Dog Training is Broken

by Molly Sumner
(reprinted with author's permission)


There are probably hundreds of ways to train a dog. Thousands perhaps. And if my own interactions with the public and the Internet are any indication - if you've owned a dog, you're an expert. It seems that the overarching thought is that understanding the complex behavior of a dog is actually super simple and that any person can innately do it. And if you were ever remotely successful - once - then you can train any dog. Anyone who has watched a video on Youtube or Nat Geo, or has seen how their mom, dad, or sibling did it, now knows the complex inner workings of the canine mind. Or someone had a bunch of dogs - upwards for 6 or more, called them a pack, and is therefore a behaviorist. Let me tell you right now, as an educated member of the professional dog training community, with ethics and standards, that this mentality is excruciating.

This mentality - that because you were successful with something, makes you an expert - is endemic in our world today. And the level at which we label success is the bare minimum. People say - "well my dog, kid, etc. turned out just fine"... so I'm not going to investigate if there is a better, kinder, more effective way to do things. It's the, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality....

Well guess what... dog training is broken and we have to fix it. Every day, dogs are euthanized due to behavioral problems. Dogs that could have had beautiful, joy filled lives are cut short because they couldn't become the dog the owner wanted. And it was little to no fault of the dog. It's a fact that it is not overpopulation that is causing dogs to die in shelters. It is the problem of families giving up on animals because they cannot solve their dog's behavioral problems. People try their best with the tools they have, i.e.: the experiences and muddled mimicry of the training of their past dogs or the inconsistent, want-results-yesterday expectations that will inevitably doom that dog to fail.

It is in that eleventh hour that the dog trainer is called in. 
"Hello, Dog Trainer speaking, how can I help you?"
"Hi, My dog is doing behavior X. If you can't fix it immediately, we are dropping our dog off at the shelter (or euthanizing it). You are our (and the dog's) last hope."
Translation - We the owners have let behavior X go on way too long, have been inconsistent in our training, and are at the end of our rope. We have already given up on the dog and a looking for a quick solution to make it all better, or permission to give up.

In my own experience, I would say that quite a few of these calls end in the owner giving up the dog. And that's not for lack of trying, methods, or expertise on the trainers part. It is because the owner has already given up. You see, there is no quick fix. There is no solution that will make it all better in an hour. The TV lied to you. It takes passion and commitment to fix a problem so ingrained that you're ready to give up. And most people don't have the time for that. Not in today's world. Problems don't crop up overnight and they are not solved that way either. And anyone who tells you differently is selling you a lie that will only leave someone - owner, dog, or both - heartbroken.

So what is left to do with a broken system of frustrated owners mimicking what they see on TV and giving up exhausted and heartbroken? There is no easy answer. The field of dog training is in its infancy. Born out of observations and trial and error, fostered by science and ethics, and hindered by pop culture, there is no quick fix here either. Dog training has its own set of problems, perhaps fostered by the myriad of personalities that are drawn to it. For some, dog training is a skill handed down through the generations, for others it is an ethical and academic pursuit. Some seek it out to better understand animals, while others are trying to escape the human world. And then there are those who desperately want to carve out a legacy, to patent some special kind of method that will give them notoriety. And interlaced through all these people and their motives, are fault lines filled with passion. These fault lines erupt... a lot, creating schisms, further dividing the profession and those navigating it making anyone trying to enter the field feel like they have to cross a continent just to understand the landscape they have entered into.

If the landscape is that treacherous for those trying to enter the field, then imagine what it is like for a dog owner. One ad says they "will make your dog perfect", another claims "no treats, just discipline", another totes "humane, science-based training". The owner just wants solutions and many times is so frustrated with the situation, they don't care about methods. They are about to give up on something that they poured their hearts into the day they brought it home. They are already frustrated and desperate, still reeling from the fact that the "training" they thought they knew isn't working.

The saddest state of these affairs is that I am not sure what the solution is. Some rally to the cry of regulation and licensing on the part of dog trainers so that the public has a standard they can rely on. But it will take more than regulations to teach the public that they need the help of a professional. Then there is also the question of standards and methods. In the last 20 years there has been a movement to ban certain training tools and methods, and a huge push back from proponents of them. While I am all for standards and care, banning isn't usually a solution - empathy and education are. Better to eliminate the need than to blacklist an entire portion of the training population. Plus banning never actually eliminates anything, it just hides it. It's like the standard we make for our training today - Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence.... How do we change the behavior of owners and trainers and therefore have better consequences? The answer is in managing the antecedent and creating new behaviors.

Therefore my solution for today is a challenge. I challenge the reader of this to read more. Before your dog needs help, or before you decide to help a dog. Heck, before you get near a dog if possible. Know all the sides - all the arguments, passions, methods and tools. And make an educated decision. I don't mean for you to treat dog training like symptoms on WebMD, but instead to follow the trail of proponents and push past the smoke and mirrors to see what is truly there. And then ask why. Ask why it "works". Then ask is there is a less invasive or minimally aversive option. And I challenge pet professionals to be more open. Allow a dialog. Start on the grounds that we all love dogs and go from there. Watch each other train without judgement and then, when open to suggestions, offer those also without judgement. And have a "why" ready because nothing should be taken at face value or just "because".

This challenge goes for trainers, self-labeled or certified behavioral professionals, rescue and shelter volunteers and staff, owners and friends of owners. Everyone. The only way the minimum standard of our dog's lives will improve is if the base knowledge improves. If everyone could read a dog's body language as well as we can navigate our phones, every canine would have a significantly better life. Start today.