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Actor-Trainers: why TV dog trainers won’t get better until the rest of us do

by | Jul 26, 2019 | 11 comments

I have breaking news: semi-reputable (or not at all reputable) professionals with pretty faces get TV shows sometimes. That’s our reality, and I don’t really care about it. But on occasion one of these actor-professionals will appear in my circles because they are actor-dog trainers. And my colleagues are a firey bunch. In the same sense that trained cooks and chefs cringe when Rachael Ray puts cornstarch in a dish without making a slurry, every time a dog trainer appears on a morning talk show the dog people of the internet scream at their televisions before writing long-prose anger-ridden emails to networks. This week, Brandon McMillan was on Rachael Ray’s morning talk show, and we trainers should talk about what he said in a productive way. Because like it or not; Rachael Ray is popular because she makes cooking feel accessible for people, not because she makes first class dishes, and Brandon McMillan is doing the same thing with dog training. We see him really botching it, the public sees solutions they can actually achieve at home. If we are in the business of training dogs for the public, we really ought to notice this.

First, let’s dissect the video clip, in which Brandon addresses three common behavior concerns. You can watch it yourself here.

First, a sweet little pug is labeled “a chewer” and a hilarious video clip of the dog thrashing a Nike sneaker is rolled. Our boy’s solution? Tie a shoe to the dog. He states this works by “reverse psychology” (a method of persuasion that isn’t universally accepted even in humans, let alone in dogs who do not suffer defiance disorders the way humans are speculated to) and that the dog will stop chewing shoes within a week. This “solution” is old school. Dog is a chicken killer? Tie a chicken to his collar. Dog “critters” on hunts? Lock him in a kennel with possums. Siblings hate each other? Make them sit in the same room until they are over it. The live audience watched with glee as the pug’s ears and tail drooped while she hobbled around with a shoe tied to her harness.

Finnick choosing a Benebone instead of a shoe.

Then, a black and tan mixed breed dog is said to “counter surf” or eat food off the counters in her owner’s home. Rachael exclaims how dangerous this is, and now the audience is on the edge of their seats! Brandon brings in some technology on this one, says to get a camera (he says a baby monitor, but he holds up a camera) set up so that the dog can be caught in the act. He then holds up a plastic bottle full of pennies, and says that when the dog is caught counter surfing, the human should run into the kitchen shaking the bottle. The dog is actually intrigued by the bottle on the show, and I have my doubts, but Rachael jokes that SHE will never touch her counter again now.

Brandon has a secondary approach to this one, too. He puts a leash and martingale on the dog, has the owner hold a leash attached to a harness, and he puts a pork chop on a plate down on the ground. He proceeds to train the dog via collar pops and a verbal “no” correction to back away from the pork chop. He calls this “impulse control” and also states that he is using “no force whatsoever.”

Finally, a really cute bulldog is said to get on the owner’s new couch. I wonder what this woman is doing with her life that she can’t just snuggle that lump of adorable on the couch, but that’s not the point. A lot of people don’t want dogs on furniture. I don’t know any of those people but that’s irrelevant. Brandon has another old school trick that he claims he learned by accident; put sheets of aluminum foil on the couch. The dog will touch them, not like the noise, and stop getting up there. Meanwhile the bulldog tries to get the porkchop that is still on the props table.

All of these solutions have this in common: they empower humans and provide supposedly immediate relief. Yes, they are also all based in coercion and aversive control, but that’s not what elevates this character to “trainer” status on TV. Ask ten trainers how they would handle these behavior problems and you will get ten solutions, but if the solutions do not provide the dog owners with those two things–empowerment and immediate relief–then you are not a better professional than Mr TV Show. Positive reinforcement-based training with a wellness focus can also empower and provide immediate relief, but it won’t be featured on TV unless we, the R+ community, start considering the importance of the person in distress. We have to empower these people, or they will keep going to the guy who does.

So, let’s reframe each of these issues.

Shoe Thief
Ok, so that sweet little pug really just needs some environmental enrichment, and I think positive trainers know that overall. But if we say those words to a client, we will send them down the road to the guy who is going to tie a shoe to their dog, or worse. So I’d give them a recipe: no more bowls. Slow feeders, puzzle toys, and kongs are the new way this pug eats. I’d show them three tiers: easy (pour kibble into a slow bowl), medium (pour kibble into a puzzle feeder), and more time-consuming (stuff and freeze a Kong or Toppl) and explain that for every meal, one of these options needs to be used. I’d even go so far as to “trade” them some puzzles for their regular bowls (the regular bowls go to a thrift store and the puzzle stuff is built into the pricing structure). I’d also encourage them to provide the dog with a toy box full of non-food enrichment items like crinkly paper balls, inedible chews, and stuffed toys. Finally, I’d say for the next week while they implement changes, their shoes are to be placed in a container by the entryway. All shoes, all the time, if removed from feet get placed in a closet behind a door or in this temporary receptacle. It is vital that this is not a permanent instruction; it isn’t sustainable. But humans can do most things for one week, so that’s all I’d ask. After seven days, with all changes implemented, I’d say they can go back to normal with their shoes. And here is where we can’t just leave them hanging; our goal is to empower them when the problem behavior DOES occur (and it may, on occasion, once the shoes are back in the environment). So, I’d tell them any time the dog found herself with a shoe, they should casually remove the shoe from the dog (resource guarding would have been pre-screened for in my intake process) and take the dog into a separate room. Set a timer for three minutes, and train the dog. Sits, downs, stays, tricks, all for food. Now the person has an action plan that will contribute overall to the relationship between them and the dog. I don’t expect it to affect the shoe-stealing at all, but I do expect it to improve the communication between the dog and person, as well as contribute to the enrichment of the dog’s life which was the primary goal. Case closed.

Kong-stuffing is a skill most dog owners embrace once taught.

Counter Surfer
First I’d provide the exact same food-based enrichment protocol I provided the pug’s family. Then, I’d say for one straight week the counters must be barren. That isn’t something I’d expect the family to commit to forever, but it is something they can commit to for one week (similar to the shoe container). Rather than “impulse control” training of any kind, which is unlikely to have an effect in the absence of the human, I’d spend my training time teaching the dog to lie on a cot or dog bed in the kitchen. The family would spend dedicated training time on that for the first week, and any time they are away from home, the dog is to be barricaded from the kitchen. I’d suggest that as a lifetime change for safety reasons, but ultimately it would be up to them. After the week is up, they’d be permitted to go back to their normal counter usage and again, they would need an action plan for if they saw their dog in the act. Similar to the pug shoe thief, I’d have them interrupt the dog and go into a three minute training session about going to the mat/cot/bed in the kitchen. If I thought technology would be something they’d like, I’d have them use the same camera Brandon recommended (or the app Presence) to watch their dog in the kitchen. But rather than rushing in with a correction when the dog got on the counter, I’d have them rush in with food treats when the dog went to his new cot. Now the dog’s behavior is on its way to being changed (the dog is bored and scavenging so solving that boredom and replacing that scavenge behavior with more acceptable scavenge behaviors is the fix), the humans have an action plan they can do, and they are empowered in the moment an error occurs.

A slow feeder provides enrichment for all diet types.

Couch Potato
I’d just get this sweet bulldog the coziest most ideal dog resting area in the world and have it on the floor, in the same room as the couch. I’d barricade the couch whenever the dog was unsupervised, and the humans would be told they can back off the barricading (and my preference, rather than foil, is just an ex pen around the couch or some chairs blocking it–my aim is to make the undesired behavior harder to do, not scary or unpleasant) when they observe their dog choosing her new bed on her own which could take up to two weeks. If she were still trying to get on the couch in two weeks, I’d alter something else. For the first week, the couch should be barricaded virtually all the time, and after that the humans would be empowered with an action plan for when they saw the dog on the couch. Go to the dog, take her gently by the collar or pick her up, and take her to her own bed. Then lie with her for a bit, petting and cuddling her on her dog bed. Often this is about isolation, dogs like to be near us so of course they want to share our resting spaces. I’d probably also increase the dog’s enrichment and exercise so that she is ready to plop on her easy-access bed rather than be motivated for the extra work of getting on the couch.

Of course there are more solutions here, and as I mentioned, ten trainers would have ten slightly different answers. The bottom line is that R+ trainers are too often leaving out the empowerment and quick resolution needs of their clients. Always give them an action plan; never tell them to simply ignore something. If we band together and provide our clients with these two things they very much need from us–actionable steps and quick changes–our reputation will improve and perhaps we will finally get some air time.

FOOD: the “other” quick-fix!

11 Comments

  1. Kayla Block

    Such a wonderful response to some really disturbing “training” techniques. I hope Rachel Ray sees your post!

    Reply
  2. Marilyn Baumgardt

    Could you go into more detail for Kong stuffing? I like the idea but struggle with how to freeze kibble into a Kong without using high calorie peanut butter to bind it. I can’t feed raw because my dog is a therapy dog. I just need some ideas to give it variety and freezability. If you have touched on this before, just guide me to where I can find it, please. . Thanks

    Reply
    • Robyn

      Just leave kibble in a baggie with a bit of water until the outer layer is soft. Then it will bind as you load the Kong. I use the same baggie and just cut the corner tip off. Then it works like an icing bag

      Reply
    • deb

      I usually either soak the kibble a bit before stuffing the kong so that it binds while freezing or mix in some canned / wet food.

      Reply
    • Kristine

      For kibble filled kongs, I just run water through them so it all runs out, then stand them up inside a cup in the freezer. That’s enough to freeze them together. If that’s too easy, plug the bottom with plastic wrap or a pencil, let water soak the kibble a few minutes, then remove the stopper/let it drain before freezing. Or, hardest of all for the longest enrichment, let it soak all the water before freezing (or pre soak then stuff the mush in before freezing, which is messier).

      Reply
    • Laura

      My dog doesn’t like peanut butter. We just put kibble in and then a layer of canned food, stick a cookie in the top and freeze that.

      Reply
    • Fiona

      Hey Marilyn. You can soak most kibble varieties with water and they will then freeze nicely. I tend to do this then mash it up with a bit of tinned tuna or sardine – don’t mix the fish in until the kibble has soaked, otherwise the oil coats the biscuits and they won’t take on the water. Alternatively, a friend of mine who uses only kibble with her Guide Dog puppies has a neat no-mess solution: she gets plastic cups that the Kongs will fit in “large hole up”, then she pours the dry kibble into the Kong. She tops the cup up with water, and the kibble takes on as much as it needs to expand to fill the Kong. She then pours any remaining water away and sticks the now-stuffed Kong in the freezer!
      I also stuff mine with raw minced meat, sometimes with boiled rice, chicken, fish and veggies etc etc.
      I hope that helps.

      Reply
    • Nickala

      You can use many different binders like yogurt, wet food, cream cheese, etc. But you can also just soak the dry food and then freeze.

      Reply
  3. Holly

    Marilyn,
    You can use water, broth, low fat cream cheese, or canned dog food to bind the kibble. If using liquid, mix the kibble in a small amount of liquid, just to dampen it, and let sit for at least 5 mins before stuffing and freezing.

    Reply
  4. Deb Manheim

    BTW, I love that instead of a “time out,” you interrupt with a “time IN!” Get some bank for what you do what instead of possibly putting the naughty doggie into a conflict situation. Love what you wrote.
    D

    Reply

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