Friday, June 29, 2012

Pick your poison carefully.

My grandfather always said there are a few things you never talk about in polite company: politics, money and religion.  I never did understand that until later in life, but I always followed that advice as did my father.  And my father was into politics on a local level in my home town, even ran for mayor when I was in college.  My friends would ask me what my dad thought about XYZ and I'd say, "I don't know, he never talks about politics around us!"  And now I know why.  Rarely can you change the mind of a person on the above topics, rarely.  We get our minds set on our views, especially those sensitive topics, and rarely will we change them.  
... So what does this have to do with dogs?  Well, while many of us can't understand how in the world one can compare human children to dogs,  many people can.  There are many people who view their dogs as their children, some have children and some do not.  But more and more in today's society the family dog (or dogs) are truly a member of the family in many, many ways.  This means that dog owners are very often willing to go to any length for their dogs--buy the best food, the best dog beds, find the best pet sitter or boarding facility, maybe even given them their own "room" in a part of the house ... and provide the best training from the best trainer.

Many people will see a possible problem crop up with their dog and the first resource is Google.  We all know this applies to not just dog training these days but even medical problems and the like. If we, as a society today, want an answer we rely on the almighty internet for answers.  The problem is that you'll find so many opposing views, so much conflicting advice, that it's downright confusing to know who is correct and what is actually "the right way" to do things. 

As a caring and responsible dog owner we only want the best and most successful trainer (in terms of solving behavior problems/getting the job done correctly).  So we search, ask around, even read reviews.  There are many dog trainers out there today.  Actually I think the number of professional trainers has increased dramatically since dog training was televised showing dogs with major behavior problems and what looked like quick solutions for them.  More people jumped out of their chair and started applying what they saw, would see some success (punishment does suppress behavior so that it appears to have immediate results¹) and suddenly they were applying there new "skills" to friends, neighbors and anyone who asked.  And BAM! a new "trainer" was born! 
... And herein lies the problem. The average dog owner hasn't a clue who is "right".  You see the use of shock collars in training on one end and treats/food/toys on the other end.  Talk to the two different trainers who us those two incredibly different tools and philosophies and it will leave your head in a tailspin.  How is one to know who is right?  Isn't it just a known fact that dogs are social beings, live in a hierarchy systems like wolves and need an "Alpha" leader who is in charge? Or, can't they both be right? ...

Just like everything in this world, things evolve--science, technology, psychology, medicine --  However it seems that while society will quickly and willingly adapt to medicinal changes and technology changes they cannot seem to grasp the evolution of dog behavior and training.  People are quick to jump to the "I was spanked and I turned out just fine" line or the "I grew up with dogs and we shoved their nose in their pee and they learned not to do it again" line.  So when we present the no-punishment philosophy to dog training and child-rearing we are very often met with resistance.  And if you think it over it doesn't jive with anything else we do choose to accept the evolution of -- Car seats were not used to protect children in cars until 1962.  Today would you argue with someone that "well when I was a baby I didn't have one and I'm here to tell the story..."  Now days you will happily accept the fact that car seats save lives and are necessary.  Why? Because science proves it.

We, as a society, are so hypocritical when it comes to so many subjects, and in my humble opinion training dogs and understanding their behavior is one of them.  What I find to be the most disheartening are those people who will not budge even when science has dis-proven many of the out-dated methods and philosophies of dog training and behavior.  Because we are so overcome with technology (which we sure as heck haven't argued its evolution!) that we rely on the internet and TV as our educational tools.  By George if a dog trainer on TV says it and shows us, he must be the absolute God of dog trainers! However, would you watch Grey's Anatomy or House and then go and try to diagnose people with medical problems?   

Although more and more dog owners are viewing their dogs as something other than just a figure in the yard, or just an animal, so many are still following the same training and behavior advice that was introduced in the 60s and 70s -- and defending it like their life depended on it!  They argue until they are blue in face that dogs are like wolves, must have an Alpha, yadda, yadda.  However science has disproven this theory, yet many people are very quick to defend studies done 40+ years ago. These studies all revolve around dominance theory which has been hugely misunderstood and misused.  These studies have since been noted as flawed, you can read specifics about the new-found science here.

And I digress ... I started writing this blog post due to a very disturbing client consultation I recently had.  I contemplated doing it because, much like politics, trying to preach new dog training methods and philosophies can be just like trying to change a Democrat into a Republican.  People are resistant to changing their views, even if science can prove otherwise.  We as humans like to hold onto our beliefs.

However, after this last consultation I was prompted to write this anyway.  I want to get the word out about the reality of dog behavior using modern-day science and proven theories.  I also wanted to write this to show what can and does happen when you listen to out-dated science and follow these now-proven to often be dangerous methods and philosophies ...

I've met many dog owners over the years and many who have been given bad advice, stupid advice and some just downright incorrect advice but this client's situation stuck out like a sore thumb.  I won't go into the reasoning for me being called out, what I will say is that this family is a great family.  They have done everything for their dogs, even gone above and beyond what many dog owners would do. However after a few behavior issues cropped up they decided they needed a professional and the wife sought out a trainer that she thought was excellent at helping dogs with behavior problems.  She sent her dogs to board with this trainer for a week and when they returned she said that her dogs seemed "very subdued".  And to be honest this is what I saw too.  Not happy, not sad, just there.  Her dogs seemed to be non-emotional about much of anything.  While to some people this would appear to be just some well-behaved dogs, I saw something totally different.  Don't get me wrong, I've seen dogs that are calm, relaxed and well-mannered.  But this was different and to me very obvious that these dogs are literally "broken". I saw drained and emotionless beings.  The were conflicted at even the simple task of being asked to lie down.  The dog would pause, look down and do nothing, staring blankly at the ground, blinking it's eyes slightly.  Non-compliance? Willful-ness? No, conflict.--Will I be punished for not doing this?  Will this be good?  Should I just do nothing?  Conflicted, conflicted, conflicted.

Why?  This family was taught that if their dogs didn't do as asked, even when asked to perform a simple sit, they were to close their fist and punch their dog in the head.  Yes, go back and re-read that.  I didn't mis-type--Punch the dogs with a closed fist in the head.  I am not sure how I made it through after hearing some of the things these poor, innocent people were told to do in the name of dog training.  The wife knew from the beginning that she didn't want to do these things but said, "... but I thought it was what I had to do... our trainer made it so convincing..."  She still employs those techniques to this day because this trainer was like a Jim Jones and he had her drink the Kool-Aid.  

I gave her a long talk on why this was wrong, and said to her very bluntly, "That trainer taught you how to abuse your dogs ... from here on out you will never hit your dogs again ..."  And the woman sighed the biggest sigh of relief, literally exhaling in her chair and relaxing.  It was one of the saddest things I've ever had to be part of and while you can read this I cannot truly describe what this scenario was like.  This woman was like a prisoner set free.  That's the only way I can describe it.

The sigh of relief she had during our consultation was something that drives me to love my job and be saddened by the so-called trainers out there that poison my field. I had her dog working for me and for the first time the dog actually happily wagged it's tail to keep working and her whole demeanor changed!  The woman acted like a kid at Christmas.  And when I told her she wasn't going to use physical punishment on her dogs ever again she gleefully said to her husband, "Honey did you hear that?!  We don't have to hit the dogs anymore!"  

No one should have to succumb to that.  If you ever feel uneasy about something with your dog, turn and walk away.  There is a reason why we call it "a gut feeling".  And while I do have to ask myself how a person can allow someone to talk them into punching their dogs with a closed fist in the head, I have to also say that I don't know what kind of desperation she was going through when this happened.  Desperation and stress will lead many people to sign a deal with the devil if certain  promises are made.  I do not blame this family and I'm glad to be the voice of reason for them and their dogs!

If you don't feel right about something don't do it.  More importantly, understand why many trainers are doing what they are doing.  Are they using modern science-based methods or out-dated methods?  Are they teaching you that interacting with, touching and rewarding your dog is a good thing?  Is your trainer interested in your dog's well-being or more interested in you "dominating" your dog to supposedly gain "control"?  If someone ever told you to punch your child in the head when they mis-behaved you'd probably gasp and run, not walk, away from that person.  Why is it ok to do to a dog?  While how you train or treat your dog is ultimately your choice, I do want to encourage all dog owners to educate themselves on modern training methods based on recent studies and modern science and choose your dog trainer wisely. And always, no matter what, advocate for your dog. 

It's amazing what dog owners expect of their dogs.  I see higher expectations of dogs than I do of kids or spouses/partners.  My theory is that you should enjoy your dogs and your dogs should enjoy you. Relax.  Have fun. Pet your dogs. Love your dogs. And above all, tell them when they do something right!

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  1. Thank you Stacy, for an excellent post.

  2. THIS is the reason I joined the Pet Professional Guild - so that, as a trainer, I am clearly aligned with a philosophy that says the best way to train dogs is to use science and ethics in combination, and never hurt a dog to train it. I feel for your clients, but I understand perfectly. I was glad, not too long ago, to be the "voice of reason" for a lovely Golden Retriever whose family had been led to believe that he needed a prong collar and that he was aggressive. The only person he was aggressive with was the trainer who put him on the prong collar and then yanked him around on it, causing great pain. Once we got him in to a no pull harness and put a clicker in his owners' hands - different dog!!! These people love him, they just got bad advice, and are now thrilled to know that they have a very smart, and very good dog. I have no doubt that he will stay in his home until his muzzle is very gray indeed. Your advice that people should listen to that gut feeling that says "Run!" is right on the money.