Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why I Hate the Dog Whisperer

I may not be old enough to be a 'veteran dog trainer', but I did start reading dog training books as soon as I could read. Back in the late 80's, my dog training books all included a section on how best to hit your dog without them becoming hand-shy. Training a dog to sit involved pushing their rear down while pulling their collar up and ordering them to 'sit!' The reward might be a treat, but usually it was just a removal of the pressure. "Sit and I will stop manhandling you." Once the dog had supposedly learned the behavior, failure to sit on cue would be punished with a choke chain correction. "Sit or I will hurt you." Puppies weren't supposed to be trained at all for obedience until they were well into adolescence, because training was too harsh for them. Dogs were supposed to obey their handlers out of fear-based respect.

Before I got my first dog when I was twelve, I had already noticed a shift in dog training methods. Treats were used more often to reward correctly following commands. "Do it because I said so" became "Do it because there will probably be a reward of some sort". Reprints of my training books omitted sections about hitting dogs. By the time I got my cocker spaniel, training a dog to sit involved holding a treat above her nose and moving it back until she sat on her own, then giving her the treat and repeating this sequence until she figured out what I wanted. After she learned the hand motion, the voice command was introduced. "When I say 'sit' I want you to do that thing you do that makes me so happy, then you get treats, hooray!"

I continued to read and study animal behavior and dog training. Positive training almost completely replaced the old-fashioned force-based methods. I first heard about the Dog Whisperer when I was in college, friends and family kept telling me about this guy on tv that I needed to see. I watched an episode, and was appalled. The Dog Whisperer isn't a genius, he has no special understanding of dogs, he was just resurrecting the outdated force-based training. It felt new because it was so old it was out of date.

The reason people stopped used force training is because positive methods work so much better. Our dogs do not misbehave because they do not respect us, the vast majority of canine misbehavior is rooted in fear and anxiety. No amount of "leadership" is going to help a fearful dog overcome her aggression, but enough intimidation can suppress the fear until it becomes unbearable.

This video is titled "Showdown with Holly", featuring a dog with food aggression. Is if often cited as Caesar's Worst Bite:

The Dog Whisperer apparently sees a dog that thinks it is the boss and does not allow anyone near her food, and he attempts to show her that he is the boss and can take her food whenever he wants. I see a dog that is terrified that someone will take her food, and feels the need to defend it because it is so important and she is so afraid. Holly bit him because he demonstrated that not only will he take her food away, he will physically attack her for it.

Brisbane guards his food, though not as bad as Holly. He learned this fear from my elderly cocker, who was deaf and blind and would walk right over his tiny puppy self to steal whatever tasty thing he had. Brisbane feels the need to defend his food because he is afraid someone will take it. I have helped him feel less afraid by never taking things from him by force. If I want what he has, I always offer him something better. Got a rawhide bone? Here's a piece of hotdog instead! Because he has learned that giving up his treasure always means getting something even better.

I could teach Brisbane that he must give up his treasure or I will hurt him, and I might even terrify him enough to willingly give it up most of the time. However, his fear would still be there and would probably build until he exploded just like Holly did.

The Dog Whisperer also likes to use a technique called 'flooding'. This means overwhelming the dog with whatever it fears until it shuts down and stops acting afraid. I visited a therapist who wanted to use flooding to treat my fear of needles because just discussing the process made me so terrified I couldn't function. Flooding operates by exhausting the part of the brain that can feel fear, my therapist wanted me to experience panic attacks for hours, until the part of my brain capable of panicking finally died. It would have been an incredibly stressful and traumatic form of "therapy", with no guarantee that the fear would not return even stronger.

I wouldn't use flooding to alter my own behavior, and I would never want my dog to feel like that either. I don't want him to obey me because he is more afraid of me that he is of anything else, I want him to trust me enough to do what I ask of him. I need him to trust that I will protect him and keep him safe from the things he fears while I try to show him that there isn't really anything to be afraid of. There is no room for intimidation, force-based training, or the Dog Whisperer in my dog training philosophy.

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