Dealing with Negative People: A Guide for The Positive Dog Trainer

So. It's happened. Maybe for the first time, perhaps for the 50th. No matter. It still stings, enrages you, upsets you, and gets under your skin.

Somebody made a snarky comment about you as a trainer, your positive training choices or, even worse, your dog.

The nerve! How dare they?

You chose to be a positive trainer after careful consideration, perhaps even after using a more forceful, punishment-based methodology. You might look up to many amazing positive trainers and be certain that if you were just as good a trainer as they are then the comment wouldn't have happened. 

Negative Comments Aren't About You. Really.

Uh. Hang on. You are so very not alone.

I've told the story of being told I didn't deserve the brilliant, talented and way-too-smart Sally dog.

I've less often recited the tale of Brody's humane education and media work. If I had a dollar for every person who said (or implied) that if he were a "real" dog* I wouldn't be messing around with positive training and I would be a much wealthier woman. Every single positive trainer I have spoken to about this (and I know quite a few, both local and global training superstars) has heard these kinds of comments, made in an effort to put them down.

What can you do about the critical comments? There are a number of potential solutions and understanding what it is about the comment that has upset you may make a difference in your response.

The point of the comment is likely not to wound or hurt you – no matter how personal it feels. The commenter may need to validate their own position with a put down, or may believe they are "helping" in some way (the air quotes are because I completely understand how unhelpful the comment is).

Criticism can push you forward (much like mistakes do) and constructive criticism can really inspire growth. So look for nuggets of truth or constructive comments – you may find hidden wisdom.

For example, I was once asked if I was a Pez dispenser, and realized that I did not have clear criteria for what I was rewarding at that moment. Clear criteria mattered to me. I used that information to make myself a better trainer – thanks judgmental person! 

Opening Up A Conversation on Positive Training

No one is perfect – not you, not the person making the remark.

Embrace that and never forget we can only do the best that we know how to in any given moment. You will get better at training if you keep working at it. This I can promise you.

Your commenter may in fact be trying to learn.

If you have time and energy you want to spend, you can open a discussion about what drew you to positive training. They may shut you down, but they may also walk away thinking hard about what you share. You certainly do not need to ever engage someone who is being critical of your methodology though!

Negative comments are in many ways a backhanded compliment to your hard work. The more you put yourself out in the public eye, the more likely it is you will hear a comment.

That's a good thing for the positive training movement.

It means people are paying attention (and perhaps feeling threatened). Success can bring out the haters. Jealousy is a very powerful driving force for some people. If you can understand their suspicion it will help you not feel personally attacked. 

Dealing with Criticism In The Moment

In the actual moment, when someone makes a negative comment, you have a very short window to decide what to do.

You can walk away. A response like, "thank you," or "have a nice day" may fill space.

If it's a consistent message from the same person, you may decide to be more direct, even if you don't want to have a conversation. "We'll have to agree to disagree," is an example of a comment that can work in that situation.

If you invite conversation be sure you listen to learn rather than listen to respond. Use the information you glean to inform and educate yourself.

Knowledge is power and understanding the root of comments that attack positive training will help inform your discussion when it happens again. 

Taking the High Road

Consider your emotional response – can you find any sympathy for the person? Do you recall a time when a positive training methodology seemed mysterious to you? Have you always understood that positive training did not equal permissive spoiling?

Taking the high road is nearly always the response you will feel best about the next day, but the high road can include examination and education.

Defensiveness is not constructive, nor is an informed rant about punishment.

Understanding the science of positive training, the history and the applications of it will make you empowered and powerful. Having that understanding does not mean you have to engage in that debate at every opportunity though – there are many times that a "battle" is not worth the expense of energy it will take.

Protect yourself and your canine partner first. If you are going to get upset and defensive or angry – let it go instead of engaging. At the very least go put your dog up with a yummy bone before they pick up on heightened emotions.

Remember that old adage "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me?" There is an element of truth to it, even though words can cut very deeply at times.

Expressed thoughts of thoughtless people do not have to wound you though. People around you get to see only one page in the book of you at any given time. Even if the words go a little deeper than you'd like and get into your heart, or head, remember that you know your whole book.

There is more to you, and to positive training, than any single moment an opponent will see or understand.

Surround yourself with like minded positive trainers and vent to them as you need to. Find a bubble you can retreat to when you get tired of defending the good science behind positive training. Read a blog, listen to a podcast, go train your dog – refuel your passion and beliefs in whatever way works best for you.

*Brody was 15 pounds of floofy looking very real dog, in case anybody wondered! I will ever be grateful for his lessons – including to not judge dogs by their appearance!!

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