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Wokeness Takes Over the World of Online Dog Training – HotAir

The NY Times published a lengthy opinion piece yesterday under the headline “When the Culture Wars Came for Dog Training.” If you click on the link you get a different much less interesting headline “My Year of Being Extremely Online About Dogs.”

The story is told from the point of view of the author, Alicia Wittmeyer, and because it’s so long it’s also told chronologically. In other words, there are things Wittmeyer has learned by the end that she didn’t know at the beginning. What we’re getting isn’t just her opinion but the journey of how she got there.

So the piece starts out with her confusion about why people in the online world of dog training, which is a big thing apparently, suddenly started talking in ways that seemed to have more to do with politics than with dogs. It started with Mr. George, a dog trainer/online influencer with more than 3 million followers, whose videos the author had watched for years.

…around this time last year, I watched, transfixed, as Mr. George began launching broadsides against an approach to training dogs known as balanced training (more on just what that is in a moment). In video after video, he declared that the dog training industry had reached a crisis point and that it was time for a reckoning with those in the profession who train with what are called aversives — tools that cause a dog discomfort.

The videos did what they were intended to do: They sparked a response. But not just any response. Comment sections filled with discussions on “woke idiots” in dog training. “Radicals Are Hijacking Dog Training,” posted one trainer, calling force-free training, the anti-aversive movement of which Mr. George is arguably the most prominent face, an “ideology” and a “cult” with a “radicalized agenda” — language that sounded awfully familiar.

The underlying argument here was between two types of training. Force free training, sometimes called positive reinforcement, involves treats and sometimes a clicker. The alternative, called balanced training, involves those things too but also might involve a bark collar which could involve a shock or simply a noise or vibration to negative reinforce behavior you want to stop. The two sides of this went to war online and suddenly dog training was part of the culture war.

In the first part of the article, it’s mostly the reactions of people on the right, the anti-woke crowd, that seems striking to the author.

I would stumble on something that stunned me anew with its insistence that dog training methods were a cultural front line — “balanced trainers who try to paint themselves as ‘the nice guys’ will also be the target of the woke mob” — and I would feel a renewed sense that what I was seeing was very real and was simultaneously both absurd and terrible.

But as she explored this a bit more, Wittmeyer discovered that maybe the anti-woke critics weren’t imagining things. Some of the people on the other side really did seem, for lack of a better word, woke.

“The world of dogs does not exist in a vacuum of pet guardian and pet but is interconnected with systemic oppression,” Rachel Forday, a positive trainer, told me when I asked about her use of political language. “Systemic oppression dictates who is allowed to own a dog and what kind of dog they own.”

Eventually, she got to talk to Mr. George, the top dog in this world of online dog training.

Applying the term “consent” to the question of petting dogs stood out to me in this regard: We might flinch at the word being used in this context, but most people, balanced trainers included, would agree that it’s important to recognize when a dog doesn’t want to be touched. A contentious term was masking an area of agreement.

When I brought up consent with Mr. George, though, he jumped to defend it: “People have a visceral reaction: How dare we say that dogs need to consent?” he said. “And actually, that underscores a lot of the toxic masculinity that we have.” When I stopped him to clarify that the objections I’d heard were not about toxic masculinity but about the implied equivalence between sexual assault and unwanted dog petting, he paused; he genuinely seemed not to have thought of it that way before. I asked if using a less loaded term could be a better approach for discussing the actual topic at hand. He conceded it probably would.

Another suggestion that Mr. George really did have a woke streak. By the time of the interview, he had targeted a specific trainer whose methods he decided were cruel and he was encouraging his followers to cancel this person, not only online but everywhere he went.

Mr. George was calling for his followers to show up and protest at this trainer’s events, to contact venues that host him and leave them bad reviews; he was tagging institutions and other prominent dog trainers, urging them to issue statements. Between mid-August, when he started the campaign, and mid-September, when we spoke, he had posted on Instagram dozens of times. A vast majority of those posts had been about this trainer…

…the campaign seemed perfectly calibrated to validate the perspectives of those who previously sounded hysterical and overwrought. In other words, it looked like a woke dog-training mob, after all.

That last line is really the key one in the entire piece. Wittmeyer started out thinking this online language of wokeness and anti-wokeness had infiltrated the world of dog training. Early on she clearly thinks the anti-woke crowd are being a bit nutty, probably imagining something that just isn’t there. But eventually she realizes that’s not at all what is happening. Real wokeness had infiltrated the dog training world and anti-wokeness was simply responding as it always does. If there was a culture war, it was one that started from the left.

Wittmeyer’s conclusion is that the culture war hadn’t come to dog training because some social media algorithm had made it so. The culture war had come to dog training because the culture war comes for everything. I think the author sees that as a generic human problem but I see it as a progressive wokeness problem. They are almost always the ones demanding a) major changes to whatever has their attention and b) immediate compliance from everyone.

The comments on this one are a mix of dog people, many of whom had never heard of Mr. George or any of the online trainers. But the top comment came from someone who said they were a vet but who sounds a lot like Mr. George.

As a veterinarian, let me stress that the literature supports the notion not only that positive reinforcement training is more effective long term, but that “corrections” do indeed have unintended side effects. Some of my equipment in the clinic beeps and certain dogs flinch, thinking they are about to be shocked. Shock collars have the potential to do serious damage, I have seen a dog come into the emergency room for burns and abscessation of the neck because it was turned up too high. Even prong collars have far too much potential for abuse, with owners tugging on them when the only one applying pressure should be the dog. Make no mistake, these “corrective” tools are animal cruelty – owners may be snowed into thinking they are acceptable because they are legal but so is the torture of food animals, so is the breeding of dogs that can’t breathe appropriately or reproduce naturally. If you can’t have a dog without intentionally hurting it, don’t get a dog. If you find their behaviors so unseemly that you feel the need to hurt them, don’t get a dog. These macho might means right trainers need to go.

Other readers seemed to find the whole thing absurd.

Sigh. We haven’t reached peak crazy yet, have we?

I tried. I really tried, but just could not get past the post-colonial remark, and the, forgive me, dogma…about dogs.

Life is too short for this absurdity. Adopt them. Pet them. Love them. Put them on a leash or don’t. Train them so they and others are safe, as you see fit. Enough.

We haven’t reached peak crazy yet but the woke keep marching through the institutions (even online dog training) so we’ll get there eventually.

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