Deferred Suffering


Two dogs enjoying some offleash time – oh wait, they’re both wearing ecollars! They can’t be enjoying themselves, can they?!

I am a balanced trainer.

I’ve got a lot of tools in my bag-o-tricks, including my voice, my hands, my feet, my hips, my eyes, my body posture, niblets of treats, the ghost and promise of treat niblets, sticks to point to things, sticks to swing in front of a dog’s nose, coyote tails, squeaky toys, rattly cans, listerine, vinegar, leashes, harnesses to teach pulling, pinch collars, martingales, electronic collars, doggy life vests and crates.

Every moment in a dog’s life is “training” because all training is learning.

A good example of why I am a balanced trainer is because of an incident when Dax was a puppy.

Some backstory: Dax was a TERRIBLE puppy. I almost returned him a couple of times because he would bark. Incessantly. He enjoyed being sprayed in the mouth with listerine. It was maddening.

Dax also liked to steal food off the counters as soon as he was old enough to do it. We would do formal leave-its, setups, self control exercises, rattle cans, the works trying to get him to stop, but this being Dax – Patron Saint of Persistence, none of this curbed his hunger for counter food (pizza in particular, I think he ate an entire half pizza once).

Until one day when we demonstrated to Dax that we are, in fact, evil Magicians. This of course happened after he had behaved himself for a while and we thought we had the counter surfing taken care of, and had grown somewhat careless for a moment.

There was a pan of chicken breasts cooking on top of the glass top stove when Dax decided he wanted to sample this.

A quick yip! and out came a black streak straight to his crate. He had burned his nose on the pan in his investigation  of possible chicken theft.

And Dax never tried to steal a piece of food off the counter again (and this has been the case more than a year later)

After that, it was fairly easy – he would choose to ignore the food on the counter and come to me instead – and would get some treat niblets in exchange to let him know he made the right choice. But he made that choice, and his experiences gave him the right sort of data to make that choice. “Sometimes, stealing food really SUCKS. How’s about I not-do-that and get some treats instead” from a possible consequence to a predictable bonus.

A lot of people snub and ridicule balanced trainers that will use corrections or setups to have a dog learn to Not Do something.

But that pan of chicken taught Dax better than all of my previous self-control exercises did. And Dax’s quality of life improved significantly at that point – he could have greater freedom of the house, he could be trusted to take care of himself more, we could trust him better in public and visiting because we knew he had learned a lesson – food on countertops (and it was then easy to expand this to tables and in fact developed a default leave it with him) was Not To Be Touched.

That’s the real reason that I’m a balanced trainer. I want dogs to learn quickly how to conduct themselves well in public and at home. I want their owners to trust their dog, and to have a dog that is both reliable and relaxed because the rules have been established.

Some lessons in my life have been painful. Some lessons for dogs might be too. But I would far rather have a quick, perhaps painful lesson followed by a lifetime of mcuh greater freedom, trust, responsibility, and enjoyment than a lifetime filled by constant re-hashings, slow lessons, half-effective counterconditioning for instinctive drive based behaviors, and stress. Stress both on the part of the dog that lives in perpetual uncertainty because it doesn’t understand a lesson (because dogs will Not Do something they understand is Not To Do, the only reason they break that is because they’ve found wiggle room or something isn’t clear in the rules of their existence) and stress on the part of the owner who quickly builds up resentments, frustration, and generally learns not to like their misbehaving dog on a very personal level.

What results may be that your training doesn’t cause suffering to your dog, but your dog suffers. You’re simply deferring that suffering, spreading it out. Your dog’s overall welfare is poorer than it would have been had you simply addressed their problematic behavior, rectified it, and moved on past the problem.

Point in example – Dax was a terrible puppy. I hated him as a puppy.

But now I’d attack somebody with my TEETH if they tried to take him from me.

We went through (what felt like) a long period of learning – establishing rules of conduct, rules of behavior, appropriate behavior in multiple settings and contexts. Sometimes we still have brief lessons on these things, but largely he has learned them.

And especially for the vast majority of people with pets, they’re not willing to struggle through the martyrdom of living with a four legged terrorist in their house so they can ascribe to a moral position that using corrections on a dog is Innately Wrong. So if they had a Daxpuppy, he would’ve been out the door within a month.

And that’s a fucking shame. Because nobody is better than the Daxman – as much work as I put into him, he’s given me back out the work tenfold.


(And for those who think that counterconditioning dogs against drive or aggression isn’t slow, they should try it. I have. It is. It works great as an additional exercise, but to me shouldn’t be your sole recourse.)

And hat tips to master trainers who have tackled this subject before with much more skill, eloquence, and tenacity than I’m capable of:

There are more, but I’m too brain dead to remember them. Poke around a bit – you’ll find them.


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