When reality bites: TV trainers and canine behavior

When reality bites: TV trainers and canine behavior

Don’t judge pet owners who get their advice from TV trainers—guide them toward a better outcome with these thoughtful tips from a behavior expert and a certified professional dog trainer.

Question: What can I say to a client who comes in treating a pet incorrectly or even harshly based on tips and tricks she's picked up from a TV show on training pets?

Dr. Lisa Radosta: I encounter this all the time. 

Before anything else, I check myself. I try to change my tone based on the client's viewpoint and my relationship with them. The message is the same, but the tone will change so that I can best reach them. 

First, I explain that many television shows featuring dog training are reality shows, and these are heavily edited. What you see on TV is not always exactly in line with reality. In addition, producers are less likely to show the cases that didn't go well. And they're unlikely to show the "after" of the cases that did go well - what is the situation six months later? So, let's start with a reality check on reality shows. 

Second, let's talk about science and research. What pet owners see on TV generally is not in line with what the last 20 years of research has shown us - basically that you get more flies with honey than with vinegar. In scientific terms, techniques that use positive punishment, such as rolling a dog over or being physical, are more likely to cause bites to the owner than those that use positive reinforcement techniques (yes, there is research to prove this). 

Third, I ask my clients if they could hold their dog up on a choke chain until he turns blue or hold him down and get bitten themselves until he urinates on himself. The pet owners who come to see me could never hurt their dogs purposefully. They look at me with astonishment. Why would I ask such a thing? Well, I explain, that is what you are seeing on TV. I tell them that I know they love their dogs too much and too deeply to ever hurt them the way that some reality stars do on TV. 

Finally, in the instance that they have tried the TV-training methods before and they didn't work for their dog, I ask them, "How did it work for you?" Most clients will admit that those techniques didn't work. We usually can all agree that we can abandon what doesn't work for our patients. 

Mikkel Becker, CPDT: Attempts at manhandling and 'dominating' a dog are hugely problematic. But, confronting and shaming the owner isn't likely to foster a longterm client relationship or bring about change. Instead, if a client feels judged or confronted, they're likely to push back and close off. If the conversation is kept positive, nonjudgemental and educational, it's more likely to have an impact.

Talking about their dog's behavior and body language could be introduced within a different framework, like helping their dog have a less fear evoking, happy vet experience. Discuss their dog's body language and what it might mean, such as ears back, tail low and licking lips before lunging relating to the dog feeling upset and fearful. Then, discuss ways to help their dog feel better emotionally and cooperate with care by using gentle tactics, like those highlighted in Fear Free, that transfer into the home and other areas of their dog's life.

Explain that problem behaviors are often either normal dog behaviors that simply need a different outlet, management or training to teach and reward more desirable behavior. Or, problem behaviors may stem from underlying problems, like fear, anxiety and conflict in a situation. Talk to the client about the most scientifically sound tactics for handling problem behavior. Desired behavior is best achieved by addressing problems at their root cause, such as improving the dog's emotional state, managing problems and providing better coping skills they can be rewarded for.

Note and address behavior concerns directly with the client in consult. In this way, you as the veterinarian can become a trusted resource and provide the support and knowledge they may have been lacking. Strategies to address the noted concerns may include medical oversight, referral to a veterinary behaviorist or working directly with you in combination with a certified, reward based trainer.

To avoid problematic interactions in the future, openly in a general fashion discuss problems with force and fear based training and why they're best avoided at the vet hospital and home. Such problems including only temporarily inhibiting behavior without addressing the root cause, like fear or anxiety, with such force tactics actually increasing emotional upset and potentially escalating problems longterm. Force tactics increase aggression, risk of bites and stress related behaviors a dog displays.

Most importantly, provide and follow up with recommended strategies and resources for effectively improving their dog's behavior using kind, reward based methods and proper management.