Dog trainer and behaviorists groups across the globe bubble with outrage over the phenomenon of charismatic individuals presented as “master” trainers, “whisperers,” or whatever other light-catching label strikes the public fancy. Month by month, year after year, thousands if not millions of innocent animals and their owners are ultimately degraded by the hunt for instant gratification that television and video’s fast talk, sleight of hand, and selective editing purvey. Even given video clip evidence of dog abuse occurring (hitting, kicking, punching, choking) during these programs, devotees seem unmoved.
We have become addicted to rapidity, and sometimes that results in dangerous impatience. While we may have cell phones and social media to thank for it, there’s no question that the entertainment industry is constantly finding new ways to leverage our impatience. One means of leverage is that TV trainers may do the boring but important work off-camera with helpers, putting only the most exciting moments on screen to ensure people remain glued to their televisions. In TV dog training, this might mean, for example, that someone worked with a dog for a week or a month or more before filming, then only the last 5 minutes of that work, or only the before/after clips but not footage of all the work that was required in-between, is aired.
Many people now “binge” watch favorite television shows, preferring to view an entire season in one or two sittings; we thought we outsmarted advertisers by using non-traditional programming services, but not for long. Now some providers embed commercials that customers must accept in order to view their shows. What does this have to do with TV dog training? Everything. Because commercials—the advertisers who pay for the commercials—are what make TV shows possible. TV shows are businesses that must sell commercial time to other businesses in order to pay for said shows.
What do you imagine is the tactic for selling commercial time during a TV show about quick fix dog training? Is it “We have a great show about dog training”? No. Advertisers are not interested in the show; they’re interested in the audience. One example made infamous was Chicago Tribune’s magazine ad to advertisers: A photograph of people placed in boxes, lined up according to their income levels, with the caption “The People You Want, We’ve Got All Wrapped Up For You.” When it comes to commercials, you—the viewer—are the essential product. You are being marketed and sold to advertisers. That is the purpose of television shows.
In the case of TV dog training, following the ideology and examples served up between the commercials can be very dangerous for dogs and for humans because when dog training is done improperly—and let's face it; ethically, dog training done via television show by those with no formal education or credentials in animal behavior, is improper, moreso when aversives are used—both dogs and people are at risk not only of emotional damage and loss, but of physical damage and loss. Dogs’ lives are quite literally at risk as well.
Studies are clear that biting and other behavior problems are more likely to occur or get worse when using aversives such as those used by some actors promoted as dog behaviorists. TV dog training fans sometimes believe aversives work because they appear to stop a behavior in those initial moments they see them used on the TV screen. A dog snarls at the actor; the actor pokes the dog (=aversive); the dog cowers. The poke scares the dog into a cower and that is why the snarl stops. The aversives used were fear—we can fairly assess that by the cowering—and possibly also pain. Aversives scare, intimidate, force, and sometimes also hurt dogs; it is because aversives scare, force, intimidate, and/or hurt that they temporarily stop behavior—emphasis on temporarily. That is why they may be good for little TV bits that help grow ad revenues, but not for real life use on your dog.
The biggest problem with TV dog training, then, isn’t the actor-trainers. Oh, they are a problem. But if it weren’t for television giving them air time, they would be irrelevant. The biggest problem with TV dog training is that the actor-trainers continue to be given air time even though plenty of people know and have spoken up about the fact that they are not bona fide trainers/behaviorists. As already hinted at above, these folks get on air because of commercial dollars. The promise of a quick, easy fix attracts members of the public for whom advertisers are willing to pay to draw to their ads, and therefore, the quick-fix dog training promise sells ad space.
Never mind that it’s a false promise, right? I mean, who cares about keeping promises anymore.
Problems created by these actors and these programs can be resolved. In terms of seeking help for a dog, start by turning off the TV and hiring only truly humane and certified, force free, pain free trainers and behavior consultants. Those who can train, do train. Those who can’t train might decide to scare, force, intimidate, and might even hurt your dog instead. Choose wisely.
Photo by Victor Grabarczyk