What do fish trainers know?

When Zeke was about ten months old, I took him to a local conformation and obedience trainer; a person who made their living by showing, breeding and training dogs. She gave classes and seminars and was widely regarded as an expert. I was looking for answers. Or even better, a magic wand.

She asked me how old he was. Ten months I said. Oh, she said confidently, we’ll fix him. I felt hopeful and grateful. I described my journey with him so far; all the things I’d ‘tried’ that had so little success, including clicker training and she said, Ah, what do fish trainers know about dogs? And clicker training? The dogs are just throwing behaviors at you, just junk behaviors. Looking around the large arena filled with people and dogs that had come to learn from her, I felt affirmed in my decision to come to this expert. 

She was the last ‘big name show competitor’ trainer I ever turned to. Zeke’s behavior continued to worsen in spite of my best efforts to ‘fix’ him according to her suggestions, all of which involved the application of corrections on a choke chain.

A few months later I stumbled onto a ‘pet dog’ trainer who was offering reactive dog classes. She set me on the path of management and positive reinforcement training, which then led me to attending a Clicker Expo, and discovering the amazing world of science-based behavior training. But that trainer’s bold statement has stuck with me. And the more I’ve read and studied the work of multi species trainers, from Bob and Marion Bailey to Ken Ramirez, the more I’ve marveled at it.  

Animal trainers developed and practiced positive reinforcement and applied behavioral analysis literally decades before dog trainers began to accept it. That makes me wonder. Dogs have been our loyal companions, living in our homes, willing to do anything we ask for thousands of years and yet many of us still view them with suspicion, fearing they are wanting to dominate and challenge us. Why have dog trainers been so late to the party?

I wonder if it isn’t a question of motivation. After all, if you’re working with an animal like an orca, or a silverback gorilla that can kill you in an instant, you might be bit more motivated to find a way to communicate with it.

Anyway, today I know the answer to that person’s question. Fish trainers? They know a lot.

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