A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.
— John Wooden
I won’t ever forget the back porch conversation I had a few years ago with a punishment-based dog trainer. “You’re a soft trainer,” she informed me. “That’s the difference between us.” I smiled wide and agreed with her, even though I knew that from her perspective, being soft was equivalent to being incompetent.
As time rolls by, I feel ever more strongly that yes, I am a soft trainer, and proudly so. Here are ways I manifest this approach.
1. I am soft in that I unabashedly love animals, and dogs in particular.
I am so soft that I never believed for one second that dogs were trying to dominate us. Somewhere along our paths, dogs bonded with us, and a bond is different than domination. Even the scientist who first chronicled captive wolf behavior has debunked dominance theory in dogs. Dogs are not wolves in the same way that humans are not chimpanzees.
I learned to have soft hands while training my horses. Horse people know that horses are so sensitive that they can feel a fly landing on them, and they flinch or swipe at it with their tails. An animal that sensitive has a lot to teach a human about softness Our dogs are just as deserving of a soft hand.
2. I am so soft in my regard for canines that I never use my hands to strike them.
My dogs never, ever flinch when they see my hand or anyone else’s hand coming their direction. They associate hands with good things and never bad things. I don’t even touch them when teaching simple skills such as “sit” or “down,” because there is no need to do so (other than petting for praise, if the dog enjoys being petted). I lure or capture or shape the behavior I want and in doing so, I maintain my loving relationship with the four-legged partners I share my life with.
I am so soft that I don’t care if my dog heels perfectly pasted to my left leg. If I were interested in competing in obedience trials, my dogs would learn what I needed them to do without punishment and with a lot of fun. The fact that all five of my dogs — as well as all the ones that came before my current pack, including more than 400 foster dogs — walk quite nicely on leash and stay even closer to me off leash is fine with me. What’s even finer is that they are not afraid of me — not in the least — and yet I get out of them whatever I need or want.
3. I am so soft that I see myself as my dog’s coach, that I’m responsible for teaching how we humans expect them to behave.
I am not concerned with wasting my time or my animals’ time believing harmful ideas about dogs trying to dominate me. I am soft enough to know it is give and take, and a healthy, balanced relationship ensures my needs and my dogs’ needs are both met.
I get there with no physical pain foisted upon my housemates, and in return I get soft eyes looking back from me from my grateful, well-behaved dogs. I get dogs willing to offer behavior because they have never been punished for guessing incorrectly. I am so very soft that I often — extremely often — use delicious meat treats to reinforce the behavior I want in my pack.
4. I am so soft that any training tool I sell, I put right out in the open in classrooms and in private consultations.
The trainer who looked down her nose at me to tell me that I was “soft” sold shock collars . . . out of a back room, where she kept them under lock and key. The front room had clickers and treat pouches but the hush-hush tool was kept in the dark, in the back, because it comes from the dark ages of dog training. This non-soft trainer had endured several bites from the dogs she was “helping” in her non-soft manner.
5. I am so soft that when I work with an “aggressive” dog, I quadruple my softness.
I never give a dog a reason to bite me, and I have never been bitten in my work with reactive dogs. My softness opens the door towards relationship and trust, and after that is accomplished, we get to work on changing the dog’s opinions of whatever it is that is causing stress or anxiety.
A shock collar will never be able to change the dog’s underlying emotion of anxiety, even if to the ill-informed it might appear that way when a punished dog shuts down, afraid to make another wrong offering to its human trainer. Shutdown is not growth; it’s a setback.
6. I am so very, very soft that I spend hours and hours reading the latest discoveries about how animals learn.
As my dogs’ coach, it is my responsibility to know how to best reach each canine student. I need to learn how to teach the dog more so than the dog is expected to arrive understanding the human world. Humans say we are the smartest animal going, so we then must be the educators.
I am so soft that I believe what Edward Thorndike discovered in his Law of Effect: If an association is followed by a “satisfying state of affairs,” it will be strengthened, and if it is followed by an “annoying state of affairs ” it will be weakened. Everything I teach my dogs is done so via a “satisfying state of affairs” as far as both the dogs and I am concerned.
Thorndike published his findings in 1905 — and for the next 100 years, we got way, way off track in terms of how we trained animals. Like so many other trainers and dog owners, I long for the day when we all give ourselves permission to wholeheartedly love our dogs and to stop seeing them as an extension of our own frail egos. Dogs are pure joy and they have a full-time job with the moody humans they live with, trying doggedly and with great determination to get us to lighten up and enjoy the day. Every single day.
7. I don’t confuse soft with weak.
Being a bully is remarkably easy and it is the non-thinking option. Caring deeply about dogs and treating them with compassion is harder but always wiser. I am so soft about my deep love for these amazing animals that if I see another abusing a dog — watch out. Then you will see how un-soft I am capable of being.
8. I give you permission to be soft with your dogs, too.
I can’t count how many times I have been working with dog owners who cry real tears of relief when I tell them that their dog is not dominating them and that can stop throwing their dog on the ground to “teach it who is boss.” Most people do not want to fight their dog for dominance and thankfully science tells us over and over again that doing so is a bunch of malarkey.
As for me and my pack, I will continue to be staunchly “soft” with them in their training. Give yourself permission to be soft with your own dogs. It doesn’t mean permissive; it means admitting we are the smarter animal in this relationship and we have the onus of being the coach and the soft but generous and effective teacher.
Tell us in the comments just how soft you are with your four-legged best friend!
About Annie Phenix: Positive-reinforcement dog trainer and author Annie Phenix never met a mountain she did not love, which explains why she lives in Durango, Colorado, and why she is always smiling since she is surrounded by mountains. She delights in the snowy season here, as do her five dogs, two horses, and six adorably cute donkeys.