What’s the Matter Here?

One of my favorite songs is, “What’s the Matter Here?” by 10,000 Maniacs. The lyrics tell a story of a young boy being abused by his parents. The storyteller laments over what’s taking place in the little boy’s home, and how his very own mother and father could treat him with such cruelty. It is a song of speaking out against violence and suffering. That’s my take on it anyway.

So what does this have to do with dog training? Everything!

I have talked to dozens of trainers and dog advocates over the past several years, and have heard countless stories of childhoods filled with harsh punishment, fear and intimidation. Many of my peers grew up in the 60’s, 70’s, or 80’s, times when the phrase, “You’re going to get a spanking if you do that,” commonly reverberated from the walls. Often this history, along with a love of dogs/animals, led us to Positive Reinforcement Training.

Did this kind of treatment work? Did we learn to “behave,” and act the way our parents wanted us to because we were afraid of the consequences? In most cases, yes. And in most cases we turned out “okay.” We are responsible, functional members of society. We have made peace with our upbringing, and live happy lives. But the scars remain. They will forever.

Which begs the question, was it necessary? IS it necessary with our dogs?

Yes, we can yell at them, speak harshly to them, tug at their leashes, push them down on the ground, stare at them, and use pain-causing devices in the name of training, and it will likely work. We will have “well-trained” dogs. But the bruises left behind may not be visible, but they will be there. I promise you that. Just as they exist with humans. We carry them around daily. They are not seen, unless one has a very keen eye, but they are always present (watch the body language of dogs trained positively and dogs trained harshly, the difference is astounding).

When talking to folks on the streets about Positive Training versus aversive methods, I often hear the words, “But my dog loves me. Look, he kisses me.”

How do I answer that? Well, those who grew up with parents with heavy hands love their moms and dads too. They do. Regardless of their faults. They gave them life, and roofs over their heads. But for many of them, there have been struggles to deepen the parent/child relationships as adults. They desperately wish those memories did not exist. How much better would life be if they had been treated positively (consistently) from the get go?

So yes, our dogs may still show us affection even if we use rough techniques. They are not fools. They know who feeds them. But the relationships can be so much deeper, with zero fallout, if we remain compassionate.

So why not choose the positive option? Why not choose to teach them to “behave,” by supporting them and encouraging them, not by scaring, or hurting them? Why not choose to listen to them, watch their bodies, and ask THEM, “How you doing?” Why not choose to help them through tough behavioral challenges like aggression, reactivity and separation anxiety by being kind? Not only are there countless anecdotal accounts of dogs being helped through Positive Reinforcement, but scientific studies back up the methodology.

What IS the matter here when we choose cruelty over kindness, fear over trust, force over choice?

As the singer Natalie Merchant so eloquently asks:

“Answer me and take your time,
what could be the awful crime he could do at such young an age?
If I’m the only witness to your madness offer me some words to balance
out what I see and what I hear.
Oh these cold and lowly things that you do I suppose you do because
he belongs to you
and instead of love and the feel of warmth you’ve given him these cuts and sores
that don’t heal with time or with age.

And I want to say “What’s the Matter here?”

One Comment
  • Jill O

    Whew… way to be honest and put it all out there. Thanks for helping to connect a few dots for me. THIS helps me to understand why I value positive over punishment. Thank you.

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