Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Be careful of who you go to training for

Many people nowadays are out there looking for a trainer to help them with their dog. Either they have a "problem dog" (resourcing guarding, varying degrees of aggression, or something more mild like house training issues or jumping up on company and generally being unruly) or they adopted or bought a dog they want to learn how to train.

There are many trainers out there and sometimes the search can be quite daunting. Who do you trust? Who is going to give you a way to work with your dog that gels with what you want? And even more importantly, who is going to give you methods that work and that are humane and that help to build a bond with your dog?

Because this can be so overwhelming, many folks find someone who has advertised in their area and because their website "looks good" they jump at the opportunity to work with that person. But people must look closer. People must question these trainers before they even meet with them. Do not ever simply attend training with the first person you find online. Do some research, check out many people and training facilities, and find the one that is the most successful and most positive-based you can find.

Things to beware of:

1. Websites that do not give any real information on how they train dogs. Many of these sites show a "before" and "after" video and claim that the proof is in the video, but they do not show how they got from point A to point B (and if, indeed, they were the ones who even got the dog from one point to the next). I find, if you delve further into things by writing to the person, you find their methods are often aversive.

2.  Any site that says they always use a certain training collar. This includes choke chains, prong collars, and shock collars. All are aversive techniques that cause pain.  Studies have recently shown that using aggressive training techniques results in more aggression. You cannot treat aggression with aggression and end up with a solid, balanced, happy dog. And for dogs who have more milder problems, who you're trying to teach sit, stay, and come, these collars can create more problems, especially if you have a soft dog who shuts down at the first sign of pain.

3.  Any site that makes use of an aversive tool without ever using any positive methods first.  Take Fred Hassen and his "Sit Means Sit" site. He promotes and solely uses shock collars in training dogs, even on small puppies.  There are no alternatives, there is no "this is a last resort" message.  This is the very first thing trainers in the "Sit Means Sit" franchise go to.  A trainer that promotes shock collars without even considering other, more humane methods, shows a complete lack of understanding of psychology, canine behavior, and (in my personal opinion) a lack of humane treatment of animals. Is this really the kind of place you want to take your dog?

4. If you are comfortable using an aversive method, be wary of how that method is being used.  While I am not a supporter of shock collar usage to train a dog, there is a right way and a wrong way to use this tool.  Putting one on an untrained dog and shocking it until it somehow manages to offer the behavior you want is not the correct way to use a punishment-based tool, yet this is how the "Sit Means Sit" franchise uses it.  Others use this same method with choke chains and prong collars.
Always do your research. I cannot emphasize this enough. You find a website. All looks good. But then you spend a little time finding reviews from people who have experienced that person's training or seen that person's demo and you find out that all is not as it seems.

Take Sit Means Sit again. A little searching on some dog forums found a rather lengthy description from a dog trainer who attended one of his demos.  Unfortunately the original has been removed, but the description consisted of Hassen putting dogs (and even a wolf hybrid) up on a high table and parading them back and forth across it shocking them until they urinated and defecated out of fear.  No matter how many positive reviews are out there for his franchise, something like that would make me leery enough to avoid the place.  A place where something like this might happen, or did happen, is not a place I would trust with my dog.

Let's examine another trainer, Kevin Salem (sometimes written as Kawain, Salim, or any combination thereof) of "Real Life Dog Training." His website ( touts his great abilities (he's the dog "prodigy," one step up from Cesar Millan of "dog whisperer" fame) and a book (that is still yet to be published) as the be-all end-all of dog training.  At first glance, the website seems good, if a bit on the egotistical side.  But a closer look shows multiple pages disparaging anyone who uses positive training methods such as clicker training or rewarding with "cookies."  Salem uses a method he calls "diverse training," which sounds like a good idea (diversity is always an excellent thing, isn't it?), but the site gives you little information on what is diverse about is (the site is, after all, called "dog secrets").   Instead he offers up some videos of himself "training" dogs.  The videos feature Salem with the untrained dog who he is dragging around by its collar, often quite roughly.  Then, quite suddenly, the scene changes and it's Salem walking the now well-behaved dog.  What you don't see is what worries me: How did the dog get from point A to point B?  He doesn't want to reveal his "secrets" of course, so it's up to you to take your dog to him to find out just what those secrets are.

Unfortunately, to the laymen, these dogs in the "after" portion of the video look calm and well-behaved but a close look at their body language shows otherwise (just as they do in the "after" videos of Hassen and on Cesar Millan's TV show). A fearful dog is not a trained dog. Like Fred of Sit Means Sit, he also touts quick results for owners who have little time to train their dog.. Here's a hint: doing anything correctly takes time; you cannot teach your child to read in an hour and neither can you train your dog in such a short period of time.

So now you've looked at his site.  You think that things look pretty good.  Diversity is a plus.  The dogs look trained.  He has great "customer testimonials."  This is the point at which you need to take any website with a grain of salt.  No trainer is going to put negative reviews on their site.  No trainer is going to say anything less than positive about him/herself.  So you need to look further.

For that, I turn to looking for reviews of a particular trainer.  A quick google search turned up reviews in various places. lists 9 reviews of "Real Life Dog Training."  Of them, 6 are positive.  So just by going by sheer number, that sounds not so bad.  But it's the content of the bad reviews that might make one leery.

Review #1 of "Real Life Dog Training"

Review #2 of "Real Life Dog Training"

Along with not training their dogs, these people say he's returned them filthy, aggressive, and even injured.  One person mentions a review that has since been removed because both she and this other person have been threatened with lawsuits for stating their experiences.

A continued google search brings up a couple news articles:

Illegal Dog Training Kennel Has Moved  This would be the explanation for all the personal and business name changes.

Amazingly Training Boarding and Training Academy.  Yes, that's right.  Another name for the same business.  If a business consistently changes its name to avoid bad reviews, there's probably something wrong with it.

This gives you the full picture.  You get the websites, the positive reviews, and the negative reviews.  It's up to each individual to weigh the pros and cons and decide if Sit Means Sit or Real Life Dog Training are places they want to take their dog.

I would also add that this person has found this post and has been harassing me for well over a year in order to get it removed.  He's taken to writing fake reports about the dog training business I do not have, paid money to dig me up on the internet, and written nasty misogynstic messages to me since September 2009.  I have given anyone who reads this the opportunity to see the good reviews and the bad.  They're out there for anyone to find.  Would you really want to board your dog with someone who harasses others for reviews they didn't even write?  Please note that none of the reviews above are mine.  I simply looked up his name and found them all.  A google search brought me there.  If they were untrue, do you think he would be so desperate to get this post removed?  Think about it.

After checking out Sit Means Sit and, reading their claims about themselves and their customer testimonials, after seeing reviews both positive and negative, I can honestly say the cons far outweigh the pros with both of these places.  I would not be taking my dog there.

Again, I reiterate. When looking for a dog trainer, do your research.

1. Look for reviews of that particular trainer or training facility.

2. Talk to the trainers and find out their philosophy about dog training and how they go about training. Also find out about their experiences with dogs similar to yours. Many trainers deal with basic obedience issues (sit, stay, come), unruly behavior (jumping on guests, puppy mouthing, house training issues), and some mild aggression (resource guarding), but those who have dealt with true aggression are few and far between. If your dog is truly aggressive (human, child, or dog aggressive), you will want to first see a vet to rule out medical issues and then, if there are no medical problems, find a good behaviorist who knows what to do to rehabilitate an aggressive dog.

3. Talk to people who have gone to this person for training. A good trainer will often find ways to connect you with people who are willing to tell you about their experiences. You can also often find people on your local Craigslist or other sites devoted to dogs and dog training who will share an honest opinion of the trainer.

4. Ask the trainer if you can come observe their class or a training session. Any good trainer will be happy for you to come and watch a class (sans dog) to see if they are someone you want to work with. If a trainer refuses, I would personally worry about why. I have once in my life gone against this and ended up paying for a class I walked out of due to their cruel training methods.

5. And mostly, trust your gut. If something feels off, it probably is. If you feel uncomfortable, then they are not the right trainer or training facility for you. Remember, this is your dog and you are the one who has vowed to protect him and keep him safe. Be careful!

Good luck in your search for a good solid dog trainer. There are some fantastic ones out there.

A good place to start might be the International Positive Dog Training Association, which provides lists of positive dog trainers in many areas.

5/14/19: Edited to add
I see today that because of the latest fiasco with Kevin Salem either losing or killing someone's dog, that hits on my post have gone up something like 5200%. Welcome all!

I should have done this a long time ago, but I want to share a couple more posts I made that reference his and his reaction to this post. After I made this, Kevin Salem spent some 3 years sending me harassing e-mails. He threatened me with lawyers and fake court documents, even going so far as to harass my husband through Facebook and trying to get my home address and phone number from the domain that hosts this blog (lucky for me, they sent ME that information and I was allowed to ignore it).

These posts reference the harassment I experienced at his hands:

On harassment, misogyny, and what is slander, really?

A post I didn't want to make 

I'm happy to discuss any of this with anyone! I have never met this man face-to-face, but the online harassment went on for far too long and he took things too far. I only wish that more people would stay far away from him and his "training school."

Book Review: The Pit Bull Placebo by Karen Delise

Title: The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths, and Politics of Canine Aggression
Author: Karen Delise
Year published: 2007

Like the pharmacologically inactive sugar pill dispensed to placate a patient who supposes it to be medicine, eradication of the Pit Bull is heralded as the cure for severe dog attacks. However, a placebo is administered to appease a person's mental duress. In the present day climate of fear and misinformation about Pit Bulls and dog attacks, eradication of the Pit Bull is the placebo administered solely to appease the public's mental anxiety.

And so it goes. The Pit Bull: locking jaws, biting and holding while grinding, the dog that attacks like a shark. These are all media myths designed to demonize one particular dog breed.

The Pit Bull Placebo traces the media's coverage and the reality of dog bite attacks from the end of the 19th century through to today. Drawing on real cases and quoting from the newspapers' accounts of these cases, Karen Delise makes an incredibly simple case: There have always been dog attacks, some severe, some fatal. But it is the media's focus that has twisted the public's perception of the Pit Bull.

The Bloodhound was the original bad guy. Hyped up through plays based on Uncle Tom's Cabom in which the dogs chase down an escaped slave and her newborn child, these dogs were vilified and people were supposed to be frightened of them. But media reports, which did feature the dog's breed, generally focused more on the cause and effect aspect of the dog attack. They gave their readers a true picture of what caused the attack. It did not begin and end with the words "Vicious Bloodhound."

Then it was the German Shepherd Dog, which had two major saving graces: police work and Rin Tin Tin. While many substandard owners obtained German Shepherd Dogs for guard work and left them chained outside with little human interaction, many people recognized them as great, noble creatures.

The Doberman, which is still sometimes viewed in a negative light, followed on the heels of the German Shepherd Dog. The Doberman acquired its super-predator status through both reality and myth. The image of the Doberman used by Nazis was strong within people's minds. It was hard for them to see the dog as a gentle creature, a canine like any other, and so borne out of the harsh reality of life as a Nazi dog was the myth that Dobermans' heads were too small and their brains would outgrow it, thus leading to headaches that would cause them to snap. The Doberman had no saving grace like the German Shepherd Dog and only fell from this super-predator label when the Pit Bull emerged to take its place.

Through each of these decades, when the Bloodhound, the German Shepherd Dog, and the Doberman, were at the height of their turns as the supposed aggressive dogs, the newspapers continued to report dog bite attacks in a fairly realistic light.

It wasn't until the latter part of the 20th century when the media would begin to twist things to suit their need to always shock their audience. A good example of the media's twisting of the facts lies in their describing a dog that attacked as the "family dog." To most people, this description brings to mind Rover resting at the feet of his master while his master reads by the fireplace or Rover fetching the newspaper on Sunday morning. It brings to mind a well-socialized, friendly, family pet. What it does not bring to mind is a dog chained out back with a heavy logging chain, ignored for the most part, fed occasionally, often starved, beaten, or neglected. The latter cannot, in good conscience, be described as a "family dog." Delise, instead, describes it as a "resident dog." This is a more accurate term. But the media's use of "family dog" aids in leading people to the conclusion that these dogs will eventually turn on their owners.

There is just no basis for this claim. In fact, few, if any Pit Bull has turned on its owner without some sort of provocation.

Perhaps the best demonstration of the media's twisting of events can be seen in one particular case Delise outlines.

The media report can be summed up as: A 6-year-old girl was mauled to death by the family's pit bulls. The dogs were friendly, had been raised with the girl since they were puppies. In essence, they "turned on her."

The reality of the situation? The dogs (one male, one female), which belonged to the woman's recently-deceased boyfriend were intact and young. They had been confined to a basement of a vacant house while the mother and her daughter moved. They were underweight, starving (no food was found in their stomachs), and had ingested rat poison, nails, and rubber bands in an effort to feed themselves.

It sounds a bit different when they're described as they really were. Unsocialized, starving, and sick animals vs. family pet.

Delise makes the case that in order to truly understand dog attacks, one has to look at the people involved and the situation itself. Divvying up attacks by breed tells us nothing. Dogs that attack have often been chained out and neglected, are starving, have been abused, and are often intact.

Instead of looking at the real situation, the media has maligned an entire breed for sensationalism. And this has led to politicians taking up the cause and enacting breed bans.

Denver is often sited when discussions of Breed-Specific Legislation is brought up. They first enacted a ban on pit bull "type" dogs in 1989 and recently reinstated it. Their seven points in regard to why pit bulls needed to be banned were based on media sensationalism, twisted facts, contradictions, and "scientific" articles in such esteemed journals as Sports Illustrated. They brought in pseudoscience and anecdotes and called them facts. Even worse, this ban was enacted due to two incidents that happened three years apart: one fatal, one not.

What has happened to the Pit Bull has been a horrifying witch hunt that, just like the witch hunts of Salem, has no basic in reality. The Pit Bull is and can be a wonderful, real family pet if raised the proper way...just like any other breed of dog. To think that in less than 100 years human beings could create a monster of dog with anatomy unlike any other canine, is not only the height of arrogance, but is also ridiculous.

Unfortunately, this vilification is not likely to change until people start to think with a little bit more logic and the media starts to disseminate facts instead of twisted facts and sensationalized accounts that don't resemble reality.

The Pit Bull Placebo is now available online for free. Please download it and pass the link alone. This is an important book and Pit Bull owners everywhere would like you to see it.

Book Review: Bringing Light To Shadow by Pamela S. Dennison

Title: Bringing Light to Shadow: A Dog Trainer's Diary
Author: Pamela S. Dennison
Year published: 2004

You can't rehabilitate an aggressive dog using positive training. You must show the dog who is the alpha in order to gain respect. And besides, positive-based trainers won't even take on aggressive dogs.

I cannot count the number of times I have heard a combination of these statements. Add to them the usual glorification of Cesar Millan, and you have the complete picture. According to these folks, he rehabilitates "red zone" dogs, the dogs others have given up on, the ones the positive trainers won't work with because they don't have the guts/know-how/calm assertive energy to rehabilitate them. These positive, rewards-based trainers are handy for training tricks, but that's it.

Except...that's not quite true. Bringing Light to Shadow proves those statements wrong. Pamela Dennison, who already had a houseful of dogs (a border collie mix, a border collie, and a sheltie), decided in a moment of craziness to add a 4th dog to the mix: a rescued border collie named Shadow. She did not know, at the time she brought him home, that Shadow was human-aggressive. As with many aggressive dogs, most of his issues were based in fear. He was a dog who, under different circumstances would have been put down. He was a dog who, under the "rehabilitation" of Cesar Millan, would have lashed out or shut down, leaving him living in a sort of hell.

Instead, Shadow ended up in the hands of positive trainer Pamela Dennison. At the time she had little experience working with aggressive dogs. She had been training dogs for agility, obedience, and herding work. But Shadow became a project of love and she stuck by him through thick and thin.

The book is written in journal format and are the actual entries Dennison made in her journal about Shadow's progression (and sometimes regression) toward becoming a "normal" dog. Included within the pages not only are her moments of looking back and pointing out what she did right and what Shadow did right, but also those moments where she made a wrong move and caused Shadow to regress a bit.

This book is truly insightful and should be on every dog trainer's bookshelf. If you have a dog with aggression issues, this book can make you feel hope. And mostly, it can make anyone realize that positive training can WORK with an aggressive dog. In 18 months she turns Shadow from a human-aggressive dog to one who passes his Canine Good Citizen test. 18 months may seem like a long time, but at the end of the book he was only 2 1/2, so there are many more years to come.

I really enjoyed this book and it's one I'll keep on my shelf and keep referring back to over and over again.

Buy Bringing Light to Shadow by Pamela S. Dennison

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On dogs and freedom

I'm reading Patricia McConnell's latest book, Tales of Two Species: Essays on Loving and Living with Dogs. It's a collection of the articles she wrote for The Bark magazine (she still works for them).

In a section discussing what dogs have lost and gained by being housebound and not let out to roam the neighborhood all day, she says "What we can do is be mindful of how often our dogs have the freedom of choice. How many walks has your dog taken in which he got to decide where to go? How often does your dog get to decide when to stop sniffing? Ever let your dog choose the direction to follow at the dog park? These are good questions to ask ourselves as we exercise our dog's minds and bodies at dog parks and agility trials."

We always try to give Dahlia a bit of freedom. Not only do we allow her off leash in safe places as often as possible (and I'm very thankful we have a nearby park where we can do this frequently), but we also allow her to choose her own direction to go in on leashed walks. I often stop at the sidewalk and ask her which way she wants to go. I let her choose until I feel her choice is going to take us too far from home and make the walk back tiring for us both. But ultimately she gets to shape our walks. Sometimes she takes us on familiar walks we've done many times. Other times she takes us to new places or on a different route through the neighborhood, doubling back and following unexpected paths. We let her stop and sniff and spend all the time she wants taking in the "pee-mail." I'm sure some would think it indulgent and still others would consider Dahlia the "alpha" in the relationship. I'm glad to see that Patricia McConnell agrees with our choice.