Another “miraculous” television dog training show has hit the networks. Already I have seen concerning actions by the trainer. One clip showed a dog being “desensitized” while he was fighting and struggling against a lead. This is not desensitizing; it is emotional torture. This action showed a clear lack of behavioral understanding by the budding celebrity trainer. Dog training TV shows and many videos online are not the best source of information for owners. Having a show does not an expert make. Training for celebrities does not an expert make.
One trainer consistently shows dogs being flooded with stimuli until they stop reacting. Underlying stress and anxiety are not addressed — only the outward behaviors. To make matters worse, the visible behaviors are handled in ways that make things worse as time goes on. Just because the dog stops reacting doesn’t mean he is better. Another trainer uses cessation of pain to get certain behaviors: as soon as the dog listens, the discomfort is stopped. Both assume canine calming and stress signals are defiance. Another trainer taught dogs to walk closely by walking towards light poles. If the dog did not walk near the human, they were forced into the pole. Yet another training group had episodes where they taught puppies to work by using prong collars.
Even if the trainer or behaviorist is truly top notch, ethical and highly knowledgeable, there may be a false sense of the time needed to help resolve a situation. So much work is edited out. That problem you see resolved in a single episode may have taken weeks or months of work and management. A police officer once told me: “It can take months to get enough evidence just to get to court; not the short time implied by Law and Order.” The same holds true for dog training.
Are the trainers taking health into consideration? Behaviors may be reactions to the dog being in pain or not feeling well. One of my senior dogs developed behavioral issues: inappropriate urinating after being reliably house-trained for years and an increasing aggressive response to things. I was concerned about a UTI, not just a decision not to urinate outside. Well, turned out he had a UTI and the beginning of bladder cancer. Very rarely have I ever seen a TV trainer recommend a veterinarian to rule out medical causes. I have never seen a TV trainer recommend anxiety reducing medication, either. Again, this shows a lack of knowledge. Stress and anxiety create chemical changes in the body. These changes may require medication along with careful behavioral work. I have never seen a TV trainer refer a client to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
Finally, when you rely on TV training or videos to fix your problems, you are missing a big part of animal work: a professional with solid skills to give feedback based on first-hand observation. I know many exceptional behaviorists with extensive videos, books, blogs, etc. I often use them along with my own videos and blogs to supplement client notes. A good, positively-based trainer who can observe, give feedback and guide you is important. You will never get that with TV, books or videos alone.
To find a good, positively-based trainer, seek one who is a member of the Pet Professional Guild or the International Association of Animal Behavioral Consultants. There is no replacement for a knowledgeable trainer.
Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project and owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.