The Dog Training Industry isn't Regulated and Dogs are the Biggest Losers
Dogs need you to be their advocate, not their alpha.
Effective dog training is as entertaining as watching paint dry. It doesn’t attract attention or make for compelling TV. And while you can teach basic obedience like “sit” and “stay” in a day, making a dent in complex behavioral issues can take months—and often the improvements are subtler than the untrained human eye can notice. As a result, even the most well-meaning and committed dog owners become frustrated and exhausted, so they turn to trainers guaranteeing quick results, or opt for board-and-train facilities that keep your dogs and train them for you.
A well-behaved pet in six weeks sounds very appealing to the busy dog owner. Send away your perfectly imperfect dog;receive a piece of furniture in return, acquiring the status of having a dog without a trace of its existence anywhere besides maybe a monogrammed dog bed or a crate disguised as an end table.
But there are no quick results when working with living beings, and our cultural obsession with fast training is wreaking havoc on our dogs’ psyches. Dog training is a lifelong commitment, for which the foundation is trust, safety and consistency—yet every time we begin to understand this, TV and social media set us back, showing training based on forced compliance and outdated beliefs about “alphas.”
Celebrities use their huge platforms to unknowingly misinform. Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively used a well-known trainer who relies heavily on e-collars to force compliance, then raved about his amazing work with their dogs to their millions of fans.
Streaming networks air shows based on the long-debunked alpha theory, which contends that dogs have an innate desire to dominate, so we must preemptively dominate them. This theory has been disproven in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior and by the most prominent and trusted names in the dog behavior industry: Pat Miller, Karen Pryor, and Dr. Ian Dunbar, to name a few. But many viewers can’t get enough of these “pack leaders”in action.
John Kelly, a columnist for the Washington Post, recently wrote an article highlighting his struggle with his rescue dog, lamenting the dog’s anxiety over being left alone. Kelly irresponsibly labels all rescues as mentally unbalanced (a fight for another day), then goes on to describe the archaic methods his dog trainer recommends: forcing the dog to stay in the very situation causing its anxiety in the first place and withholding any comfort or affection while the dog is showing signs of stress. This is the equivalent of locking a claustrophobic in a small, dark room, and keeping them there until they are okay with being locked in a small, dark room. For humans, this would increase anxiety, not cure it. It works the same way for dogs.
Through my masters in canine science, continued education and my small business, I’ve worked with hundreds of dogs over the past decade, and seen the lifelong negative results of alpha rolling eight-week-old puppies to “show them who’s boss.” I’ve seen dog bites happen “out of nowhere” because the dog’s ability to communicate their discomfort was punished to extinction, and biting became the only voice they had left. These incidents are often a result of aversive methods. The consequences appear later (sometimes months or years later)through aggression, fear, and anxiety. But, the dog was “trained” initially, so the connection is never made. True behavioral change cannot happen when dogs are stressed, anxious or over threshold—and the dogs always lose.
But Kelly, and many like him, trust their trainers implicitly.Aren’t they the experts?
The dog training industry is not regulated in the US. Anyone can create a website, set their rates and start training dogs. And they do.
Aversive techniques– e collars, prong collars, flooding, harsh physical corrections—are deceptively effective. Because the methods are punishment based, dogs stop offering any behavior at all, good or bad, to avoid punishment. “Shutting down” and “learned helplessness” happen quickly and are oftenmistaken for a well-behaved dog (there are those guaranteed quick results). But no learning or shaping has taken place—only intimidation and loss of trust.
Good training creates confident dogs who want to learn, not dogs unwilling to exhibit any behavior at all for fear of punishment. I like to think most people prefer the former, they just don’t know the difference.
So how do we advocate for our dogs? Newspapers, stop publishing irresponsible articles. Networks, stop airing shows that glorify aversive techniques. Most importantly, dog owners,stop expecting instant results, and only hire qualified trainers. There are several legitimate certifications, but an easy starting point is to find a trainer with a CPDT-KA, which stands for Certified Professional Trainer-Knowledge Assessed. The certification requirements include signing a code of ethics that aligns with non-aversive techniques.
For more complex issues, consult a Veterinarian Behaviorist (your regular veterinarian may be able to make a recommendation) to diagnose any problems that may need medication before training can be effective.
Remember, all dogs are individuals with their own history, personality and triggers. Life with your dog should be built on joy and connection—the simplicity of a walk on a brisk fall morning. The coziness of your dog at your feet while you read.
Ensure you and anyone you hire prioritizes providing a safe space for your dog to learn how to be their best self. Your dog is depending on you.