When we know better, we do better, but be careful who you learn from….
Updated: May 4, 2021
Dog training is not regulated. Anyone can call themselves a dog trainer whether they have any qualifications or not. They can even make up their own theories and methods and market them as the truth without any science to back them up! Get this, some of these people even set themselves up as experts and ‘train’ new trainers. Those being trained are often enthusiastic dog lovers, eager to learn and are taken in by the marketing, bravado and egos of these so -called experts. Hey presto – these people now have ‘qualifications'. Come to think of it, it’s actually a bit like a Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) scheme!
Often, we find that these guys (and gals) truly believe they know better and that their theories and methodologies really are the best way to work with dogs. Many of them base their ideas on the now debunked, but sadly still perpetuated, wolf pack theories. I could do a whole separate post on the evolution of dogs and their relationship with humans but for now, let’s just say that 1) the original wolf pack study that many pack theory fans base their ideas on was actually based on a random bunch of captive wolves who were thrown together and were not a family group. This is not how wolves live and interact in the wild. 2) Yes, dogs did evolve from wolves and share a lot of their DNA, however they are NOT wolves. They have been domesticated over time and have cleverly evolved in amazing ways that mean their relationship with us is unique and special. 3) Dogs know we are not dogs (or even wolves) and we do not need to assert ourselves as ‘top dog’ or ‘the boss’.
I regularly post (and share posts) about the importance of using positive reward-based training methods and advise against the use of aversive equipment and ‘tools’ such as choke chains, prong collars, water sprays, spray collars and shock collars. These things are easy to identify and avoid. However, it’s not all about tools and equipment. Some of the methods used, particularly by ‘personality’ TV dog trainers, may not actually involve equipment. It’s all too easy for the general public to be taken in by the seemingly ‘natural’ way these trainers portray what they do. What these individuals are actually doing is bullying and intimidating dogs into submission. They use body language that they know to be intimidating to dogs such as staring them down (staring into their eyes), using their body to make themselves look bigger, body blocking, standing over them, putting their hands on them and holding them in place and even physically ‘alpha rolling’ them onto their backs.
There can be several outcomes from this – the one the trainer is looking for is for the dog to submit and start to emotionally shut down. The dog has tried everything in their power to communicate their discomfort and feelings to the trainer, nothing has worked, they continue to be put into that position – they have no options left; they give in. To the uneducated eye, it looks as though the trainer has ‘calmed’ the dog. In reality, this is a really unhealthy emotional state and one in which dogs become unable to learn.
Dogs do not generally want to bite; it is a last resort. Once we start to study and learn about dog communication it is usually easy to see a dog try everything first to make the human stop making them scared before they resort to the bite. Of course, sometimes, if the earlier quieter communication is ignored repeatedly then a dog may begin to skip them because they’re not working and move to a bite faster. The ‘personality’ trainer may push a dog so far that they resort to an aggressive response and/or a bite before finding that not even that works. The trainer will likely brazen this out and further force the dog into ‘submission’ not letting the dog ‘win’. To the TV viewer this can look like success – the dog appears calm and compliant. They have ‘tamed’ an aggressive dog (when in fact they probably pushed a scared dog to aggression in the first place). Makes for great TV though doesn’t it?
I don’t want to promote any of these dominance based trainers by sharing any of their links here, but there is a now infamous video of one of them putting a dog in just such a position, ending up being bitten (which anyone with any knowledge of dogs and dog communication and body language could have seen coming), actually saying he didn’t see it coming and then going on to further intimidate the obviously scared dog, visibly crying out for him to stop, until he was satisfied he had obtained ‘submission’.
Supressing an unwanted behaviour, rather that identifying the root of it and changing the emotional response, can cause problems elsewhere. I often describe it as being like a balloon, squeeze it in one place and it bulges out in another. Of course, with a TV show, you don’t get to see any of the potential fallout – you only see the ‘instant results'.
What is created is a relationship based on fear and anxiety (of course the trainer will package this as ‘respect’). Is this what we really want for our relationship with our dogs?
In the last 20 or 30 years, there has been much research (actual scientific research rather than posturing and made up theories) into how dogs communicate and also how dogs learn. This has shown us better, kinder and more ethical, ways to work with our dogs. These have also been shown to produce better long-term relationships and results. These take time, education (on the dog guardian’s part) and patience though and do not make for sensationalised ‘instant fix’ TV shows. They’d actually be quite long and boring to watch if the whole process was shown as often there wouldn’t be much to see. The British TV series ‘Nightmare Pets SOS’ was amongst the rare exceptions that attempted to show modern, ethical, science-based methods being used with both dogs and other animals. However, we were not able to see the full process as the length of a TV episode and the need for editing just would not allow this.
Dog guardians owe it to their dogs to educate themselves and also seek the support of appropriately qualified trainers and behaviourists when support is needed. There are many courses and books designed to equip owners with some basic knowledge of dog body language and force free, fear free training methods. A good place to start would be the International School of Canine Psychology and Behaviour (ISCP)’s ‘Dog’s BFF Award’
It may be the start of an amazing and positive learning journey for both you and your dog.