Changing a friend's approach to dog training

Dear bark: A friend just adopted a new puppy and she mentioned doing training corrections. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, she will not be attending a puppy class where she may have learned more positive methods. Is there an easy way to explain that there are other effective training methods that don’t use corrections, anxiety and pain?

The short answer is that this is going to be very challenging. The goal you have set yourself is analogous to changing a person’s parenting style. We all know that people believe that raising children is best and that parents don’t appreciate being told they are doing everything wrong. With that comparison on the table, it is wise to accept that converting someone from one type of dog training to another is not easy.

However, there are things you can do that can affect both the way your friend treats and teaches her new pup, and the relationship that will develop between them. Remember, behavior change is a delicate matter – a fact that applies regardless of the way you talk about. To maximize the chances of influencing your friend’s behavior, consider carefully what works and what doesn’t when trying to convince people to change their minds so that they change their behavior.

What works

Positivity is what you advocate for dog training, so it only makes sense to use the same approach on humans. Ultimately, you want your friend to use positive training methods because you want the dog to be treated kindly during the learning process. For anyone who prefers these gentle methods, it makes sense to see the value of being just as benevolent and positive with people, for the same reasons: it’s an effective way of teaching, it’s kind, and it’s beneficial for the relationship . So remember to always be nice to your girlfriend when gently trying to get her to do a better way of exercising.

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One way to be positive and kind when trying to influence behavior is to catch your friend doing something right and amplify that behavior. In other words, if you see her doing a workout that even tends to be positive, let her know you noticed and be positive. “I love that he’s so happy when the leash is loose!” or “Your praise obviously matters to him – he clearly adores you.” You probably won’t see her fortifying the dog with treats or using other standard positive training techniques when you start to praise her positivity, but any kind of gentle and effective training she does is a start to the conversation to open. (If she uses treats, be sure to mention this for free.)

Dealing with the dog yourself may be able to help and model the kind of training you want to encourage. Ask if you can take her out for a walk her dog, or even take the dog for a walk on occasion. With their permission, train the dog to perform a positive reinforcement trick. If she doesn’t allow you to use treats, offer a toy or a speed boost by breaking into a run in response to the correct reaction. (Again, all of this must be done with their consent.)

Don’t make a big deal of it, but if you have the opportunity to demonstrate how fun and easy it can be to teach a dog something positive, it might make them think. Success is what people want in training and when she sees that you are successful with her dog and certain methods it can appeal to them. And be sure to say something honest and complementary about your dog in a sincere manner that you take for granted. Everyone likes to hear that their dog is attentive, learns quickly, enjoys training or makes similar comments.

Although Covid-19 has turned the world, including the world of dog training, upside down, there are many training options online so the pandemic is no excuse to skip training classes. Many trainers hold live zoom courses, while others offer recorded lessons. When you and your friend are ready, you can take such a class with your own dog. It could be a fun activity to share from the comfort of your home, and the class would be a great gift provided she didn’t find it intrusive.

What does not work?

As tempting as it is to judge or criticize your friend for making corrections and punishments to her dog, such an approach is unlikely to work. It is natural to want to share the mistake of your path with others in order to turn them into positive techniques, but I advise you to resist this temptation, however strong it may be. The irony (and futility) of trying to apply corrections and punishments to prevent people from applying corrections and punishments is important to recognize. This is more likely to cause your girlfriend to go defensive and foreclose her to what you have to say than to change her behavior or encourage her to develop an interest in your approach.

Giving her information about the effectiveness of positive training and its many benefits, or adopting a know-it-all attitude, is also unlikely to have the desired effect. Learning the fact that positive training methods are effective and have many other advantages over training that uses punishment, correction, fear, or pain is not as likely to change people’s minds as we would like.

People only take in information about areas near them when they are ready, not when forced upon them. If she asks questions about positive training, answer them without judgment or disdain for other methods. Keep it light and short instead of turning it into a lengthy, compelling speech. Don’t feel ashamed or teach your girlfriend if you want her to be open to the ideas you offer about positive training methods. This is a case of “less is more”.

The training methods vary depending on the area. The move away from compulsion to energy-free training was resisted in fields both inside and outside the world of dogs. For example, it is not uncommon for sport dog and hunting dog trainers to use coercive methods, and influential individuals have spent considerable time and effort changing the way animals are trained in zoos and aquariums. But the movement continues to grow and spread and resistance will be overcome when people see it work so well and relationships improve.

If you know your friend is likely to get information from people who share their point of view about dog training, adjust your own expectations accordingly. When she moves towards positive training methods, consider it a success. Every change in behavior takes time and happens gradually and not all at once.

I know it’s frustrating to see your friend stepping down a path with her new pup that is different from the path you would choose. However, you are more likely to make progress (and get more out of it) in the long run if you are strategic in your own behavior towards her. A general guideline is that people often change faster when they feel like they are being guided rather than being pushed.

Change is possible and you can be part of it. You clearly care a lot about your girlfriend and her dog, and I hope you can influence her training decisions for the benefit of her, her dog, and the relationship between them!