It is not by design, at least not by any intentional design of my own that I have ended up in positions where I have served as change master over the last couple of decades since finishing grad school. It just seemed to work out that way. Over the past couple of decades I have developed and helped to develop a number of new programs and positions, encountering far more resistance to change than I ever anticipated or enjoyed.
I remember my supervisor at one well known medical institution where I worked to implement a system-wide makeover in competency assessment saying that change takes time. It occurs slowly. He said, “It’s like turning the Titanic.” That image sticks in my mind as I contemplate my experiences as a positive reinforcement trainer in a geographical region steeped in compulsion and locked in a time warp that in many ways is decades behind much of the rest of the country.
It is so hard to see progress when we encounter so much continual resistance over what seems to be a long period of time and meet failure after failure. But are these failures really failures? The image of the Titanic causes my mind to wander, as we enter the colder months of winter, to images of icebreakers, ships that clear the way for other seafaring vessels.
Could it be that some of us are destined to clear the way for others? To be icebreakers?
After I graduated from the Karen Pryor Academy I naively imagined that my services as a professional dog trainer would be in demand and that veterinary professionals as well as the dog-owning public would recognize the expertise I had that set me apart from the competition, particularly competitors espousing ineffective and outdated beliefs about dominance and methods of compulsion.
Even before graduating I offered to set up a positive reinforcement dog training program for the county extension office but the youth coordinator, unbeknownst to me called in the trainer from a local humane society who used force-based methods and my hopes of setting a precedent of positive reinforcement training for area 4-H’ers were foiled. The pattern repeated itself as I forged ahead with several other new program ideas in different venues.
The idea of force-free positive reinforcement training was really a new idea in the area, even to so-called humane societies. One humane society went so far as to forbid the use of clicker training, even after seeing the results I was able to achieve with the dogs at that shelter. Why? The director told me because, “That’s not the way we train dogs around here.”
I did demonstrations which were well received by veterinarians and distributed literature we had been provided with in the Karen Pryor Academy only to take second or no place to compulsion trainers in terms of referrals and partnerships.
I gave talks, lots and lots of free talks to children and any group of teens and adults that would listen on positive reinforcement training and clicker training. I taught the children in my neighborhood. I talked to anyone who would listen! I wrote articles and made online posts and burnt the candle at both ends thinking and teaching about positive reinforcement training.
Always the dogs and the occasional other species responded. It’s the people who presented the challenge, although I have to say, those who saw what positive reinforcement training could do first hand were often easily converted believers.
Now, amid the naysayers and those who held tightly to their sacred misbeliefs I am beginning to hear utterings of terms such as clicker training, marker training, positive reinforcement training and force-free training, and while these terms are seldom used correctly and the trainers who are starting to adopt these terms and methods are combining them with force-based methods, the idea that dogs do not have to be hurt or threatened to be trained is starting to gain acceptance. The humane society that is partnering with the county extension office to teach dog training to 4-H’ers still recommends force-based training but is starting to change their methods to positive reinforcement. I must put pride aside as they claim to be the originators of this idea.
Amidst all of the flurry and scurry that accompanies change, my faithful following and friends have kept me sane, and the animals I have trained and the peoples’ lives I have positively impacted are what keeps me going. They keep my bow strong as I continue to press steadily forward against the power and and strength of the resistance in pursuit of right versus might.
Maybe my job is to be an icebreaker, to clear the way for others. It makes me wonder if my job here is done now and what the next challenge will be, but I guess I’ll find out in due time.
I feel like I spend a lot of time banging my head against a wall, but in reality what I am feeling is the collision of my great will and passion for animal welfare with the breaking ice of long held cultural norms. And while the job of breaking ice may not be the job I knowingly signed up to do, it is the job that has been set before me and I need to accept that some of us were not destined for smooth sailing but rather for clearing a path for others who are making their way behind us through these icy waters.