We’ve Been Discovered! Oh No!

A couple of weeks ago, I heard an NPR story (http://tinyurl.com/ydxe7wt") that, for a brief moment, I mistook for dog training satire.  The story featured dog trainer Vladae Roytapel, who bills himself as “The Russian Dog Wizard.”  NPR tells us that Roytapel emphasizes making certain sounds – which he refers to as “Doglish” – in his training, and views knowing who’s in charge as a dog’s single most important need in life. The story plays up Roytapel’s youth working alongside his behaviorist grandfather and being tutored by an unidentified legendary deaf-mute Russian dog trainer as evidence of his status as an expert.  Sadly, the story was not satire, but instead a reflection of how dog trainers are now understood by popular culture.      

My feelings about the story had nothing to do with Roypatel’s skill as a dog trainer.  The NPR story told me almost nothing about that.  My initial reaction that “The Russian Dog Wizard” might be a farcical character had to do with his similarity to other “celebrity” dog trainers.  When I realized that he was for real, it drove home for me the fact that dog training has truly emerged from the obscurity that so many of us have long lamented.  I’m now certain that celebrity dog trainers are more than just a flash in the pan.  For better or for worse, Cesar Milan’s “The Dog Whisperer” put professional dog trainers on American pop culture’s radar.  We’ve finally been discovered.  Is this a case of be careful what you wish for?

Dog training’s entrance onto the public stage via celebrity TV dog trainers gives advocates of science and professionalism much to regret.  Most media producers and editors are copycats.  They grab onto templates for types of stories or people that attract viewers and they reuse them repeatedly.  Now they have one for dog trainers.  From what I can tell, the typical US media producer or editor’s checklist for choosing a dog trainer includes the following criteria: a foreign accent, a claim to special secret knowledge of dogs based on an exotic background, promises of a quick fix by teaching dog owners to adopt a dominant attitude, and at least one celebrity client. 

I know few trainers who would include any of those criteria in our own checklists.  Most of them are harmless.  The promises of a quick fix and all of that dominance hocus-pocus, however, disturb those of us trying to provide the public with valid information.  Real life dog training involves work.  There aren’t many shortcuts or instant fixes.  No special energy or mystical secrets are involved.  Sadly, quick fixes and mystical secrets make for good television (and, apparently, good radio).  Simple repetitive exercises and a few basic consistent rules are a tougher sell.  It’s enough to leave a lot of the dog trainers I know feeling like we’ve been set back 20 years. 

I’m more ambivalent about the rise of the celebrity dog trainer.  It doesn’t thrill me that so many Americans’ introduction to professional dog training includes the setting of unrealistic expectations, the promotion of myths about dominance, or rough training techniques.  On the other hand, I’m thrilled that so many Americans are being introduced to the concept of professional dog training!  In our media saturated age, it’s truer than ever that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  Some TV dog trainers may be pushing ideas that many of us consider hopelessly outdated, but I would wager that most of their audience hadn’t been exposed to any sort of dog training information a few years ago. 

Celebrity dog trainers have broken a barrier that everyone interested in educating the public about dog behavior can take advantage of.  I may not agree with a lot of their advice, but at least it gets people thinking about their own roles in their dogs’ problems and makes them aware that help is out there.  I get plenty of calls from people who never would have thought to go looking for a trainer if it weren’t for the TV dog trainers.  Sure, they often come to me with some crazy ideas, but a simple, “yeah, that’s Hollywood’s version of dog training.  Let me show you how it works in the real world,” is all that it usually takes to get them to see things my way.     

I’m grateful that dog training has attained some cache in pop culture.  Dog behavior is a fascinating and entertaining subject, and the realization of that fact in medialand creates exciting opportunities for all of us.  I’m inspired by the people out there taking advantage of it.  Victoria Stillwell’s “It’s Me or The Dog” makes good entertaining television of gentle respectful real life dog training.  It shows the work involved, the setbacks, and the discipline required to do it right.  DogStarDaily is a great example of how the real experts can bypass the media gate keepers with quality online content.  So is DSD’s own Cindy Bruckart’s new podcast Regarding Rover.  Steve Dale, another DSD contributor, is out there spreading good information all over the place.  I’ve even seen a couple of great contributions from Dr. Sophia Yin to the very widely read Huffington Post.  All of these ventures, and others like them, can harness the public interest created by the celebrity dog trainer phenomenon to educate people about quality humane dog training.

No matter what your field, there are always going to be people out there who are enticed by an exotic story or the promise of a quick fix.  Sure it’s disheartening for many of us to see our profession introduced to the public by people selling those things, but isn’t it exciting to get so much attention?  The rise of the celebrity dog trainer certainly has its drawbacks, but it has also opened up a whole new world for the rest of us.  Who knows?  Maybe in 20 years we’ll look back on this period as the beginning of a golden age for spreading the word about quality dog training. 


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