Do Some Dogs Need a Heavier Hand?

November 20, 2012

It never fails—someone always says it. In an recent online discussion about a trainer known for using less-than-gentle methods, someone made a comment that sounded a lot like this: “Positive training is fine for smaller dogs and puppies, and maybe even some adults, but there are some dogs that need a heavier hand.” Really? Because that sounds an awful lot like justification for jerking, yanking, shocking, and other things done to dogs in the name of training.

I’ve heard the excuse for heavy-handedness put like this: “They’re red zone dogs” (somehow that term always makes me visualize dogs with red, flashing sirens over their heads) or something similar. The term is meant to indicate dogs who are severely aggressive, and often the trainer has been brought in as last-ditch effort before the dog is euthanized. In my years of working in canine training and behavior, I’ve worked with many of what would be termed “red zone” dogs. Lest you think I don’t fully comprehend the extreme aggresion the term is meant to denote, one example from my own clientele is the 140-pound Alsatian who had put a hole through his owner’s hand. His owner, a 6-foot-tall police officer, had adopted the dog as an adult. The first week, the man went to grab a toy on the carpet at the same time as the dog did, which resulted in the hole in the palm through which daylight was clearly visible. The dog was also very aggressive toward strangers, and had severe barrier frustration aggression. I’m happy to report that with a course of kind, gentle training and behavior modification, and some beautiful follow-through on the part of the clients, all lived carefully but happily ever after. I could go on about sucessful outcomes with dogs who multiply puncture-wounded multiple people, and how gentle methods were successful…but you get the idea. And plenty of other trainers could share similar stories.

Whenever I hear the argument for certain dogs needing a heavier hand, I think about the wolves I’ve worked with over the years. Wolves are incredibly intelligent, and they learn very quickly. They do not, however, respond to things in the same way dogs do. An attempt to physically overpower them would not go well for the human—so how could anyone possibly work with them? Gently, and with respect. It’s done at Wolf Park all the time.

It’s true that some dogs are naturally softer than others as far as temperament, and they’re more tractable when it comes to training and behavior modification. There are also some very pushy, obnoxious dogs out there (have you met my dog Bodhi?), and yes, even aggressive and severely aggressive dogs. But when we put those dogs in a box and slap a label on it (Red Zone! Beware!), we do them a disservice. That label implies, at least to some, that desperate situations call for desperate measures. Nothing could be further from the truth. Attempting to establish dominance over the dog is the first thing many trainers attempt when working with these high-risk types. I suppose the theory is that the dog will then be biddable; after all, how can you work with a dog who might go after you? But this theory misses the point. It’s not about force to begin with—it’s about gaining the dog’s trust. Think about it: Why is the dog behaving aggressively? In the vast majority of cases, it’s because he or she does not feel comfortable, and is taking the offence to keep the big, scary thing at bay. Sure, there are also dogs who are flat-out territorial or otherwise aggressive without it being fear-based, but even then, gaining trust in a non-confrontational way goes so much further than simply establishing dominance. And let’s say the trainer can “dominate” the dog. Where does that leave the family members who have to live with the dog every day? I’ve seen way too many clients who were advised to use harsh, punitive methods on aggressive dogs, and it backfired. One of my clients had been advised by a previous trainer to put her American Bulldog on his back and sit on him whenever he became aggressive. The woman had been bitten in the face, and as a result, was seeking a better way.

I don’t care if a dog is 150 pounds or 10 pounds, and whether the issue is leash manners or biting visitors. There are no dogs who need a heavier hand—there are only trainers who need more knowledge and a lighter touch.

The Trouble with Gurus

August 20, 2009

We live in a consumer culture. We’re trained from an early age to want the new, improved, biggest and best version of products and services, from computers to cars, diets to designer dogs. We are also a celebrity culture, focused with laser-like intent on those we’ve put on pedestals whenever they do something interesting or outrageous. So it’s not a huge leap to understand why so many people follow “gurus,” fawning over their words and unquestioningly buying whatever they’re selling.

Many think of a guru as a spiritual teacher or counselor. But, as one dictionary definition states, a guru is “somebody who is prominent and influential in a specific field and sets a trend or starts a movement.” In short, a person people follow because they believe he/she knows something they don’t. While there are some in the scientific community who could be considered “gurus” of a sort, most who come to mind are more flamboyant. They have charisma, and that’s a necessary attribute. Without it, no matter how legitimate the product or information, there wouldn’t be many followers! While some really do have good information to offer, unfortunately, many self-proclaimed gurus simply recycle and repackage old, sometimes erroneous information and present it as something new. Think “The Wheel: Now Rounder and Faster!”

Television provides an excellent platform for gurus. It allows them to edit, package, and display footage in a way that conceals flaws. The finished product seems like magic! This becomes all too evident when one watches dog training shows. Viewers are presented with dogs who have developed deep-seated issues over the years such as severe aggression, and are expected to believe that through the mystical powers of The Guru, the dog is suddenly and permanently “cured.” It is both dangerous and misleading to portray behavior modification in that way. Any dog trainer worth their salt can tell you that changing a dog’s underlying feelings toward the trigger of his aggression takes time. But punishing a dog strongly enough that he’ll appear to have changed his ways makes for must-watch t.v.  After all, it’s instant gratification, and who in our modern culture doesn’t love that?

Instead of training based on sound principles such as desensitization and counterconditioning, we are often exposed to displays of jerking, kicking, alpha rolling, and worse—all “corrections” that supposedly teach the dog and halt the behavior. Of course it does stop the behavior temporarily, because the trainer is bigger and stronger, and is scaring the dog. But punishment simply suppresses behavior. The hapless owners then get to deal with the fallout after The Guru and his magical aura have left town.

There will always be self-proclaimed gurus, and some do offer valuable information. But consumers must be thoughtful and particular about which tidbits to accept and which to discard, rather than mindlessly swallowing everything thrown at them. Some followers tend to have a fundamentalist mindset, accepting everything the guru says and does as gospel. An intelligent person should be able to sit back and question what’s really happening behind the rhetoric. To that end, it can be helpful to watch dog training shows with the sound off. It removes any verbal spin, allowing the viewer to really focus on the reactions of the dog. While the trainer might be saying, “What I just did shows the dog I’m the leader, he’s not stressed” watching the dog will tell the real story. Maybe the dog is fine with it. Or, is he offering stress responses such as lip-licking, yawning, or looking away from the trainer? Is he cowering? Has he shut down completely due to learned helplessness? Believe what you see, not what you hear.

Another pinprick in the hot air balloon of gurus is that regardless of their ability to do something well, those who need the information and support need to be able to do those things proficiently, too. Not to discount good handling skills, but so what if a guru can handle an out of control or vicious dog? The real test is whether the owner can then handle that dog. Otherwise it’s very likely the dog will lose his home or be euthanized after the guru has left. The true measure of good teaching isn’t being able to show what you know or how wonderful you are, but whether you can instill ability and confidence in others.

Here’s my suggestion: take back the power! Let’s agree to never mindlessly follow anyone, no matter how good-looking or charismatic the person may be. Let’s think for ourselves, and accept legitimate information while discarding the flashy but flawed. Let’s make good, ethical training decisions based on sound thinking, scientific studies, and treating dogs with kindness and respect. Maybe if we can shift our approach the balance of power will shift as well, and we’ll end up with trainer role models who demonstrate kindness, clear communication, and patience rather than a quick fix. After all, without followers, what’s a guru to do?

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