Know the Side Effects
As a professional dog trainer, I work with thousands of dogs and their owners. I work with first time dog owners, experienced owners, owners that have worked with other trainers before, and everything in between. Along with experience level comes different personalities as well, from human and canine alike. But what a professional dog trainer should know is how to work with these different personalities and how to create a training plan that is good not only for the owner, but for the dog as well. And in working through this, you want to make sure owners understand that regardless of how and where they train, there are potential side effects that can occur if A,B,&C don't go right, they don't continue with the training, etc. Currently, I am working with a dog where the dog has hit every single side effect as a result of a certain form of training.
First off, let me give you a little bit of an unknown secret to the general public: dog training is an unregulated industry. You can literally think "hey, I like dogs. I want to train dogs for a living" and just like that, you can call and market yourself as a dog trainer. Some may have qualifications like having certifications, educational background, reputable experience, while others may use the "I've been training dogs for 15 years even though I'm only 25" qualification (Really? You've professionally trained dogs and their owners since you were 10? Doubtful.) or the "I base my methods off of celebrity trainers seen on TV" qualifications. But literally, anyone can call themselves a trainer and unfortunately with excellent marketing skills, some of these so-called trainers generate lots of business, leaving horrible side-effects for some of the dogs after taking their "classes".
This story is about a dog that was put in a very wrong class taught by a different trainer from well-meaning owners, that went wrong and has clear and evident side effects. The dog I am currently working with is a 6-month old adolescent. She is a very, sweet and loving girl who just wants to have a good time. But you would not see that on first appearance. This adolescent has very evident fear issues: fear of people, dogs, noises, novelty, even her own shadow. Typically when hearing of a 6-month old dog showing fear like this, I would think a dog is probably experiencing that second fear period dogs go through in their adolescence, but upon talking with the owners, I realized this was not the case. This had been budding for a while and is now turning into full-fledged fear. I got some background to try to figure out any consistencies with her fear issues and what may be feeding into this issue. And one thing stood out as a very clear culprit: the training they did when she was a puppy under the guise of another trainer. These owners wanted to do the right thing and so they started her in group classes at an early age because working with your puppy on the front-end usually yields good results as an adult dog on the back-end. However, due to good marketing so they assumed they were getting the best in business because of his credentials he said he had based on experience, etc, they took his group class. In this group class, everything is taught with compulsion, that is, do this or else. If you don't do what I want, I am going to correct you by choking you with this choke collar, but when you do what I want, your reward is I'm going to just give verbal praise. As a human being, to me, that sounds horrible. As a dog trainer, that sounds like a recipe for disaster, which it indeed turned out to be. For a young puppy in a class that doesn't know anything because they are a pretty clean slate, that's going to be a lot of correction with little payoff and lots of bad memories ingrained into that dog. There was no socialization exercises with people or other dogs, no confidence building, no teaching the dogs to use their brains to try and solve issues, just strictly, do this or else.
Classes like these can be effective. Yes, the certified dog trainer who preaches positive reinforcement just admitted that these modes of training can be effective. If they weren't effective for some dogs and some people, then people wouldn't do it. HOWEVER, this is not a way of training condoned or recommended by ANY veterinary behavior governing body or animal behavior societies such as the AVSAB. And other than the ethical dilemma it presents in terms of what are you willing to do just to get results, there is the dilemma of potential side effects. Potential side effects from using methods like this are fear, anxiety, aggression, reactivity, prolonged stress just to name a few. And this dog hit quite a few of these side effects. She was fearful of everything, has no confidence, doesn't really offer behaviors and tries to rely just on what she already knows, has no social skills towards other dogs, and on top of all of that, has some anxiety going on. Could some of it be environmental? Not likely. Could some of it be personality? Possible. Could this be a direct result of the type of training she received and guidance from that instructor? Absolutely. The good news: she is still young, the owners are willing to help her work through this, and she is in the hands of the right trainer this time. Through private lessons, she has gotten a little bit better and one day of Day Academy thus far showed huge leaps and bounds when she attempted play with a tiny dog and learned a clicking noise equals food and she can try something different that will be rewarding and not just punishing. Seeing this side of this girl's personality was beautiful and gratifying to watch, but I can bet that other "trainer" never saw this side of her.
And yes, there are side effects to food and toy reward training as well, such as dogs that listen when you have treats only or toys present or can't function with these things close, etc. Guess what? These are easy to train through and work through these side effects because they are simply training errors, not behavioral issues. This means you need to continue with training your dog, not just say "I took one group class and that's enough" because perfect dogs aren't trained with just one puppy class or one group class. This also means you need to find the right trainer. How do they train? If their credentialing relies heavily on how long they've been doing it, which famous person they trained, or just military/police dog experience, I would walk away. Experience is definitely important, but what training bodies are they involved with that hold their training methods accountable? Are they required to continue their education on training methods used or do they just rely on current knowledge they have only? And if a trainer tells you to do something that just does't feel right, don't do it. This dog may have a happy ending, but I can't say the same for all dogs I have worked with that have similar histories and backgrounds due to the emotional trauma. Do your research, know the side effects of the different training methods, and make sure you continue with the training until you are satisfied with where your dog is at not only emotionally, but also with the behaviors they are presenting.