Archive for September, 2012

Cassi’s Way – How Training is Killing our Dogs

Monday, September 17th, 2012

This blog is not just about training; it’s intention is not to teach you how to solve a particular behaviour problem, or how to know if you have a specific issue to address with your dog. This blog is the result of years of picking up the pieces behind other professionals, and hearing time and again from my clients ‘I just wanted to do the right thing for my dog, and even though I didn’t really want to be doing the things my trainer told me to do, he/she was the professional, and I had to just trust them’. This good intention, coupled with a professional trainer who doesn’t really explain why their methods work, has created hundreds upon thousands of dogs with behaviour issues far worse than what they began their training with, and sadly, well meaning owners actually teaching their dogs to be aggressive, fearful, and anxious. I believe in my heart of hearts that certain training methods are actually killing our dogs, teaching behaviours that can become so dangerous and unmanageable that the dog needs to be euthanized. Every client I’ve had has hired me solely because they love their dog and desire a more harmonious relationship with them, and I know that dog owners who seek out training truly believe that what a trainer tells them is in their dog’s best interest. So, I’m sharing this story with you today to help you, and your dog, with that journey, in hopes that it will inspire you to do what could save your dog’s life – ask your trainer WHY and HOW their methods work. I truly hope that if the answer leads you to believe that it will work by intimidation, pain, or fear mongering, that you will seek another solution.

It’s pretty rare that I encounter a dog who doesn’t know how to ‘sit’. It happens, but usually that dog has a darn good reason, like being from a puppy mill and having never had any training. But, most dogs raised in a home know this cue well. Why? Because it’s one of the first words we all want to teach our puppies, and because we often teach it at an early age, immediately followed by a treat, a happy dance, or something that makes the dog really happy. Therefore, the dog has a reliable sit. This is a good example of how dogs learn, in a sort of simplified way. It hears the word ‘sit’, it puts it’s bum on the floor, and something good is likely to happen – even if it only hears ‘good boy’ every 100 times it sits as an adult. It is also, however, the same learning theory that applies to dogs who have learned to be terribly aggressive, sometimes so much so that they need to be euthanized. Science shows us that less than .1% of dogs who are aggressive are born with aggression, due to some type of brain abnormality, which also tells us that 99.9% of aggressive dogs are so because they were taught to be. The majority of my clients have dogs with aggression issues, and no, they are not fighting dogs or protection trained dogs. They are the dogs next door to you, they are your friends’ dogs, they are ‘normal’, everyday pets who have learned dangerous behaviours; and training is killing these dogs. Many of them.

I see cases like this every day, and I see dangerous dogs turn into good dogs everyday. But, there are also some dogs who have been so badly damaged by training that they cannot be saved. This is the story of one dog who lost her battle, a dog named Cassie. She was humanely euthanized on June 29th, 2012, and the memory of her has been with me ever since. My heart swells with the thought of her, the potential she had, and the damage that was done to her by well meaning owners, and trainers they trusted. She is not alone in her plight, and I’m writing this story so that her death is not in vain; so that her story may save the life of even one dog who is suffering under the guise of ‘dog training’.

Cassie began her life in a suburban town with a family of four. Having had dogs before, they unfortunately decided to skip puppy school and do training on their own in the home. Vets always advise us not to take our puppies anywhere until they have all their shots, but it creates a huge gap in early socialization, which is why puppy school and the opportunity to socialize with dogs of similar age is crucial to a dog’s social well being later on in life. At around 9 months of age, the owners noticed that Cassi was getting overly excited about other dogs while on leash, so they brought a trainer into their home to help gain control of this behaviour. The trainer told them that Cassi needed to learn respect for them, and had them begin using a prong collar while on walks, combined with a leash correction, and a strong verbal ‘NO!’, when other dogs approached and Cassi got excited. So now, based on what I’ve told you about how dogs learn, what did she learn from this? That other dogs mean something bad and painful is about to happen. She quickly developed anxiety around other dogs, and by 14 months of age, had still never played with another dog, had developed a fear of her family rather than ‘respecting’ them, and tried to find new ways to stop the corrections and the pain.

She’d make herself small, avoiding eye contact, lowering her ears, looking anywhere but where the pain came from. This is a normal response to something that frightens a dog – they avoid it as opposed to confronting it, in hopes that it will go away. Eventually, though, they begin to weigh the fear versus the pain, asking ‘is it more effective for me to lash out, trying to make this dog go away to avoid even more pain’, and hence the owner’s corrections need to become stronger, causing increased pain, usually getting more into her face with a louder and harsher ‘NO!’, as they were instructed to do by the trainer that they had put their faith into. The same cycle begins again, and the dog attempts to cower and avoid in hopes that this option will end the fear and pain of being on leash outside. It’s also important to note that most of the dog walking responsibilities fell upon the young tween boys of the home, so her interactions with them were more often than not moments of dominating control and painful communication often beginning, as instructed, before she even glanced at the oncoming dog. (meanwhile, not being given the option to acknowledge the other dog and react appropriately. These corrections are often instructed to be given before the dog has an opportunity to respond, without knowing if the dog has even learned to respond differently based on the training).

The owners believed that Cassi was doing these things, like shrinking away and looking down, to be stand-offish, as opposed to being appeasing. They had had enough of her bad behaviour. Cassi was then sent away to a training facility for 12 weeks. She was trained individually by a lead trainer and several of the young men in the facility. In order to counteract her ‘bad behaviour’, which was in fact fear and anxiety around boys and dogs, the trainer taught her to conform to standard obedience, mostly ‘sit’ and ‘lie down’. She taught this by using a prong collar, using very firm commands, rolling the dog on her back if she didn’t respond, and by teaching her to strictly tolerate the situations she was uncomfortable in. Simply put, Cassi was taught to sit perfectly still and stare at the thing (boys or dogs) that terrified her the most, and that if she strayed from this obedience in any way, such as avoiding eye contact, she would be very harshly corrected by the collar. Based on what I’ve said about learning theory, you can now see that not only are the scary things in her life still very scary, but any attempt to avoid these things would result in a painful correction. So, in Cassi’s mind, she remains terribly afraid, and she can’t move at all in fear of very harsh punishment. Near the end of 12 weeks, when pushed even further into the face of a dog or any male person in order to ‘advance training’, she resorted to her only remaining option – growl in an attempt to make it go away. As a result, the trainer deemed Cassi ‘untrainable’. But hadn’t the trainer taught Cassi that the only option she had left was to growl at the scary thing in hopes it would go away? In fact, the trainer began to heavily correct Cassi for growling too – so what does this dog believe she has left to protect herself? The silent bite. A trainer should never teach a dog not to growl, because it simply eliminates your warning that the dog is about to bite. In fact, the trainer should have used techniques that taught the dog she didn’t have to be afraid in the first place, therefore eliminating all the behaviours that come with it.

Cassi was surrendered to rescue at that point, and I began working with her. I found the most dangerous thing about her was her appearance of safety. A person could approach, and she would automatically sit and look up at that person, as if she were being polite. But if you were the handler, you could visibly see her shaking, hear her very low growl, and be practically blanketed in her fear. If that person reached for her, she’d lunge and try to bite in an extremely aggressive way. The same would apply to dogs; though she appeared safe to other dogs’ owners, to parents, to children, because she sat so nicely, she was in fact a ticking time bomb.

For close to one year, we worked hard with Cassi using desensitization techniques, counter conditioning, pairing scary events (at low level intensity) with really delicious treats, happy distractions and meaningful cues, which are very standard positive training methods used to get at the source of the fear and show the dog that they don’t need to be afraid, hence eliminating the dog’s behavioural issues. We could never ask her to sit or down, because she’d immediately begin to shake with fear (the second trainer had paired the sit/down cues so many times with painful corrections, she immediately became fearful upon hearing the word). We were able to get her to relax with certain people (like myself, and her foster parents), in certain ‘safe’ areas, but in the world beyond her front door, she was extremely dangerous, and even with years of work, would have lived her life in absolute fear of everything around her, and as an extremely dangerous dog if she were ever to get out without her handler.

Cassi spent the last year of her life with foster parents who loved her dearly, with a positive trainer who refused to give up on her, and with the tools and techniques needed to create real learning. But the damage done to her by the previous training techniques was too great, and the fear and stress she lived with every time she went outside was so overwhelming, it was inhumane. At home, Cassi loved to cuddle, she loved to play with toys, she wiggled and danced when her foster parents came home from work and when I came to visit her. The people she grew to know well she treated kindly, and in her own home had a joy for life that would bring a tear to your eye. In foster care, she knew love and trust and happiness for the first time. Outside, she had been turned into a dangerous, almost wild animal. The only reason for that? Training. Her owners wanted to do right by her in the first place by having a trainer come in, and had the right one come, I wouldn’t be writing this story. But the trusted professionals in her life, well known and experienced, used old fashioned, correction based, dominance model training, and together, the techniques they used ultimately led to not only a life of fear, but her death.

Many of you will ask me who these trainers were so that you can avoid them. Unfortunately, knowing their names won’t help you. Finding out how a trainer trains is what is important – there are hundreds of trainers available, and I couldn’t tell you all the good ones and the bad ones. But if you ask questions about their techniques before you hire them, you’ll be in a better position to move forward positively with your dog. Please join me, and support my new group, Cassi’s Way (www.facebook.com/cassisway), to help bring awareness to all dog owners about how the many training techniques work, what and how they teach your dog, and if they are right for you. The most important question you can ever ask a trainer is “WHY will this technique work”? If the answer includes fear, pain, or dominance – think of Cassi. Please share this blog, share the page for Cassi’s Way, and contribute to the conversation that MUST begin to happen if we are to save our dogs from a life like Cassi’s.


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