The Tragedy of Dog Training

It is not difficult to make a name for one’s self in this industry, and I say that speaking from experience. Come up with an idea or rehash an old one, package it well and people will buy it. It’s not always a bad thing. I like to think that my focus on the sciences of learning and animal behavior for coming up with solutions to help our fearful dogs is among the good things.

Recently on a social media site someone selling a product, which may be a great addition to the industry, described themselves as a “professional holistic dog trainer.” I asked what that meant and received this reply:

“Professional Holistic Dog Trainer means that I take a look at the dog from the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of the dog. I have a very detailed background in bodywork and dog biomechanics so I only do training once I know the body is sound and that the back and neck are not being impinged anywhere.

I have spent 20 years studying and practicing Qi Gong and have a pretty sound knowledge of The 5 Element Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

I am an Animal Healer and have worked for the last 20 years with nutrition for many diseases and behavioral issues to rebalance both.

I have been an Animal Communicator for the past 20 years and have assisted hundreds of humans with their health and behavior issues addressing the problems at the root.

I train positively but use treats very minimally and not at all with my product*. I work with dogs based on their awareness of communication via reading their energy and having clear consistent boundaries that are used in a natural manner as we spend time together.

Hope that answers your question.”

Indeed it does answer my question. I see no reference at all to any formal education in animal training, which despite appearances in most TV shows and too many training classes, is based on the sound principles of operant conditioning. Animal training is a mechanical skill and as such we can be good at it, or not so good at it depending on our commitment to increasing and improving those skills. An educated onlooker can spot a good trainer a mile away in much the same way a fan can identify a team’s great athletes or a band’s star performer. Most of us however are not educated onlookers. It’s not an inherent fault of ours, it’s just the nature of the dog training industry. We don’t often have the chance to see many of the really good trainers in action. Given that, we may be perfectly thrilled with a nice red table wine while remaining oblivious to the fact that an award winning zinfandel is available in the next aisle.

Don’t let the veneer of language sprinkled with the glitter of energy, natural, spiritual, blind you to the obvious. At no point did this trainer ever provide me with information to indicate that s/he has the background, education or skill to effectively and humanely train dogs. Indeed most of the information provided is superfluous or contrary to being a great dog trainer. That one practices an ancient Chinese martial art may be good for one’s blood pressure, but it says nothing of their ability to train dogs. Qualifying the use of food in training (minimally) is an indication that one may in fact not truly be capable of communicating with an animal since as a primary reinforcer, and one of the most potent ones, food is renowned as a motivator and is used by professional trainers across the board. That fish tossed to a seal after they wave at the crowd is a primary reinforcer to increase the chances that that behavior will be performed again on cue.

Professional trainers do not apologize for using food in training. This is not to say that we only use food for reinforcement but the mention of limiting its use is a red flag. We don’t get to decide what is reinforcing to an animal, the animal does. If a dog is not motivated to perform for praise, petting, or play I don’t hold it against them, I break out the cheese. Coming from the position that a specific reinforcer will only be used minimally is antithetical to good training (health or medical reasons may impact our decision but it will not change the position that food holds in the training world). We can make the decision how and what to use for reinforcement in the process of training an animal, not create arbitrary dictates.

The tragedy of the dog training industry in its current incarnation is not that people can come up with enticing ways to market themselves or their products regardless of their quality, as consumers we know this is how the game is played. The tragedy is not that some people don’t use or limit the use of food to train. The tragedy is that most pet owners, the main consumers of the products and services, have never seen what good, efficient training looks like. But the industry is changing and we are becoming more savvy consumers who can tell the difference between a really good cabernet and something in a screw top bottle that just provides a good buzz.

*product name removed



26 comments so far

  1. Right on point Debbie Jacobs. The resistance to pay your dog with what motivates them…food along with being resistant to at least talking to their Vet regarding medications that help their dog. Both practices based on science and not myths

  2. Terri Klimek on

    Amen to that!!! I do see the tide starting to turn and owners questioning methods that some trainers are employing, and walking away before harm can be done. Some will go to one or two classes, and then leave. I’ve had them call me and say, “I just didn’t like the way they worked, and felt wrong about (fill in the blank).” So YIPPEE for the change that is happening now. The sad part is that it seems to be taking much longer and more dogs suffer because of it. BUT, I do see a light at the end of the tunnel. I think our job as a trainer is also to educate people why the methods we use work and the science behind it. There is also a lot of education that needs to happen in the veterinary community. There are still vets/vet techs out there using alpha rolls on dogs and recommending choke collars for puppies. Nothing like a yank and crank to further the human/canine bond.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Terri. I know that you and I have seen good training in action and wish for the same for all animals out there.

  3. Jim Crosby on

    Excellent! I agree wholeheartedly that regardless of the touchy-feeley stuff, a good trainer must have a solid basis in the behavioral sciences. Operant conditioning, reinforcement, the difference between aversive training and positive training-these are all foundation blocks a good trainer must know. The damage that an untrained and aversive-based trainer can do is amazing. I recently shared my experience with a massive failure by another trainer that cost the dog her life.
    I love Benjamin Hoff’s quote: “Lots of people talk to animals: not many listen.” You have to know the language (and secret clue: it has nothing to do with ‘whispering’. Or yelling. Or magic.) to be able to develop a relationship of trust and understanding with the dog. And then you have to listen-to pay attention.
    Thanks for your contributions. Would love to talk some day if I’m ever in Vermont.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Jim. You should get to Vermont. We have great foliage, awesome cheese and fantastic syrup 🙂

  4. Lyn on

    Very sad that people are going to be sucked in by that that sort of stuff. I saw someone at a training class I help with yank at her nearly unbalancing him. When I asked her not to do it she told me that her Husky Trainer had said that she must – she had to be on top of him 😦

  5. Melissa on

    “Indeed it does answer my question. I see no reference at all to any formal education in animal training, which despite appearances in most TV shows and too many training classes, is based on the sound principles of operant conditioning. Animal training is a mechanical skill and as such we can be good at it, or not so good at it depending on our commitment to increasing and improving those skills. An educated onlooker can spot a good trainer a mile away in much the same way a fan can identify a team’s great athletes or a band’s star performer. Most of us however are not educated onlookers”

    Perfect 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Melissa. Can’t do much better than perfect 🙂

  6. KDKH on

    I love your blog and usually agree with your approach to dogs, which is sensitive and discerning. Today, though, I respectfully disagree that the “holistic” approach is meritless. I use animal communication in working with all my companion animals to change a behavior that doesn’t work in our household. It can bring swift permanent change because our family animals understand what we want and we hear their side of the story to consider their points of view. Change doesn’t always require “training.” Listening and clear communication works just as well with animals as with people.

    • thebodycodeblogger on

      Totally agree. Being able to ask an animal WHY it is behaving in a certain way can make a difference in what ‘training’ may be needed to modify it. Good for you.

    • fearfuldogs on

      If we do see change in an animal’s behavior it is because the consequences for their behavior has changed, that’s how behavior works. We may also see change because we have changed the emotional association a dog has with a particular stimulus. Put whatever book cover you want on it, call it holistic, organic or empowering, we can predict behavior to a high degree of accuracy using mathematical formulas it’s that lawful. I know that we cringe at the thought of reducing behavior to a math equation, and I’m not advocating we do, but we should at the very least understand the lawfulness of behavior while we’re creating our own art form and calling it training.

      • Deb Watson on

        I love the idea of ‘reducing’ a behaviour to a math equation! As soon as we start doing that then we have a formula that works. I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Sophia Yin speak a few years ago, and her response to a person who had been ‘conditioning’ a gentle leader for a year with no success said it all. Her words were similar to “if you are not having success after a year then you are not doing it correctly.” That simple! I accept the science of training. It has yet to let me down.

    • KellyK on

      What do you mean by “animal communication”, though? It’s a pretty general phrase that could cover everything from paying attention to animal body language and being aware of how our own body language “translates,” to trying to talk to dogs in human speech, to being a pet psychic.

      I totally agree that a dog who a) knows what you want and b) knows that doing what you want makes good things happen is more likely to do what you want.

      I’m also not sure you can draw such a distinction between “listening and clear communication” and “training” because all communication is training at least in some sense. Sometimes the reinforcers are just social (praise, affection) rather than tangible (cheese, toys).

      • fearfuldogs on

        Good points Kelly, and educated trainers understand the difference between automatic and socially facilitated reinforcers and know when either is in play, and uses each to their advantage.

  7. Trainergirl on

    Someone who calls themselves an “animal communicator” is usually referring to the fact that the believe they can communicate telepathically with a dog and then tell it’s owners what the dog is thinking and why it is behaving in such a way. Sadly, I do not believe personally, that animal communicators are really doing what they think they are doing. I actually have worked in the field of mediumship and healing myself. I only say this to show that I am a person who is open to alternative ways of doing things. I am also a positive dog trainer. Have I in the course of giving healing felt that I communicated with an animal? Yes, I would say I have, but those communications are very limited and I do not have big conversations and get revelations about the animal’s behaviour as some “animal communicators” claim to do. Plus I am not seeing the animal as a training client, but as a being that might benefit from healing. Nothing can be proved really if an animal communicator tells a client that their dog is thinking so and so or acting this because of so and so. The dog can’t speak to verify anything (unlike humans) and so the owner really can’t have much proof as to whether what the communicator is saying is right or wrong. I prefer to base my training methods on sound scientific principals and keep the telepathy and mediumship to that other part of my life where it belongs.

  8. Vanessa on

    This is scary, simply because I know so many people who would perk up at the mention of “holistic” and unfortunately be blinded to any of the methods that follow because they are billed as “holistic.” I have no formal training in animal training other than my extensive experience training my own dogs in 4-H (when younger) and AKC obedience and conformation competitions. I taught myself what I know but I know pulls from the positive-based dog training that is gaining ground today. I’m also an experimental psychology graduate student and my coursework in Learning psychology is extensive. I apply what I learn to dogs. I do not claim to market any one effective technique (although there are those in town who do) but if people ask for my training help, I will give it to them. I’m well aware that at this point, I have no credentials beyond my own experience and training classes I have helped out with, so I don’t set foot into the field. When I do (and I want to) I will look into credentials that appeal to me knowing full well that unless the state of things changes, they won’t mean as much as they should. THey will mean something to me, however.

  9. Evelyn Haskins on

    I agree that for effective training we MUST communicate with out dogs. That is elementary for good trainers, and is taught in a good Instructors Training course.
    However I have yet to see an evidence that those who call themselves ‘animal communicators’ have any more skill that you average “Psychic” — fortune teller, astrologist, iridologist, necromancer, and so on and so on.

  10. leoflorence on

    Great article and I agree totally. However, I think the word ‘holistic’ shouldn’t attract suspicions if coupled with reputable education. I work with a holistic trainer and the only thing the word ‘holistic’ means is that we look at the whole situation of a dog when assessing them. Meaning nutrition, health, temperament etc. It means, for example, if we have a dog which is ‘misbehaving’ and can’t seem to concentrate, we ask the owners what they are feeding. Often, this already solves the mystery, as low quality dog food can have a massive impact on behaviour. Also, we ensure that dogs are free of pain before starting behaviour modification programs (especially for aggressive and fearful dogs), and if necessary refer them back to a vet for more tests. After all that, the basis of the training is quite straight forward conditioning (adapted to the dog’s needs and circumstances of course). I just wanted to point that out, because I think you are totally right but I also think that some trainers call themselves holistic because, as per the definition of the word, it means they look at all the dog’s different aspects in training. It should, however, be coupled with a solid foundation of understanding the science of dog training 🙂

  11. Karen DeBraal on

    Yes, that was a snow job for sure. Wouldn’t go near that. I am an acupuncturist with 4 dogs but it is meaningless for dog training. If anyone starts using the words “energy” and “natural” in this way, become suspicious. It is meaningless. And animal communicators? What is that, exactly? Always bugs the poop outta me. More “energy” bullshit.

  12. Tim Wheeler on

    Right on Debbie! Focused like a laser as usual. Great and illustrative commentary!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Tim! Appreciate the positive feedback 😉

  13. Emily on

    Lol a “holistic dog trainer” never even heard of such a thing, ridiculous. I will never use food to train my dogs or other people’s dogs, unless I am dealing with aggression or fear. Dogs interact with humans at too much of a social level for us to become constant, direct food sources…

    • fearfuldogs on

      Hmmm…..most people feed their dogs every day.

      • Emily on

        Constant, hun, constant. Eating more frequently isn’t the best for a dog’s body anyways.

  14. anna on

    Acquired my first dog at age 56 (it was foisted upon me, sort of). Went to the nearest dog club for training. Reputable, long-standing club. I left when they used the exact same words and phrases and philosophy and half-truths that my parents used about parenting: children like discipline; children like structure; children like you to tell them what to do; children like you to be the boss; Children like to know that you are in charge; children are happiest when they know to be grateful to you for everything; etc, all the usual talk about leadership. I am sure they are well-meaning people and love dogs, but they (like my late parents) confuse leadership with bullying. In business and the and the sports team, many people confuse leadership with bullying. In your gut you know which is which. Though these concepts may may look alike: bullying engenders obedience through fear and learned helplessness and leadership engenders obedience through respect and love. I just walked away and found trainers whose pockets bulge with treats and smell of liver.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Behavior is lawful. Dog training is based on the science of applied behavior analysis. Once we get our head around that we don’t need to mess around with fuzzy concepts. We just train 🙂

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