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‘Wokeness has infected dog training’: The brewing canine culture war

A person walks several dogs in a grassy field with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Julia Frink, owner of, leads a walk at Crissy Field in San Francisco. It's become a maxim that there are more dogs than kids in this city. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

It’s become a maxim: San Francisco has more dogs than children. It’s a factually accurate statement, but—maybe more importantly—one that also feels true, since San Franciscans are known for indulging their pets as though they were children. They lavish upon them $75 three-course tasting menus, treat them to luxury perks such as reiki massages and spend hundreds of dollars on treats at doggie spas and bakeries. 

Now, it turns out that the dogma of canine training—which has evolved substantially over the past two decades—has become a flashpoint on the San Francisco canine scene, one nearly as politicized and touchy as child-rearing. At the core of the debate is the use of “aversives,” or tools that create discomfort to stop unwanted behaviors. One side permits a moderate amount of discomfort when disciplining dogs, from spraying them with water to using shock collars. On the other side is the 100% positive reinforcement camp, which argues that rewards are the only effective—and ethical—way to train dogs. 

“It’s a big controversy, and it’s very ugly,” said Mike Wombacher, who has been training dogs in the Bay Area for 32 years, including for Sharon Stone, Robin Williams and former San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas. He said his goal is always to use the most positive reinforcement possible—Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive is the slogan—but that the all-rewards approach doesn’t work for every dog.

A gray dog sits on the sand, looking up at a man holding a treat with anticipation.
Mike Wombacher, an expert dog trainer, uses treats to entice his dog Telos to do tricks at Crissy Field. The dogma of canine training has become nearly as politicized as child-rearing in recent years. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard
Four playful dogs on grass entangled in orange leashes held by a person.
Julia Frink, owner of, holds a treat over her group of dogs during their afternoon walk. The 100% positive reinforcement camp argues that rewards are the only effective—and ethical—way to train dogs. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

That’s a no-go for the other camp of San Francisco dog trainers, who boldly state their principles that all-positive is the only way to ethically treat a dog. “No Pain, No Force, No Fear, No Shock, No Prong, No Choke!” reads one local trainer’s business card. 

Feelings, understandably, run hot.

“You are choosing to cause harm when you use aversives,” said senior dog trainer Steve Bialek. “Feeling pain or fear causes damage to learners.”

Balance—sort of

Bialek works at the Prime Paw program at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, where the all-positive movement began—thanks to Jean Donaldson, who Bialek called a “once-in-a-generation” trainer. Donaldson came to the SPCA in 1999 and helped make the Bay Area a hub for this kind of approach. 

The movement has been growing steadily ever since. Out are Cesar Millan and his “wolf pack” model of defining dogs as dominant or submissive. In are relationship-building and describing behaviors instead of giving labels. At Prime Paw, pet owners learn to ask for consent to touch their puppies, teaching them the words “May I?” and feeding them loads of treats. 

A man smiling on stage with two dogs under spotlights.
Dog trainer and television personality Cesar Millan performs during the opening night of his one-man show "Cesar Millan—My Story: Unleashed" in Las Vegas, Nevada on Sept. 12, 2019. | Source: David Becker/Getty Images

Trainers may try to solve the aversion debate with balance: Some situations require a correction, while others may have more leeway. However, modern dog parents face a choice they might not even understand they are making, since training that allows for aversives is often given the neutral-sounding description “balanced” to signal that traditional discipline is still included. 

Another player on the Bay Area training scene, Koru K9, advertises subtly that it is open to aversive methods. Its website reads, “Our approach to dog training is a balanced and holistic one. [...] We help you understand the dog that you have: their unique temperament and drives.”   

Wombacher dislikes such euphemisms. “I don’t like the word ‘balanced,’” he said. “Because it’s not 50-50.” 

Wombacher said his training uses only around 2-3% aversive control, which is meant to be unpleasant but not painful. Yet even that is enough, he said, to make the all-positive camp nip at his heels. He’s been advised to financially insulate himself to prepare for an onslaught of one-star reviews online when he releases his fourth book, Misleading the Pack: The False Premises and Promises of Purely Positive Training, which addresses the controversy head-on. 

“Wokeness has infected dog training,” he said. “And the people who get screwed are the clients.”

Paws-itive training 

Julia Frink began her San Francisco dog-walking business,, in 1999, eventually expanding to add day care and dog boarding. After 25 years in the industry, she believes there’s no question of what approach to use. 

“I do positive enforcement only,” she said, “no form of punishment.” 

Frink would never spray a dog with water or use a shock or prong collar (devices that pinch a dog’s neck when it pulls on the leash), and she doesn’t accept clients whose dogs are wearing punitive collars. On a recent Wednesday, the mixed pack of five terriers and labradors following her along Crissy Field—her clients for the day—seemed to have no problem listening to her commands, despite the distraction of other dogs, people and the nearby beach. 

“The movement overall is to positive reinforcement,” she said. The City of San Francisco has no certification or licensing requirements for dog trainers, though dog walkers must be licensed and insured. There is no recourse, Frink said, if you see a dog walker not treating an animal well, because reporting requirements—photographic evidence, the name of the person allegedly committing the infraction—are so involved. 

“You’re powerless,” she said. 

A woman with a bright smile stands in a grassy field with four playful dogs, the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Julia Frink says she would never spray a dog with water or use a shock or prong collar. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
A person attends to multiple dogs near an orange van with "DOG WALKS" branded on it, parked by a sunny road.
Frink gets ready to pack her group of dogs back into her van after an outing at Crissy Field. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Dog walker Tina Kelley doesn’t use aversives with her own dogs, but unlike Frink, she won’t reject a client if they do. 

“From what I’ve seen, it kind of makes it worse,” she said. “But I try to stay out of it.” 

Kelley takes out a breed-specific group—all Bernese mountain dogs—for two walks a day, five days a week at San Francisco’s dog Shangri-la: Fort Funston. 

“People are more of a problem than the dogs,” she said. 

Celebrity trainers often employ non-positive discipline methods, Kelley said, because they can work quickly with difficult dogs.

“Everyone promotes positive training as best,” she said. “And it’s proven by science—you just have to have patience.” 

The majority of dog parents surveyed by The Standard subscribed to an all-positive training program and weren’t familiar with the term “aversives.” While they may see people around the city with restrictive collars, they don’t judge them. 

A pug sits on grass next to a person, who's petting it. The dog looks attentive, wearing a collar, with a human's hand visible.
Rio Miura and her dog Juno sit in the grass at Precita Park in San Francisco. The majority of dog parents surveyed by The Standard subscribed to an all-positive training program. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

“I would never say anything,” said Carol Aceron, who believes in positive training for her goldendoodle, Rambo, “because I don’t know the story of their dog.” 

Fernando, Lila and Desmond Aguilar, who were exercising their dog at the Upper Douglass Dog Play Area in Noe Valley on Thursday, trained their 8-month-old Bernedoodle, Obie, at Bernal Beast and used positive reinforcement exclusively. So did dog owner Walker Fisher with his husky-pit bull mix, Hank. Fisher said he’s had friends who have done intensive—and punitive—sleepaway training with their behaviorally challenging dogs, but he’s never had to consider it because, like the Aguilars’ dog, his pooch is very food-motivated. 

Patrick Tan did the same with his retriever, Boogie. “Most people in San Francisco avoid punitive training,” he said.

‘Liberal fascism’ 

There can be steep consequences for a dog behaving badly—the horrific 2001 death of Diane Whipple by the jaws of a Presa Canario is a searing San Francisco memory of how dangerous a canine can be. The stakes are high to choose the right technique. 

The all-positive camp is convinced theirs is. 

“Positive reinforcement is evidence-based,” Bialek said. “It’s like believing in gravity.” The prong collars he sees around town, he notes, are illegal in several countries, including France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Many scientific studies do, in fact, demonstrate the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. 

“We have some of the best and some of the worst,” Bialek said in terms of dog trainers. He believes that people who employ aversive training techniques deliberately choose to cause harm. “It’s a fast and easy fix to make a bad thing go away quickly,” he said. Bialek likens the practice to snake oil, where “balanced” trainers take on clients in desperate situations to fix their dog by offering a false claim. 

Yet from Wombacher’s perspective, he sees the opposite: that his approach serves his clients. “I’m focusing on their needs,” he said. “And not some fanciful training theories.” 

A man plays with his dog on a sandy beach, with hills and overcast skies in the background.
Mike Wombacher has been training dogs in the Bay Area for 32 years, including for Sharon Stone, Robin Williams and former San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard
A grey, wiry-furred dog with wise brown eyes and a collar, looking intently at the camera.
Telos, Mike Wombacher’s dog, walks off-leash at Crissy Field. The veteran dog trainer believes the all-positive training camp has become sanctimonious. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The all-positive approach has become “liberal fascism,” Wombacher said, calling himself a lifelong leftie. While he called the positive training revolution “fantastic” and a welcome shift from the all-yank-and-jerk of the 1980s, he said it’s gone too far. 

“The positive-only people have become a big problem,” he said. “They wax on, so sanctimonious.” Wombacher said he’s been verbally and physically assaulted when others see him out with a dog wearing a choke or electric collar. 

While the all-positive versus aversives war rages among dog specialists, many pet parents remain unaware—or indifferent to—the canine peeing matches happening in the training world. 

San Francisco dog owner Joel Hoekstra has a viszla named Poppy, a breed with a lot of energy that’s known for hunting. He uses a shock collar—vibrate mode only—when he takes his dog to Holly Park or Fort Funston. He resorted to using the collar after training his first dog, who was not food-motivated, with an all-positive program. 

“No one’s ever said anything to me,” he said. “But maybe they’re silently judging.”

Hoekstra has seen a lot of heat around the issue online. Thirteen-year dog walker Rachel Allen, on the other hand, has been confronted by angry dog advocates while walking her clients’ dogs wearing prong collars and seen anti-prong and anti-shock collar flyers papering San Francisco neighborhoods. 

“It’s a little irritating, the level of militance,” she said of the all-positive camp. 

A woman in a blue t-shirt and a man in a brown hoodie are shown outdoors in separate side-by-side images.
Frink and Wombacher take somewhat different positions in the debate over the best approach to dog training. | Source: The Standard

Wombacher said he took on a client whose previous all-positive dog trainer recommended the pet parent euthanize her dog if she couldn’t quell its aggression with a food-motivated program. San Franciscans have protested aversive-heavy dog trainers like the “Dog Daddy” when they’ve come to town. An outright ban on shock collars was proposed in 2022. Had it passed, San Francisco would have been the first American city to outlaw them (many European countries have already done so). Wombacher believes the all-positive camp is attempting to legislate him out of business by proposing bans on prong and shock collars. 

Asked if the dogma of the all-positive approach goes too far, Bialek said that abuse and assaults aren’t part of the program. 

“We live the philosophy of positive reinforcement training also as people,” he said. 

Even though Allen uses only positive reinforcement with her own dogs, she has worked in shelters with dogs who have serious behavioral problems. “They benefited from a variety of tools,” she said, “as long as they’re in the right hands.” 

“There’s so much concern about the ethical welfare of the dogs,” Wombacher said. “But what about the welfare of the clients?” 

For San Francisco dog owners, many of whom said they wouldn't rule out using harsher disciplinary methods if their dog needed it, the dilemma is similar to parenting—you make personal choices that feel right for your family. Yet dog trainers and walkers are a different breed from pet parents. 

“The only thing two dog trainers can agree on,” Wombacher said, “is what the third one is doing wrong.” 

Julie Zigoris can be reached at