Purely Positive? I don’t think that means what you think it means.

So, don’t get me wrong, I love Denis Fenzi. Even the random tips she gives out for free on her blog have had a big impact on my training and bring out the best in my dog (and upping the fun by about a million percent). But I read her latest blog post and it inspired a bit of rant, and I figured I’d repost it here since my comment was basically the length of a blog post anyway.

In principle I agree, but you’ve touched on a major pet-peeve of mine. Feel free to ignore, long comment is long.

I hate the term “Purely Positive”. In part because it doesn’t actually exist (any time to you withhold a reward you’re no longer “purely positive”) and mostly importantly because trainers who use force, who believe that the only way to guarantee that an animal will listen to you is to dominate it completely, use that phrase to suggest that trainers who don’t use force let things slide, that there are no rules for their dogs because “those purely positive trainers” can only get a dog to behave by leading them around with a cookie. The term is misleading, which is why I prefer “force-free”, because in a world where marketing and appearance is everything, and you’re trying to find a label for a hugely complex subject that encapsulates it in one to two words, for me that’s the phrase that comes closest, and has less “touchy-feely” elements to it.

I’m a crossover trainer (not a professional, just in how I train my own dogs), and not only did I begin by buying into the whole dominance idea (I still shutter at the thought of how many Brad Patterson shows I watched, thank god I switched over before CM became a thing), but before getting my first dog I actually started out training horses, and working as a groom professionally for years. I was indoctrinated with the whole “Ask, tell, demand” mentality, I used to work with breeding stallions, and horses with behavioural issues severe enough that I could have gotten killed if I’d been off my game (or just unlucky). There was no room for softness at the top levels, so throwing out a phrase like “purely positive”, which sounds like a self help gimmick to me, even now that I’ve eliminated force and harsh tools from my training, isn’t going to work very well. It’s not a phrase I would use to try and convince any of my old horse-trainer buddies, and thinking on it I don’t think ANYONE that I’ve worked with since starting with horses seventeen years ago has switched over to R+ methods, or would have anything particularly nice to say about it.

I remember about ten or so years ago when Natural Horsemanship was really becoming a “thing” (thank you Monty Roberts) and I started researching it and came across Pat Parelli’s website. I was there for about five minutes until I read the word “horsenality” and immediate dismissed it as nonsense. I remember blithely saying to a friend, “I can get a horse to love me in a second with a carrot, but I’d rather have their respect.” Because in the world I was living in at that time “love” and “respect” didn’t have to happen at the same time.

When you come from a training culture where a large part of your reputation is built on being a tough guy, it becomes super easy to dismiss anything that suggests you should become weak. When you’ve spend your professional career rationalizing to yourself that what you’re doing is just “tough love,” and that there’s no problem with the relationship you have with your animals because you honestly believe it is based on respect (when in reality it’s based on intimidation and fear), you become convinced that anyone who thinks different is just naive. And it’s real easy to conflate “naive” and “stupid”, so why would you want to learn about something from someone you already think so little of?

Now, anyone reading this blog knows that R+ has nothing to do with being weak. But telling a trainer used to employing force that they should try being “purely positive” is like telling someone who does manual labor to go to a self-help seminar because the experience is “so positive and nice”. To which they’ll say, “Yeah, that’s great, but that stuff is for people who can’t handle the real world, and for people with lots of free time. I’m perfectly happy with the results I’m getting, and am too busy for that sissy stuff.”

I switched because I had a dog with issues, I tried all the dominance tricks I was told (though thankfully never could bring myself to use anything beyond a buckle collar, which hopefully made my collar popping and alpha rolling less horrible for my poor girl) and it still wasn’t working. Not long term, anyway. And I knew it wasn’t my timing, and I knew it wasn’t my application, so I searched out other methods and arrived where I am now, and I couldn’t be happier. I want to be an advocate, but I often feel like we “purely positives”, or “positive-onlys”, or “cookie trainers” do a bad job of representing ourselves as a group. It’s how insanity like this gets put out there as a viable reason to continue using force (http://www.dog-karma.com/training/e-collars.html). We’re not going to convince these sorts of people because they think they already know how force free training works, and they’ve found it lacking.

I wish I could think of a way of rephrasing “Positive does not mean permissive” into a catchy label for R+ training, I think we’d catch more flies with that type of honey.

Now, with all that said I do agree with her post—people should open their minds to new methods. That is what I did and I’m eternally glad for it, and at the moment I just can’t imagine a world where I would ever go back. But then seventeen-year-old me couldn’t easily imagine a world where I bought into “that touchy-feely crap.” Twenty-five- and Twenty-six-year-old me didn’t have the time to look at other options, even though I wasn’t super thrilled about some of the “training” I was participating in to convince some “stubborn” horses to leave the rails up. Twenty-seven-year-old me finally  had a lot of free time to assimilate all the things she had experienced, and notice that she was utterly failing her own reactive dog. I made a choice to change, but things could easily have gone very, very differently.

Once you start training with choice, with rewards, by building a relationship it’s hard to conceive of doing anything different, but every time I’m tempted to judge someone on using “outdated” and “barbaric” methods, I remember that I have done the same. Maybe worse. And I got better.


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