Friday, December 16, 2011

If It’s Not Broken . . .

I follow a lot of dog training blogs and dog training discussion forums, and always enjoy reading about others’ training journeys, successes, lessons learned, and words of wisdom.  But recently, I have noticed the language that people seem to use when talking about their training challenges, and have been surprised to hear talk about “fixing” dogs.  In this context it isn’t slang terminology for spaying or neutering; people are referring to dogs as though something is fundamentally broken.  People refer to fixing their “bar dropper” or their “reactive dog” or their “shut down dog”, etc. 

I am wondering, how helpful is it to use this terminology? 

I am not saying that we should not try to modify behaviors that are problematic, or that we shouldn’t try to fine-tune our training so that the performance meets the criteria we would like it to, but I feel that viewing the dog as somehow broken does not help us do this.  I prefer not to label my dogs, and especially not to label them according to what some may see as faults.  When I approach training, I feel it is more helpful to identify behaviors that I would like to reinforce and make stronger, and behaviors that I would like to replace and minimize.  I want to give the dogs I work with the skills to make correct decisions, and the ability to manage a variety of environments, experiences, and social interactions without stress and anxiety.  I prefer to call this process “training” – not “fixing.”

I very much believe that our language shapes the way we approach and view the world.  When we start to reduce our dogs, our selves, or others to what we see as their shortcomings, we become blind to what is brilliant, unique, and extraordinary about that same individual.  I am a social worker by training, and the human services field picked up on the power of the strengths-based approach years ago.  So It surprises me now to see even very positive, forward-thinking dog trainers slip into the deficit-model of viewing the dogs they are working with. 

I share my life with five dogs, who all have very distinct personalities and temperaments.  Every one of them has behaviors that I would prefer to see less of (OK, I had to think hard about this for Django, but he does bark a lot a meal time).  And every one of them has fantastic qualities and strengths that amaze me every day.  It has been my job as their owner and trainer to build on those strengths, and increase the presence of all those attributes that I love.  To me, none of them have something that needs to be fixed – they are all simply perfect at being themselves, and I want to help them be the best, happiest version of themselves that they can be.