TV Dog Trainers Aren’t Magicians

By Emma Judson

Every so often, a TV channel brings out the latest animal training, animal behaviour-based reality program. Sometimes it’s a competition, sometimes it’s a car-crash drama filled half-hour or hour of snarling, barking, jumping, crazy-eyed beasts with desperate owners in floods of tears.

Whatever it is, it’s also a deception and a lie.

Make no mistake, the purpose of these shows, of any TV show, is to get viewers and to sell advertising time. The purpose is not to educate. It is not to help you resolve problems with your terrifying terrier or your psychotic poodle.

The purpose is to amuse, to entertain, to get people talking about last night’s show, to get people watching on catch-up to sell advertising space there, to get bums on seats and eyeballs on screens.

Even where the animal welfare is thought out and the experts involved truly are experts, the nature of a TV show is such that you cannot possibly show all the work involved in the timeframe permitted.

Very few ethical trainers and behaviourists will get involved in such shows because there is always the pressure to compromise animal welfare for viewer ratings and money. As a result, very few shows (I can think of only two in the last five years) involve ethical, credible experts and best practice regarding training methods and animal welfare.

So, what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is, without ethical professionals involved, the animals in these shows suffer. The animals belonging to people who watch them, suffer, and the people who own these animals, will almost certainly also suffer.

The methods appear to work, and so the viewer, even if they question the safety or validity of the methods used, accepts that it is justified and necessary.

Viewers are under the mistaken impression that someone who is branded as an expert, on a TV show, must be a credible, qualified professional and therefore what they are doing must be safe, must be OK, must be acceptable

‘If this wasn’t ok, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it on TV’

Sadly, they are wrong.

Much is permitted on TV that isn’t ok, isn’t safe or sensible, isn’t based in science and is dangerous.

In the most recent round of ‘Fido Is A Bad Dog’ style shows, we see our expert. He’s a dapper, smiling chap, dressed nicely and the smooth words that come out of his mouth seem to make sense.

What a lovely chap. He wants to help these poor, poor owners – cut to owners being dragged facedown along the pavement by unruly dogs (edit shot so we don’t see unruly dogs muller a puppy belonging to an innocent member of the public).

Immediately we are presented two ‘facts’.

  1. Our ‘expert’ is a Master Trainer, and
  2. Our owners are clearly desperate, panicked, failing and in danger of serious accident

But both of these ‘facts’ are false constructs.

Our ‘Master Trainer’ holds this qualification from a professional body that is little more than a pay-to-join club. He has taken their examination (not externally accredited), he has paid to be a member, and that is it. You or I could set up an organisation tomorrow that sells people a piece of paper with ‘SUPREME GRAND HIGH POOHBAH DOG TRAINER’ on it, and it would carry exactly the same meaning and weight as his ‘Master Trainer’ qualification.

Our desperate, failing owner has been set up to look as bad as she possibly can. She’s scraped her elbow and there’s blood on her arm. She’s almost in tears.

Well of course she is. She’s been encouraged by the film crew to let her dogs drag her around and wind them up all morning so they can get that awful footage.

No reputable professional would set someone up to fail in this manner. She could have introduced her dogs one at a time in the garden where they would have been safe, and she wouldn’t have been pulled over.

But that wouldn’t have made good TV and it wouldn’t have set everyone up to find the trainer a calm, confident authority figure, and the owner a pathetic mess.

So, within the opening five minutes of this program, we see a lady reduced to tears and physically injured, dogs out of control and put at risk of being hit by cars, and a charming charlatan styled as a credible expert.

Now he goes to their house to see about stopping these boisterous dogs from jumping on those who come in. He does this by pushing them off balance, because dogs don’t like to be off balance (no shit Sherlock, no one does!).

The footage is cleverly cut to make it look like these dogs stop jumping really quickly. The reality is, this lady has had a TV crew in her small home for many hours, with the trainer repeating the work over and over, both to get it right and to get the shots they need.

By the time the owner’s children appear, and the dogs are let in to demonstrate what they have learned, of COURSE a miraculous change has occurred, and they no longer jump up.

But why would they? These are their family, not exciting strangers, and they are shattered from a house full of strange people, strange gear and have got all their jumping out of their system.

Later on, we see our self-styled god of dog training advise the owner to put collars on the dogs not harnesses. He fails to explain this is so that he can deliver painful jerks to the necks to punish pulling on the lead. Finally, he advises her to walk one dog at a time.

In the three-week follow up, we see the owner still has to deliver a correction to one of the dogs every two paces, clearly indicating that the training has not in fact worked. We don’t see a follow up of the jumping on guests problem at all. I wonder why?

Now this may all sound very mild. Oh a few tugs on a lead, they are big dogs, that’s OK, it won’t really hurt them.

It isn’t OK. A few tugs on the lead works until it becomes old news. It works until the dog sees something more interesting and learns he can ignore it. So, a tug on the lead becomes a good hard yank.

When that inevitably fails (because the owner has not taught the dog any good reason for walking beside her) what next, stick on a choke collar, maybe a prong collar, maybe worse?

Training using aversives like this is very reinforcing for the handler. It works, we do it again. It works enough that when it stops working, we try harder, and when we ‘try harder’ with an aversive, that means we apply it more forcefully. We apply more pain and discomfort.

I am sure anyone would agree that seeing someone yank a dog off its feet by a choke chain is unacceptable, and that is the inevitable conclusion should someone follow the advice given on the show. Because at no point is it explained that the dog needs to be rewarded for doing the right thing, in a way the dog actually perceives as a reward.

Shows like this present us with the straw-man concept that when things get really bad, harsh methods are necessary.

We see this trainer enter a home with a collie who has a bite history. Specifically, a history of biting strange men who come to the door or enter the house.

Again, the owner and dog are set up to fail. She’s right there with the dog on a tight lead, in the living room, dog wearing a muzzle so tight she cannot open her mouth to pant.

IMMEDIATELY this is a welfare issue. This dog is terrified! She growls, she lunges, she wants this man to go away. Every fibre of her being wants this situation over with.

Our expert dog training master is well aware of this. He points out she would have bitten him multiple times if she were not wearing the muzzle. And he is right.

So why is he subjecting this dog to this utter terror?

We are supposed to believe it is necessary for the training, but the grim fact is – it is not.

It is necessary for the filming, and it is necessary to again, put the owner on the back foot, make her feel like a failure, and make him look calm, confident and clever.

Any ethical professional would have taken a lengthy history from the owner, and visited with the dog safely behind a gate, possibly on a lead held by one of the owners, at a distance where the dog felt comfortable and not threatened.

But that doesn’t make exciting TV.

In another case, we see this trainer visit a clearly overwrought, anxious, frantic little terrier. He sees the dog at home and can clearly grasp that the dog is very on edge and scared. He is capable of taking a history by simply speaking to the owners and he does so. He is told the dog is terrified when they take into a busy town centre.

Here, the ethical behaviour consultant would stop, recommend a safe management plan and behaviour modification plan, exercises to work on at home and demonstrate some handling techniques.

Not our TV expert. Instead, we have the TV crew film the family take the dog into town, demonstrating clearly the dog is at times screaming in fear, shaking, lunging, snapping, refusing to move and needing to be carried.

Then for further drama, we see our TV expert go into town with the family and the dog, and subject that dog to yet MORE terror, so that he can ‘see the problem’.

He tells the owners some wholly unscientific guff about rewarding fear (you can’t reward fear by the way. You can add to it by doing yet more scary things, but you cannot make anyone more fearful by being kind to them and providing them the comfort and safety that they need).

Then we see him take the dog from them and march through town without a problem. Oh, what a miracle!

Except by this point, this poor dog has been flooded. Overwhelmed with exposure to the things he fears and has shut down. He no longer reacts because he knows nothing he does will save him, not because he is genuinely happy!

In both this case and the collie case, our trainer has used flooding to overwhelm the animals into learned helplessness. They no longer appear to react, which looks like they have calmed down and the owners are happy they can invite friends round or take the dog into town.

In fact, both dogs are liable to regress, suddenly and severely, and when the owners are least expecting it. In the case of the collie who bites when she’s scared, this means she is even more of a risk than before treatment.

But the viewer won’t know that of course.

TV shows like this (and this is the latest in a long line of such shows) set out to create huge drama, and then plop in a magician who waves a magic wand and hey presto, the animal is cured, everyone is happy.

Through the use of editing, filming techniques and omitting huge amounts of information, TV can make magic happen.

The damage done by these shows is, frankly, epic. And it is never the likes of this trainer, or other unqualified, unethical TV personality trainers who pay the price or have to fix the mess.

These shows set owners up to feel like having a professional in to help them will be a traumatic and upsetting experience. They are told by the show that it will be normal for their animal to be subjected to pain, punishment and fear.

Trainers like this, if people track them down, will typically charge up to ten times the average, industry standard fees, and make guarantees for lifetime support that simply cannot be honoured.

These shows also set up an expectation that getting professional help in is really only for wildly out of control, severe problems. The reality is many people with much more minor issues would be far better getting help in sooner, rather than later!

It is really easy for someone already an ethical canine professional, to find the faults and flaws with the TV dog training magicians – but for the average, normal owner, it can be absolutely impossible.