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The Ethics of ‘Results-Based’ Training

The Ethics of 'Results-Based' Training

Defined as moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or conducting of an activity, ethics is a topic that weighs heavily in dog training, but is often not talked about – at least to the general public.

As someone who went to school for journalism, ethics is always a topic that sits near and dear to my heart. I spent countless hours pouring over articles before sending our student paper off to print. In the author biased? Is the article factual? Is this best reporting we can deliver to the public?

In the vast world of dog training, there are many different types of trainers that have subscribed to working with specific methods of training. On the two extreme sides you have trainers, such as Emily Larlham who uses strictly positive reinforcement in her training, and the well known Cesar Milan, who primarily uses negative reinforcement and positive punishment- even if he doesn’t admit to that. I could go on and on about why so many dog trainers have moved very far away from the Cesar Milan methods of training, but that’s a whole other article in itself.

Today, I want to bring to light a phrase that is used more commonly by dog trainers that I find both off-putting and realistically unethical – “Results-based training.” If you did a google search and looked at various trainers’ websites, you would see it used frequently, popping up most often on websites of “Balanced Trainers” – or trainers who use all four quadrants of operant conditioning.

I find the wording of the phrase to be misleading to its audience for many reasons, but today I’ll stick to two.

It directly assumes that:

  1. Not all dog trainers are driven to find solutions to training problems and dog behaviors
  2. Clients understand that results driven training means “by any means necessary,” which includes using aversive methods.  

Assumption 1.. is so unbelievably inaccurate.  Assumption 2. is some pretty scary stuff.

Professional dog trainers (not to be mistaken for hobbyists), have spent years studying various training methods in addition to having countless hours of hands on experience. I have met and engaged with trainers from all different backgrounds who reflect various philosophies and have yet to meet one dog trainer in my travels who’s only concern is making money off of their clients. I would willingly argue that the goal of all dog trainers is to achieve the best solutions for their clients, both human and dog alike. My point is, it’s just a matter of how they achieve those results.

The truth of the matter is, dogs don’t exist in a vacuum. Dog training is so much more than forcing compliance out of our dogs in order to achieve results. Professional dog training is evaluating each dog as an individual, allowing that dog the time to learn new behaviors and then giving them the chance to succeed. There is no one-size fits all approach. I think all dog trainers can agree on that.

However, science shows time and time again that when we try to change behavior or force new experiences onto our dogs too quickly, it can lead to long-term damaging effects. When the brain is put under stress, cortisol levels increase, which engages the internal fight or flight instinct (this happens in humans too). This instinct causes the dog to function enough to get through (aka survive) a situation, but does not always address the root of the problem nor does it encourage the dog to make a choice, decreasing the likelihood of the dog making the “correct” choice again in the future when put in that same exact situation.

The brain under stress does a terrible job at retaining memories, let alone transferring them into long term memory. If nothing else, when forced to comply under stress, the dog’s brain and body either learns how to shut down to further avoid conflict or react negatively out of fear. At the end of the day, when you are the one holding the opposite end of the leash, it will be damaging to the overall relationship between you and your dog.

Some people need solutions to problems right away.As a trainer, I understand that. Pet owners may not want to take the time, or may not have the time, to improve their dog’s behavior using the most humane methods by following the Humane Hierarchy. However, it is critical for consumers to understand what balanced training is, and what “results-based” means so they can make a moral and ethical choice for their dog and their relationship.

When reading the phrase “results-based training,” the consumer needs understand that they are waving a portion of their dog’s trust in order to gain the results they desire by using certain methods advertised as communication tools, such as choke collars, shock collars, spray bottles, finger pokes, etc. And while your dog is actually shut down or over aroused, it can easily be mistaken by the untrained eye as your dog looking obedient or happy. Not all dog trainers even understand this difference, hence the importance of having an education in addition to hands on experience.

I love my dog, just as my clients love theirs. I want my dog to work with me, not for me. This is the type of relationship in which I find dogs and people the happiest. I’m incredibly blessed to have gotten the level of experience and knowledge that I have in this industry and I am happy to share that with fellow dog lovers and my amazing clients. The dog training industry is highly unregulated. As a pet owner, no matter what trainer you chose, it is critical to educate yourself on their training methods and the long term effects of those methods on your dog.