FIRE YOUR DOG TRAINER!
Don’t let a D-TINO waste your time and money…
Julia V. McDonough
- It’s your seventh week of training class. Max is doing OK with the loose-leash walking as long as you hold the piece of cheese right in front of his nose and stare at him the whole time you handle him. But you’re finding it hard to replicate this technique when you take him for a regular walk in your neighborhood. When you voice your concerns to your instructor, he assures you that these “dog friendly” techniques work great, and that if you just enroll in Basic 2 (another 8 week$) and maybe Intermediate 1 (another 8 week$), you and your dog will be just fine.
* You love going for a stroll on the beach with your Lab. But you can’t cut her loose because you worry about her running away. Your trainer assures you that people who have their dogs off leash are irresponsible, even when there isn’t a leash law in effect, and that you should never risk Lucy’s life by expecting her to behave without restraint. You don’t want to be irresponsible, so you keep Lucy on a retractable leash and do the best you can. One day, you encounter a small group of people with their dogs off leash, obviously having a great time. You reel Lucy in and she starts to bark in protest and jump up on you in frustration. You try to ignore her, like your trainer taught you to do whenever she does something bad, but it doesn’t make much difference. Meanwhile, the people call their dogs, and as if they are choreographed, all four dogs return happily to their humans, and sit quietly next to them as you try to wrestle Lucy past them. “Your dogs are so good!” you manage to say, “How did you get them to listen like that?” One of the owners tells his dog to stay, and approaches you, “Thanks,” he says, “We train with XYZ Dog Training…I always carry their cards when I go on walks, here you go!” When you go to your class next week, you tell your trainer about what you saw and how nicely behaved and happy the dogs were. You mention the other training company. Your trainer looks as though you have insulted her children. “Ugh. XYZ is TERRIBLE. They are abusive and they should be put out of business. I’d put my dog to sleep before I’d let them train him!” Your heart sinks. On the way out of class, you throw the business card in the trash.
- Bowser has become very reactive around other dogs. Each time you have to bring him someplace, your blood pressure goes up and you gird yourself for battle. Because of this, you keep leaving him at home more and more, which makes his excursions off property even more of big, bad deal. You finally decide to consult with a person who advertises herself as a “behaviorist”. She decides upon her first glance at Bowser that the dog is “not so bad”, and hands you a list of recommendations that looks just like the one you have already downloaded for free off of a training website. When you explain that you are already doing all of the “Nothing In Life Is Free” stuff, the “behaviorist” seems a bit lost for words. You ask if you can show her what Bowser does around other dogs and convince her to walk with you out toward the kennel in the distance, where a few dogs are barking. When you are within 100 yards, Bowser’s hackles go up and he is obviously agitated. “Good!” you think, “Now I can show her what I mean and get some help.” But the “behaviorist” stops you in your tracks and says “OK, that’s enough. I don’t want him to get too riled up.” You return to her office where you get a lecture on serotonin levels, “calming signals” and missed socialization opportunities from Bowser’s puppyhood. She asks you to return in three weeks after you’ve had a chance to “work on” what she talked about. You realize as you drive home that even though you’ve just been inundated with information, none of it is going to make living with Bowser easier on you or him.
- You and your husband have made a desperate decision: you are ready to put down Niko. She has been getting worse in her behavior around other dogs, strangers and even people she knows. Recently, she has even bitten you in her frenzied behavior as you tried to steer her away from a passerby. For the past year, you have been training with a very nice girl who really seems to mean well and constantly talks about being humane. She is adamant that Niko never experiences a correction, yet she recommends a series of restrictive halters, harnesses and chemical restraints (in conjunction with a vet). She tells you that Niko was abused and that the only way to establish trust again is to make her enjoy training time. That means giving her a treat every time the object of her defensive behavior approaches. But, you protest, it’s been over twelve months and this hasn’t worked at all, as Niko is obviously so stressed out that she will not accept food at these times. “Try a better treat”, says the trainer. When you insist that this approach simply isn’t effective, no matter what treat you’ve tried, the trainer sadly informs you that Niko is hopelessly aggressive and beyond human help.
Sound familiar? For the sake of you and your dog, I hope not. But I know from extensive personal experience that the four real-life scenarios above are becoming more common with the proliferation of D-TINOs (Dog Trainers in Name Only). D-TINOs have always been around. In the past, there were fewer of them. They were usually the eccentric “dog lady” down the street, the guy whose friend used to be a K-9 officer, or the misplaced hippie who wanted to change all the leash laws so that dogs could run free and unsupervised again. Serious dog trainers were not threatened by them, and if anything, found their existence amusing. We could afford to be amused, back when the average dog owner was allowed to trust his own common sense, and because no sane person would believe the rantings of a D-TINO simply due to the fact that the D-TINO either didn’t own a dog, or had a poorly behaved one, in spite of all of his/her wisdom on canine training. Tell the dog owner from 1985 that it would take 16 weeks and about 200 pounds of hot dog bits to get her dog to stop pulling on the leash, and you’d get laughed out of the park.
Today, D-TINOs are everywhere. They have websites, training centers, newspaper columns and book deals. They’re usually well-meaning dog lovers who cross over from having a fun hobby to representing themselves as experts. This soi-disant expertise is sometimes based on their experience as vet techs, groomers or shelter volunteers; their successful completion of an online, open-book, multiple choice exam; or their enrollment in an Internet correspondence course. Then there are those throwbacks to the dog-hippies who believe that they “have a way with dogs” based on the fact that most dogs like them, and therefore, they have more insight than you do about your pet.
There is no shortage of articles on finding a dog trainer, and they vary in quality as far as practical application is concerned. But based on how many (about 75%) of my students come to me after being dissatisfied with the last trainer(s) they consulted, I feel the need to write about something that hasn’t been addressed yet: firing your dog trainer. This involves identifying and addressing the telltale behaviors of a chronic D-TINO, and a few diagnostic tools (in red print) in case you want to be absolutely sure that you’ve been wasting your time and money before moving on to a better trainer. That trainer doesn’t have to be me, by the way. There are plenty of talented and accomplished professional dog trainers for you to consult with, if you can get past the shrill hysterics of the D-TINO collective.
Many dog owners unwittingly hire a D-TINO to help them, whether it’s for basic obedience or major behavior rehab, only to find themselves questioning their decision a few weeks or months into the relationship. What’s worse is if they start to question the validity of dog training itself, based on the lack of results. These are the people who hide away, re-home or even euthanize their companion, based on the failure of an unqualified, but very zealous, D-TINO. I heard their stories dozens of times at the rescue where I trained, and again in my private practice. Many dog owners who come to me after having no success elsewhere express a guilty loyalty to the failed D-TINO, who is usually a nice enough person (provided you don’t question her), and they politely refuse to let her know that they have found success and happiness for their dog using the same methods that she condemns. I wish that wasn’t so. When I was starting out (and even on a few more recent occasions!), many of my own forward strides as an effective trainer occurred after someone (a colleague, a past student whose problems were solved by someone else) made me aware of how much I had to learn. Humbling? Yes. But I’m glad for it, and so are the dogs and people I’ve helped.
Like anyone who truly believes his own agenda, D-TINOs can be very seductive and charismatic in their pursuit of your business. But just in case they aren’t winning you over purely on the basis of what they actually do (and don’t worry, most of them won’t have very much to actually show you as far as useful dog training skills are concerned), they will inject a heapin’ helpin’ of moral outrage to make you feel guilty for daring to ask about results.
On the other hand, there is another kind of D-TINO still floating around, although their number is dwindling: the bullies who think nothing of stringing up a dog for the slightest offense, who shout their commands and rip on the dogs’ necks before ever spending time to teach the dogs what’s expected of them. Impatient with breeds they don’t like, dismissive of owners’ genuine concerns, and downright contemptuous of any new thought in dog training, these are the D-TINOs you hear about the most. But they are in the minority, thank Dog. They are also easy to identify, and easy to leave. The D-TINOs you’re most likely to deal with these days come from another place entirely, and they’re a crafty lot.
DOG FRIENDLY? ACCORDING TO WHOM?
The most common battle cry of the current crop of D-TINOs is “We’re dog friendly!” Now, any one of my students will tell you that I’m about as “dog friendly” as you can get. After all, I made it possible for their dogs to have freedom and acceptance, and in a lot of cases, have literally saved their lives. Their dogs are overjoyed when they see me, and their owners joke about who the dog loves more, me or them. Sounds pretty “dog friendly” to me.
But now that the D-TINOs have stolen the phrase, “dog friendly” means that you and your dog will never be put in the position of being accountable. The “dog friendly” party line is “train without pain”, usually repeated as your dog’s face is forced into a restrictive head halter and you are instructed to ignore any bad behavior because it will go away if not reinforced. (Please ask your current “dog friendly” D-TINO, who is very likely to give you the guideline of “If you wouldn’t do it to a toddler, don’t do it to your dog”, what happens if you ignore a toddler who is drawing on the dining room wall. If they tell you to “take away the crayons”, remind them that the dog ALWAYS has “crayons” in his mind, his paws and his teeth*.) Rabid anti-training collar diatribes and stories about dogs with crushed tracheas, pincushion necks from “spiked” prong collars, and third degree burns from electronic units are preached with the same wide-eyed finger-wagging that your Mom used when talking to you before prom night. The mark of a truly effective trainer is that he is personally familiar and proficient with every training tool available, and he realizes that the most important training equipment is the stuff between your ears. If a trainer knows how to teach a behavior using a clicker, a remote collar, a head halter, a prong collar, or a piece of twine, then he is able to help the highest number of dogs who come to him, even if his familiarity informs him what not to use. If he has joined one of the numerous cults of methodology and condemns anything other than his chosen training tool, you are gambling with your dog’s success. (Please ask your current “dog friendly” D-TINO exactly which model, size and brand of collar they used, who they trained with in using it, how many dogs they actually trained with it and to what level of off-leash reliability, and of course, ask which veterinarian they referred the maimed and charred dogs to at the end of each session. If they tell you they’ve never used the offending tools, ask them where they got their opinions, as you have opinions on the Space Shuttle and would like to become a NASA engineer based on your strong feelings and despite your lack of experience.*) If you have used a training collar successfully in the past, be prepared for a type of ethical reprogramming, as this variety of D-TINO will not be happy until you are as evangelistic as she is about how evil and abusive you were until you saw the light. Reading some of these people’s online personal witnessing about their change to being “dog friendly” or “purely positive”, one is reminded of the confessions of an alcoholic hitting bottom. Because of one questionable experience with one bad trainer, they become crusaders against anything with which the bad trainer is associated. I heard of a “positive” trainer who threw a chair at her dog in frustration. Let me go on the record as not wanting to ban chairs.
BLINDED BY “SCIENCE”
Another common behavior of the modern D-TINO is the invocation of “science”. When pure emotional blackmail and the accusation of hurting dogs doesn’t do the trick, the work of B.F. Skinner and the marine mammal trainers is trotted out as irrefutable proof that the methods of the moment are valid.
Never mind that Skinner’s hardcore “radical behaviorism” has been refuted by serious scientists and philosophers pretty much since he first started publishing. My favorite is “The Misbehavior of Organisms” by Breland and Breland: it begins with the phrase “There seems to be a continuing realization by psychologists that perhaps the white rat cannot reveal everything there is to know about behavior.” (Please quote this study to a Skinner-invoking D-TINO and see if he acts as though he’s heard of it.*)Yup, psychologists figured out that people aren’t lab rats back in 1960, but D-TINOs are still convinced that dogs are. Or perhaps dogs are dolphins.
Maybe your D-TINO has been using the marine mammal analogy in defending his methods. “After all”, he says, “you can’t use force to get a killer whale to pee in a paper cup”. OK, probably not. But let’s say the whale is living in the open ocean, where he is affected by the presence of prey, predators and lady whales. Is it honest to state that he is going to gladly give a urine sample to some guy with a clicker and a bucket of chum? Captive marine mammals have very few choices about how to spend their time. Jumping through a hoop for a piece of mackerel is probably as exciting as it gets. The marine trainers do not pack Flipper into their Prius at the end of the day and take him for a swim in the open ocean before going home, where he has the free run of the house. Your dog, on the other hand, is expected to participate in your life with you, to dwell peacefully in your home, to interact predictably and politely with other humans and canines, to travel safely in your car, visit your vet, and otherwise co-exist with you in a relatively intimate way as a part of your family. The consequence of a dolphin not doing a double backflip during the matinee show at Sea World is probably pretty slight. The consequence of your dog running into traffic, attacking a neighbor’s poodle, or knocking a small child to the ground could cost him his life. If you view obedience as a series of tricks to be performed a couple of times a day when your dog feels like it, I guess you could follow the exact example of the dolphin trainer. But if you need obedience to be a reliable way for your dog to think, and a way for you and he to communicate with each other regardless of location or distraction, then get outta the pool. (If the D-TINO you are dealing with insists on using the marine mammal paradigm, ask how he can call himself “dog friendly” and yet be such an enemy to dolphins. After all, the average lifespan of a dolphin in the wild is 35-55 years, but according to most publically-available sources, half of all captive dolphins die within two years of their capture, and the rest last an average of only five years in captivity. Also, behaviors such as ball-playing, tailwalking and eating already-dead fish are not found among dolphins and whales in the wild, whereas following a pack, lying down quietly, carrying objects in the mouth and deferring to a leader are very natural behaviors to canids of all types, and can be easily co-opted into a training program*.)
(An excellent point to bring up to the D-TINO who inevitably brings up the question of force when getting a pee sample from an Orca: how exactly did they catch the killer whale in order to get him into the see-ment pond? Did they lure and reward him? No, they used force. A lot of force. Way more than a balanced trainer will ever ask you to use with your dog. Once they have him in the bland, mind-killing environment of the holding pool, they have his attention simply because nothing else does. The marine mammal trainer will agree that without attention, there can be no obedience. A balanced trainer will get your dog’s attention in a way that doesn’t require his removal from reality: if anything, his attention on you will actually increase when he is around distractions. Kind of like training the killer whale out in the wild. Make sure you ask the D-TINO about how many killer whales are doing shows on command out in the ocean.*)
(Actually, this entire section should be in red, as bringing any of this up in conversation with a D-TINO is definitely risky behavior.)
SHORTCUTS AND SCENIC ROUTES
One of the favorite arguments of the modern D-TINO: a training program that promises results in a reasonable amount of time is by definition a dishonest and probably abusive way to train dogs. Common banalities about “the journey” and the hazards of taking “shortcuts” (“Shortcuts always have potholes” they warn.) are used as a defense against effective and humane dog training. In the twisted world of the modern D-TINO, the longer it takes to accomplish something, the more humane it is. When I tell a student that I can get his dog to stop pulling on the leash within a five minute period, he is relieved. When I tell a D-TINO, she is immediately suspicious.
When I’m teaching a student dog a retrieve, or tightening up a competition dog’s attention-heeling, I like to take my time. These trained behaviors get addressed after we’ve already established the foundation of attention and comprehension: we can afford to go slow. When I’m working with young puppies, I love letting them learn at a pace that’s natural for their age and developmental stage. But when someone brings me a dog with a bite history and an eviction notice from their condo board, giving them three weeks to prove that the animal is controllable in a public setting if they don’t want to choose between their home and their best friend, I’m all about getting the job done quickly. When an exasperated owner has spent a fortune in time and coin and still can’t walk his dog down the street without a rotator cuff injury, I won’t insult him by making the process take longer than it needs to take. When couples are on the verge of divorce, neighbors are ready to press lawsuits, or people are simply sick of having to live like a hostage to their ill-mannered but benevolent pet, there is absolutely no reason to draw things out while sighing about the wonders of “the journey”. Once we get the basic control and communication that real dog training provides in a reasonable amount of time, then we can continue on our journey. Maybe the journey leads to a job for the dog, or increased freedom, or new privileges. Some of my students have been training with me for seven or eight years, as a fun thing to do with their dogs rather than as a necessity. They love the journey they’re on, but most of them had to take the training equivalent of the Concorde before landing in the virtual Paris of leisurely fun and freedom where their dogs are now.
There are two reasons I can think of that the modern D-TINO eschews expedient training. One is that they simply don’t know how to be effective without thinking they have to be abusive. This is the result of a glaring lack of experience (plus a questionable sense of self-control, if they can’t conflate the concepts of “timely” and “humane”), and also a typical lack of empathy for the dog and owner, who have to suffer through weeks or months of unacceptable behavior and lack of freedom while the training program unfolds with the speed of a glacier.
The other reason is more cynical. If it takes me two lessons to get your dog to heel on a slack leash around distractions but it takes my colleague sixteen weeks to (maybe) get the dog to stop pulling on the leash, which one of us is going to make more money? Me, because I deliver results? I wish! When my colleague harangues you about how “outdated” or “mean” I am, while quoting from the last “dog friendly” seminar she attended, you will pay her a lot of money to ransom your conscience…you are paying in time, money and patience so that you can avoid doing what she swears is the wrong thing by your dog. Even though you may have a nagging suspicion that you are being hoodwinked, her constant reassurance that you are being humane and enlightened (as well as her constant refrain of how she “isn’t in this for the money”, see the next section) may take the sting out of the checks you write every eight weeks, and the embarrassment you feel as you apologize for your dog’s obnoxious behavior yet again to a person who innocently says “I thought you were going to obedience school with him?”
Please ask your D-TINO to show you her personal dog working off leash and around distractions. If her own dog is unavailable, ask to see a student’s dog doing the same thing. Ask how long it took to get to that level. The use of treats, a remote collar, or fifty-seven repeated commands do not count as “off leash”. If it’s a remote collar trained dog, the collar needs to come off. A treats-trained dog? All treats leave the building*. If you are told that your request is unreasonable, then run, don’t walk, for the nearest exit. Unless you still have your own barely-trained dog with you, who hasn’t completed Week Six, Lesson Five, Protocol B, Loose-Leash Walking at a Fast Pace, Two Strides.
Shortcuts have potholes? Not if you know the good ones because you’ve been traveling the roads for such a long time. Why get stuck in endless construction instead of arriving at your destination safe and on time? Dogs don’t live very long. You owe it to your dog to teach him the most important stuff in the shortest period, so that both of you can enjoy your time together.
“I’M NOT IN IT FOR THE MONEY”
According to their own claims, D-TINOs are never in dog training for financial gain. They are all simply responding to a higher calling to bring better dog/owner relationships to their clients. “I’m in it for the dogs” they say.
Well, so am I. But I’m also in it for the money. I won’t lie.
See, I don’t know how to do anything else. I’m not a petsitter, or a vet tech, or a successful groomer, or a rich housewife with lots of time on my hands. This has been the main source of my income for most of my adult life (and even before adulthood, when I was paid by neighbors to train their dogs). I’m damned good at what I do, and I’ve outgrown the romantic notion of giving away what I have to offer. If I don’t do a good job, my dogs and I don’t eat. If I don’t provide results, my word of mouth referrals will drop off and I’ll be stocking shelves at Wal-Mart. It is imperative that I do a good job and live up to my solid reputation. I’m not ashamed to ask you to pay for my training services, and I try to keep them affordable so that you don’t get scared off, even though so many of my colleagues tell me I don’t charge enough. I think my training is worth something, and so do the rest of my students, and so do the trainers who have hired me to work with them and for them. So will you.
Your average D-TINO will always declaim that she’s not in it for the money. That’s because she doesn’t have to succeed. She can afford to mess around with theories, to spend endless hours of your time discussing body language and operant conditioning, and wolves and dolphins and Prozac for Pups. She probably does love what she does, and she may really mean well with what she’s doing. But unless you’re seeing significant results every week, starting with the first half hour of work, then she’s just farting around, playing with dogs. Playing with YOUR dog. And you’re paying her for it. What did you think you were paying her for? Teaching Jake to come when called, heel on a slack leash, sit the first time you tell him to and stay there til you release him, lie down quietly at your feet or at a distance, all with Jake’s happy participation and your easy understanding of the process, right? And maybe we’ll stop that jumping on people/running away/shyness/aggression/defensive behavior/bicycle chasing/cat-killing or what have you, too. And we’d like to be off leash before Jake is crippled with old age. Is that what you’re getting? How long have you been waiting for it? Aren’t you sick and tired of the runaround, of the proselytizing, the excuses? Wouldn’t you rather just train your dog?
Then fire your dog trainer.
*Red lettering means that these are “rain poncho” instructions. IE, before posing the information in them to a D-TINO, you are advised to don a rain poncho to protect yourself when the D-TINO’s head explodes.
This article is written in loving memory of Captain Arthur Haggerty.
©2007 dobermind press