I have worked with animals for longer than I care to admit in public. Yet, during all those years I have discovered only one universal truth about animal training: that there is only one thing two animal trainers are likely to agree on, and that’s the fact that a third animal trainer is dead wrong.
No two animal training experts agree on all subjects. There are countless schools of thoughts about how animals should best be trained, that’s true, and the most commonly accepted methods have changed over the years. Generally speaking, the tendency in the Western world has been to shift towards “gentler” methods. Just as our society in general has become less accepting of violence in the home, oppression in the work place and so on, we demand a kinder treatment for animals. This is also possibly a reflection of the fact that for most of us, animals are a luxury, an addition to our life, rather than a necessity. Not so long ago, when we relied on animals to perform tasks for us, people tended to have a less lenient view of their misbehaviour, and take sterner steps to control it. Times move on, life changes and so do our ethics. Our legislation, as legislation does, has followed suit, and the Animal Welfare Act of 2006 places serious responsibilities on all people who care for animals.
Still, animal training, whether done by professionals or by animal “owners”, is as personal and debatable as child rearing, which in my opinion is precisely as it should be. Each trainer and each animal are different, and what works for one may not work for another. We do not attempt to carry out our social interactions based on the tenets of a standardised textbook. We select and measure our responses and behaviour based on our personalities, the situation, and the personalities of the people we deal with. You do not talk to a three year old child having a tantrum in the same way that you would talk to a yobbo about to mug your grandmother. I, as a ridiculously small woman, would also talk to said mugger in quite a different way from male bodybuilder friends of mine. We alter our behaviour to suit what we determine would work in a given situation. Why would we take a different approach towards animals? They also have personalities and needs.
Over the years, I have developed my own personal approach to dog training. The view I take is that I do as little as I have to in order to keep myself and the animals safe. One of my dogs responds to biscuits and kind words, so that’s all I use. My incredibly hyperactive puppy, however, seems unable to focus on any words spoken at normal volumes, so I often have to resort to shouting like a fishwife. It isn’t what I like to do, but whispering sweet nothings to him while he’s charging off into the sunset, or towards a main road, would not do the trick. Conversely, it would be pointless shouting at my old boy – it would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and would needlessly upset him.
When I was recently retraining a neglected Rottweiler with a tendency to cart people off and occasionally bite them, I had to change tack yet again. I could not engage in discussions with him. There was no room for error. As much as anything, he weighs more than me. His behaviour made him a danger, which in turn made him a danger to himself. When dogs bite people, they don’t only hurt the people they bite. Dogs that bite can get put down. So I praised him when he was good, but I used a Halti on him to stop dragging me down the street and made damn sure that he knew I was in charge at all times. And yes, when he had a go at me to try and get me to give him my dinner, he got a sharp rap on the nose. He didn’t do it again. Problem solved. I guess you could class my approach as an attempt at ensuring proportional response at all times.
"Horses for courses", as the saying goes. I may be accused of excessive pragmatism, and of suggesting that the end justifies the means. However, I’d rather like to see those doing the accusing dealing with the dogs I deal with. Show me a better result with less of an input, and I will take great pleasure in listening and learning from you. Up until that point, I’ll stick with what I know, thank you very much.
I also know what it is that I do not know. I have friends who train all sorts of animals. I can deal with dogs and horses, and in the case of horses I know I’m not experienced. So, I don’t feel I can judge their methods, because I don’t know enough about the animals they deal with. If I cannot make an informed judgement, until I get the necessary information I’d rather not make a judgement at all.
I wish more people took the same view. Only yesterday, Alan Titchmarsh, the well known HORTICULTURALIST, savaged Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer” on his show. The accusation launched at Millan was that his methods were excessively violent. Cesar Millan has made his fame by popularising his theory that dogs respond to their pack leader. In order to ensure their good behaviour, you must set yourself up as their leader first. Once the pack structure is in place, everything else will fall into place too. He has never advocated repressing or abusing dogs, but he encourages people to use methods that work for them, on their particular dogs, and that includes physical touch.
Whether you agree with Millan’s methods or not, or agree with part but not all, is fairly immaterial. My point is that he is an animal expert, who has worked with hundreds of animals and saved the lives of many dogs who may have otherwise been "put down" because of their "uncontrollable" behaviour. He might have helped save a few people too, by preventing those animals from attacking them. Titchmarsh works with plants. What gives him the right to launch accusations on a subject on which he’s not an expert?
I am probably overly suspicious, but I have the feeling there may be a causal relationship between Titchmarsh’ entirely out-of-character behaviour and a hate campaign recently spread by animal rights activists on Twitter. The activists wanted the interview not to go ahead, because they don’t approve of Millan’s methods. It could be that Titchmarsh formed his opinions independently of this loud-mouthed minority, but I somehow doubt it. I guess I should be glad the interview, if you can lower your standards enough to call it that, wasn’t scrapped altogether, but I find this difficult.
I am unsure as to what Titchmarsh and the activists would like to see done with or for these dogs. An aggressive dog is a danger. An out-of-control dog is a danger. A fearful dog is an unhappy dog and, again, a potential danger. All people who “own” animals have a responsibility to manage their behaviour – and I’m using the inverted commas as, looking at my labs waiting to be asked up on the sofa, it just doesn’t seem quite the right word to use. Personally, my dogs are a part of my family as much as my human relatives. This also means that, like any minor in my care, I am responsible for their welfare and actions. I feel obliged to take the necessary steps to ensure that they are healthy, stable and as well-behaved as possible.
Ultimately, a badly-behaved animal can be a danger to itself and others. A horse that rears, kicks or runs off can kill. A dog that bites or runs into roads can kill. And animals are not people. You can’t scale down child-rearing or team management methods and apply them to animals. You can’t reason, debate or negotiate with them. A sharply-written memo will not be sufficient. Different species and different individuals within a species will need to be treated differently, according to what works with them, but most of them communicate non-verbally. If you try to treat them like people, you will fail, and in doing so you will be failing them.
I understand about dogs, I think, although I know there are people out there who know much more than me. I know I don’t know a thing about Azaleas. I would not tell Mr Titchmarsh what to do with his shrubbery, just as I would not tell Nigella Lawson how to bake a cake. I understand that they are experts in fields that I do not know much about. Why is Alan Titchmarsh telling a successful animal trainer that he is not doing his job properly? The mind boggles.
Astley's Legacy was formed to counter the misinformation and propaganda spread by animal rights activists. As well as fighting the corner for circus animals and their trainers, we are here to promote and celebrate the cultural heritage of circus in general, and especially in the country of its birth - Great Britain. For more information please see our Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/223570581049199