I was finishing a consultation at a client’s home when I met a very nice lady out for a walk with her rescue Pekingese, Lullabelle. I commented on how gorgeous her pup was and asked to pet her. The lady informed me not to come near, because her dog was very aggressive and would bite!
I looked at her, then the dog, then back to her, thinking, Are you kidding me? As a dog trainer and behavior specialist for more than 25 years, I have been faced with this situation many times: This was a classic fearful dog who had been sadly misunderstood by whatever professional had tried to help in the past.
I assured the lady that Lullabelle was not aggressive and I wanted to prove that to her. With much reluctance, she finally agreed to set up an appointment. I learned that she had adopted Lullabelle to save her life, because she was set to be killed at the recommendation of her veterinarian and traditional dog trainers who had deemed her dangerous. I find it unfathomable that this beautiful, friendly dog was labeled as aggressive and beyond help. Sadly, this happens somewhere every day.
We made a plan to teach basic obedience and good manners to the dog. At my initial consultation, Lullabelle’s owner described how after one trainer deemed the three-year-old dog aggressive, a team of two traditional dog trainers (recommended by her ignorant veterinarian) came to her home equipped for battle, toting tennis rackets, choke chains, a shock collar, long pants, thick long-sleeve shirts, and gloves.
Need I mention this battle was with a scared, 10-pound fluffball?
These trainers rushed into it without ever vetting the client, analyzing her dog’s behavior, or doing any due diligence or behavioral analysis whatsoever. They told the owner not to speak as they tried to “rehabilitate” the dog, using methods they’d seen on The Dog Whisperer.
Lullabelle could barely walk because of some health issues. The trainers backed this poor little dog into a corner, brandishing their tennis racquets, and threw a choke chain on her (note that she’s a brachycephalic breed who could barely breathe on her own), scaring the poop out of her. They dragged her around, trying to make her submit to them by holding her down.
They advocated dominance theory, telling the owner to make Lullabelle submit to her in order to gain respect, leadership, and dignity. She must be the pack leader and always walk in front of Lullabelle in and out of each doorway, and never ever let her get in front when walking on the leash. Lullabelle was not to achieve dominance by getting on the couch and the bed. They also instructed the owner to pop the leash (what they euphemistically called a “correction”) or poke two fingers into the soft part of her neck or ribcage to remind her who was boss.
This type of abusive hogwash was how people trained dogs before they had a clue about canine cognition and effective and humane treatment of animals. I describe it as akin to getting a lobotomy for a common headache. I actually wanted to throw up when I heard Lullabelle’s story. It is the height of negligence, irresponsibility, and shame to do more harm than good, especially when there is an animal’s life on the line.
Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and placate the Machiavellian ignoramuses like Cesar Millan and pretend that traditional dog training worked the same or even better than positive reinforcement dog training. Of course, it has been repudiated by decades of scientific and behavioral research, but for argument sake let’s entertain this notion.
The real question becomes: At what expense are you willing to achieve results from your dog? The price is stress, poor health, lack of trust, and a diminished relationship between you and your dog. Whether you agree or not, the two things that you should take away from this article are: Expediency should never trump the humane treatment and welfare of your dog, and it is never OK to abuse an individual in the name of training!
Traditional dog training is practiced by trainers who do not believe in education — or science, for that matter, given that there is a plethora of scientific studies showing how positive reinforcement is more effective and builds a stronger bond with your pet.
“Modern-based training” should be referred to as “science-based dog training.” The Dog Whisperer should be referred to as a reality show star or a dog handler, for he does little in the way of dog training — unless you consider flooding, learned helplessness, alpha rolls, dominance theory, and scaring the daylights out of dogs to be training. Traditional trainers — punitive trainers — were very cutting edge in the 1940s.
Modern-based trainers employ the most effective and efficient ways of modifying a behavior while increasing the bond between a guardian and pet. Aversive trainers do not do this. They are confrontational and stressful, and their practices are inefficient and inhumane. Positive-reinforcement dog trainers should take a stance to try and rid the industry of traditional trainers, for the benefit of pets and their guardians.
I find it very sad that many of the veterinarians in Miami, where I work, are not only clueless about the benefits of positive reinforcement, but are actively promoting force-based trainers in their practices. As I write this post, Lullabelle is snoring away in my lap, as happy as can be. Unfortunately, many more dogs are not so lucky. It pains me to think of the countless dogs and families who are traumatized by traditional dog trainers.
Russell Hartstein, CPDT, is the CEO (canine executive officer) and founder of Fun Paw Care, which specializes in dog training and behavior, dog boarding, pet sitting, and dog walking. He likes to blog about dog training and behavior issues.
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