Don’t Let TV Train Your Dog

When we decided our household needed a dog – long before we actually got one – I started an All Things Dog project.  I researched breeds and breeders, read books about dogs, and started watching television shows on dogs and dog training.

Puppy Moses

And then when Puppy Moses came along, what did we do?  Obviously, we signed up for training classes and professional help.

…Or maybe it’s not so obvious.

There is a growing population of television personalities who will teach you about your dog, from He Whose Name Shall Not Be Whispered, to Some British Lady, to a Canadian with a Receding Hairline.

On the face of it, I suppose I am generally happy for a number of reasons that these people are out there doing what they do.  The increasing popularity of these dog-related “reality” shows brings an added emphasis to dog training, and I hope the result has been that more people have an interest in training and properly exercising their pets.  These shows also acknowledge that those with “problem dogs” can seek and receive help, and all of the people mentioned above emphasize that issues can be resolved, also noting that they often originate with (or at least are exacerbated by) the owners.  In addition, these TV trainers often use their increasing profiles to bring more widespread awareness to a lot of animal issues, including promoting rescue organizations and adoption, proper pet health, and drawing attention to the problem of puppy mills.  So yes, there are definite benefits.

On the other hand, there are also draw backs.

Just like I can’t expect School of Golf to teach me all I need to know to achieve a handicap under 10, these dog-related television programs should not be considered substitutes for real life, hands-on help and training.  On-course lessons with a golf pro will be time better spent improving your game than hours sitting on the couch watching the experts do their thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these shows can be highly entertaining, and I still watch them myself.  It’s a very satisfying formula:

  1. Montage of frustrated owners with “dog from hell” who have “tried everything”;
  2. Enter Guru;
  3. Guru works magic on dog;
  4. Guru works magic on owners;
  5. Owners attempt to apply learned magic to dog;
  6. Guru improves technique, assigns homework;
  7. Relative degree of success;
  8. Happy, optimistic owners;
  9. Happy dog.

Almost without exception, there’s a feel-good happy ending.

However, to take a 30 or 60 minute program as a realistic representation of any dog training process is a mistake.

The producers of these shows know the formula and they know what gets ratings and how to get the series renewed.  A lot of information about the hows and whys of what goes on is left out for both time constraints and to appeal to a broader audience; we are never given the complete picture.  Instead, we are shown the “best TV”, which emphasizes the dog’s bad behavior in the beginning, the improvements at the end, and a small, simplified version of how they got there.  Often, it’s not explicit that sometimes the Guru visits several times of the course of a week or month, and a lot of the work is done off-camera through the homework assignments the owners have been given.

Yes, when asked, each Guru emphasizes that consistent, hard work and dedication on behalf of the owner is the ultimate key to success, but all of the televised representations reinforce a “quick fix” ideal.

And this is the problem.

Despite any “seek local, professional help”-type warnings, people (likely always) will still try it at home.  This is how the holiday season a few years back ended in so many house fires; people decided they wanted to deep fry their turkeys, too.

Problems arise when dog owners take techniques or information they see on TV, apply them partially, incorrectly and sporadically without knowing why, subsequently fail or maybe even make things worse, and then assume that this counts as a legitimate training attempt.  Now they’ve “tried everything” with their dog and then become frustrated and even more despondent.

The other problem is that the Super Fans grow to consider themselves experts.  They’ve watched every episode, read a book, maybe even attended a seminar.  They grow to believe that what they’ve learned from television is good enough, and that seeking professional help from a local trainer is extraneous.

And, fine, I will concede that if you’ve got your dog where you want them behaviourally without help, that’s great, but believe me, you’re either the exception to the rule or have way lower standards.  Most often, owners have incorrectly diagnosed their dogs (perceived “aggression” or “stupidity” are personal favourites), so not only are they trying the wrong thing or worrying about the wrong behaviours, it’s an extra obstacle to get them to let go of these preconceived notions when they do seek professional help.

At the end of it all, I guess I’m just complaining about something that will never change.  Though I suppose the benefits of the popularity of the TV dog trainers probably outweigh the negatives, there will always be these significant drawbacks.  People will always mimic the actions of celebrities (Kanye’s Venetian-blind-like sunglasses? Really?), and will always try to save a buck by watching some TV instead of paying for a course (I’m still waiting for the History Channel to award me my viewer-earned Bachelor’s Degree).  And it sure is easier to sit down on the couch for an hour than to go out, interact hands-on, and be accountable to a trainer or instructor.

I get it; I just don’t like it.