When you know better, you do better

I accidentally posted the perfect blog last week for this month’s Positive Pet Training Blog Hop theme: Improvements/Successes. If you haven’t read Leo vs. the Track Team, check it out after you read this one, and be sure to hop on down the Linky List of my fellow bloggers.

To continue on the theme of Improving as a Trainer, I’ll share a Maya Angelou quote that resonates with me: “You did then what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.” (I’ve seen several versions of this quote, and I don’t know which is her exact phrasing, but this is the one I use.)

Many of us in the Positive Pet Training world have pretty strong feelings against the use of aversives like prong collars, e-collars*, or throwing cans of pennies at our dogs. As someone who used a prong collar for a couple of years before I knew better, I’m tempted to run up to every dog wearing a prong collar that I see and tell their people what I know.

But to be honest, I’m weary of dog owners telling each other what to do. Does anyone ever change anyone’s mind? Have my fellow positive pet training blog friends ever gotten into it with someone on the other side, an aversive trainer (or as I believe they call themselves: “balanced trainers”) – and actually gotten through to them?

It’s easier to communicate with people who are like I was: uninformed. My strategy is to tell people what worked for me, and why those other methods were counterproductive for me, and hope to plant a seed. That’s why I wrote Bark and Lunge.

I spoke at a couple of Amazing Pet Expos this year, which was awesome because they have an all-positive policy. No shock collars or prong collars or electric fences sold there. Plus, I was pretty excited at the Seattle Expo that a couple of German shepherd rescues were there. And then pretty disappointed to see prong collars on their dogs.

Maybe they just need to read my book, I thought, approaching a pair walking German shepherds past my booth. I handed them a postcard for my book, explaining that it was about all the mistakes I made with my first German shepherd, and how I learned to fix them.

“Did you use a prong collar?”

“Yes, that was one of the mistakes I made. Positive reinforcement is what worked for us.”

“We don’t allow adopters to use positive reinforcement.”


“We don’t want our dogs to come back. We require people to take training classes using prong or e-collars.”

I was thrown, and kind of embarrassed. This was just a few minutes before I was scheduled to give a speech about how a prong collar messed my dog up. Was this rescue group going to think I was specifically going after them? Did they even know that the Expo has an anti-aversive stance?

Kari speaks
It went great. Most of the people pictured bought books. And then the expo rep asked me to speak a second time after the guys from that Animal Planet show Tanked skipped out early.

The rescue woman’s remark really rattled me. It is unfathomable to me that positive reinforcement is being blamed for dogs being surrendered to shelters. I can accept that there are dogs trained using aversives who turned out fine, but I haven’t heard any actual examples of dogs for whom positive training failed utterly.

It’s a scenario that just does not make sense. “Well, I tried rewarding my dog for what I wanted him to do, but I find we have a much better relationship when he does what I want because he’s trying to avoid getting a shock.”

I follow a lot of German shepherds on Instagram. The other day, one posted a video practicing a perfect recall. In the comments, the poster described how she used an e-collar, “just to get the dog’s attention.”

After a big sigh, I wondered if I should unfollow this pretty little German shepherd. Or should I speak up? Am I overreacting? Are e-collars harmless? Are they better than positive methods?

I’m grateful to this blog hop and Lauren at ZoePhee in particular for sharing Kikopup’s video about positive interrupters, reminding me of a way to get your dog’s attention without electrical stimulation.

*E-collar stands for electronic collar, or shock collar. Funny aside: On the board at the shelter where I volunteer, it said “Use e-collar if needed” next to one of the dogs. I almost had a heart attack until I figured out that they meant Elizabethan collar, as in the lampshade dogs wear after a vet visit so they don’t lick their stitches.

Positive Training

This post is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, hosted by Cascadian Nomads, Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. The hop happens on the first Monday of every month, and is open for a full week – please join us in spreading the word about the rewards of positive training!

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Published by Kari Neumeyer

Writer, editor, dog mom, ovarian cancer survivor

11 thoughts on “When you know better, you do better

  1. Such a sensitive subject! I hear you – I am not fond of prong collars (never used one) and the pennies in the can scare even me LOL. E collar training (by a professional only) for training purposes seems to have very positive results for families that need assistance with obedience training. I do not agree with “forcing” someone to use a specific method though. #notfair But on individual cases, it’s so hard for me to judge others not knowing their whole story. Glad you spoke, happy to hear you spoke twice (kudos). Nicely written post.

  2. I feel the same way! Whenever I see people jerking their dogs around I totally want to go up to them and I have in a few situations where owners were being ridiculous to their dogs. As for your question about changing anyone’s minds or getting people to switch, I have a few friends that I have helped. One of my “balance” friends is now switching more to PR and using a clicker. It’s awesome. I think if you approach people in the right way and they are in the right frame of mind you can definitely get them thinking. One of my friends has a dog that used to resource guard his ball, to the point of biting, he used to whack him in the head with a water bottle to get him to let go. I introduced him to the trading game and some other training resources and he never hit his dog again. He began training him and now he can get the ball back. I approached my friend about the resource guarding one time when it was not happening and before the human was already irritated. I think that really helped.

  3. You’re right that we probably can’t change the minds of people who are already using e-collars and the like. They believe in them just as strongly as we believe in R+, unfortunately. What we can do is reach the undecided, the uninformed, and hopefully reach them before the aversive and “balanced” trainers do! It’s amazing what a little information can do. I joined a pet store protest group this weekend and two families actually got back in their cars without going into the pet store after speaking to the group leader for just a couple of minutes.

    That’s really sad about the rescue group. GSDs are such a sensitive breed, it’s so discouraging that there is so much misinformation on how they should be handled.

  4. I love that quote, and it is so true. I find it sad that that rescue is doing what they’re doing. Sure, aversive probably does work with some dogs, but is it worth the risk of it having the opposite effect? I know you know it absolutely was not. I can’t imagine adopting from a rescue that tells me exactly how I have to train my dog. Even a good trainer won’t do that.
    I do think you can get through to some people, but there are many with closed minds unfortunately.

  5. Just over a year ago, when I was spending hours every day trawling the internet on a quest for the perfect dog, I looked at our local GSD rescues, since my partner was a fan of the breed (meanwhile, I’ll take any vaguely herdy thing with hilarious ears, as I was telling Lara on twitter yesterday. I’m a fan of the breed now because Nala is so great!). I was so angry and confused to find that on their recommended resources list they had all of these great books–Patricia McConnell, Jean Donaldson, Pat Miller, Bob Bailey–and yet they also suggest or recommend that adopters get a prong or pinch collar for training. The cognitive dissonance! At least half of the books they recommend contain long, eloquent, detailed arguments against the use of those collars! Argh!

    I think that one thing that can convince people to cross over is experience with a dog who stresses up and lets you know, in no uncertain terms, that she finds you and your corrections terrifying and contemptuous. Unfortunately for dogs who find corrections upsetting but stress down, I think that many balanced trainers of pet dogs find a shut down response desirable, which breaks my heart.

    1. German shepherds are so sensitive, I think a lot of the dogs trained with aversive collars must be shut down… or else they were extremely well-balanced before training began, which would mean they wouldn’t need the heavy-duty collars anyway.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. While I am tired of people telling each other what to do, I really enjoy being a part of a community that commiserates and shares experiences. 🙂

  7. I find that mind boggling! I don’t usually argue training methods or give advice unless people ask for it. I have helped some new dog owners find positive classes and will recommend clickers and books.

  8. Your book is honest and inspirational. You’ve already done a lot more than most at bringing these issues to light. Hopefully more people open up to this reality.

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