Are You Destined to be an Icebreaker?

Icebreaker Oden I Are You Destined to be an Icebreaker?

Sweedish Icebreaker Oden I

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the expertise I had that set me apart from the competition, particularly competitors espousing ineffective and outdated beliefs about dominance and methods of compulsion.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.

10 thoughts on “Are You Destined to be an Icebreaker?

  1. Good luck to you Cindy. We need more positive trainers. Teaching those humans is very difficult. I have been trying to get humans to understand us dogs for YEARS. Some don’t have a clue so I am working on getting the dogs to learn how to control their humans into understanding their needs and wants by being more effective as a dog.

  2. Wow, I hear you.  I remember when I worked as a secretary to a new Vice Principle in a High School in Wisconsin.  He was supposed to implement some new programs and the staff reaction to him was just vicious.  People are very conservative animals: they don’t like change, as any student of anthropology and history can attest to.

    Dogs are conservative also.  It usually takes 2 weeks for dogs to accept and be comfortable with dramatic change in their lives, ie, new dogs in the household, different sleeping arrangements, new rules.  People need to accept this propensity of most dogs, and be as patient with them as they would be with people. 

    When it comes to training, I have found over the years that most of what we ask our dogs to do is based on what the dogs themselves are able and apt to do.  If you think like the dog, you climb inside their heads, get down on their level, and attempt to understand the components of the cue and how they may view it and how their dog culture interprets it, you and the dog can come to a cross species understanding.  After that, it is natural to cross that biggest barrier keeping people from successfully training dogs: EXPECTATIONS of success.  So many people don’t really believe they can ask a dog to do something and he will.  They resort to dominance and harsh training techniques because of this mindset.  Understanding the nature of dogs and the likelihood of success allows for the introduction of positive re-enforcement techniques.

  3. Keep breaking that ice, Cindy!  We may not be able to chip away as much as we’d like at those trainers who are firmly entrenched in force-based methods and tools, but the more we educate the public that there is no place for force, fear, pain or intimidation in dog training, the more they will seek and choose trainers like us.  More dog owners choose my classes specifically because of my dedication to force-free training now than ever before.  The tides are changing, and it’s thanks to the efforts of people like you.

  4. I loved this story Cindy. When you are passionate and focused on the cause, you have to be an icebreaker.  Someone has to work hard to get the word (education) out there.  Thank you for sharing and keep on…KEEPING ON.

  5. Thank you for your well-written and helpful article, Cindy.  I am just beginning my formal dog training career and I always appreciate any info from people who are actually out there doing the work.  Stay strong and maybe we can find a way to clicker train the people.  Bless you.

    • Thank you, Amy! People learn by pretty much the same way that animals learn, except that people have verbal communication. Many people do not stop to think about that – for example, many people think dogs should just know what they are saying without having properly taught the dog the meaning of the word.

      At the same time, many people are impressed that their dog knows hand signals. It is actually cleaner training to teach verbal cues first. Dogs are always monitoring our body movements and easily pick up on the subtlest of intended and unintended cues.

      I have to say too that even though people and animals learn using applied behavior analysis, both people and animals have cognitive skills and emotional reactions that cannot be overlooked. I look at both people and animals as complex organisms that process information about their environments in different ways.

      Another thing that makes people different from animals – and I know there are people, even trainers who would differ is that animals do not have a moral code or ethics. Only people can bypass that moral code and this is what gets them into a lot of trouble.

      Good luck in your journey to become a trainer – just beware, when you hear other trainers speak about “learning theory,” they are only referring to one among many and that is operant conditioning.

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