Oprah and the Dog Whisperer
We received a lot of e-mail and calls after the Dog Whisperer appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. To the uninitiated, the Dog Whisperer is a trainer whose approach is to show the dog that the owner is dominant and the dog is subservient. In other words, the "show'em who's boss" method of training.
The calls and e-mails shared a theme:
"Why doesn't clicker training get this kind of national coverage?"
Excellent questions. There's more than one answer. Ask a sociologist, you'll get the answer: Culture. Ask the public relations specialist, you'll get a different answer: Connections. Ask an economist and get yet another answer: Market demand.
As a business owner with vested interest in clicker training, these questions aren't academic to me. That single broadcast just made it a little harder for every clicker trainer in the US to win new customers. Oprah showcasing the Dog Whisperer got under my skin because millions of people were just "told" by cultural icon Oprah that dominance is the way to go in developing a relationship with your dog! Talk about irony. Isn't Oprah all about healthy relationships? Like so many of you, I want to see clicker trainers, rather than traditional dominance trainers, make it to Oprah. Apart from the humanitarian motivation, exposure on Oprah would help clicker training grow and help get closer to a more ambitious objective: clicker training as the people's first choice for training their pets.
Where to begin
So whose perspective is the one that can most help clicker training grow?
Let's begin with the sociologist. Surprised? Here's why. For clicker training to become the peoples' choice, to reach the mainstream of America , clicker trainers need to recognize that we are up against a deep-seated cultural bias, one that severely limits pet owners' expectations from dog training. Our task is to help people replace that narrow vision with a broader vision and higher expectations, with "something more." We can do it if we can show people that clicker training uniquely delivers that "something more." With me? Keep reading.
What we're up against: a culture of obedience
Most people would accept as reasonable the assumption that the average pet owner simply wants their dog to do what they tell them, when they tell them to do it. Pet owners just want an "obedient" dog. When pet owners go to choose a training class, what do they look for? Someone who will teach their dog to obey their commands. The training class marketplace clearly reflects this demand; the most commonly used name for an introductory dog training class is, of course, "obedience class." Even some trainers who use positive methods or clicker training, those who use no aversives, call their courses obedience courses! Why? Because pet owners gravitate toward classes that promise obedient dogs.
I believe this is because we live in a pervasive "culture of obedience." A lot of value is placed on obedience in our society. Obedience provides order, prevents chaos, and ensures safety. Until very recently, obedience overwhelmingly defined capable parenting: good children are obedient children. It has been a key ingredient of successful businesses for a long time. A senior executive of a Fortune 500 company once told me (quite seriously) that he "did not pay employees to think, just to do." It is the essence of military function. A good soldier obeys (moral) orders without thinking. And a good dog sits when commanded to sit and stays when commanded to stay.
Yet as the foundation for any relationship between intelligent living things, this culture of obedience imposes a low, unimaginative threshold. As a result, the goals of most pet owners for training their dogs are low and unimaginative and defined by obedience. So why is that a problem? Don't we want our clicker trained dogs to be obedient? Clicker trained dogs are obedient; clicker trainers call it reliable behavior on cue. But , many training methods that compete with clicker training also produce obedient dogs. Why, therefore, should pet owners select a class that uses clicker training over any other? For one thing, clicker training offers a more humane way to produce obedient dogs than these other methods. That's a big difference isn't it?
Creating demand for "something more"
Now, I turn to the economist for help. The economist might look at the market for training services and ask whether "nice" is enough of an advantage to persuade the majority of pet owners to make clicker training the "peoples' choice." I think the answer is, no. Not enough pet owners will turn to clicker training because it's nicer than other methods. Nicer must compete with other things that pet owners care about, too, like closer, cheaper, faster, and simpler.
If we want clicker training to become the people's choice, we need to offer something more, something that:
- People really want from their investment of time and money in training their dog; and
- Only clicker training can provide.
Aaron Clayton with Tucker and family
My household consists of a 79-pound, two-year-old black Lab named Tucker, two elementary school-age kids, their friends, lots of older and younger nieces and nephews, two working parents, and a guinea pig.
When I started training Tucker, I thought first about the goals for my life with my dog:
- I wanted Tucker to be happy and safe in the environment of our home and family and my work.
- I wanted to enjoy living with Tucker and for him to enjoy living with us.
- I wanted Tucker to be a rock-solid family dog, a dog whose food bowl you could take away while he's eating and whose tail could be pulled without complaint, a dog who is thrilled but calm when he sees every member of my family, my friends and their dogs, gerbils, or guinea pigs. (I'd made an exception for the neighbor's cat.)
- I wanted Tucker to wrestle with me!
- I wanted to be able to take Tucker to lots of new places, to be able to adapt to new environments like friends' houses, new walks, or my children's schools.
- I wanted him to demonstrate, each day, that he possessed that fine balance between enthusiasm and self-control.
That's what I wanted, and that's what I got. Like every other pet owner, I wanted Tucker to do what I asked of him, but obedience was not the explicit and overarching goal. It was just assumed and, actually, subsumed by this richer vision.
The "something more" training goal: life skills
In order to achieve these goals with Tucker, I needed an entirely different set of training objectives from those traditionally taught in dog training classes. I needed to teach Tucker self-control, to desensitize him to all kinds of touch, to leave things that aren't his. I needed to teach him to look for direction from me in uncertain situations. I needed to have a sustainable system for teaching him to be an enthusiastic learner his whole lifetime. In short, I needed to teach my dog life skills.
The "something more" training method: clicker training
What type of teaching and training would best help me achieve these goals? Only clicker training can get me there. Like it or not, one can teach many common behaviors using dominance-based training, which is intrinsically aversive—but can anyone compellingly argue that the general public can teach their animals to be enthusiastic learners that way? Can the pet owner develop robust learning and life skills in her dog with those approaches? No. Those goals can be achieved only by clicker training.
Do your customers want "something more"?
If you're a teacher of pet classes, do you know what your students want out of the time and money they spend with you? Can they articulate their vision? Can you help them cross the threshold from wanting simple obedience to desiring "something more"? Can you show them how the clicker trainers' way uniquely helps them achieve their vision?
I believe that expanding their vision is the first, most important step a pet owner can take, and the first training topic that every teacher should cover with a pet owner. In your first class, ask your students and clients to write down their training goals. Give them a sudden glimpse of what a CLICKER dog can do and be. Guide them in seeking a richer relationship with their dogs, more than simple obedience. Guide them to "something more."
People will train using the methods that best meet their goals. If we want to help clicker training become the people's choice, we need to help them set goals that only clicker training can meet.
And what about Oprah? Now that we have "something more" to bring to the public, it's time to pull in that PR perspective. So, does anyone's personal organizer out there have an entry under O. Winfrey?
Aaron Clayton is President of Karen Pryor Clickertraining and will be teaching a session on growing training businesses at ClickerExpo. Also visit the Business Success Center for Professional Clicker Trainers at Clickertraining.com for programs, tools, and ideas to grow your business.