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Kassi's Birthday Blog: Reflections on Finding Force-Free Training

Today (January 12th), I am celebrating my 31st birthday. Those closest to me know that birthdays make me feel quite nostalgic and prompt me to spend time reflecting about the previous year of my life. This year, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed with joy* as I look back on my 30th trip around the sun. It was the year I fell into what is now a fiery passion: working as a dog trainer.

Olive and Kassi training

Let’s jump back to 2019. Shortly after moving into our first home, my partner, Kevin, and I brought home the sweetest Cavapoo named Olive. Olive quickly became the centre of our universe, and all our priorities centred around raising Olive to be a happy, confident, and of course, well-behaved pup. (I’ve grown to care more about the two former qualities, than the latter, but that’s a story for another blog post). We spent a couple of weeks finding our rhythm then decided we were ready to start some formal training classes.

Having never raised a puppy before, I took to Facebook to solicit suggestions for a trainer or training organization that could help get us off on the right foot. The responses from friends and family members in the Edmonton area came flooding in. We had several options available to us. Knowing next to nothing about the dog training scene in our city, we took to the suggestion of a trusted friend who was, at the time, in school to become a veterinarian. Quick shout out to Dr. Teryn! Teryn recommended our very own Erica Cheung, with Revolution Animal Behaviour Consulting and Training. After a quick review of the website, we noted that puppy preschool would take place close to our house and decided to register. How convenient!

Olive the Cavapoo as a puppy

Our first puppy preschool class was a ‘humans only’ orientation. Kevin and I gathered with the other new puppy parents and listened to Erica tell us about herself, what to expect in class, and tips for effective training. I remember feeling comforted when Erica explained her background and education in animal behavior (it was important to me that I learn from someone with both experience and education). She also explained that we’d be using positive reinforcement and humane training methods when teaching our puppies; no ‘corrections’ would be needed.

I cannot emphasize how lucky I feel that we happened to choose to work with someone whose philosophy is centred on displaying kindness toward animals and upholding their welfare (both in and outside of ‘training’). Over the past couple of years, I have learned that not everyone is so lucky. At the time, we didn’t choose to work with Erica because of her humane, science-based practices, we chose to work with her because we knew very little about dog training and she was a professional in our area.

Some of you may not know this, but the dog training industry is unregulated (read: anyone can decide to call themselves a dog trainer and charge you money for their services). This means that pet parents can easily fall into working with ‘trainers’ that continue to push outdated and downright harmful methods. With no one to hold them accountable, ‘trainers’ can so easily mislead pet parents into using those harmful methods. I think of this often, especially when I see pet parents using tools like prong collars and e-collars or engaging in practices like leash pops (all of which make my cringe and sometimes even well up with tears). While it makes me sad for the animals, it is a reminder to myself to give that stranger a little bit of grace, knowing that a professional likely told them that these were the ‘right’ things to do for their dog; to come from a place of empathy and not judgement because they put their trust in someone who calls themselves a ‘professional’.

Would I ever condone the use of punitive, forceful, or compulsion-based methods in dog training? Heck no. Not only is it unkind, but the science says that it is unnecessary (AVSAB Position Statement). But what is important to remember is that people are trying to do their best by their dogs, and before we jump to judgment, we should remember that there may have been a ‘professional dog trainer’ encouraging them to use such methods.

What if we had opted to take another suggestion, instead of Dr. Teryn’s? What if we chose to work with someone other than Erica? What if that person had said to me “the best way to solve X behavior is to punish your dog”; “you must hold your dog accountable for their behavior”; “an e-collar would help you with X problem”; “ignore your dog when she’s scared” ? I may have trusted them, and their advice, because they call themselves a professional. It is not lost on me that we got lucky. Our story could have looked very different, if we hadn’t registered in Erica’s puppy preschool class back in 2019.

Fast forward to 2022, on my 31st birthday, just a few days after celebrating my one-year anniversary as an assistant dog trainer with Revolution Animals. Over the past year, I’ve fallen completely head over heels in love with working with dogs of all ages, and their humans. I am a Fear Free Certified® Animal Trainer, and remain dedicated to ongoing education, so that I am always giving my best to the people and dogs that I get to work with. I still have much to learn, and I am incredibly excited to take it all in.

Olive and Kassi on the trails

When working with clients, I think back to puppy preschool with Olive, and it is a wonderful reminder of how lucky we are to have found the ‘world’ of fear free and force free dog training, so early in our puppy’s life. Reflecting on this enables me to approach each new client with curiosity, openness, and grace. “Shame doesn’t teach”; another important reminder when I encounter clients that have utilized methods with their dog that do not align with my own. It is my job to help people cultivate a trusting relationship with their dog, and I do not take this task lightly. It is my job to enable others to find joy in working with their dog; something truly magical that can only be found in positive, force-free approaches.

My Mom’s friend wished me a happy birthday earlier today and referred to me as a “defender of dogs”, which I must admit, feels accurate. I will always advocate for the humane treatment of these wonderful, sentient creatures. It’s pretty incredible that doing so also happens to be part of my job description.

* I want to acknowledge that there is an immense amount of privilege in being able to look back on the past year with joy and happiness. Though my year was not perfect, I know many in my community and beyond struggled significantly amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. I want to take a moment to thank all healthcare workers and frontline staff—your hard work and dedication has not gone unnoticed.

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