Dogs in the City TV Show: Where is the Training?Published July 11, 2012
I reviewed Dogs in the City after the first episode a few weeks ago, and I've reluctantly continued watching the show. I went easy on “dog guru” Justin Silver and his techniques in that review, and I now regret it. Granted, Silver is in no way as harsh as "dog psychologist" (which is a made up title) Cesar Milan, but many of his techniques are questionable at best.
I considered writing a scene by scene analysis of his training approach and pointing out where he's, for lack of a better descriptor, "doing it wrong"' but there are several blogs already taking this track and doing a great job of it. Instead, I'd like to address the whole of the TV dog training syndicate and shed some light on what really happens in a one-on-one training scenario. Here's a hint: in twelve years of dog training I've never had a conversation with the family dog.
If we've learned anything about TV shows that purport to be a slice of real life, it's that very little is actually real. TV obviously needs to entertain, and the fact is that real life isn't always a series of fights, bared teeth and bad manners. The drama needs to be manufactured to keep us watching. In the real world, dog training often plods along during the 167 hours that the clients aren’t in the training session with the trainer. There’s no magic fix or “guru-ing” that goes on.
First, a dog trainer should actually have a solid background in dog training. (Go figure!) Unfortunately, the “credentials” of many TV dog trainers make for a good story but don’t qualify them as dog trainers. “Growing up on a farm with dogs” or “starting a dog walking business” are excellent ways to get a foundation in dog behavior, but they don’t make that person a dog trainer. And calling these TV trainers “behaviorists” makes me crazy! A behaviorist is someone who has a doctorate level graduate degree. Unfortunately, there is no certification or licensing required to become a dog trainer. These TV trainers might have the gift of gab and a way with dogs, but they’re missing a critical part of the equation.
When I train, each initial session revolves around Q&A, something that TV dog training shows gloss over due to time constrains. I take notes during Q&A – lots of notes. Most dog challenges are nuanced, and it’s tough to sort out the details without putting it all on paper. Thorough Q&A is critical in real world dog training for gaining an understanding of the problem at hand … diet, daily activity, health, socialization and prior training all play a role in diagnosing and addressing problems. Unfortunately, in TV dog training this important step is given short shrift.
You know what isn’t critical in the dog training world? Getting the dog to demonstrate the undesirable behavior that necessitated calling a trainer in the first place. The only reason to set a dog up to aggress, like “Dogs in the City” did with Oreo the guarding dog, is to create drama. But every time a dog performs a behavior successfully (meaning in this instance that the growling caused the person to back away), that behavior is strengthened. So why have an already aggressive dog practice aggression? Trust me, it’s very easy to get people to describe the exact problem with a little coaching. For example:
Client: Fido growls any time someone gets too close to his food bowl.
Me: Does that include everyone in the household?
Me: And how close is too close to the bowl?
Client: About a foot away.
Me: Has he ever bitten anyone for getting too close?
Client: No, but he snaps at the air.
Me: Does he do it when the bowl is empty? Etc. Etc.
Clients often offer to show me their dog’s undesirable behavior, and I always tell them “No thanks. ” I wish TV dog trainers would do the same.
The most obvious missing link with TV trainers like Justin Silver is that they don’t show the actual dog training. TV trainers seem to have mystical abilities that transform wild beasts into Canine Good Citizens in under an hour, but you never see the actual steps to get to that point. It’s a shame, because this missing “black box” of dog training is where the magic happens! In real world dog training, every step of the process takes time and requires explanation. When I train, I explain what I’m going to do with the dog, I demonstrate it with the dog a few times, and then I let the dog owner take over. (After all, the owner needs to be able to handle the dog in the long run.) I then critique, cajole, offer advice, and praise the successes on both ends of the leash. (Praise is another missing link in TV dog training.) I saw very little of any concrete “here’s how you do it” advice on Dogs in the City, which means that the viewer can’t watch what’s happening on the show and replicate it with the dog sitting in their own living room. There are few real lessons to be learned from Dogs in the City.
So how would I structure a TV dog training program? I’m so glad you asked!
The credentialed dog trainer – oh, I don’t know, perhaps me? – would hold a thorough Q&A with her clients, which would be edited to zero in on the main issues. (The entirety of this introductory interview would be available online.) The trainer would then present a summary of the top issues to address, along with a brief overview of how each one will be tackled – a sort of dog training coming attraction.
The show would go on to spend the majority of the episode with a fly-on-the-wall perspective, showing the step-by-step process that is real world dog training. The viewers would be able to see the trainer demonstrating the techniques to the owners, and then follow the owners as they practiced the techniques on their own at home. The show’s editing would keep the real story intact, and wouldn’t resort manufacturing a story arc. If the trainer made a mistake, it would be there for all to see. Believe it or not, dog trainers aren’t perfect and we don’t know everything, despite what the carefully constructed TV dog trainer personas might lead you to believe. Sometimes our initial advice doesn’t work for a particular dog and we have to rethink and revise. It happens, and on my show even the mistakes would be educational opportunities.
The show would follow the students for several weeks, so each episode would feature several owners and dogs in different stages of the training process. Few, if any, dog problems would get wrapped up tidily in an hour. I envision an almost documentary feel, with none of the artificiality of the planted scenarios (rooftop birthday party, anyone?), professionally coached clients and story-altering edits we see in current dog training shows.
Would it be a pretty show? It sure wouldn’t be as slick as what’s on now, but it would accurately portray just how challenging and rewarding real world dog training can be.