Finding a dog trainer who can help you and who you enjoy working with can be a challenge. There are no rules governing who can be a dog trainer. Some perfectly wonderful trainers have no official accreditation; while trainers with wonderful letters after their name are not very good with either dogs or people. Add into the mix that there are several very different training methods with trainers of each method being very adamant that only their training method works and you have a murky soup.
This is a case study if you will of one of my recent clients. I’ve changed the names. But, I think it is a good illustration of how challenging finding the right dog trainer can be.
Heidi owns a 2-year-old Labrador named Teddy. When I met them, I was the four trainer Heidi had called in.
Trainer #1 was a positive reward-based trainer who Heidi chose for Teddy’s first group class. Teddy was five-months old when he attended group classes. He was overwhelmed by the group class experience and could not focus. While the other puppies were focusing on their owners; Teddy was barking, circling and doing flips. No amount of treats in front of his nose could distract him. The trainer suggested Teddy was not ready for a group class; but gave Heidi some tips on working on his reactivity on her own. The trainer suggested Heidi take Teddy on the Monon (a popular dog walking trail) and give him treats when he saw dogs. The Monon was way too overwhelming for Teddy. It was just like the group class. No amount of food in front of his nose could distract him when a dog walked close to him.
Teddy was now an adolescent Lab who Heidi could barely control. Taking him on a walk was a nightmare, so he also was not getting enough exercise, which added to his frustration, which in turn made him more destructive at home.
Trainer #2 used a choke chain and told Heidi the only reward Teddy needed was “good dog” and the release of the pressure from the choke chain. He told her to never use food rewards. However, this trainer understood threshold and explained it to Heidi and told her that Teddy should only be worked in areas where he wasn’t too close to other dogs. The trainer her gave her good advice in terms of working with a dog that was over stimulated and how to keep him farther away from dogs until he could handle seeing them in a distance. Choking Teddy out when he saw a dog did stop him from barking; but only because he couldn’t breathe. And it took a lot of strength. Heidi was unable to duplicate the trainer’s technique on her own and soon Teddy didn’t care about the choking and just kept dragging his owner and flipping himself on the ground.
Trainer #3 was a board and train person. Heidi left Teddy with him for two weeks. On the last day of his training; Heidi went to pick him up and the trainer proudly demonstrated Teddy’s new skill. Heidi saw Teddy on a matt in the middle of a room while other dogs were running all around him. Teddy never moved a muscle; but there was a rope of drool coming from his mouth. The trainer used a shock collar and taught Teddy that if he moved when other dogs were around he would get shocked. The trainer spent an hour showing Heidi the ins and outs of shock collar training and sent her on her way. Heidi did not like the way Teddy looked when she picked him up and she noticed the drool and how tense the dog was. He was still way over stimulated by seeing other dogs; but now he had learned that he had no choice because if he moved he would hurt by an electric shock to his neck. Heidi decided she didn’t want to use a shock collar on Teddy.
Now Heidi has a 2-year-old Lab who is not getting enough exercise and who is a nightmare to take on a walk. She is understandably very frustrated that she has spent thousands of dollars on dog trainers and she still can’t walk her dog around the block.
Heidi’s veterinarian recommended she contact me. My first thought was how frustrated this owner already was and how I was going to come in and give her completely different advice yet again.
Prior to our first visit I emailed her the Position Statements from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior on Dominance and Punishment. I wanted her to see information from people who have lots of education backing up their words. That way it wasn’t just me saying something.
We did a lot of talking on that first visit. People who want to be good dog trainers need to be people oriented first. If you can’t convince the human end of the leash, you will never help the dog. I talked about how frustrating it was to have spent all the time and money and gotten so much conflicting advice only to have me come in and give yet more conflicting advice.
The good news was; the woman already knew that nothing she had been doing was working as obviously she was calling me to get help. If her previous trainers had helped her she wouldn’t need me.
It turned out Teddy’s issue was he was socially awkward. He never got to play with any puppies when he was young. He really, REALLY wanted to go meet some other dogs and see what they were about. His frustration at not meeting other dogs became lunging, barking and growling when he saw other dogs. He didn’t know what to do with all this pent-up anxiety and over the top exuberance.
The only way Heidi could walk Teddy was on a prong collar. While I don’t advocate them, I wasn’t about to tell her to take it off him at this point. She had to have some way to physically control him and the prong collar worked for her. We got some big gun treats (hot dogs) and I used my fake dog Spot. I put Spot far away from Teddy and we gave Teddy a hot dog when he looked at Spot. When Spot went away; there was no hot dog. At first, we didn’t care what noise Teddy was making; I only wanted to know if he could eat the hot dog. In the beginning, he was lunging; barking, howling, etc. at Spot, but it turned out Spot was far enough away that Teddy could eat the hot dog. Within a few minutes Teddy’s behavior calmed somewhat and he became less interested in Spot and more interested in the hot dogs.
Then I had Heidi take Teddy back inside for a short break.
We repeated this a few more times with Spot moving to different parts of the yard and Teddy becoming more comfortable seeing Spot and ignoring him or calming looking at him. Then I let Teddy meet Spot. Teddy rushed in like a bulldozer and jumped on Spot knocking him over. Teddy then jumped on Spot and started sniffing him all over. Then Teddy did a play bow. Sadly, Spot is great at working with reactive dogs; but his interaction skills are stiff.
After Teddy “met” Spot, Teddy was much calmer and easier to control. He took treats for ignoring Spot. He could walk close to Spot and ignore him.
After another break for Teddy to regroup and get a drink of water; I brought out my dog Skywalker. Teddy was initially amped up when he saw Sky moving; but Teddy really liked hot dogs. Soon we were walking down the street alternating between me and Skywalker being way in the lead or Heidi and Teddy being in the lead. Then I did some walking with Sky on the other side of the street.
Teddy was still highly aroused at some points and I would have to increase my distance from him; but he was able to go for a short walk and his owner was able to control him and feed him hot dogs.
At the end I allowed Teddy to meet Skywalker. It wasn’t ideal; but I felt Teddy needed some serious intervention and Sky is super tolerant. Teddy rushed into Sky and jumped on Sky’s back and which point Sky snapped at Teddy and Teddy fell to the ground in a very submissive posture.
Because Teddy was so over the top exuberant and I don’t want Sky to not have fun with dogs; I didn’t let the interaction go on long. Teddy took corrections well; but he just had a hard time understanding that humping Skywalker’s head was not the way to initiate play. But, Teddy did figure out that he could be near Sky and sniff around and that worked out. I think if Teddy meets some extremely tolerant very playful dogs; he will soon get his doggy interaction skills down.
I just had my second meeting with Heidi and Teddy. We met at a park that is popular with dog walkers. The park has lots of space so we can put distance between us and other dogs.
Teddy came out of the vehicle like a bulldozer and was immediately over stimulated. Heidi hasn’t been taking him lots of places due to being unable to control him. We worked on politely getting in and out of the vehicle and talked about how the more he is exposed to things like this, the less over whelming they will be (as long as he isn’t too overwhelmed). We worked in an area of the parking lot as far away from people and dogs as we could get.
As Teddy calmed down we moved closer to the action. We also worked on some loose leash walking skills and moving away from people and dogs in a calm manner. At the end we were able to sit on a park bench and have Teddy calmly laying down. And his owner was walking him in an Easy Walk harness and not on the prong collar.
Teddy and Heidi still have their work cut out for them. But, Heidi is now much more confident in her ability to take him places. This means Teddy will be getting lots more enrichment and exercise. He will have more fun and Heidi will have more fun. Heidi is going to work with some doggy daycares and see if there is a place for Teddy there. If not, we discussed other ways for Teddy to safely meet a few tolerant dogs.
If you have been to multiple trainers and you still have issues with your dog; don’t give up. Look for trainers who have experience with the types of issues you are having. Look for trainers who are certified through an all-positive organization such as Karen Pryor Academy. Read the position statements on punishment and dominance and don’t let a trainer talk you into an electric collar or using punishment.