Fighting Words

Another day, another sermon to the choir from proponents of positive dog training. If you are not in the dog world, the furious dialogue is probably unfamiliar to you: dog trainers who apply Pavlovian and Skinnerian theory to their craft have harsh criticisms for trainers who rely upon (and teach to their clients) training and handling methods based on pack theory.

Let me be clear: I get that pack theory has been debunked as an explanation of domestic dog behavior. So, why has it won mind share? And what can positive dog trainers do to counter it? A recent article from the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors illustrates how not to make the point.

Like almost every article I’ve read on the topic, this one comes across as a condescending scold. Therein lies the problem.

Declarations and insinuations that positive trainers are “more scientific” and better educated than their readers and opponents are not effective as persuasive language. “Pack theory” is rich with metaphors for relationship dynamics that people experience with other people and believe they understand. Whether or not the concepts explain human-human relationships accurately, they evidently do not apply to relationships between human beings and dogs.

The case is strong for spreading the gospel. The messaging, right now, is weak.

What’s the story?



It’s a straw man at so many levels. Very few ordinary dog lovers/owners have bought into The Scientific Theory of Packs. Plus, many controversial techniques are not taught as “pack theory” anyway …

Christie Keith

I’ll tell you this: I have such a knee-jerk negative reaction to all mentions of positive training BECAUSE of the bad and negative messaging of its proponents. So many of them come across as condescending, ignorant, and living in a delusional la la land where ponies poop vanilla ice cream while unicorns gallop by chasing rainbows… ack. I’d LIKE to make up my mind just based on the facts and my experiences, but it’s almost impossible to clear my mind of the overwhelming negative impression “positive” trainers have given me over the years. Decades, now.

Not to mention that my personal experience with the dogs of many positive trainers has been that they’re totally out of control. And I’m talking about the biggest names in positive training. AND, let’s add to it that I’ve trained dozens of dogs using average methods of collar corrections and similar “punishment” techniques. If a positive trainer wants to tell me they harm my dog somehow, I’m willing to listen, but they don’t. They tell me these methods don’t WORK, and they tell me they make neurotic dogs, and since I can tell you they DO work and my dogs are NOT neurotic, it seems to me that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

I read “Culture Clash” when it first came out, and I remember being struck with how many things in it I knew weren’t true. Not theories or interpretations, but simple statements of fact that were contrary not to my beliefs but my experience.

And it’s not like I’m a trainer clinging to her dogma… I am not into training and have no allegiance to any particular theory or method. I just know that the positive training people not only drive me nuts, but don’t use their OWN METHOD when talking to other human beings!

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