As Seen on TV

By now most of us are aware that the “reality” shows that have crept into our lives though the TV are not as real as we were once led to believe.  We understand that many of these shows manipulate the episodes and that much of the footage is edited for the viewer.

Added to the reality TV shows mix are a few dog training shows.  These shows will follow a certain dog with their family and track progress made.  The trainer will give advice to the family, and miraculously their dog related problems are solved.  In fact, some of their other relationship problems seem to have also been solved by these dog gurus.  The real problem with the shows is that they have to have an entertainment factor in order to have a following.  Unfortunately, these days entertainment can often come in the form of over-the-top dramatics.  They are promoted almost like secrets, like whispers, that are aimed at selling books and DVDs.

It would all be fine if we watched the dog training shows for entertainment, and chatted with our friends about the latest episode, but that is not what seems to be happening.  What is happening in the dog community is that the general public are taking the information shown on the TV and applying it to their dogs, often with disastrous results.   I have had a few conversations just lately with our clients that are watching, in admiration, as these super-power trainers get almost instant results.   They seem to be selling potentially dangerous methods in a new package.

Although I am a huge Oprah fan, I think in this case she made a mistake with her endorsement of a popular television trainer.  While I think he is a dog lover, and really wants the best for the dogs, his methods aren’t replicable for the public.  If you have to have pop up windows on the TV screen asking the viewers not to try this at home, then your methods should be evaluated in general, and certainly as information for the dog owners at home watching. You don’t see pop up windows on Super Nanny, which would be a better show to watch for lessons on modifying behaviors in general.

We have to separate facts from marketing. The study of Animal Behavior is not a mystery and the science of it is out there for all of us to learn.  You can go all the way back to Pavlov and his dogs to see that this science is not new.

Taking a look at some common TV theories, we can see that exercise is a common topic of conversation between the dog families and the TV trainer.  While exercise is certainly important, and I will agree that most families simply do not provide enough of it, it has to be noted that physical exercise is not the only area of concern.  Mental exercise is certainly something that has to be addressed if you are looking for a well-behaved dog.  Putting a dog onto a treadmill is not an option you should consider.  This type of forced exercise will not provide any mental stimulation, no sniffing and running in the park, no interaction with their people and no chance to enjoy the day.  

Providing mental stimulation in the form of training…..obedience, tricks, agility and rally are all great activities to get out there with your dog and to tire out their brain along with their bodies.

Stress is a huge factor when considering any type of behavioral modification.  While most dog owners can easily view signs of stress that are blatant such as growling, many dog owners are not aware that yawning, panting (with no prior physical activity), repeated licking of lips and nose, low tail carriage and even tense slow movements are signs of stress.  These signs are very evident to a trained eye when watching the dogs on these training shows.  Watch the dogs especially for the low ear set and the aversion of their eyes.  What we should all want to see is a dog learning in an upbeat, happy manner.  

Stress can raise its ugly head when trying to teach dogs, and people.  Would you rather run on a beach or run away from a bear?  Running away from a bear is stressful and will increase adrenaline and cortisol in the body.  If you try to teach anything to a stressed dog, the behavior will get worse.  If you put a dog into a situation that is difficult for them, they won’t be able to listen.   Humane teaching methods should not only have the absence of pain, but also the absence of stress. The best option is to teach them self-control in a low stress environment first, but of course that would not make good TV.

Lets look at suppression Vs modification of behavior.  Suppression works only in the moment.  If you use tools such as prong collars, shock collars, choke chains or use forceful leash corrections you will suppress the behavior of the dog for the moment and on TV, that is all the time you have.  

Suppression requires a lot of supervision by the dog owners as you must always be controlling and watching the movements of your dog.  For example, you might have a dog that doesn’t like other dogs.  You can teach your dog to lie down each time it sees the other dog.  Initially the dog will be unable to listen to you, due to being in a stressful situation.  This is when dog owners might resort to more physical correction to get the behavior (lie down) they want.  Or, you can modify the behavior so your dog chooses not to lunge out at the dog.  This takes more time and expertise but is very successful with the right instruction.  Again…not a method that sells on TV, although I would suggest that a show be developed that shows updated and scientifically proven techniques and visits the family a few months later for an update.

Another note when watching, the training rarely involves any fun for the dog, or their family.  Wrapping a leash around your waist and running around the park will only be fun for a day or two but having a dog should involve some laughter.  Rest assured, you can have fun and still train your dog.

The word positive has been kicked around since the mid 80’s in the dog training community and has divided the trainers right down the middle.  Now, the key word I hear is “balance”.  To me balance is not the use of food and force, it is a balance of both.  Using food is now controversial and having trained thousands of dogs over 35 years, I can honestly say that it is my method of choice.  In saying that, I would suggest that the word positive be replaced by the word respect.  Teaching our dogs should be done with respect and in turn we should expect that back from them. Using food to teach skills such as come and sit, paired with time outs and interruptions of naughty behavior will set you up for success in most areas of your dog’s life.

On one popular show, the trainer told the family at the beginning that his methods consisted of being respectful.   He then proceeded to speak to a family member in a very negative manner and when asked to stop, he replied with a no.  Respect??  And, that was what we saw on TV, imagine the bloopers.

The same show spoke of food training and had this to say.  “If treats are allowed to be fed to these dogs, well, that child may become a victim because if there is any jam or peanut butter on the fingers and the dog says hey I want that and (crunch sound) who’s at fault? Not the dogs.  It’s always the owner who start to treat train”.

This quote really struck a nerve. Teaching a dog some skills using treats as a reward will not alone produce a dog that will bite.  If this were the case, then we would have far more aggression in our dogs.  It is a very silly statement, not based on sound teaching principles but the public will buy into it.  It is a statement that it simply not true.  

Another note about respect.  On the same show, the family member asked that trainer if her dog was scared.  The dogs ears were back, eyes averted and it was very tense and uncomfortable, so it was a very valid question.  She was told “Is she scared?  You are looking at oh poor dog instead of sit the frick down and don’t move”.   Again, not an ounce of respect in words or tone and certainly not a show to get the kids involved with watching.

Next time you are clicking through the TV and stop on a dog training shows, watch with a trained eye.  Do the dogs look happy and upbeat while learning?  Do they avert their eyes, and have their ears back?  There are many great dog training shows out there, so lets discriminate with our viewing

So, lets all keep this in mind when watching our reality based dog-training shows.  On the positive side, these shows do portray the very real possibility of being able to help dogs see things through rosier glasses.  It does plant the seed that dogs can be helped with proper intervention but let’s not be fooled into following these negative methods.  They are a quick fix made for TV.