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Ignore the trainer, what is the dog saying?

Whaaaaat? Did you just come to a dog trainer's blog and do a double-take at the title of this blog? Don't freak out, I haven't lost my marbles (yet!), but as usual I do have a point to make!

I had the great displeasure a few weeks ago of being at a pet expo and being placed at a booth next to a trainer who uses shock, choke and prong collars almost exclusively to train, and states that they "don't use cookies to bribe their dogs". These trainers subscribe heavily to dominance theory, emphasizing that you need to be the "alpha" of a dog to control them. Old-Fashioned is the nice way to put. Ignorant and border-line abusive is what I like to call it.

The trainer had multiple dogs with them, including several puppies, which of course attracted large crowds of people because, well, puppies tend to do that. As people approached and inquired about the dogs, I overheard the trainer saying that the puppies were already fully trained (p.s. fully trained at 9 weeks isn't really a thing...) and were looking for homes. Passing people would approach and ask if they could pet the dogs, and the trainer would reply by saying "of course, they love it."

But what struck me is this: the dogs didn't love it, and it was clear as day to anyone who could understand dog body language and chose to listen. They tolerated it, because they learned there was no other choice. The puppies enjoyed it for the first few hours, but as time went on they got mouthy and irritable, which the trainer corrected with a muzzle grab and verbal admonishment. The trainer's own dog would turn her head, pin her ears back, yawn, and avert her gaze, the canine equivalent of saying "move along, nothing to see here". And yet the trainer insisted that she wanted to say hi, and that she was just "bored" and "so used to the show circuit" that she didn't really react anymore. By the end of the day, the trainer's dog was trying to climb onto a chair and away from approaching people. At no point did this dog actively solicit attention, or lean into any passing person's touch. The trainer still told people to come over and pet her.

This is a common theme I see when observing punishment-based trainers with dogs, whether it's in real life, youtube, or on TV. The trainer insists that the dog is happy and obedient, the human client sees their dogs "behaving" because the problem behavior has been suppressed, and the dog is throwing stress, displacement, and appeasement signals left and right, trying to catch a break and appease the angry human who is scaring him or her. Which brings me back to the title of this post.

When you are observing a trainer, either at a public demonstration, in a youtube video, or when you're looking for a trainer for you and your dog, what the trainer is saying is only half of what we need to listen to. What is the dog they are working with saying? Is the dog happy to work, with a loose, relaxed posture? Is his tail wagging? Is it wagging low and between their legs (a sign of worry and stress)? Or more parallel to the ground? How are his ears positioned? Are they pinned back in worry, or placed forward in anticipation?

Methods matter. How you get behavior matters. If you have a trainer in front of you, saying that they're a certified master trainer dog Jedi with a thousand years of experience, but the dog that they're working with has his ears pinned back, his tail between his legs, and cringes every time the trainer moves, then listen. Listen to that dog, and know that you can get that same behavior without instilling fear in a dog, without using intimidation or pain. Look for a trainer whose dog is loose and waggy, who looks like he's having fun while he's training, and keeps coming back for more. That is a trainer you want working with you and your dog, one who truly values your relationship with your dog.

The following graphics are some great references for observing stress signals in dogs.

Also from Doggie Drawings:

And here are some great links to online resources to help you learn about and identify stress signals in our dogs:

Learning how to read what your dog is saying is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Just because we speak different languages doesn't mean we can't try our hardest to learn theirs, and respect them when they're trying to tell us something. Listen to your dog. They are always communicating.


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