Cold, Cruel and Callous – Has T.V. Dog Training Gone Too Far?

Reality television has had a profound impact on dog training.  Average owners have access to more information than ever before.  Experts are divided on whether these shows are doing more harm than good.

Some reality television experts have come under attack.  Psychology Today’s recent article by Marc Bekoff labels some techniques seen on Cesar Millan’s television show as “dog abuse”.  Canadian television host Brad Pattison is no stranger to conflict.  Online protests and complaints raged over an upcoming visit to Sarnia Humane Society, prompting news stories in the Sarnia Observer.  Concerned citizens call his techniques, “confrontational and physical”.

Treat trainers have been speaking out for years.  Their concerns have been dismissed on the basis that such trainers are soft , their viewpoint coming from an extremist, granola crunching and tree hugging faction.  However, a new wave of complaints stems from trainers who use physical discipline.  Has reality television gone too far?  Maybe it’s time to wake up and read the research.

Research shows that many popular dog-training methods trigger aggression.  Technically, these problematic techniques are punitive in nature and presented under the guise of discipline.  Punitive measures, including those currently on television are not new by any means.  However, reality television’s portrayal is.  The vernacular has changed.

Jerking a dog by its leash has been around for decades.  Only now, it’s called a tug, not a jerk.  Trainers no longer say “slap the dog,” they say “tap.”  Bitter pills are easier to swallow when coated in sugar.  The shocking becomes socially acceptable.

Opponents of such techniques rightfully point out the dangers – increased dog aggression.  Research studies – proof – are met with resistance.  Experts such as Millan and Pattison are touted as last chance experts who use physical force out of necessity.

Dogs are said to deserve the punishment that is handed to them.  They are “dominant…in an aggressive state….a red zone dog.”  Justification comes in the form of a question, “Would you not yank a child out of a busy road?  Then you’d jerk a dog back when it’s about to bite someone too.”

Opponents point out that rehabilitation of severely aggressive dogs takes place every day without a heavy hand.  In response, they are called jealous.  Verbal jabs unrelated to the debate, deflect from the original point.

That being, many popular force based methods, even mild ones, trigger aggression in dogs and put people at risk of injury.

Let us digress for a moment.  I would absolutely pull a child out of a busy road just as I would pull a dog out of a fight.  Immediately following both scenarios I’d march straight to a mirror and promise myself to supervise and teach better.  I would not permit myself to make the same negligent mistake twice.

That is not how a lot of force based training works.  Dogs are placed intentionally into an aggressive state, jerked or otherwise corrected after being forced to fail by the trainer.

That is like pushing a child into a busy street so you can yank them back to teach them a lesson.  There is no place in this universe where pushing a kid into danger, in order to teach, would be considered sane.

In my opinion, pushing a dog to its breaking point with the intent of punishing it smacks of a cold, cruel callousness.  It bothers me even more when it’s part of an entertainment package combining corrections with smiles.  In the old days, we would call this, “masking the correction”.  You would smile to make it seem nicer than it actually was.

As for jealousy, I can only speak for myself.  Jealousy is not the feeling that wells up inside of me when I see a dog pushed to the point where it cowers or lashes out.  The emotions are anger, sadness and disappointment.

Good trainers know how to read a dog so they can work within the dog’s current capabilities.  Much like teaching a child to look both ways prior to crossing the road, dogs learn to overcome aggression without having to fail.  They learn without lashing out and potentially biting someone in the process.

Research study or no research study – common sense says if you push a dog past what it can handle and then punish it for failing – it is going to bite.  So why are some people still doing it?

32 thoughts on “Cold, Cruel and Callous – Has T.V. Dog Training Gone Too Far?

  1. I blog quite often and I genuinely thank you for your information.
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    I have three dogs, two Dachshunds and a German Shepherd. My female Dachshund was raised by me and loves everyone and dogs. She’s friendly and outgoing and enjoys life. My male Dachshund was adopted when he was 5 and was extremely fearful all the time due to abuse. I used clicker training and positive methods to train him and he’s now able to visit with new dogs and be around people without fear charging. My German Shepherd was a 20 month old wild child when I adopted him and he’s now my service dog; also done with clicker training.

    What I see when I watch Cesar Millan or Brad Pattison is dogs who are fearful or shutdown, not happy participants of the training they receive. Both trainers place the dogs in situations that cause them to fail and then punish the dog for it. If this was done to our children we’d be screaming.

    Imagine a TV program with a self-taught school teacher who asks a student to perform a task in class, let’s say algebra and the child is in the first grade. The child, who is just learning how to add basic numbers can’t do the algebra problem and the teacher says, “The child is trying to dominate me by not doing what I ask of him.” and then pokes the child in the ribs. The child shies away from the teacher, who then takes the child’s arm and pulls the child off their feet. The child starts struggling and fighting against the teacher while crying and the teacher, who’s been showing the parents how to work with their child, say, “Its okay, he just needs to work out his frustration.” At this point the teacher pushes the child onto the floor and holds the child there by his neck. The parents, who are watching, are nodding and paying attention to the whole process so they can learn how to make their child calm and submissive.

    How long do you think that show would be on TV? Do you think the parents would just stand back and allow it? Would you respect the parents who did?

    It has been proven that telling a child what they are doing wrong over and over again shuts the child down and can make them anxious and fearful of making a mistake. It’s been proven that children who suffer physical, emotional and sexual abuse tend to be more violent at school with other classmates and at home with siblings.

    If the same teaching methods we use on our dogs harm and emotionally scar our children, why use them on our dogs? Wouldn’t a dog learn better if they are told what they are doing is right? Wouldn’t they learn better if they are kept below the point of fear or aggression and have positive emotional relations with what they are looking at by receiving treats and praise instead of jabs and jerks?

    If a dog becomes fearful or aggressive with another dog, don’t put them in a situation where they react, but keep them just below it and click and treat for calm behavior. Click for looking at the dog and not reacting, for looking to you and not at the dog for turning away from the other dog and ignoring them; you are still in a “calm assertive” state, the dog is calm and submissive and no force was used to train the dog.

    Clicker training is not “treat training” but a method to help our dogs gain enough information to know what is expected of them and how to properly react. Or does your paycheck or a child’s grades mean we are being too soft on those people?

    CK & GSD Max SD CGC & Attitude & Dieter (Dachshunds)

    • But dogs aren’t children this is the problem would you let your children eat food out of your hand like a dog no course you wouldnt who would? Most trainers using treats use them as bribery and totally wrong. I train my clients and my own dogs through pack structure, rewards, corrections and common sense. Simple as that all dogs want is to know it’s place in its pack thats all but people just confuse them. Comparing a dog to a child is a very wrong thing the sooner people realise that the better. If you treat a dog like a human he will treat you like a dog! When do you see a dog rewarding another dog? I let you figure that one out. Thats the different between us and them, dogs dont see us as dogs they know we’re human so stop confusing them you be a Human and let the dog be a dog.

      • I’m not sure what you mean by “what type of reward training do I use.” Are you asking if I use a clicker/luring etc?
        The pack structure question you asked. It’s a good one. There is a fair amount of controversy on the idea among dog trainers. Wolf experts, like Dr. Mech who coined the word, “Alpha Wolf” won’t use the word anymore because dog trainers messed up the idea so badly. Never mind that it’s quite the assumption that dogs are like wolves. Research shows they behave very differently. Many experts don’t consider them to be pack animals at all – rather social scavengers. For example, you are more likely going to see a wild dog going through a garbage can, fishing, picking fruit, hunting small prey on their own. That’s not the same as wolves. So if you’re asking if I assume dogs are wolves, then no.
        Do dogs reward one another? Absolutely. If a dog walks up to another dog, shows appropriate behaviour (play bow perhaps), a well socialized dog will play. Play is a reinforcement (reward.) If I dog is lying next to another, they will groom one another. If a dog figures out how to get the lid off a garbage can, and gets food, it has rewarded itself. Dogs are rewarded all the time in real life. Every animal on the planet works for food, except pets. They get their food in bowls and then have all day to do nothing. We take away their natural job when we do not use food in training.
        Are they children? Of course not. If I spank a child (and I wouldn’t), I can say, “This is why.” A dog does not understand when I speak and explain why. So I’d be more cautious of physical corrections. Research shows that many mild corrections are likely to trigger aggression. Research shows that spoiling dogs does not increase behaviour problems.
        There is so much research that just shows many of these fears are little more than old wives tales. You can spoil your dog, and not worry about your dog maliciously lying awake at night trying to take over the universe.
        Dogs should be treated like dogs – not like wolf surrogates – based on badly interpreted wolf material.

  4. Love this! A truer blog has never been written. This is a very personal and heated issue. However, I think it’s our responsibility to stand up for the dogs. Lord knows if they stand up for themselves they’ll end up euthanized.

  5. If the dogs tell the truth, as cited by one commenter: I’d like to hear the truth from the dogs from all the shows of Mr. Millan.

    Shouldn’t be to difficult, as they are all, calm, submissive and happy now, right?

    bring it on, I might change my mind about that kind of “training” then.

  6. Sadly, the reason that the methods of positive trainers are not heavily publicised is because they take the time to get to the route of a problem rather than trying to apply a quick fix unfortunately this makes very boring television, the dogs simply aren’t reacting dramatically enough for the cameras and often the unwanted behaviour isn’t always displayed as ‘positive’ trainers will never encourage the behaviour to occur instead they will take the dog away from the unwanted behaviour and train their mind into a much less reactive state. I’m shocked to see why any animal lover would deem it ‘right’ or ‘good’ to man handle a dog in any capacity. (Calmassertive) you quoted ‘Dogs show you the reality’ this really contradicts everything you said, try turning the sound off your tv and watch a Cesar Milan programme and watch closely the dogs body language and behaviour watch it in slow motion and see the fear bites, cowering, avoidance…….Then explain to someone that using this method is the best way to expect your dog to respect and trust you. I don’t understand why any pet dog owner would want their dog to be scared of them?
    If you visit you tube there are some wonderful clips about positive training and reward based training, clicker training and much more and if i’m honest as trainers we spend a lot of time undoing the behaviours developed from punitive training methods and this is why punitive trainers will face the heavy critic from positive trainers as they do.

    • Bingo, Simply-Canine. I do canine rescue work and have done for years. And we see it over and over again. Dogs in deplorable shape emotionally AND physically from punative training.

  7. I think the reason these training methods persist is very simple….common sense isn’t common. Thank you for being the voice of reason Yvette!

  8. In the UK, dog trainers can be prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The recent RSPCA report documents exactly this, a dog trainer was prosecuted for attempted choking, throwing a dog across a room, plus a few more things he did in an attempt to train. CM was very careful when he visited here!

  9. I agree with the main article about tv dog training going too far. It’s gone way too far for my liking. Dr Dodman said some years ago that CM has put dog training back 20 years, and he should know. Also, regarding helping aggressive dogs – there are professional behaviourists and trainers doing that every day, and helping with other problems, too. Their work may not be as exciting, but it is effective and they are not using harsh physical techniques to solve their cases.
    This cannot be denied. One of the most annoying videos I’ve seen was one of CM goading a dog who was used to goad one of his tv case dogs. He was laughing. In other words, he goads the dogs before they are on tv, so he can ensure they are as aggressive as possible.

    Who in their right mind would support that sort of thing – whatever method one supports?

  10. I used to train with aversives a la Barbara Woodhouse, but I don’t do that now. I don’t need to, as I understand how to train without physically scaring a dog. It’s far cooler, to be honest 😉

  11. I won’t comment on the whole Cesar/Brad methodology except to say that I used to train with aversives. The operative words here are “used to”. 30 years ago, virtually all the dog trainers used the punative quadrants. But when you know better, you do better.
    What is interesting is the research on the whole “pack” ideology and mythology. The following links are worth reading–especially if you are basing your training on the dominance theory. If dogs don’t “pack up” then the training based upon that erroneous idea isn’t resting on any kind of solid scientific foundation.

  12. In reply to Calm Assertive:
    Ahh. Unscientific. Gotcha.
    Cesar Millan mislabels 90 percent of the behaviours he sees as dominance. That is unscientific. Dominance theory was thrown out quite a while ago…disproven. Punishment (one of his fave quadrants) has been scientifically shown to be likely to INCREASE aggression, or simply suppress it, not “change” it. So for him to use the amount of punishing that he does, regardless of how “calm and assertively” he applies it, makes for great tv but not for great dogs.
    Did you know that his show has the people sign a confidentiality waiver so that no one can REALLY know whether those dogs ever broke under the pressure?
    The AVSAB and other behaviour groups have issued statements vilifying his methods and their lack of scientific basis along with comments about the harmful effects that can be caused. All dog training involves OC and punishment is part of that..but applying it excessively and in the guise of “leadership” is abusive and results in “calm submissive” IE SHUT DOWN dogs.
    You know why positive training doesn’t get on tv much? Because it’s kind of boring to watch. It’s boring because we don,t set the dogs up to fail just so we can poke, yank or pin them.
    Positive trainers are not permissive, nor do they only use the R+ quadrant. You are mistaken.
    CM is also mistaken in the thoughts that dogs “migrate” and that they don’t lead the alpha at any time. He knows not of what he speaks…neither do you. Come back and try again.

  13. Just because you haven’t seen a video doesn’t mean there isn’t one. I get where you’re coming from, because there is a lot of criticizing, and a lot less showing results. I don’t have a problem with the use of all quadrants, and believe that it’s the dog in front of you that should determine the course taken. That said, the use of force to “rehabilitate” doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not a fan of Cesar Millan (I notice your handle there), and that’s also just Hollywood dog ‘training’ ‘rehabilitation’. An unruly dog is not “misbehaving”, it’s behaving. In a way that’s undesired, but it’s being a dog. Our job is to manipulate circumstances so that they give us the desired behavior. You can do that through force, and you can do it through motivation in positive ways. Both can have less than desired results if the person using them is not skilled. A very skilled trainer or behaviorist can indeed change a dog’s behavior without using force. A very skilled trainer can change behavior with correction and not cause negative side effects like aggression if they are very skilled. The problem can be that when a person uses punishment to motivate, there is much more potential for the negative fallout, and the appearance of it “working” (which is reinforcing for the human)…when in fact it’s masking the outward signs of a behavior. So for me, a balance, letting the dog determine the best mix, is optimal. There’s rarely shortcuts in life. If you want to develop muscles, you work out, methodically. Or…you can take steroids and get the appearance. But there will be bad side effects, and it’s not good for you.

  14. and p.s. “calm assertive” there are PLENTY of videos showing a “really unruly” dog being trained in a humane manor. But training by not going over the dog’s threshold isn’t NEARLY as “entertaining” for tv as flipping the dog over, kicking it in his ribs, hitting it, or choking it with the leash. 5 minutes later you have a dog who is completely shut-down and “behaving” out of FEAR. Anybody with even minimal dog experience can see this. Unfortunately, too many people are blinded by the fame of these tv personalities and are unable to see this – it’s as though people like you are actually brainwashed.

  15. @ calmassertive I’m afraid you are wrong on every single point. I am not trying to be confrontational, rather, I am stating a fact. Clearly you admire Cesar immensely. Try thinking for yourself. You claim his method is scientific? Really?! Please post 10 research-based, scientific peer-reviewed articles that confirm this. What’s that? You can’t? OF COURSE NOT! Because science proves nearly everything Cesar and Brad Pattison do as teaching a dog through fear and often INCREASING aggression. People like you are helping to set dog training back 50 years. I see people “psshting” on their dog’s nose, yanking their whole body off of the ground by their leash, and kicking their dog in their ribs. I even saw a guy alpha roll his shitzu because he asked her not to bark and he did. And all of this is thanks to Cesar and his followers who refuse to believe the science right in front of their face. SHAME ON YOU. SHAME!!!

      • Precisely. “Pack structure” is a bunch of malarky, and people like Cesar Milan base their entire “training” on a theory that has ZERO validity! Christ, feral dogs in the wild don’t even have a pack structure. This entire issue is not a difference in opinion as much as some people insist it is – is it as matter of scientific fact versus fiction. End of discussion.

        • Basing dog training on wolf research is like going to the zoo and asking the ape expert how to raise your child.
          Dogs are dogs.
          Wolves are wolves.
          Children are children.
          So, that eliminates the whole pack thing – since it’s based on wolves. Research shows their behaviour patterns are those of scavengers. Which I think is why the scavenger based strategies I’ve developed worked so quickly.

  16. They do it because it works. The positive-reinforcement-only crowd likes to stand back and criticize the use-all-4-quadrants people but you Never, Ever, Ever, Ever, Ever get to see a video of Any of them Ever Ever Ever taking a really unruly dog and rehabilitating it to where it no longer misbehaves. Frauds like Victoria Stilwell, the poster-child of this nonsensical hypocrisy, manage to briefly get TV shows which afford them the opportunity to show off their so-called expertise, but instead what you see on their own show is them getting dragged down the street, even peed on, by dogs that give them not a whit of respect. As Cesar points out many times, the people tell the Story, but the dog tells you the Reality. To say that use of all four of the operant-conditioning quadrants is ‘unscientific’ is just plain ridiculous. To the contrary, it’s the positive-reinforcement-only crowd that’s ‘unscientific’.

    • Calmassertive: If you click through the research link I posted in the blog – the one that shows the increase in aggression, you’ll see they also looked at owner satisfaction with methods. Treat training was more effective than punitive measures.
      Cesar Millan was on a live show with Steve Dale a few years ago. On that show he stated that dogs trained using his method regress and need to go back for re-training.
      He also stated that his methods probably wouldn’t work for the average family.
      If Cesar says his methods won’t work for families, then who am I to argue?

    • calmassertive…. have you asked cesar how many of the dogs featured on his show can be handled by anyone except the punitive handler. Have you asked how many of cesar’s featured dogs are are dead because yes it appeared with good editing that the dogs behavior was acceptable on television, but in reality the heart of the issue had not been addressed. Have you asked trainers who in the respect and teach world how much fallout they deal with because of punitive trainers. How about fallout from lay people who haven’t a clue but try anyway? It isn’t really about all four quandrants in use or not its about the ratio to which they are used and what you are using in those quadrants. Its about the reliance on supression instead of addressing the root of an issue. Good training is about respect and commnication, about being comfortable with a young child watching you train and them handling and respecting a dog in the same way. It is not about speed, and if it is a speed thing, please teach that kid over their who is half way through grade one how to do long division tomorrow and integrate polynomials on Monday because damit if you are that good get on with it.

    • I have a 4 year old GSD that we rescued from a puppy mill at 2 (he was a stud). He had half of his left ear ripped off my another dog. When we got him home we quickly came to realize he had a terrible and very frightening dog aggression problem. We tried working with trainers of all disciplines, including one who used Millan’s methods. He got worse and worse. We started working with a positive reinforcement training and now a couple years later all our dogs are clicker trained and my aggressive GSD has more canine buddies than I have human friends. He has been at events with 1000+ dogs without anything but a tail wag and the occassional whine that he wants to go play. And I actually DO have tons of videos of his training, but they just aren’t all that interesting, just a lot of tail wagging and handing over of cheese.

  17. I think they’re doing it because they haven’t taken the time to follow the lead of the science-based marine mammal and exotic animal trainers who had to find a way to educate those animals, but without force, mainly because it’s really hard to “pin” a whale, or “hang” a lion. They confuse marker training, which frequently uses food for reinforcement, with permissiveness. It isn’t. Rather, when done correctly, it’s a well structured protocol that uses the same principles of operant and respondent conditioning that force trainers use, but there is an ethical humane hierarchy that says “no pain, no fear” and so skills are built by instructing the dog, reinforcing good behavior, and allowing most unwanted behavior to just extinguish itself through lack of reinforcement. Or, they replace the unwanted behavior by differentially reinforcing behavior that is incompatible with the one they don’t like. It’s easy to use punishment. It makes the trainer look tough and competent to the uninitiated because the dog seems obedient because of it. And, the dog could well be. The difference is that the dog trained with punishment is more likely to be aggressive (Joaquín Pérez-Guisado, et al, 2009), or suffer from “learned helplessness” (Seligman, 1967). The dog trained positively is also obedient, and when the focus shifts from punishing what’s wrong to rewarding what’s right, dogs enjoy training more. Wouldn’t you?

      • Trainers of wild animals put themselves at risk no matter what method they use. That’s the very definition of “wild” – but correction-based animal trainers have been killed as well, most notably ones that dealt with elephants in a cruel manner. The fact is that most animals trained through positive applications of the science do very well, and studies show that punitive methods elicit more aggression from dogs than positive methods do.
        (Herron, Frances S. Shofer and Ilana R. Reisner, 2009) (Hiby, Rooney, and Bradshaw, 2004)

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