Is Reality Too Boring?

July 25, 2012

Every now and then I get a call from a production company that’s looking for a trainer or behavior person for a new television project. Some require knowledge of species other than dogs, such as cats and birds. Since I couldn’t tell you whether a bird is saying, “Polly wants a cracker” or, “Polly wants to peck your nose off,” that lets me out of the running for those. I’m also not the right person for shows that are looking for an “edgy” host with piercings and tattoos. Sure, I’ve got a tattoo or two, but I’m not that character you’re looking for.

I get it: reality television is all about edgy. It seems the best we can hope for in a training show is that some education gets across in the midst of all the drama. You’ve got to give the viewers what they want, and Americans want to be entertained. But the truth is, ending up with a well-behaved dog has nothing to do with entertainment or drama. I only wish Sierra’s rock-solid recall could have been honed during thirty commercial-free minutes, or that Bodhi’s dog reactivity could have been solved in one episode of training. But it just ain’t so.

I’ve been working a lot lately on Sierra’s proclivity to stalk other dogs as we walk along. She’s expected to make eye contact with me when I call her name, which I normally do once she’s spotted a dog. Although all I’m asking for is eye contact, when I call her name Sierra immediately turns, looks, and returns to sit in front of me. That’s fine. At other times, I expect her to give me her attention and then walk alongside me so we can pass the other dog. This morning we met a woman at the park with a young pit bull pup. The dog was very sweet, and the woman was wonderful. It was her son’s dog, but as he was at work, she was trying to do everything right to socialize and train the dog. I had Sierra walk next to me as we neared them, and then sit. After speaking with the woman for a few minutes, I allowed Sierra to greet the pup. The woman mentioned that she wanted her dog to be as well trained as Sierra. The first thought that came to my mind was, You wouldn’t have said that if you saw her two years ago! Again, sometimes all that’s visible is the end result.

Training isn’t magic; it’s simply a matter of knowledge, effort, patience, and consistency. And sure, there’s a bit of an art to it as well. I don’t envision a television show debuting anytime soon that takes viewers through multiple training sessions or long behavior modification protocols. But it sure would be nice to see a show that entertains, and yet still lets owners know that training is not a quick fix, but a process. We do have some good shows out there, like It’s Me or the Dog. And we need more shows that manage to be entertaining while offering substance and concrete help for owners, in a realistic way. I know it can be done.


Is Your Dog Being a PAIN?

July 18, 2012

I can barely concentrate long enough to write this blog, as I’m in serious pain from a root canal. Not just any root canal, but one where the dentist had to undo a previous dentist’s attempt to fill the canals all the way down, and then refill them. (Apparently, when your canals are shaped like candy canes, this presents a challenge.) So naturally, the topic of today’s blog is pain.

I’ve heard stories over the years from friends who are involved in sports such as agility, where the common theme is that their dog just couldn’t perform at a certain competition or when trying to do a specific obstacle like a jump during practice. Fortunately, these friends were wise enough to realize that something might be ailing the dog physically, and made vet visits to confirm their suspicions. But I also have seen owners who want their dogs to do something—whether it’s performing a task in a competition sport or doing something as simple as sitting—and when the dog refuses, it never crosses their mind that the dog might be in pain.

Being in physical pain is enough to make a dog “disobey” as some perceive it. This can be especially difficult during training sessions where the owner is trying to teach the dog something new. Remember when I said I could barely concentrate long enough to write this blog? If a dog is in pain, his ability to concentrate is impaired. So now we have physical pain and an inability to concentrate. If the owner isn’t aware of the problem, this scenario can easily add up to one frustrated owner, which could even end up in punishment for the dog.

I’m not suggesting that whenever a dog doesn’t comply or understand what you’re trying to teach, that pain is at the root of it. I am saying that all other things being equal, it’s a good idea to see whether there is something preventing the dog, mentally, emotionally, or physically from being able to perform as you’d like. In other words, your dog isn’t being a pain, he’s having one, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt.


It’s “Just an Animal”

July 10, 2012

The other day I ran into a woman I know at the dog park. She’s got an adorable little mixed breed dog who, along with a few other dogs belonging to local residents, was recently enrolled in a group training class. I asked how the class was going, and got an earful. The woman was very upset, and rightfully so.

Apparently, the trainer was very rough in her methods, not only with the dogs, but with people. If someone seemed to be “coddling” their dog, the trainer would tell them in no uncertain terms, in front of the entire class, to get with the program because it’s “just an animal” and that they “need to be the boss.” Sigh. You would think that in this day and age this type of thinking would be obsolete. Regardless of the training methods and philosophy that were standard many years ago, enough scientific evidence about animals and emotion, and enough research on how dogs think and learn has come to the forefront that it is beyond ridiculous for anyone, let alone a trainer, to still think this way.

The problem with this type of mindset is that rough handling methods naturally follow. After all, if it’s “just an animal” that implies such a low level of intelligence and emotional wisdom that surely we must use forceful methods for these lowly beings to understand what it is we want from them.

The woman related an incident that involved the trainer “correcting” a dog-reactive dog. It had made her cringe when watching it, and made me cringe just hearing about it. Suffice it to say that if a dog is very reactive toward other dogs, the answer is to do private lessons instead until the dog can be around other dogs—not to use extreme physical force to subdue the dog in class. This type of “leadership” is the solution employed by a trainer who doesn’t know any better. Unfortunately, the ones suffering are the dogs and their owners.

The woman also related that her friends who were taking their dogs through the class along with her actually liked the training and thought the trainer was fine. There is definitely something about an authority figure that causes people to fall in line and accept their wisdom, especially if that person radiates confidence. In a training class, if the instructor can make a dog comply instantly by using harsh physical force, many owners are so impressed that they hardly consider what that type of handling is doing to their dog, both short and long term.

I’ve always found a correlation between trainers who treat dogs harshly and the harsh treatment of their students. It makes sense. It is my fervent wish that enough owners will stand up to these trainers and say, “I’m not going to do that to my dog, and I’m not going to let you do that to me or my dog, either” that eventually, the trainer will have to reconsider their methodology and mindset.


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