Recently some folks enjoyed a little feeding frenzy over one of my essays, preferring to ignore its main concerns, instead disemboweling it, insistent that somewhere inside were other agenda beyond what I'd written. This is the risk one takes when speaking one’s mind on the internet. Nevertheless, I’m going to take a few minutes to stuff the guts of that essay back where they belong and lay the bloody truth out here in black and white for those who care about such messy things.
I wrote an essay about the CGC program and my concern about potential harm to dogs and their humans’ rights, and their ability to find and keep their homes together—especially the disadvantaged, marginalized, socioeconomically challenged, and so on. Especially renters. But also the risk to homeowners who have fearful dogs and/or other at-risk or vulnerable dogs, or discriminated against dogs, and the risk to the dogs themselves. To be fair, I did not get quite this specific in the original essay, but it would be obvious to any attentive adult reader. To be clear and absolutely specific, the number one point and concern of the essay is the protection of the rights of dog owners and their dogs to find homes and remain in their homes, together, without having to pass the CGC test.
My second concern about the CGC program—and its related programs, if I am to believe the comments made in reaction to the essay (example comment: “positive reinforcement training….does not work for the vast majority of dogs”—a baffling and patently false statement)—is that it is not committed to, or even particularly interested in, positive reinforcement. Indeed, CGC appears to allow methods of force, compulsion, pain (e.g., ‘training’ collars such as prong, even shock?), during training and prep for the test. If one were to judge based on the level of reactivity to the essay, one might assume that harsh treatment were the norm for many who stand up for CGC, as name calling, derision, and shaming of me were the gist of many comments of complaint about the essay. There was also misogyny—by a woman—who referred to me as “Ms Rain,” and a couple of commenters proclaiming my career should be ended: Two or three women declared that I have no business being a trainer, because of how I feel about the CGC. Their comments example the type of mentality that keeps me working and writing, and will unfortunately keep me working and writing for the foreseeable future. Maybe I'll stop when there's no longer a desperate need for we in the Do No Harm camp to stand up for a few little things like The Five Freedoms, and the basic needs and rights of dogs and their humans who are trying to do right by them.
My point here is that the CGC program is focused on getting people to buy the instruction, purchase and pass the test, and then proudly wield the CGC title; they are not so much interested in the minutia of how the title was achieved. CGC does not assess how people are getting the required behavior from their dogs; all that is tested is the end result. In our culture, normally we do not accept The Ends Justify The Means. While there may be a few times throughout life when the ends do justify the means, CGC is a good example of a situation where the means are especially important, and the ends should not justify whatever means one desires, since there is a huge risk of what we call "fallout" -- negative consequences -- to using aversive training methods and / or equipment. Therefore, positive reinforcement should be the required human behavior and tested skill for people training dogs, preparing for a title, and testing for certification.
My third and final point about the CGC program is, essentially, that it is unnecessary and/or overreaching, and that overreach is unacceptable because it puts lives and wellness at risk. While I grant that there are some valid CGC test points with which I do agree (though I still refer you back to my points one and two), others I find irrelevant to being a ‘good citizen’. When an unnecessary or overreaching training program served to a group of target students (like dogs and their owners) is designed to bring in revenue for the organization that runs the program, in order to pay organization salaries, grow in size and power, gain influence and/or enjoy other benefits such as connections in other organizations--and at the same time that overreaching program actually puts dogs and their owners at risk in order to further its goals while also being uninterested in the welfare of the recipients to whom it is delivering its program--that program may be guilty of misdeed. When a multimillion dollar program, delivered to disadvantaged recipients by an organization with assets in the hundreds of millions, puts disadvantaged dogs and their owners through distress (point two), hardship, and possibly even serious life changes (point one), is that program not the source of a double or triple misdeed?
Part of the reason I call out the test items and fail items I do is because they highlight an attitude--toward dogs, behavior, and the relationship between dog and human--that doesn't shine for its loving and cooperative nature, in my opinion, but rather is rigid and unforgiving. If you are outside and your dog urinates on the grass, is it really the end of the obedience world? I mean, maybe it isn't ideal or convenient, but does it really mean the dog is not a good citizen and should be failed, and therefore, in some cases, not be given the insurance needed to get to live in her owner's apartment or condo? This is the kind of concern that informs the essay. It is not just literally about the rules. It is about what the rules imply and what the rules could result in, short term and long term. This is just one of many examples, so please don't get stuck on whether or not dogs are allowed to eliminate, or where and when. (PS: A vet or tech approaching in your vet's office is not the same as a random stranger approaching while you are out on a walk, and in any case, we train husbandry skills for the former.)
Of course I am not saying don’t train your dog. Such a reading of the essay would be silly. Of course I want you to train your dog. I want you to train your dog humanely, ethically, and without fear, force, pain, intimidation, or compulsion. I want your dog’s training to be fun for the dog (and for you), not scary, painful, confusing, frustrating, or demoralizing. I want your dog to behave well because it is positively reinforcing to do so, not because s/he is afraid to do otherwise.
Of course I am not saying you should take dogs out into the public and let them do as they will. Again, such a reading of the essay would be silly. Some dogs are simply not ready to go out in public yet (and obviously I’m not advocating for dogs to free-feed on humans and other animals). That is why people hire trainers and behavior consultants. Certified, insured, ethical, and humane force-free, pain-free, intimidation-free trainers and behavior consultants.
Since some have asked: Yes, I do happen to have an idea for a program that might better serve the needs of dogs and humans sharing the world safely and cooperatively. No, it is not why I wrote the essay; rather, it came as a result of the essay.
To summarize, I would like to see the CGC program revised, as well as separated from public policy, insurance company requirements, and HOA rules. If you want to take your dog to CGC, that is your business. But if you want the CGC program to be marketed to or required by governmental agencies, insurance companies, and HOAs, then it is everyone’s business and concern.
Here's a thought experiment for the philosophers and other serious thinkers out there. What would happen if every dog in the United States were required to pass the CGC?
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