What is ethical dog training?
Maybe let’s start with what it shouldn’t be, shall we? Cause I got a lot of thoughts about both, but the “shouldn’ts” should be addressed first.
Let’s sit and imagine for a minute.
(In the autistic world, we call this “visual thinking”)
You’re with your partner, walking through an antique store and you see it. That missing piece for your house and you are beyond excited to see it. Just as you go to pick it up off the shelf, your partner yells and yanks on the leash you forgot you were wearing in the first place.
You’re surprised, upset and depending on how hard they yanked, physically hurt.
Why did they do that? You were just excited about that oversized 18th century European vase. You just wanted to share it with them.
And now you’re left with a sore neck, hurt feelings, and if you’re clumsy like me, about $3,000 in damage from kicking over the antique vase when being pulled back. (Oops!)
AKA, ya feel like shit.
If that’s how we might feel as humans, imagine how our dogs actually feel when we do this with them. If the foundations and cues aren’t there, frustration and behavioral issues will set in.
They want to do the right thing… they just haven't been taught what that right thing is yet.
So if they haven’t been taught, and we just yank their chain when they’re trying to sniff that awesome bush that a dog named Nala peed on two days ago, what do you think is going to happen? That walk that started out okayish is going to go downhill very quickly.
Because they’re frustrated and they can’t communicate the same way you’re trying to communicate with them!
Here’s where I stop and say: My neurodivergent self gets it. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to force eye contact and create a face that I thought I was supposed to make because it’s what other people do to communicate.
Only, it was all to play along with what I thought I was supposed to do when in reality, I had zero clue on all the subtle hints like sarcasm that added a layer to communication I just didn’t have.
What I thought was going on and what was really happening around me? Two totally different things.
That’s your dog, too. Smiling at you with poop on the floor, jumping at you when you walk into a room, barking at the neighbors every time they step foot out their front door. They just don’t know.
We have the human bonus of being able to verbalize to our partner that they hurt us, but our furry friends don’t. All they know is that they were happily sniffing this particularly interesting tree and we’re yelling words they don’t understand and yanking roughly on their lead.
And just to be clear (because my autism doesn’t like subtlety), we’re not even going to step foot into the world of shock or prong collars.
There’s not enough room on this page for me to expound on my deep-seated hatred of them. It would be like slapping me in the face every time I didn’t force uncomfortable eye contact. You can only imagine how much that won’t work.
Sure, it’s easy to force a dog to do something, especially out of fear or pain, but actually teaching a dog how to make a proper decision? It will totally change your relationship for the better.
It’s all about communication, guys. Even if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look.
Giving your dog the skills to make those decisions will help your dog not only maintain the integrity of the relationship they have with you, but also the integrity of their mental health. And that’s something I think we can get behind, no matter how your brain is wired.
And yes, dogs can make a decision just like we do. They can choose to listen… or to not listen. But we give them the ability to make that choice when we take the time to understand them.
Here’s the thing: Dogs don’t understand us when we communicate in a way that makes initial sense to us. Sure, we can sit down and talk to them like a two-year-old child, but they haven’t learned what those words mean.
And if you expect them to react like a two-year old child, you’ll likely be disappointed. Because even though they both might make sticky messes, dogs simply don’t get the cues without a little help.
But here’s a little autistic secret for you: Autistic people miss cues, too. It’s just a whole other opportunity to develop another hidden language. Typically, it all boils down to perception.
Your dog’s perception of you will drive how they respond. That can lead to either positive or negative behaviors.
So if we’re yelling, yanking on their leads, using shock or prong collars, what do you think they're going to learn?
You’re scary and if they’re going to do something bad, like poop in the house, they should hide it (by eating it or migrating behind furniture).
That the punishment is unpredictable and they don’t know when or what they’re doing wrong because we really haven’t TAUGHT them anything.
So if that doesn’t work, what does?
Let’s go back to your partner and the antique store.
What should’ve been done differently?
Like I said, we have the benefit of actual communication, so if your partner was confused about you wandering off, instead of yanking your chain, they should’ve clearly communicated their concern:
“Please don’t wander off, I don’t want to lose you in this very cluttered shop!”
“Hey, keep in mind we only have 20 minutes before we need to meet so-and-so for lunch, so let’s only look at what we came here for.”
Or, at the very least, “Look, I know you might like that thing, but we’re not getting it. It’s hideous and won’t go with anything we already have at home.”
(Have I mentioned I like directness? I do. It definitely helps my brain understand.)
When we are training, we are building a relationship with our dogs. It’s not an alpha or DOM relationship. It’s communication and perception being used together.
Now, that’s something my brain can make sense of!
When I work with your dog, and they FINALLY get it, and perform the behavior that I’ve been asking for, you can bet your ass something like “Hell yeah!” is going to be said loudly and with great enthusiasm. You and I are going to be your dog's biggest cheerleader!!
“But why the language, JC?!”
Um, did you not see the name of my company?
And did you not read that I do best with honest directness?
But, more importantly, when I get excited, it slips out with ease and your dog sees that I’m excited. My excitement reinforces that the positive behavior they performed (not like dance recital perform, although dogs in tutus are adorable) is praiseworthy and something they should keep doing. (Don’t worry, I can also keep it clean for kid-friendly households as I am pretty well trained myself, just ask my mother)
Ethical training is understanding your dog on both a scientific and primal level and meeting their needs where they are.
Autistic people get IEPs in school. Dogs get ethical treatment in training.
For example, working breeds. They not only want, but have an instinctual NEED to be busy and working, and if you’re going to adopt a working breed dog guess what you need to do? Either give them a job to do or prepare yourself for your house to be in a state of disrepair when you get home (to put it mildly).
There isn’t a magic wand to fix all of your dog issues. There isn’t a magic wand to fix all of your issues as an owner. But what we can do is work to meet the needs at hand and set you both up for success.
Just like kids don’t go from Pre-K to high school graduation overnight, your dog needs time, consistency, and patience on this journey to be able to live their best life. And sometimes, a little help to be understood.
Oh and PS: It’s okay if you mess up along the way. We all do.
Remember in the beginning when I told you I was clumsy? I mess up sometimes, too. But if you and I can patiently work with your dog, then a few trip ups aren’t going to matter.