Dog Training Shortcuts

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Sam Basso
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I was speaking with a fitness trainer recently about performance enhancing drugs. This trainer works with professional athletes and is a big believer in hard work and natural methods of being in shape. He described a number of the shortcuts that people do in the fitness world, such as using stimulants, steroids, and other such things. He likened them to using a high interest credit card. Yes, you can buy a lot on a credit card, but there is a high price that you will have to incur to pay it off. The same thing is true with fitness shortcuts, you use these things, and yes, you might get fitness gains, but there will be a price. He talked of a 50 year old athlete he knew that died last year of a heart attack, and of other professionals in bodybuilding, sports, and pro wrestling that have died an early death because of using these drugs.

There are also dog training shortcuts, quick and dirty ways to try to get a dog trained with as little effort and thought as possible. Yes, you might get an immediate result, but there will be a high price to pay in the end. Here are some examples:

1. Lazy Trainer / Owner: A lot of trainers will promise to fully train a dog for a lazy owner in a handful of lessons. Nothing in life is free, however. It is not behaviorally sound to rush a dog in the training, ever. Everything needs to be taught in a patient, step-by-step manner if you want it done right. Trying to get too much in too little time results in an abused dog. The trainer is asking too much of the dog per session, per concept, and that beats down on the dog’s attitude, performance and precision. I can give multiple examples of dogs I’ve worked with that took way longer than I ever anticipated at the beginning, because we ran into bottlenecks along the way, where the dog was having trouble. I worked with a dog like that last year, a little fluffy dog, a rescue, that would shut down after a handful of lessons. Again and again. So, we’d have to go back to the beginning and work through things again and again, patiently, kindly, softly. By doing so, this dog is now not only well trained, but is a therapy dog. That wouldn’t have happened if I had tried to fit the entire program into a handful of lessons. It is lazy to force a dog to do stuff that the dog is having trouble comprehending or dealing with. I’ve seen dog rescue groups try to “fix” dogs using shortcuts: cheap, low quality dog trainers; do it yourself methods that they learned off the TV or internet, and such. They end up harming the dogs they are trying to save.

2. Electric Collars: These devices are for the lazy dog trainer and owner. They sound exotic, and effective, and scientific. Instead, they are a training shortcut. They will backfire on you. It is kinder to figure out why a dog is doing what it is doing, rather than shock them and assume that will make things better. But, having the ability to do that requires years of study and experience, and the lazy cheapskates out there don’t want to do that. And some people also want a way of punishing a dog, so they look to electric collars as the ultimate punishment.

3. Clickers: These devices are “sold” as the nifty new gadget that will magically train any dog. What I’ve seen is that most trainers using them don’t use them correctly, and they promise too much. These devices are not a shortcut to success. They are just a tool, like any other dog training tool. And they have their limitations, too. I don’t use clickers. I have written several articles about why. But, they are not a shortcut to success.

4. “Dog Whispering”: This is a phony style of dog training, a marketing gimmick, to sell people on the idea that you have these mystical powers to influence dog behavior without any step by step lessons. Even teaching a proper “Sit” command takes a lot of work. Sit means: a.) stop moving; b.) plunk your bottom on the ground; c.) stay there until I say you can get up; and d.) do that even if there are distractions around. None of that is addressed in “dog whispering”. Have you ever seen a “dog whisperer” ever do anything in a step by step manner?  Similarly, aggression, fear, panic disorders and such are not treated using “dog whispering”. If dog whispering worked on those, then there should be a similar type of psychological intervention in human behavior. Please tell me how you fix multiple personality disorder using a human version of dog whispering. There isn’t such a thing. There are no “animal whisperers” in zoos, agriculture or in research facilities, or in human psychology… why is it that we only see that with dogs and horses? It is a gimmick.

Every dog trainer is tempted to use shortcuts. I’ve been tempted, and have used shortcuts in the past, usually in the form of rushing the training because the owner was so upset with the untrained dog that I was concerned that they would abandon the dog to a shelter where the dog would end up dead. What you compromise to gain, you’ll usually lose.

But, I don’t do that any more. I had to have a “talk” with myself about shortcuts a few years ago. I had to make a decision not to use them, regardless of the situation. I am into animal welfare, and I know what I means for most dogs to end up in an animal control shelter… a good chance at death. But, I had to decide I just can’t get caught up in another person’s drama, because in the end, I will do something that won’t be good for the dog, that I would consider unethical in any other situation, and if the person is that flaky, then I’m not going to save the day by not doing the lessons properly. So, now when students want a “rush job”, I’ll be firm with them and let them know we’re either going to do things right and get a good result, or they can go find some less qualified trainer who will wreck their dog.

I do believe some trainers use shortcuts because they don’t know any better. They are “beginners”, regardless of how long they’ve been training dogs. You still don’t want them working with your dog. Some trainers do it because, like myself, they are trying to do the right thing, and trying to save a dog. But, every time I’ve done a shortcut for those reasons, the owner still did the wrong thing with the dog. I should have stood my ground, and walked away, which is what I now do. Some trainers do it because they are goofy. They believe their own… what word can I say… crap. They promote their mystical, guru style “powers”. They are kind of like the Charles Manson’s of the dog world. Those guys scare me. And lastly, some do it out of greed. They want your money, regardless of the consequences. You’ll find them by doing some background searches on the internet, finding all the burned past customers out there.

Bottom line: there are no shortcuts to good dog training and behavior modification. That’s a lesson I had to learn, and that’s a lesson you don’t want your dog to learn the hard way.

Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.