As Seen on TV...NOT!
Let's leave TV shows about dog behavior to be just what they were created for- entertainment. I don't watch Grey's Anatomy to learn about the nursing field, or Law & Order:SVU to learn how to be a good investigator. Please don't live by a TV show's advice when it comes to dog behavior.
It might be just a tiny bit extreme to say your dog is JUST like the human kids in your family, but let's face it- we love them a lot and care about their well-being even though they have paws and a tail. When one of your human children goes to school, or needs help with behavior, you send them to professionals with education and certifications; we don't send them to someone who is a self-taught behavior expert on 5 year olds who relies on anecdotes for their philosophies. Lucky for us humans, it's a lot easier to determine and find qualified child experts and teachers than it is to find qualified canine experts and teachers.
Because the whole dog training field is completely UNREGULATED. While a good number of trainers do choose to get educated and certified, anyone can be a dog trainer, dog expert, dog behaviorist, etc. Just slap up a website, spread the word, and John Smith or Jane Doe is now a dog trainer- no education required, no tests to take, no one to prove to that they care about dogs and know what they are doing.
Especially recently, there has been case after case on the news where distraught dog owners are having to deal with abuse to their dogs, even death, because of certain training methods. In 2019, this should not be the case. We know, and have proven, that there are better ways to train a dog and they do not involve pain, intimidation, physical corrections, etc.
I believe that many dog owners and trainers think punishment training is normal because it is all over our TV networks and social media.
However, there's a reason why some popular dog training shows on TV have a disclaimer of "Do not try this at home". In fact, there are several reasons. If you have ever seen The Dog Whisperer/Cesar 911, I hope you did not take everything the show says as truth or fact--which isn't fair to you since well-trusted sources, like National Geographic, support and air this show. Many true dog professionals are not a fan of the Dog Whisperer and his methods. One of the reasons you should not attempt these methods at home is because the techniques that are used often involve intimidation. Intimidation can cause dogs to lash out and rehearse their aggression more; which is why Cesar Millan has so many dog bites in his history. Typically what the show decides to air on public television, though, is what professionals understand as "Learned Helplessness". Learned helplessness is when an organism realizes they have little control over the environment and they cannot easily escape aversive stimuli, so they stop offering behavior and shut down. You see learned helplessness a lot at the Veterinarian's office. For example, my dog Bentley would snap at a stranger that tried to poke and prod him in the comfort of his home (he's a very sensitive rescue pup). But when he goes to the vet, in a tiny exam room where he is not comfortable and there's nowhere to escape, he shuts down and lets the doctor poke and prod him. But I can tell based off body language and history that Bentley does not like being poked at the Vet by strangers. Cesar Millan and others may make unproductive assumptions and call this helplessness "calm and respectful submission". As an example, in Cesar's episode in San Diego called 'Correcting the Nervous Energy', a woman walks up with her Bichon that is growling, pulling at the leash and snarling. Cesar says the dog is not nervous, it is only acting out because of the woman's nervous energy; if the owner would just stay calm, her dog would be calm. He then asks the woman to hand him the dog and Cesar holds the dog in his arms. Magic! The Bichon stops growling and snarling! The dog is cured!....Meanwhile I'm doing a facepalm over here. This is not magic and this dog is not calm. The dog is shutting down via learned helplessness because it is being held by a stranger and has realized it cannot easily escape, and mom is not right behind him to provide confidence. You should also note how Cesar had to ask the owner to put the dog in his arms (trap); that dog was not going to willingly go up to Cesar out of joy or "respect". I don't know about you, but I don't want my dog to shut down and overexamine their every move because they are trying to avoid stressful consequences. That quality of life doesn't sound ideal. It would be much more ethical to set the dog up to succeed by managing the environment, and teach/reward behaviors we DO want instead of focusing on punishing the behaviors we don't want.
Stay tuned for the next blog post, "From Spooky to Social: There's a Flow Chart for That" to find out how to help your shy and spooky dog become more accepting of the people and world around them, and even enjoy the interactions. Disclaimer: Phobic and Spooky are different and I will address the difference :)
Jenny Higgins, DN-DBC, CPDT-KA
Certified Canine Behavior Consultant and Professional Dog Trainer