entrenched in the rescue community. People in rescue have good hearts and they’re doing good work, but they don’t necessarily have access to good information, or they have access to it but choose not to use it. With fearful cats, positive reinforcement isn’t just more effective than flooding, it’s faster. Positive reinforcement works in about a week with a kitten and in about three to four weeks with an adult cat, so you can get cats adoptable and free up cages much faster.
Don: Thanks, Beth. I want to add something to what you said about the bond, the emotional connection we have with our pets. I’m old as dirt. Some of you are much, much younger. But years ago, during my first visit to a vet in my area, I was told in no uncertain terms, “Dogs and cats do not experience emotions. You’re anthropomorphizing, Don.” I walked away from the vet’s office thinking, “That guy’s an idiot.” But that was the standard for many years, and in some places, it still is.
Judy: Beth said something else that I think is incredibly important, and that is the fictional statement that aversive training often works faster than fear-free or positive training. I have never used aversive training tools, but I can tell you for a fact that I can train a dog pretty quickly to do just about anything. I was raised in a unique family where our pets were pretty much put on the same level as all the humans in the home, and when I was young, people would say things like, “If a dog growls, you must correct the dog for growling.” We know now that growling is a necessary form of communication. But these old wives’ tales, whatever you want to call them, have been passed down and we’re still hearing them. Really, if we want to change the world, we need to help pet parents know the real story—help them understand that we don’t need to use aversives to get our animals to behave the way we want or to build a relationship with them. We need to focus on getting rid of some of the old myths.
Niki: I like Susan Friedman’s terminology, because she calls them “cultural myths.” I wonder if trainers, with the exception of younger trainers coming into the industry that maybe haven’t been exposed to positive reinforcement methods, don’t want to cross over to positive reinforcement because they’re comfortable doing what they’re doing and they don’t want to invest more money in education. I’m just wondering if we want to influence the industry, if our energies and focus should be on those coming into the industry and joining the industry, people that don’t already have 10 years, 20 years invested in their careers, because, with the greatest of respect to any dog trainer, I just don’t see somebody who’s got 30 years of experience in our industry who hasn’t over the last 10 years having been flooded, for want of a better word, with all the research and the science and the education, if they haven’t shown any curiosity to want to change their methodology now, are they going to? We all know that screaming and shouting at people doesn’t work. But I also find it hard to accept that somebody hasn’t already read a Jean Donaldson book or seen a Pat Miller book. I recently went into a bookstore in Arizona just wandering off the street, and the first thing I saw was Zazie Todd’s book on the shelf. Compared to when I first started training in 2000, the bookshelf is now huge, full of books, and now there are also websites and so many other resources. I struggle with whether somebody after a long time in the industry has the curiosity to want to change. I personally struggle with that.
Sue: Recently I’ve been taking a deep dive into the shock trainers and aversive trainers in my area, which led me also to look at some of the major franchises that they’ve trained with and some of the other training schools and academies that they are “certified” from. They have paid a lot of money to get certified by a certain person or a certain school and, especially if they’ve joined a franchise, paid a lot of money to get a defined area from one of the big franchises. For some of these franchises, all the calls go through a central calling area, and then they get farmed out based on the caller’s zip code. These trainers pay thousands and thousands of dollars for that, plus their certification. And that certification and training includes customer relations, which includes, “Sell that person a shock caller.” It’s part of the package because that’s your best way to get in the door and make it look like you’re doing something really fast, like getting a dog to stop jumping (because you make the dog shut down). That looks impressive to customers. They know it’s going to make customers feel like that person is a good trainer. This is all built into these schools and training programs. These franchises, they don’t care about the dogs—they care about getting customers.
Kim: I tried to hire a dog trainer [to help with my business] just one a year ago. I put ads out everywhere—social media, LinkedIn, Indeed. I did all the things I could, but I could not find anyone to hire. It was so disheartening and frustrating. Then I thought, “Okay, well, I’m going to have to cultivate my own.” I started to think about who could that be and went through my client list, and I saw this woman’s name and remembered the first time I’d met her. I’d told her, “You’re going to be a dog trainer one day. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, maybe when your kid graduates from high school or college, but you’re going to be a dog trainer one day.” I called her, and she was all in, so I enrolled her in the DogNostics dog trainer program. She is an amazing dog trainer, and I have sent other students there, to DogNostics, who just want to learn more. I’m turning 49 years old next week I want to retire one day, and so that’s the whole purpose of this. The panel today is about what you do when you’re the only force-free trainer in town. Right now, I’m the only force-free trainer taking some of the more difficult behavior cases. When the day comes that I retire, who’s going to be doing this work, because right now it doesn’t exist in my community for 7,500 miles from where I’m at. What sort of legacy am I going to leave behind? For me, I have to train these young trainers and, to Niki’s point, build them up from the ground sometimes. Trying to convert people over who are already in the industry is a much harder, if not impossible task. To Niki’s point, there is information out there for them to make that cross over, and in my experience, any reaching out that I’ve tried to do has been met with a “talk to the hand” gesture. I am considered an extremist, if you want to use that word, in my community, and I feel like I’m on a bit of an island by myself. So, I feel like I have to start populating my island in order to keep this type of training growing and have it be more mainstream than the extreme.
Niki: In that vein, Kim, I’m just going to talk about a PPG member named Ruby Welsford for a minute, because Ruby’s very active with advocacy. One of the things that Ruby does is when people come across her Facebook page, she gets into conversations with them that she takes offline, and in some cases, people want to learn more but they can’t afford the education. A couple of years ago, she contacted me and asked if there was any way I could sponsor one of DogNostics’ dog training certificate programs. How can you say no when somebody’s already done all the advocacy work? So, we have a few people like that in DogNostics. I think reaching out and helping educate does work, but when it’s done privately in a safe environment, it’s a lot more effective. I’m just not sure it works by taking a bullhorn.
Don: I think developing others is very, very important. The first person I had to convert was the trainer we had on staff. Having her read Culture Clash and doing pilot classes with me, she very quickly became a convert. Neither of us was comfortable with what we had been doing, so I think that is a big part of it, too. People have to be uncomfortable with using force. What I started to do, because I wanted to develop our training program, I looked at students. And if I saw someone who was doing really well, I took them aside and asked them, “Do you want to learn to be a dog trainer?” I did this with staff members, too. And they became assistants, and then eventually they became trainers or lead instructors. Eventually, I paid for them to sit for a certification exam. I really invested in them and developed a group of people.
Judy: I had an interesting situation. There was an aversive school about 10 minutes from my house, and one of their students called me one time and said, “Hey, I go to this particular school and I want to talk to you about training.” And I said, “Well, why are you calling me if you go to that school?” She said, “I’m looking for a job as a trainer. And I told her, “I’m sorry, I can’t hire you if you’re going to school there,” and she said, “Wait, time out. I’m leaving it because I can’t stand the abuse I’m seeing with these animals.” And I said to myself, what do I do with this? Is she gonna go back to that school when she finds out learning all over is going to be difficult? Well, I took her under my wing, and she became an amazing trainer. You’d never think a trainer from another school who spent thousands and thousands of dollars coming and needing help. But, man, I opened my door and was happy to help her. Another thing I will say that tailors onto what Sue was saying, after some of these professionals have done the aversive training for so long and made that investment, they don’t want to have to change. It’s so hard to change. Habits are hard to change. Learning new things is difficult to do, and that’s just another roadblock. So, like Niki said, if we can get people that are new in the industry, wanting to learn, that’s a really good place to focus.
Don: And it’s also admitting that what you were doing for a long time, especially on this issue, was really wrong.
Sue: That’s what I was going to say—how do you go back and tell your clients, “Sorry for messing up your dogs, everybody. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Beth: We’ve been talking about how to work with other professionals, but I think another good way to advocate for force-free training and behavior modification is to create an appetite for it among the general public, making people understand that when they’re working with a force-free professional, they’re working with a person who’s coming from the most up-to-date scientific perspective. I have a lot of clients come to me through veterinarian referrals, and the veterinarians who refer to me are the young ones. I think it’s because they’re tired of referring people to cat behavior professionals who say, “Squirt your cat with water,” because the younger vets know that the science says not to do that. I also speak as much as possible at events for the general public, like cat shows and cat-focused conventions as a way to create that appetite in the public. When people hear me explain that spraying their cat when he grabs their leg is actually not a good thing to do, and they already know this because they don’t want to do it or they’ve tried it and it didn’t work, I say, “Let’s put it aside.” At the same time, I reassure them that they’re not a bad person and their trainer was not a bad person—it just doesn’t work, so let’s do something that does work. People come up to me all the time after those kinds of things and say, “Oh, man, I want to talk to you about this, I want to talk to you about that.” If we create the appetite for it in the public, trainers will have to change.
Sue: The problem with saying, “I train with science,” is that, although it’s true, the aversives trainers have caught on to our terminology, and they will say the same thing: “My total program is based on science. I use all four quadrants of operant conditioning.” It’s a real problem and “balanced training” sounds nice.
Kim: I think this comes down to a matter of transparency. If a potential client reaches my website or my social media page, it is very clear what I will do and what I won’t do. If another trainer wants to refer to me and they look on my About Us page on my website, it’s very clear what I use and what I don’t use. And I’m not just talking tools—I’m talking science. So, I do think it’s important for us to be really transparent, and to do it in a way that makes it welcoming for the pet parent. In my experience, oftentimes I’m not their first trainer. They’ve already been to somebody that has used some sort of aversive, and they’ve had the good sense and the compassion for their animal to put the brakes on and say, “I’m not comfortable moving forward with this anymore.” And then they go looking for something else, and I’m their “something else.”
Debbie: I also think that we have to talk to veterinarians because, like Beth mentioned, the veterinarians are referring clients to us. I went in to my own veterinarian one day and had a big talk with her because she had a list of trainers and a lot of them were doing terrible things, in my mind, and I was seeing a lot of clients after they used these people. Also, go to your local library and offer to do a talk. I did a talk at our local library, and people signed up, and it was great. Many people reached out afterward and said it was eye opening. It is also important to get the word out there and talk about ethics. Do we want our dogs to be our happy companions in life, or do we want them to be afraid to make their own move? It’s important to get people thinking about this, and that behavior is communication and we don’t want to shut it down. We want to look under the iceberg, as Kim Brophy says. Why are we seeing this behavior, and how can we make it better?
Don: One thing I do every year at Christmas is give all of the vets in my area a book that I want them to read—my favorite book of the year. One of the first books I gave away was The Culture Clash, and the vet who told me that animals didn’t have emotions read it, and he came back to me and said, “Wow, okay, I should have read this sooner.” I think it’s very important to do community things. Putting yourself out there and doing things for free is really important. We used to bring people in for free seminars. Now, thanks to Zoom, you can do webinars for your business, and you can get people from all over, and it can be a very effective way of spreading the message. Facebook is an incredibly powerful way to meet the general public. Put up little pieces about how you train and why, without shaming the other folks, but explain why you’ve chosen this path and the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote I shared earlier—what a great way to start a discussion. PPG puts up all sorts of things on social media that you can share. If you’re not comfortable advocating. And another thing, if you’re brand new in this business, don’t start at aggression cases and separation anxiety cases. Start with puppies. Start with the people that have their first dog ever, because they’re going to see the kind of work you do and they’re going to be a client for life. And it’s easier work. I’m not going to say it’s more rewarding, but it is less frustrating work, and you are more quickly going to build your business, which is what part of this is about, too. And work together. Find like-minded folks in your community, whether they are across town or maybe 20 miles away. If you’re the only two force-free folks in town, rather than seeing each other as competitors, work together. Talk about how you can help build each other’s businesses. That’s something this profession, as a whole, tends to avoid because we tend to see everybody else as a competitor. We need to work together to change minds.
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AVSAB. (2021). Position Statement on Humane Dog Training. Available at https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/AVSAB-Humane-Dog-Training-Position-Statement-2021.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0DA-riwrFcvGuhNaDotkbFhLbNDmFtBASdpftg0ybhtQUKrWZIQfbI_K4
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Tudge, N. (2023, Jan. 13). Advocating together: the mission, vision and values of the Pet Professional Guild. Available at https://barksmagazine.com/advocating-together-the-mission-vision-and-values-of-the-pet-professional-guild/
Excerpted and edited from the PPG Advocacy Panel discussion on January 18, 2023.