Interview with Jean Donaldson on The Culture Clash

To mark 20 years since the publication of The Culture Clash, I spoke to Jean Donaldson about dogs and dog training.

Jean with her dog Brian and friend's dog
Jean with Brian (front) and friend's dog, Turtle

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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This year is 20 years since the publication of Jean Donaldson’s influential book Culture Clash. Funny, intelligent, and very much about the dog’s point of view, The Culture Clash is still highly recommended by dog trainers around the world. The book shows a strong commitment to training without aversives and provides the technical know-how too. Dr. Ian Dunbar called it “Simply, the best dog book I have ever read!”

I was thrilled to speak with Jean about the book, how things have changed for dogs, and how we can continue to change things for the better.

Zazie: It’s been 20 years since the publication of The Culture Clash. It’s a book that’s still in print, and it’s been tremendously influential and I think a life-changer for many, many people. So it’s definitely something to celebrate. And I wanted to ask you, how much do you think has changed for dogs since it was published?

Jean: I think a lot. Things are so much shifted in terms of the numbers, it would seem. It would be great if somebody actually did a survey where we had some sort of idea of the baseline numbers. So, how many people used to train using any kind of evidence-based attempts and how many people used to train using primarily aversives or a mix, and then how many people do that now. But I fear that that’s just not something we’re ever going to know, so we’ve got to guesstimate based on what we see.  And certainly what I see is that there are more people doing it now. Most of the new people coming in seem to be automatically oriented towards training without aversives and getting a handle on the science.

And certainly one other thing that is clear is that there is the specialty of pet dog training, which when the Culture Clash was first published the Association for Pet Dog Trainers in the US was only – it’s not yet a thirty year old organization – it was still brand new. So just the very idea that pet dog training was a specialty, rather than sort of a trickle down of competitive obedience, is new. So I think both the aversives orientation is much lower now and the notion that pet dogs are a bona fide specialty in training is also almost brand new.

"Most of the new people coming in seem to be automatically oriented towards training without aversives and getting a handle on the science." 

Zazie: One of the things you begin The Culture Clash with is this idea of the Disneyfication of dogs, of how people perceive dogs compared to how they really are. Do you think that’s still the same kind of issue today?

Jean: Yes, I’m afraid it is. I still think that, I mean in spite of all the changes in the training world. And I should add that even those trainers who are training using aversives, if they’re in the pet world, they seem to at least feel they have to advertise that they’re not training with aversives. So they’re using increasingly obfuscating language, they’ll even make claims that they’re quote unquote “positive reinforcement” and then maybe they don’t proceed to do so. But at least they recognize that there’s a demand, and so that is a heartening thing. Yeah, I do think that there is still this tendency, people still find it somewhat disappointing to find out that they must motivate their dog. And that one, I think it’s just going to be an ongoing struggle, we’re going to have to keep pushing.

Zazie: Thank you. So one of the other things that features in The Culture Clash is lots of wonderful information about dog training, which is also in your subsequent books. And I think it’s not just motivation, but many people think that dog training is going to be easy, and then they actually find it quite hard. Why is it so hard?

Jean: I think for a couple of reasons. I mean one is that it’s much more step by step, and I think people go into it with an assumption that there’s kind of a tipping point to the knowledge transference. That, you know, dogs understand concepts of sit or the concept that he knows he should come to me. That we mistake a correct response for full knowledge, as opposed to a correct response that may have been just because of prompting or chance, or it was an easy situation, and then subsequent disobedience as agenda-driven instead of no, that was one correct response and then there’s a wrong response. And if you would like to have more responses that you like, you’ve got to sort of add grains of sand to a scale to change the probability, rather than you say it, he does it, boom okay that parts over now the rest of it is just if only he weren’t stubborn. And so I think there’s that part of it. Then the corollary of that is that we’re living increasingly in a day and age when people are over-booked, we’ve got lower tolerance for process, everything is lightning fast, you know computers, we want things when we want them. And there’s no way that dog training is ever going to become that kind of instant gratification speed.

Now for that reason I also think that it’s good for us, that it’s very grounding. It brings us back to the natural world where there just isn’t that kind of speed. But I think it’s a rude shock for people to find that out, that they’re going to have to practise, practise, practise, practise, rather than just explain to the dog ‘I would like you to do this’ and then it’s just going to happen. So between the motivation and the step-by-step nature of training, it’s a collision for most people with their day to day lives.

Jean Donaldson with her late chow chow Buffy
Jean Donaldson with the late Buffy

Zazie: Definitely. So just coming back to motivation again, I think increasingly people are using food to train their dogs but there’s still a lot of people who are very resistant to the idea. How do we change their minds?

Jean: I’m not sure. My instinct is just sheer repetition of the truth, which is, it’s kind of a glass half full philosophy that people can handle if we just say it and we call on their adult nature and say look, nobody does anything for nothing, there just isn’t that. Now we humans, some of our motivations are of the type that we like to label as altruistic or higher or better, when we’re trying to do things for the common good or to benefit others or for anything that might be philanthropic. Whereas dogs are a little bit more like 3 year old children in so far as you know 'so what’s in it for me, how is it going to advance my objective', and that’s the bad news. The good news is that dogs are actually relatively easy to motivate. There’s so many things that work. Food is pretty much universal. Unfortunately pain and fear are also universal and we’re stuck in this situation where, when we use food, it’s harder for us to cloak that in ‘well, he’s doing it for you.’ Whereas the pain and fear crowd, I think they have an easier time disguising that as ‘you know, we’re just fixing his attitude and the real motivation is he’s doing it for you and we’ve just adjusted his attitude with the pain and fear’. Or ‘oh no it’s not really scaring him, it’s just showing him’, so we have a conflation of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ question.

And I think that if we push for transparency so that people say, okay there’s going to be motivation any which way, then your choice becomes carrot or stick. And I think – at least my optimistic side likes to think – most people will then elect carrot. So those two steps have to happen. We’ve got to make people start to be a little bit more critical as consumers and recognize even those trainers who are trying to exploit their desire for the dog to do it for altruistic motives, that those people are actually bamboozling them, I think that’ll help. But I don’t think I have any illusions, it’s a tall order. I mean, me and far better people than me have been pushing for this for decades, and it’s better than it used to be but it’s not an easy one to fix.

"I think that if we push for transparency so that people say, okay there’s going to be motivation any which way, then your choice becomes carrot or stick."

Zazie: Definitely not easy. You touched on transparency, and a little while ago you started something called the transparency challenge, and we saw various dog trainers giving their answers to the questions in that challenge. Can you say something about the purpose behind starting that?

Jean: Yes, the purpose was to couch the dog training issues, both the philosophy and the competence issues, as consumer protection, which is I think quite right. Not only are there dog welfare issues, and I think most people doing things towards other beings, if there is less invasive, they’d prefer to be less invasive.  And then we take a step back and so the question then becomes you know, can we get the job done? And then we need to make sure that people are not falling for gobbledegook language that I referred to before when trainers who are less scrupulous make all sorts of appeals.

For instance the other day somebody I know said that somebody else they knew, a friend of a friend basically, was taken for a ride by a dog trainer advertising themselves as quote unquote “a Buddhist dog trainer”, where they were trying to get the dog centred and in the right state etc, and then proceeded to coerce this dog. And these people, who are educated, these are people with graduate degrees, living in Berkeley, who just, well they assume this person wouldn’t have got in to dog training – dog training is not a fantastically lucrative profession – therefore anybody who gets into it must be sure of motives, must be altruistic, must love dogs, and also they must know something we don’t know. This tendency to never challenge the dog trainer, it’s partly why the dog whisperer is still on television, it’s partly why people don’t question, it’s partly why you can say things like “we’re centring his energy” or “we’re changing his centres” or whatever. Well essentially what you’re doing is yanking a dog on a chain, but if we get people to recognize it, that there’s going to be a concrete physical world motivator, and you as a consumer can actually test this out yourself, you can be a consumer scientist. And say, okay if you are actually training this dog with Buddhist energy beams, do it without the metal chain on his neck; if you’re a dog whisperer actually doing this with energy, what’s the special collar, let’s see you do it without kicking him?

If we get people to recognize that this is just market-speak, at least, in the US there is I think a very strong instinct, and I think it’s a good one, that we don’t want to be taken. We want to know the ingredients in the jar, we want to know what’s being done, we want transparency, we want to know before we spend money for goods or services if somebody is doing something that is non-ethical in that regard, they should be prosecuted, literally and metaphorically that it shouldn’t happen. And I think that’s an instinct that we can capitalize on by making people recognize that there’s always a concrete real world motivator, it’s likely to be one of these five or six things, identify it, and be especially wary of those trainers who don’t state up front what they’re doing. I mean it’s really kind of the informed consent model that I think might help the cause. I mean it remains to be seen whether it’s going to do so but that’s the rationale.

Three questions to ask dog trainers for consumer protection
Three questions for dog trainers

Zazie: So following on from that, do you think dog training should be regulated?

Jean: Yes I think it’s high time and it really is almost an embarrassment that it is not yet regulated. Given the interest that people have in public safety, so whenever there’s an incident, a dog bites or somebody is sadly injured or killed by a dog, there’s huge amounts of interest in expending taxpayer money to do things like ban breeds. And yet in spite of that clear interest in public safety, the fact that dog trainers are not regulated seems to be a disconnect. And there needs to be minimum education, minimum competence standards and hopefully ethical requirements. I think it’s probably going to happen in our lifetime, it’s just a question of getting past the political difficulties that are inherent in cleaning up a profession.

Zazie: One of the arguments that people who use aversives often use is they claim that there’s no choice, that it’s a case of ‘aversives or death’ is the way we can kind of summarize it, that they have to use, sometimes, aversives, otherwise the dog is going to have to die. What do you say to that?

Jean: I think that’s a valid argument. If the question was, and I’m somebody who doesn’t wish to use aversives, however I do reserve that if there was literally a question where somebody said look we’re going to use aversives on this dog or we’re going to kill him, I think I would say yeah of course let’s use aversives. But then we get down to the reality, and the reality is that then we need to account for the thousands – if not probably tens of thousands – of practitioners who are already out there, daily, getting the job done both in training, behaviour modification, management of animals, the full gamut of case types, and they’re doing so without aversives. And so, how would the aversives or death… they’d need to account for it, they’d need to account for me, they’d need to account for the thousands and thousands of other trainers. And they seem to sidestep that question altogether by making this false claim that we’re just saying well, you know, euthanize the animal – and that’s just not happening. And so I think there’s denial on that side. Which is understandable, I mean if you think of the position that they’re in, they’re electing to use aversives in a climate where there is this huge chorus of people saying you don’t have to do so. And so their choices, psychologically, are either they’re electing aversives needlessly, which is kind of psychologically untenable, or we – the other side – are killing dogs. So I think psychologically it’s about their survival and so it’s not surprising that they make that claim because the alternative is unbearable.

"we need to account for the thousands of practitioners who are already out there, daily, getting the job done both in training, behaviour modification, management of animals, the full gamut of case types, and they’re doing so without aversives."

Zazie: Switching topics slightly to ordinary people, to ordinary people when they’re training their dogs. If they’re committed to using reward-based training methods but they’re still learning, what is the most common mistake that people make and how can they improve?

Jean: The most common mistake – and everybody’s going to have to forgive me for being such a broken record – it’s not sufficiently addressing motivation. So, to put not too fine a point on it, basically failing to cough up the chicken. Either not using enough reward, often enough, being armed with it when necessary, having a high enough value of reward, manipulating the economy so the dog isn’t full so if you’re using food making sure that the dog isn’t already full. That is a number one that even people who nominally have bought into using rewards then might proceed to kind of gradually in a slow-drip manner undermine the process by trying to use as little as possible, as infrequently as possible, as low value as possible, .. and things end up not going so well and they say well reward-based training isn’t working. And it really is kind of “I’m expected to go do my job but I’ve just been given a pay cut of 90%, and I have poor work conditions and my performance is starting to flag and so my boss assumes that money therefore isn’t motivating” etc, whereas “this whole bit of stuff about motivation doesn’t work and we should now resort to electrically shocking me to get me to perform” etc.  So I think that is still of epidemic proportion.

"The most common mistake is not sufficiently addressing motivation."

And then after that there’s various mechanical things but they so pale in comparison to the reluctance that people have to make it worth a dog’s while to answer the question of ‘why should I do this?’. Here’s why you should do it.

Cover of the second edition of The Culture Clash

Zazie: Excellent. So just to give a very concrete example, you have an extremely cute dog called Brian, and I think probably some people would look at him and just think “he’s very sweet, why do you have to motivate him?” When you really need to motivate him, what do you use? What’s his favourite reward?

Jean: He’s very about primal nibs. He’s about this stuff called Rawbble which is little kind of freeze-fried raw things. He’ll work very nicely for chicken breast and I cut it into tiny little dice. He’ll work for cheese. He’ll occasionally work for a toy but not much, he’s not incredibly toy-driven and so I generally train him with food. And he can go and go. When I first got him, before he was much hooked on training, he’d be good for maybe 10-15 minutes. Now he’s to a point it’s been over a year and he can go probably for an hour or so in a class situation and still keep working. And I should say for the record even though he’s a small dog and I train him loads, he’s not the slightest bit overweight. And most of the dogs I know who are owned by food training trainers, their dogs are in superb condition, and there are many people out there who don’t train with food whose dogs are obese. So I would venture to say that if somebody were to study this, I would predict that there’s not a correlation between using treats to train and the dog’s medical status or weight, that that just doesn’t happen.

Zazie: Go Brian, that’s very good! So if someone is getting a dog for the first time, they haven’t had a dog before, what do you think is the most important thing for them to know?

Jean: That’s a great question! I would say the most important thing for them to know is that they’re bringing another species into their home, and that all kinds of things that the dog is going to do are going to be dog things. And so even before they understand training and contingencies and so on that they hopefully open up to the actual kind of wonder of having this other being. You know, we pay good money for cable channels so we can watch shows depicting crocodiles and rhinoceroses and other cultures and any kind of being that’s different. We’re fascinated by that. And I think we’ve become a little bit contemptuous of the familiarity of dogs but they are very different and I think part of the beauty of it is welcoming that they’re gonna do dog things, and so.. I’m just pre-normalizing a lot of it, that people can access to up-to-date information on what dogs do and that it’s not all sort of an insidious plot, that it’s just a dog being a dog and if we can kind of celebrate that.

"There’s all these things that are to me this shifting landscape from ‘you have your dog under your thumb’ versus ‘are you doing right by him? are you making sure that he’s happy?’"

And I think it’s also a change that is very happy. It used to be, when I first started in dogs, this was long before The Culture Clash, the paragon of a good dog owner was somebody who had their dog quote unquote “under control”, that your dog was quote “well-behaved” which meant he was not inconveniencing humans, wasn’t moving too much etc. Now, more and more we’re putting dogs into everything from MRI scanners and we’re trying to discern whether the dog is happy. So the mark now of a good dog owner is somebody who is actually fulfilling the dog’s basic needs. So letting the dog be a dog, training with the least invasive ways possible, making sure he’s got a veterinary experience that’s not going to be full of fear etc. There’s all these things that are to me this shifting landscape from ‘you have your dog under your thumb’ versus ‘are you doing right by him? are you making sure that he’s happy?’ And that is in no way going to harm the public good, it’s not. These are perfectly aligned objectives. You can still have a dog that is quote unquote “well behaved” and not dangerous and not a nuisance etc while still being happy. The fact that we’re factoring in the dog’s quality of life now in a real way and we’re trying to as objectively as we can and as faithfully as we can figure out what that is, I think is a tremendous development that I don’t think anybody would have foreseen 30 years ago.

Zazie: And you touched on veterinary care as well, so how can we make dogs have better visits to the vet?

Jean: Part of that is going to be really tough because sometimes veterinarians – and groomers too I might add – have to do things that are necessarily going to be painful and scary. Dogs are going to come in hurt, injured, they’ve got to do emergency procedures, they’ve got to do surgeries on dogs. But I think increases in understanding about fear, medications we can use for pain management, for management of anxiety, pre-preparing dogs, I think all these things can go a long way to mitigating what to dogs has got to be a very difficult thing. And I think that the Fear Free movement deserves a callout, that it’s dove-tailing very nicely with what those of us in behaviour have been saying for a long time which is that fear is something that we need to take very seriously. And if it can be prevented, mitigated and ameliorated when it is on board, will go a long way towards bettering dog’s quality of life and keeping veterinary staff and the public safe.

Zazie: Thank you. So you’ve been an educator for many years now, and must have taught thousands of dog trainers. What are the qualities of a good dog trainer?

Jean: Oh wow that’s also a good question. I think now first and foremost it’s somebody who relishes, enjoys and has got skills at communicating with novice owners. People who don’t have the same kinds of motivations as dog trainers. When you’re training dog trainers, part of the thing is trying to get the dog trainer to be efficient and not train like a bat out of hell and work the dog for two hours etc. You know, we’re built to train, we love the process and we are about dogs and we’ve decided to devote our lives to it. Owners love dogs and they adore their dog, but they don’t have the same intrinsic motivation that we do. And so I think the ability to accept and meet owners where they are, and relish the challenge of making all the intricacies and pieces of dog training accessible to owners. So that involves the ability to triage, the ability to empathize with the owner in a genuine way, to not be judgemental that the owner is not a dog trainer. The only people who are entitled to have dogs in their homes are not people who are already dog trainers. We can be that kind of translator and we can get the dog’s quality of life, we want to protect the public good, and have the owner enjoying their dog more. It’s a very complex profession. And people who embrace that part, as opposed to just wanting to advocate for dogs, I think that is the dog trainer of the future. And then of course there’s all that technical knowledge, but I think first and foremost – and that’s something that one can’t teach – is somebody who really genuinely is curious about and likes handling the people end.

Zazie: So you run the Academy for Dog Trainers. I was very lucky to win a scholarship and then graduate, so I know it’s a wonderful school. If someone is reading this, and they’re thinking of going to learn more about dog training, what is special about the Academy?

Jean: I think probably the thing that makes it the most different are the standards, both in terms of the length and scope of the program, the demands it makes. It’s really asking a lot. Which means that for some people they’re going to find themselves in their element, but I think it’s not for everybody. I think it’s a bit of a shock to the system of dog trainers that up until fairly recently – really in the last ten or fifteen years – the standard for entering the profession has been extremely low bar: read a few books, maybe put some titles on some dogs, go to a few seminars, put out a shingle. And we’re saying it’s just not enough. We want a lot more, we want it structured, we want it evaluated, and we want two years’ worth of it.  And I think for some people as I said they’re going to find themselves right in their element but it is not for everybody. So people thinking about the Academy need to be really sure they are up for a big commitment and I think a complex profession such as ours needs that, but people need to be ready for that kind of challenge.

A huge thank you to Jean for answering my questions! You can read more about the Academy for Dog Trainers or follow them on Facebook.

Companion Animal Psychology has published interviews with talented scientists, writers, trainers and veterinarians who are working to promote good animal welfare. See the full list.

About Jean Donaldson: Jean is the founder and principle instructor of The Academy for Dog Trainers.  The Academy has trained and certified over 600 trainers in evidence-based dog behavior, training and private behavior counseling since 1999. She is a four-time winner of The Dog Writers' Association of America's Maxwell Award, and her books include The Culture Clash, Mine! A Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs, Fight! A Guide to Dog-Dog Aggression, Dogs Are From Neptune, Oh Behave! Dogs From Pavlov to Premack to Pinker, and Train Like a Pro.

Born in Montreal, Canada, Jean founded the Montreal Flyball Association, and Renaissance Dog Training, the first positive reinforcement-based school and counseling service in the province.  Her own dogs and dogs she has trained have earned numerous titles and wins in various dog sports including OTCh (Obedience Trial Champion), UD (Utility Dog), TDX (Tracking Dog Excellent), FDCh (Flyball Champion), CGC (Canine Good Citizen) and HIT (High In Trial).  While a student, she worked as an adoption counselor at the Montreal SPCA and later served on its Board of Directors.  Before founding The Academy, Jean did exclusively referral aggression cases for six years.  She lives in Oakland with her dog, Brian, adopted in 2015.

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