I would like to make one thing clear straight away: I’m not talking about masculinity. I’m not saying all men are bad. I’m not saying masculinity is bad. I’m saying there exists a very dangerous perception of “what it means to be a man.” And for that matter, “what it means to be powerful.” As an educator and advocate for force-free animal training, I’m taking this opportunity to address this controversial topic in an effort to inspire change in the animal training community.
The most concise definition I could find for toxic masculinity, as it relates to animal training, is from Sara Stremming’s podcast, Cog Dog Radio. In an episode about toxic masculinity she equates the toxic culture with the need to dominate. I’d like to add that this phenomenon is not restricted to men. I’ve seen some women display characteristics of toxic masculinity in an effort to achieve a sense of power. In other words, it’s not about who’s applying the principle, it’s that the principle still exists.
Traditional forms of animal training revolved around dominating the animal. It was a “do it or else” mentality. Humans were not companions, they were masters. I write these words in the past tense but unfortunately these beliefs are promoted daily by dog professionals everywhere. The archaic ideas of domination and force are still being used by many dog trainers, groomers and veterinarians, and they’re unchecked in 4-H clubs throughout the United States. It breaks my heart that we are literally still teaching children to dominate animals, but I digress. That’s a topic for another time.
What does toxic masculinity look like in the dog training world? It looks like “corrections.” It looks like a prong collar, shock collar or a choke chain. It looks like ear pinches, toe hitches, paw squeezes and lip pinches. It looks like “slight pressure” and “mild discomfort.” It looks like pushing, pulling, hitting and yelling. It looks like Cesar Milan. It looks like a person who is trying to look tough with a dog on a prong or choke collar, yelling commands and giving corrections.
I am not here to shame people who have used these training methods in the past. After all, you can’t practice what you don’t know, and how would you know if every dog professional you come into contact with still preaches primitive training methods? (If you know me, you know that I am not big on judgement but I am big on education.) While the science and application of alternative training methods existed back in the 1940’s, it wasn’t until Bob Bailey and Karen Pryor entered the scene in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s that the general public started to become aware of these more positive and scientific teaching methods.
It’s now 2019 and when I Google “how to train my hunting dog to open his mouth” the first thing that pops up is an antiquated method of dog training that involves forcing your dog’s mouth open, placing an object in the dog’s mouth and then forcefully (with “gentle pressure”) holding the dog’s mouth closed so it cannot spit out the object. It’s unacceptable to me that force-free training methods have been around for more than 30 years yet there are still dog training professionals who not only refuse to use force-free methods but continue to spread the message of domination and force. Why?! Force is not more effective. It’s not easier. It’s not faster. Is it because using force makes people feel powerful? Or perhaps, for some trainers, staying in their comfort zone is more important than the treatment of the dogs they train?
It’s no secret that the majority of force-free dog trainers are female and that the majority of my clients are also female. This is likely because force-free training is seen as a soft and gentle way to train and our cultural perception of “what it means to be a man” doesn’t include the terms soft and gentle. That is, of course, unless you are ex-cop, force-free dog trainer, and beard extraordinaire, John McGuigan. In a discussion with Sara Stremming on Cog Dog Radio, Mr. McGuigan talked openly about toxic masculinity being “the inability for men to be able to express themselves in a way that is seen as being soft.” He goes on to say when a guy is seen as being soft and gentle he’s “seen as being weak.” But he says it’s not about being weak, “It’s just about being human.” [Insert standing ovation here]
Unfortunately Mr. McGuigan is frequently on the receiving end of cruel words because he’s a man who believes in force-free training and isn’t afraid to talk about it. Let me say this again: The man is trolled because he is vocal about treating animals with kindness and respect. If there was ever any proof that toxic masculinity is a cultural phenomenon that is prevalent in the dog training community, this is it. When promoting kindness to animals incites anger and resentment you know there’s a problem.
I began my training career in 2004 using positive-reinforcement methods and at the time people had a hard time understanding my choice to avoid using corrections. I really thought that by 2019 force-free methods would be more commonplace and people would stop thinking I was a complete weirdo. I know that the world of dog care and training is getting there, and I know it will happen, but perhaps it’s time I encourage change by getting a little loud about it. (And to be fair, me being a weirdo will be the case forever and I’m completely okay with that.)
Bottom line: The idea that animals need to be dominated has to die. You’re not powerful because you’re being hard on your dog (or child, or spouse, or colleague). This idea is not based on science or research. It is a manifestation of toxic masculinity and it has to stop. I watch it hurt dogs on a daily basis. What’s more is that the dog’s human is completely unaware of the damage being done to the human-dog relationship that I assume they are trying to foster. It's 2019 and either these humans still don't know any better, or they're choosing to use force on their dogs for reasons I don't think I will ever understand. When you know better, you should do better.
It always goes back to the Golden Rule, folks. Just treat others (animals included) the way you want to be treated. After all, you get what you give, right?
Peace, love and paws.
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