Our Specious Enemy: Friendly Fire in the Trenches of Dog Training

by Kristi Benson


Caveat: I usually work to avoid military metaphors in my writing, but in writing this piece I found them simply too useful, especially considering my somewhat depleted state. Please click away if these will be distressing for you.


Recently, my boss/colleague/dear friend Jean Donaldson said, with the wisdom of decades in the dog training biz and the resultant fatigue as well, “it’s the friendly fire that’s really awful these days.” Friendly fire—in this context meaning the barbs from other positive reinforcement trainers—indeed feels somehow more demoralizing than the outright attacks from the usual crowd who hits back at us: trainers who are wedded to the use of aversive tools and techniques to change a dog’s behaviour. The attacks from aversives-using trainers can be egregious (including pretty horrific social media mobbing tactics and threats to the businesses of my colleagues who speak out about aversive tools), but in some ways, they can also serve to rally our troops. 

Our lines in the sand are clear: We don’t agree with nor condone the use of pain or fear as motivation in dog training. 

As humane welfare laws are introduced and the public—that is, our clientele as dog trainers—become more aware of the efficacy of positive training and the side effects of aversive training, trainers who continue to employ these techniques seem to be retreating, regrouping, and rethinking their battle plans. They have lost ground, much to the relief of dogs, but they have not yet lost the war. One of the techniques I believe they are using is the good ol’ divide and conquer approach. Identify some patterns in the fabric of the positive reinforcement movement, pick at the threads that tie us together, and pull. Step back and watch the battle, feeding the flames if at all possible. (One of their favourite ways to feed the flames is to point out that positive reinforcement trainers aren’t being very reinforcing when they call out welfare abuses to dogs, a claim which has sadly been internalised by some of our R+ colleagues…because of course we will point out abuses to dogs, it’s practically in our handbook). Now, I’m not saying that this divide-and-conquer behaviour is being carried out on purpose or with any kind of forethought—I quite honestly don’t know. It could just be something that happened to work, trial and error learning in the most basic of forms. But what I do know, and what we all know, is that reinforcement works to strengthen behaviour, and certainly seeing my own R+ comrades-in-arms turn against each other has to be at least somewhat reinforcing for those who condemn, with absolute alacrity, our shared position against aversive tools. 

But where does that leave us? I’m also feeling the effects of friendly fire, albeit without the wisdom nor longevity in the field that Jean has. Being on the receiving end of angry criticism from those that I respect and enjoy is, to start, exhausting and enraging. As the days pass by, though, disappointment and dismay bubble up. Because friendly fire feels so personal and so awful, I want to strike back. I want to run into battle and scream and yell. I want someone to hear me. 

It’s a powerful feeling, isn’t it? I can’t help but admire how clever the manipulation, no matter if it’s planned or happenstance. I’ve turned my anger towards my friends and colleagues, as they have turned their anger upon me, instead of all of us remembering to be angry at the real threat to dogs’ safety and emotional health: those trainers who use aversive tools, and those trainers who promote aversive tools or who bolster others who do, even if they themselves do not.

So I’m trying. I’m trying to remember what the real spectre is. Hurting and scaring dogs is unfair, unnecessary, and deprives dogs of the joy, freedom, and welfare that they deserve.

I should not genuflect at the efforts to sow discontent made by those trainers that continue to use aversive tools despite mounting evidence and decades of attempts at collegial (and not-so-collegial) education about the benefits of positive reinforcement and the side-effects of aversives. In fact, those colleagues of mine who are much smarter and more sophisticated than I in the practice of changing the public’s mind have made it clear that neither infighting nor actively marching into battle against aversives trainers is effective, nor is sharing the table with these trainers, which gives the public the idea that our differences are inconsequential to dogs. This is why the Academy has started an informal campaign to “Elevate R+” trainers in our midst: to ensure our public is exposed to the many fantastic and effective positive reinforcement trainers in our midst. 

Normally, the conclusion of my articles is where I include a bright or emotional call-to-arms to my readers…but today, I’m afraid, I remain feeling a bit lost. I’m perhaps not ready for an amnesty. If you’re also feeling lost, or perplexed, or like you have to hide away, you’re not alone. Friendly fire might be misdirected and even, eventually, forgivable, but it’s still fire. So I guess I’ll end on this note: my hope and goal in writing this article—which, directed as it is to my colleagues, is actually a bit of friendly fire all on its own—is to remind myself and all my colleagues that it’s remarkably human to draw lines in the sand and stand behind them, pitchforks and slogans at the ready. But just because our behaviour is natural, doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed (um…resource guarding, anyone?). 

Those speaking out against aversive training tools and techniques are speaking out against animal abuse. They’re on both our side, and the right side of history.