New York Times opinion editor Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer wrote a lengthy piece observing how the different schools of dog training now represent “woke” and “anti-woke” factions in the American culture war.
While Wittmeyer noted that she has seen a steady flow of political rhetoric applied to dogs in recent years, such as one dog owner vowing, “I will not project colonial, capitalist, or patriarchal concepts on my dog,” she noted that the politicization of dog training has increased thanks to dog-related influencers.
The piece mentioned Zak George, a dog training influencer who has 3.7 million followers on YouTube and is outspoken about rejecting traditional “balanced” methods of dog training in favor of “positive” training, recounting his call for the dog training industry to confront its “misogyny.” He has also “covered subjects ranging from pronouns and trans rights to racism in policing to toxic masculinity and how all of these subjects, in some way, relate back to dogs.”
The two main schools of “positive” versus “balanced” dog training differ on how they try to discourage bad behavior.
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“Proponents of positive reinforcement training say you stop bad behavior through a combination of management measures (drawing the curtains for a dog that won’t stop barking at passers-by) and reinforcing alternative behaviors you prefer (giving treats to reward moments of not barking),” the writer explained. “A balanced trainer, by contrast, might suggest a bark collar — a device that emits a negative stimulus like a shock or a high-pitched sound whenever the dog gets set off.”
But despite seemingly being a debate over training household pets, these two schools tend to correlate with political ideology with “unsettling precision.”
“Was it just coincidence that so many balanced trainers seemed to be men in tight shirts who trained Belgian Malinois in protection sports? Why did positive trainers seem to post so often about mental health (canine and human) — and why did so many balanced trainers complain about dogs being overmedicated? Why did so many positive trainers talk about following the science and so many balanced trainers talk about science having an agenda?” Wittmeyer asked. “Each of these questions, taken on their own, had an explanation. Taken together, they managed to map out the battle lines of the culture wars with unsettling precision.”
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Wittmeyer summarized the findings of Dr. Robert Topinka, who studies digital culture at Birkbeck, University of London, that as consumers increasingly relied on social media amid the pandemic, they began to follow influencers based upon their “vibes,” which can be overtly political. “In 2023 one ready way to signal a vibe is either wokeness or anti-wokeness,” Wittmeyer observed.
The piece quoted “positive” trainer Rachel Forday, who defended the use of politicized language about dog training by declaring, “The world of dogs does not exist in a vacuum of pet guardian and pet but is interconnected with systemic oppression. Systemic oppression dictates who is allowed to own a dog and what kind of dog they own.”
Wittmeyer wrote that Mr. George has been leading “what could only be described as a full-fledged cancellation campaign against another dog trainer — a particularly egregious one” whose methods have been criticized by other trainers as well.
“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,” Wittmeyer wrote. “A vast majority of those posts had been about this trainer.”
Western Carolina University professor Katharine Mershon, who studies the role of dogs in American society told the Times about how dogs are something upon which humans can project “fantasies about what we want — either who we want to be or what we want the world to look like,” have been a source of conflict in her rural, Appalachian town.
Wittmeyer summarized that on one level the conflict was about whether allowing slightly underfed hunting dogs to roam freely in the rural area constitutes abuse, and on another level, local disputes about this were “actually about gentrification and the place of newcomers to impose their values on local life.”
Poet, philosopher and animal trainer Vicki Hearne was quoted describing this exact phenomenon when she observed, “Quarrels about training technique are almost never about whatever the surface issue appears to be.”
Norwegian researcher, Ane Moller Gabrielsen, who observed how a similar, albeit more gendered divide between dog training approaches in Norway, suggested dogs are just another projection of human politics.
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“It’s so easy to project ideas of discipline and loyalty and obedience and all this strong leadership — it’s so easy to project that upon dog training,” Dr. Gabrielsen told Wittmeyer. “But at the same, it’s just as easy to project ideals of democracy, equality, reward-based, no-punishment, because it all works.”
“From this perspective, it’s not that the structures of the internet ensure that the culture wars will come for every subject; it’s that the culture wars were inevitably going to come for dogs,” Wittmeyer wrote.