Train until terrified

On a site in a galaxy far far away, I’m reading a thread that’s yelling “He bit me!”

It opens the way so many of them do, with “I don’t know if I can trust him” and “The trainer says he’s been showing signs of dominance for weeks” and “Thank goodness it happened to me and not to my kids.”

The response from a supposedly extremely experienced dog trainer is “Never let him get the upper hand again! Be on your guard from now on! This is the way herding dogs behave when they want to get their way! Never, never let him win!”

So what on earth happened? What Cujo is this, and what hideous act did he commit?

It’s a seven-month-old puppy. A little herding mix.

First, let me explain what had been perceived as “dominant”  behavior–the puppy jumped on its owner. When he was told not to, he’d go behind the owner and jump straight up and down, without touching the owner. To solve this, the owner was told to back the dog into an office chair.

The ultimate infraction, the bite? In a training class, the owner was instructed to make the dog lie down (no command was given and the word is not one the puppy knows) by stepping on the leash and pulling the leash up from under her foot, thus forcing the puppy to the ground. The goal of the exercise was to stand on the leash right at the clip, so the dog is snubbed completely to the floor, and then wait until the dog relaxed.

When she stepped on the lead and began to pull the leash, the dog did what she called “have a temper tantrum.” What was this tantrum? The dog screamed, and screamed, and screamed, and howled, and flipped over, scrabbled at the ground, and finally bit her in the shin.

The trainer told her to repeat the exercise. Over and over. The second time it was done, the dog screamed and bit through the leash and got away. But he was brought back, and he went through it again. And again. Until he finally lay down on the floor.

The owners took him home and, following the trainer’s directions, put the dog on the leash again, and this time she wore boots. And they did it again at home, over and over, until he would drop like a stone if anyone went near his leash. This was a huge success–as evidenced by the fact that when it was done the puppy immediately went to his bed and slept for hours.

After I read this story, I literally had to stand up and walk away from the computer; re-reading it so I could describe it properly makes me come very close to gagging. I didn’t want to ever think about it again. But this is pretty much the exact idiocy that I am supposed to be railing against, so I am going to talk about it. I can’t, unfortunately, change the day that puppy had, but I can maybe change it for some other puppy somewhere else.

This story is easily in my top ten of IDIOT TRAINER MEETS IDIOT OWNER tales. I want to go to wherever that trainer is (I honestly don’t know) and smack his face repeatedly, and then say “Do you think I’m your boss now? Huh?” and then smack him repeatedly again. Maybe knee his testicles too, because if he objects to the smacking that must mean he’s being dominant.

Anyone who has any experience with dogs, especially herding dogs, knows that what happened to that poor innocent puppy is that he is now pretty sure that his owner repeatedly threatened to kill him. And the only way he can avoid death is to lie down.

And because a thrice-accursed trainer decided that objecting to being choked down to the ground was a sign of dominance, that poor baby dog had to re-live that terror fifty or a hundred times.

Let me put this very simply: If your dog is screaming, gasping, rolling, howling, and finally after ALL THAT he bites… he is a normal, even submissive, very sane dog who thought you were going to kill him. And even once he became convinced that you were trying to kill him, he didn’t fight back. For minutes he fought to get away from you, to get somewhere away from your rage, until he finally fell back on something he’d been trying to avoid for every moment of panic. He bit what was trying to kill him.

Here are the things that this trainer (and now, tragically, this owner, and obviously the thread-responding trainer) do not understand about dog behavior:

1) Dominance theory is real, it’s useful, and it is effective. When used properly it’s a great addition to training.  But dominance has NOTHING to do with choking a puppy into submission. That’s just cruelty and abuse.

This trainer took a legitimate exercise (one that I use with every puppy) that I’ve always called “settle,” and turned it into a horrible ordeal. The thing I call “settle” is a fun game where you introduce a micro-second of downward pressure on the leash (with your foot) and when the dog responds by quieting or paying attention to you she is rewarded by a big treat. This VERY gradually moves into a learned behavior so I can say “settle” and step on the leash and my dogs know that they need to be calm, that we’re not going anywhere for a while. It’s great for when you want the dog to be relaxed and quiet so you can listen to a trainer. There’s at least a foot of slack in the leash and the dog is allowed to take any posture she wants, as long as she’s quiet and her attention is directed at me or on relaxing–she can’t be looking outward with big intentions, or trying to interact with another dog. I do it with a mat or a dog bed, and very quickly the dogs understand that it’s a great opportunity to relax and nap.

“Settle” is a legitimate command. Settle is NOT an opportunity to physically force a dog into a position it views as extremely dangerous and vulnerable and then choke it until it stays there.

Being a pack leader, being “dominant” in the right way, is not about forcing a dog to do ANYTHING. It’s about being the kind of person, having the energy and posture, knowing how much careful pressure to apply to a dog with your body language and very little else, that a dog WANTS to obey. The proper exercise of dominant energy makes a dog sigh, relax, and become calm. Aside from a very few specific situations, it has nothing to do with physical touch and it NEVER involves panicking an animal. In other words, using leadership has everything to do with YOU, not with the dog. The dog already knows it, trust me. It’s about changing YOUR behavior and attitude and energy.

2) Dogs are not primates; close physical contact does not equal love.

An exercise that forces a dog into a small physical area, close to its owner, is an exercise designed by people thinking like people, not people thinking like dogs. Dogs have a very, very rich sense of love and affection, but their idea of physical space is MUCH more acute than ours. To be polite, to show love, to a dog, is to immediately and happily give space.

Right now Clue is lying at my feet, snoring. She chooses, as she has since she was a tiny baby, to lie about eight inches away from my foot. If I move my foot over and touch her on the back, she will immediately wake up. I just did it, and she looked up, saw me, stood up, and walked over to her bed (which is about three feet away). Humans, thinking like humans, would say “Oh, she doesn’t want to be near me anymore; there’s something wrong.” In fact, everything is exactly right. I signaled to her (by touching her back, and then looking at her eyes) that I intended to take up more space, so she gave me the space I needed.

When a dog sees that another dog is being impolite, and the infraction is not stopped by a quick glance or head posture and so the first dog has to physically touch the impolite dog, the proper response from the impolite dog is to leave. To back off and walk or run away. Dogs very, very rarely pursue in order to punish. If the impolite dog turns and leaves, the interaction is over and a success. I’ve seen older dogs do this to rude puppies a hundred times–the puppy jumps on the older dog’s head, older dog roars and knocks the puppy with an open mouth, puppy ki-yi-yis and runs, older dog has a satisfied grin on her face and lies back down to sleep. There’s no “payback” or pursuit. Simple message, looking for a specific response.

That poor baby herding dog felt “pressure” from its owner. It immediately tried to do the correct, polite thing, which is to move away. It was not allowed to do so; it was instead dragged closer and forced into greater and greater proximity. Its attempts to politely walk away became a panicked fight to RUN away, which brings us to the third behavior:

3) Dogs bite when it works to bite. It has nothing to do with submission or dominance. Mouths are how dogs communicate when body language fails. Using the mouth is the dog’s megaphone. A normal, sane dog who trusts the people and dogs around it will offer many, many behaviors and attempts to communicate before it uses its mouth. It’s a tragic thing that most of us completely ignore those communications.

When a dog feels that it has exhausted every “word” it knows, it will finally resort to using its mouth. When dogs are very afraid, they can run through a shorter set of words or more quickly resort to mouth. When a dog learns over time that its words will be ignored, it will begin to skip them and move right to mouth. That’s why when a dog perceives itself as the leader of a human group it often bites a lot–in a normal dog pack it could establish and maintain order through body language and small “words,” only very rarely resorting to mouth, but it has learned that humans are incredibly stupid and you have to bite them every single time because nothing else works.

In this case, the dog tried in a hundred ways, for minutes on end, to avoid using its mouth. He finally became so terrified that he bit. The second time he was tortured, STILL he tried to avoid biting. He bit through the leash instead, and must have felt incredible relief when he was finally able to give the human the space she was demanding so loudly. But instead of the leash cutting being read as what it was–the dog trying to obey and avoid this confusing and horrifying punishment by being a good baby and running–it was labeled disobedience and the puppy was punished further and further and with more and more intensity.

The final piece of our very, very terrible day for this poor puppy is

4) Dogs emotionally shut down by separating and sleeping.

When you get a puppy, you MUST physically exhaust that puppy every day. You want a puppy who sleeps for hours when the day is over. But what happened here is totally different.

A happily exhausted puppy toddles over to its bed, still laughing, tail wagging, and flops down in total relaxation. Happy puppies sleep happy.

This puppy was not physically exhausted. All he’d done was lie down a hundred times–that’s a tiny calorie spend. What his owner saw was him emotionally and mentally shutting down, in the same way that a dog who has been beaten will sleep or a dog who knows he is very sick will separate from the others and seek out a place to hide and sleep.

The ultimate tragedy comes at the end of the story… the “successful” conclusion. “It totally worked. When he woke up, he did not want to mess with me at ALL. But now he won’t come when he’s called, even when I have a toy or a treat in my hand. I’m so glad my trainer offers phone support because now we have to work on this new sulky attitude.”

Good Lord. This poor, poor dog. Yes, you’ve definitely succeeded–he no longer trusts you or wants to be anywhere near you. But he’ll drop like a rock when you put his leash on. Hope you got a good price for that soul of yours.


12 thoughts on “Train until terrified

  1. God, that story is HORRIFIC. What the hell is wrong with those people?! I just can’t wrap my head around the depths of their complete lunacy (for lack of a better word). I’m appalled that trainers this brutal still exist in this day and age.

    A question though — when you said ‘close physical contact does not equal love’ I wonder about my dog, a Chinese Crested, who as a breed are called ‘velcro dogs’ because they always want to be near their owners or in physical contact with them. Is that then, not affection? Does that just mean the breed is actually just naturally very ‘possessive’?

    Because I swear, it really does seem like affection. =/

  2. Thank you for this. I didn’t even get to the end of the tale in the galaxy far, far away. I saw what was coming and closed it. I knew it would enrage me and I haven’t the time to respond properly.

    I’m worried about it being a sensitive dog and not recovering well. I’m guessing nothing I say will make any difference .

  3. Another thanks. I miss you in that other galaxy, and I am so glad you addressed it here.
    Our trainer had us teach settle, too, and it is a wonderful tool for our high energy dog – the realization that she can just lay still at our feet at times has been a good one for her, though, not the devastation this poor pup has had.

  4. Ugh, what a tragic story. Thanks for this post. It might be another I have to print out and distribute!

    I had idiot trainers for my first dog, at her puppy class, Canine Good Citizen, even agility.. I’m so glad that I was too soft-hearted a kid to persist with their techniques (including the infamous Alpha Roll-over, complete with pinching the scruff, squeezing the muzzle shut and growling/yelling in the poor dog’s faces).
    She’s a dog that really values her physical space, it’s a testament to how truly patient she is with us stupid humans that she never bit any of us when we abused her.

  5. Some “trainers” terrify, and appall me. Thank you for doing a play-by-play of what went wrong in this horrible sequence. Hopefully it’ll save a relationship for some new dog and handler team down the road.

    Understanding a dog, is a dog, is the most important factor in building a working, and respectful relationship with a canine companion.

  6. I also saw that post, and commend you for this one.

    I find it laughable that such treatment of a dog is condoned in the same space where even hinting at crying-it-out with a child will practically get you banned. Why is it horrifying to “train” a child with a method steeped in mistrust, and yet a-okay to do exactly that to a dog?

    I read your post about saying goodbye to that other galaxy, and I think the dog training thing is just another example of the shortsightedness there. The worldview has become so narrow that even obvious parallels are overlooked… or perhaps deliberately ignored.

  7. I am so angry, that I am speechless. I can’t even begin to respond. How did you not reach thru the internet & strangle someone??

    I understand that when you obtain “expert” advice that you are inclined to follow along, but when it is so, so obviously wrong, why not follow your instincts & say “I will NOT terrorize this baby dog”? You wouldn’t do that with a baby human. How heartless.

  8. Wow, this is an awesome article. I couldn’t agree more. It’s too bad such abusive methods are still considered training. I hope the owners finally “see the light” and are able to fix what they broke.

  9. Thank you so much for this wonderful blog. I learn something new nearly every time I pass through (and WordPress often automagically generates links from my posts to you).

    Between my father & I we have over 110 years of training Irish Setters – but we always have room to learn.

    Thanks again.


  10. I am sooo glad you responded here. I have been going nuts in that galaxy far, far away. It has gotten pretty bad there lately:(

  11. What a hideous story, it nearly brought me to tears! Why can’t people just use their common sense? I hate to think what’s in store for this poor puppy in the future if this is his start in life.

  12. Pingback: Confusing practice with practitioner (and vice versa): Dog training « Ruffly Speaking: Railing against idiocy since 2004

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