We are all crossover trainers

10881736_10103791908202447_7804554788661321363_n“It is what makes us human, what distinguishes us from other animals. We can be aware of being aware.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

This month, I’m giving two seminars for Tawzer Dog in conjunction with Helping Idaho Dogs, one of them touching on training mindfully, a concept I’m continually developing and building upon (morsels here and here). As a result, I’ve been putting much of my mental real estate into researching and thinking about motivation and mindfulness: What motivates us to change, what gets in the way of change, and how we continually change in our relationships with dogs.

A common term used in the dog training industry is “crossover trainer,” referring to an individual who used aversive training methods in the past (shock, prong, choke, and other forceful methods) and now uses force-free methods to modify a dog’s behavior. The idea that a trainer can “cross over” and evolve into more humane methods of dog training is a beautiful one. After all, what good is a community of force-free trainers if it uses force on individuals who have yet to fully commit to force-free training techniques?

Except, “crossover trainer” is still a label. It implies that at some point in the past, a trainer made the “wrong” choice. It also implies that there is a difference between trainers who have “crossed over” and other trainers who have used only force-free methods.

“The typical imperative from biology is not “Thou shalt… ,” but “If … then … else.” 
― Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works

While exploring this label, I explored my own history with dogs. I’m not technically a “crossover trainer.” I started my dog training career the same time I started my study at The Academy for Dog Trainers, and have only used force-free methods as a trainer. But I interacted with dogs long before I became a trainer. When I was in grade school, in preparation for bringing home a family dog, I read books by The Monks of New Skete. At one point, my family and I placed a prong collar on our dog because it’s what the pet store told us to do to prevent pulling.  I never used “corrections” on him, never used fear or intimidation to modify his behavior, but I also had an incredibly different relationship with him than I do with my current dog, whom I adopted around the time I joined the Academy.

In thinking of my experience, and hearing the experiences of colleagues and clients, I’ve come to believe that we are all “crossover trainers” to various degrees. Even if we’ve never used a shock or prong collar on a dog, there was a point in time when we didn’t know about Skinner’s quadrants or how to implement classical conditioning. Our interactions with current dogs are most likely different than interactions with dogs 10, maybe even 5 years ago.

All of us are continually evolving in how we interact with a species different than our own thanks to the scientific and animal behavior communities. Nature is not stagnant; it pulsates, evolves. “Crossing over” to force-free methods isn’t a fixed point in time. Instead, it’s a continual adjustment in how we interact with dogs.

Circling back to training mindfully, possessing the awareness of how we have changed in how we interact with dogs, from broad concepts to tiny daily interactions, allows us to gain more insight into how we train and how we can improve.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com. She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.

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