The Great “Dog Whisperer” Hoax

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The Myth Of The Dog Whisperer

When Charlie was a puppy, we decided to shell out hundreds of dollars for a visit from a ‘dog psychologist’.  She came, she saw, she did not conquer.  His problem behaviours were jumping, nipping at our clothes and barking.  Her solution? Keep him outside and ignore him.  I wish I was kidding.

In time, and with experience, we came to realise that Charlie’s ‘problem’ was loneliness. Keeping him outside, as per her advice, was the worst thing we could do.  A labrador thrives on  human company. “Ignoring” him only added to his sense of isolation and frustration.  This lasted a few days, until we decided to bring him indoors.  Miraculously, all his problem behaviours subsided.  Charlie has remained a happy and loving pooch.

This “dog whisperer” came with a ton of qualifications.  She presented as extremely professional.  She had great reviews on her website.  All this served to make us ignore the fact that she was just plain wrong about our dog.

The Media

There are now an abundance of TV shows which feature famed dog whisperers or dog psychologists.  Their ‘techniques’ appear so impressive on TV.  This, in addition to the trainer’s charisma, makes for compelling television.  But invariably, when the dogs are visited a few weeks later, the problems have recurred.  A one-hour visit from a dog trainer will usually not solve serious behavioural issues.

What worries me is that we take advice from these people.  People will watch these shows and try and emulate the dog trainer’s technique on their dogs at home.  This is inevitable, despite the legalese saying “Please do not try at home”.  It’s human nature.

Do not ignore your gut feeling when choosing any trainer for your dog.  Remember that often, the emperor has no clothes.

What makes a good dog trainer?

A good trainer takes time to work with your dog.  She gets to know your dog’s personality so that she doesn’t adopt a blanket training approach.  She gives you practical information that you can use and will keep you safe (NOT ‘alpha rolls’).  Most of all, she will respect the bond between you and your dog.  This means she does not subject your dog to unnecessary pain or distress, all in the name of ‘training’.

Dominance theories

I’m not a big fan of the ‘dominance’ theories or pack theories.  They feel outdated, and much damage has been done to dogs in the name of these theories.  There has been a huge amount of research into dog behaviours since these archaic theories were formulated.  There are more humane ways of training your dog.

What you can do

One thing I found very helpful is educating myself on dog behaviour and training.  I read tons of books. I visited dog forums.  I became obsessive about knowing things for myself, rather than blindly trusting the experts.  That way, I was armed with more information when meeting a trainer and I knew what I would find unacceptable in training.

I have personally found Dr Sophia Yin’s website very helpful.  She’s got lovely, positive methods of training dogs and writes great articles.

But make up your own mind. Whatever you do, stay educated on what’s best for your dog.

What are your thoughts on dog whisperers? Have you had any bad training experiences? What’s worked for you and what hasn’t?

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8 thoughts on “The Great “Dog Whisperer” Hoax

  1. Great post! I like Victoria Stillwell’s methods. Not so much Ceasar’s whose main method is violence and domination. I’ve never seen a dog respond well to that kind of stuff.

    • Thanks 🙂 Actually I like Victoria Stillwell too. But I think the best teacher is your dog, who will always tell you if the method is not working for them. I like some of Caesar’s messages: he is a big proponent of exercising your dog and spay and neuter programs. But I find a lot of his advice is very ‘generic’. When I first got Charlie, we tried being ‘calm, assertive’, but ultimately I didn’t know what this meant. I also don’t believe in the hierarchy of ‘exercise, discipline, affection’ – I think affection should be present in every interaction with your dog.

  2. Good job! There is so much of training a dog or raising a dog that just has to ‘feel’ right! We know our dogs best, we know their tendencies and their reactions…we have to work with those and not against them. For us, crate training was a nightmare! Juno would hyperventilate and one night we could barely get her breathing under control – she was just so stressed. We put her in the mudroom off our kitchen with just a baby gate and she fell fast asleep. She loved it in there, so that became her ‘space’ in the house while she was housetraining. She still wandered in there of her own accord once the gate was no longer needed and played or slept in there, chewed bones etc. She was trying to tell us that what we were doing wasn’t working (even though the books said it would)…we just had to listen. Great post!

  3. This is spot on. I am not a fan of ‘just let them cry until they learn that it won’t get them anywhere’. The crate is a perfect example. It’s a great tool, but if you introduce it in a traumatic way, your dog will always hate it. It is much nicer to let them explore the crate on their own. Give them treats in there and keep the door open. Eventually when they’re happy and relaxed, close the door for a few seconds, then a minute, and slowly work up from there. A lot of things can be taught to a dog in this gentle, incremental way. I think the same applies to separation anxiety. If you slowly teach it to be alone, for 5 minutes, then 10, etc, it’s much more humane. As you say, listen to your dog! They’ll teach you more than any famous dog trainer.

  4. 1annecasey says:

    Great pointers, as always (no pun intended!). : ))

  5. Dusty says:

    Amen! I train and I give 121 support when people are having trouble living harmoniously with their dog. I’m very clear that I really can’t sort out difficulties over the phone or by email. I must meet the dog in her/his environment and understand how the dog and the family live together. Every dog is different, every situation unique. Sometimes – the “magic” happens amazingly quickly – the family just needs those basic pointers about avoiding mixed messages, repetition to form good habits and – most importantly of all – the understanding that there is no good or bad dog. There is just dog. Doing dog things. And she’ll be happy to do what we like her to do – if we give her the guidance and reward that she needs.

    However, I’ve been as horrified as you by some stories I’ve heard about other advice people have had. You’re right; any modern trainer/behaviourist worth their salt doesn’t use such over-simplistic terms as “dominance” any more. We’ve moved on from there. Just as we moved on from choke chains (for seriously lazy trainers, and banned in my classes!) and “rubbing their noses in it” (shudder). Yes, someone might have “over 30 years experience” but, in that time, how much have they bothered to keep up to date with current research and new developments in the field?

    Choose to work with people who are all about positive methods and happy relationships. And if anything makes you uncomfortable, say so. A good trainer will have numerous ways to address difficulties. My favourites are Ian Dunbar and his Sirius training school and Victoria Stillwell. (Caesar Milan – not such a fan.)

    And for the record; I keep my fees pretty low (and super low for rescue rehab – those guys often need a fair bit of support to adjust) and don’t charge at all if I really feel I can’t help or find that I’ve had little impact. Again, any decent trainer will be more concerned about helping you out than making a mint.

    • Well put! Unfortunately sometimes it gets hard to weed out the good trainers like yourself from the dodgy ones. For the average time-poor person, they will pick a trainer according to the trainer’s nice website and ‘testimonials’. But is this the best way? When I first got my dogs, I had no idea about positive training – I went to the local obedience clubs who all insisted on compulsory choke chains and overly-strong corrections. I just followed their advice without batting an eyelid. It was only when I saw that my dogs were reluctant to attend the classes that I realised I was damaging my relationship with them. So how do we choose among the myriad of trainers and training advice?

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