Dog Boot Camps: Good Or Bad?
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QUESTION: Sam, what is your opinion… Are dog “boot camps” good or bad?
Military Terminology: A “boot camp” is a specific type of “board and train” program. The term, “boot camp”, is a slang term used to describe military recruit training. It is where we get the term “basic training” when referring to dog obedience. It is quite unfortunate that military terms are used to describe dog training, because it conjures up the wrong image of what should be happening in a board and train environment; it feeds the negative image people have of dog training as being cruel; it gives people an excuse to enroll their dogs in harsh programs; and it is an unfortunate marketing gimmick electric collar trainers use to lure in dog owners that have unruly dogs. Unlike an all volunteer army, dogs that are enrolled into these programs are drafted. They are forced to go there by their lazy, oftentimes angry, owners. It isn’t something the dog is expected to like. It is something that the dog is expected to take.
Boot Camp: Whenever someone is marketing a boot camp style program, I believe all your warning bells and whistles should be going off in your head. Because, the image conveyed is that the dog is going to go through some harsh times, and hopefully come back a good citizen. But, the question really is: what is going to happen to your dog while you aren’t looking? Many of the programs I’ve been aware of over the years are based upon several concepts. Here are what I believe to be the warning signs you are dealing with a boot camp:
1.) Fixed Price / Rates: The price is usually a large number
2.) Guaranteed Results: The program is going to promise they can fix anything… and guarantee it. In my opinion, this is dishonest. There isn’t a way to make every dog situation work out for every dog owner. There are dogs that will never be trustworthy with babies, for example. Other dogs that will never be completely calm in the home. There are dogs that will always bark at strangers and not be friendly on the greeting. There are dogs that are fighters which will never be trustworthy at an off leash park. And so forth. Just because someone guarantees the results doesn’t mean that you will get those results. I could guarantee you’ll be a fairy princess, but that doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll become after I’ve drained your wallet.
3.) Secrecy: I would want to see some training sessions, of a variety of dogs; a tour of any facility; and plenty of references before I ever enrolled my dog in a board and train program. However, you probably won’t be allowed that kind of thing in a boot camp. Typical boot camp programs operate on the principle of secrecy. They don’t want you to see what they are going to do to your dog. You are to drop the dog off, and then you can’t see the dog until a certain date. I had a call once from a lady that had dropped her dog off at such a program. She called about a week into it to see how her dog was doing. She was stonewalled by the trainer. Then scolded. She was then reminded of the contract she signed, and then she was banned from making any further inquiries, and prohibited from seeing how her dog was. She couldn’t even pick her dog up and bring it home. You have to ask yourself why a trainer would do this kind of thing. I believe in openness. Once you hire me, you see it all. I don’t like secrecy, especially when it comes to my dog. It also reminds me of the time that I was shopping for a puppy, back around 1999. I called a place that I had found in a dog magazine, supposedly a major breeder of a dog I was looking for. But, she wouldn’t let me meet the parents, see the litter, pick my own puppy, or visit her facility. All the wrong things you hear when something isn’t right. About six months later, the news reported that the police raided her place, and 250 dogs were rescued, all living in horrible conditions. The place was a notorious puppy mill. I also have an article I wrote about trainers that abuse dogs. This guy also operated in secrecy. To make a long story short, his garage was filled with a virtual torture chamber of devices he used on dogs. The owner reported him to the police. The guys into secrecy will usually not let you tour their facility, see how the dogs are housed, watch how the training is going, set up times to see your dog, and so forth. You will find many of these places might be filthy, don’t have adequate housing, safety from fires or bad weather, don’t have staff there 24 hours a day to watch in case dogs have medical issues, might not have the necessary permits to operate, and are not escape proof. No way. No one gets to treat me or my dog that way.
4.) Electric Collars And Harsh Training When You Aren’t Watching: Time is money for boot camps. They want the dogs in and out of the place by a specific time and date. So, they are going to get that done regardless of how the dog takes to the training. Now, any good trainer will tell you that you can’t always predict when a dog will be finished training. Some dogs are easy as pie. Some dogs can take months to sort out, especially dogs with serious behavioral problems. So, these guys will just force something on a dog, using electric collars and other techniques to bully your dog, tell you it is done, and send you on your merry way. Except the problems aren’t fixed. I’ve worked with dogs that came out of these programs, having to retrain them from beginning to end. I’ve also worked with dogs that went through these programs and came back knowing nothing. I don’t think the trainer did anything with them. My experience with dogs from these boot camps has all been bad. Not one good result. I don’t know of any top trainer that markets a boot camp style program. I’ve talked to vets that have told me they have had to treat dogs for stress for being put in these programs. Back around 2000, a veterinarian that I used to work with, in Seattle, told me that they treated a dog that developed pancreatitis because of the stress from being enrolled in a local boot camp, blood coming out both ends of the dog. Dogs, regardless of the breed, can feel like they’ve been shipwrecked on Robinson Crusoe’s desert island… lost and abandoned, without any hope of survival… and not all of them can take that kind of pressure. If on top of that, the dog is treated harshly, then your dog can melt down. It is important that you have the ability to see what is going on, and to pull your dog out if you don’t like the effects on your dog. You don’t want the call from the vet saying the trainer has dropped your dog off, your dog is suffering from trauma and shock, and you are now being asked to pay thousands of dollars for your dogs medical emergency. Believe me, it won’t be like the Disney movie. It will be more like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.”
5.) The Name: These programs don’t always use the term, “boot camp”. They might use other words in their marketing. So, I’m not referring to the name of a place, but a style of training program. So, be on the lookout for these things. You can’t assume that you aren’t dealing with a boot camp just because they don’t use “boot camp” in their name or marketing materials. Look for the warning signs, that will tell you if you are dealing with what I’m referring to here.
6.) Little Focus On Handler Skills And Knowledge: It takes a lot of time to bring a novice dog owner up to speed. You can’t just train a dog, give it back, and expect that the dog will now be magically good for someone that doesn’t know what to do, how to read their dogs, and how to manage their own attitudes. Boot camps imply all the problems are with the dog. They aren’t. We all know that oftentimes we are the problem, we are the ones that need training. We KNOW that the problems are with how we are living with them, and that isn’t fixed in someone else’s facility. You also can’t establish your own leadership with a dog that you don’t work with. Yes, a sly trainer can use an electric collar to force a dog to do things, but that isn’t the same thing as a healthy pack leadership role, and that will become obvious once the dog gets back home. So, if anything… YOU are the one that needs the program more than the dog does!
7.) TOO MUCH FOCUS ON “PLACE” COMMANDS AND LEASH WALKING. Most of these programs teach the dogs to lay on a dog cot for extended periods of time. They say they are teaching “impulse control’, but instead they are enforcing a “time out”. Time outs are punishments. They have a place in training, whether for kids, dogs, or lab mice or rats. I have no problem with teaching a “place” command that the dog likes and wants to do, but these standard board and train methods, in my opinion, are cruel. In an experiment with humans, they put them in a silent room for 15 minutes with nothing to do. These people reported, and demonstrated, they would rather be giving themselves ongoing electric shocks than stay there in confinement like that. Similar results have been shown with animals. The other feature of these programs is teaching the dogs to walk on a leash and not lunge. Depending on the dog, that might be a good result, but take a look at the pictures and videos to see if the dogs look happy as a result. However, the rest of the obedience work isn’t in place. These programs often rely on electric collars, and the manufacturers recommend the dogs be fully trained before the collars are used. I don’t see that kind of foundation being implemented in most of these programs.
So, as you might have already figured out…
MY VERDICT: Boot camps are bad. They aren’t typically run by people I would trust with my own dog. They operate in almost every major city, however. When I travel, I go to see what’s going on in the dog world in that location… and sure enough, there are always some boot camp style trainers there, doing just about the same things I’ve warned about in this article. And even though there are reputable board and train programs out there, they typically won’t call their programs a “boot camp”. They don’t sell that they can fix any dog. They don’t have a set time for when the dog is going to be finished — many hunting dog specialists might have a dog for as long as 6 months, or even longer (it takes a long time to train a hunting dog), but they don’t say they will have the dog back in 2 weeks, all trained and fixed. They don’t operate on principles of secrecy… in fact, the owners are encouraged to participate and watch, from the first day to the last day. The facilities are state of the art. The program doesn’t focus on harsh training or electric collars. And considerable time is spent educating the owners about their dogs. Now… with all of that said, is it possible that you might find a good boot camp? Sure, anything is possible. Maybe the person has the best of intentions, has a great place, and excellent skills. I still don’t like the big price, guarantees, secrecy, quick fix use of electric collars, a business name that gives the impression that the dog is going to be treated like a Spartan warrior, or the lack of owner involvement along the way. I would rather, if you are committed to doing a board and train program, work with a different type of setup. But, you’ll have to make the ultimate verdict.
Now, I have a question for YOU… do you have a military dog? Then why are you putting your dog in a military style program? That Labrador, Golden Retriever, German Shepherd, Yorkshire Terrier, Beagle, Bulldog, Boxer, Poodle, Shih Tzu, Rottweiler, Miniature Schnauzer, Chihuahua, Doberman, Pomeranian, Pointer, Great Dane, Husky, Sheltie, Boston Terrier, French Bulldog, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Pug, Australian Shepherd, Cocker Spaniel, pit bull… you get my drift… does NOT need that kind of environment and does NOT deserve that kind of treatment… And you know it.
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.