Losing faith in my dog whisperer
April 1, 2011 4:00 PM   Subscribe

Am I wrong to lose faith in my dog obedience trainer?

I recently got my first dog, a beagle puppy. Named Kenny. So far, so good.

I want to train him. I am fairly well educated. I worked as a teacher for several years, so I understand that it takes patience and constitency.

I was training him on my own for weeks, just working out of a book. It was going great. I was using small pieces of kibble as a treat and encouragement.

Someone recommended a local dog trainer to me. He runs a class at the local Humane Society. Two hour class, every Saturday morning, for eight weeks. There are 41 dogs in the class. I feel like we spend an hour and half listening to him speak about how to handle your dog, and a half hour doing training. My dog is only of the only puppies in the class. Nearly all the other dogs are adult dogs with behavioral issues.

It is definitely not the best learning environment, still I am willing to try. But, I am losing faith because of the trainer's philosophy.

He is teaching us that a dog should not be allowed to stop and sniff around on a walk. Walks are for walking, he says. He says that if my beagle has his nose to the ground as we walk, then I do not have control of my dog. (I am a big guy, the dog is on a leash). He claims that letting my beagle pick up a scent, but not letting him follow that scent is torture. So, if I do not teach my dog to walk without sniffing, then I am handling the dog poorly.

He claims that I should not allow my dog to go to the bathroom on walks. My dog should go to the bathroom on my property, and not leave its scent on other's property, to bother their dogs. I pick up any mess, and dispose of it properly.

I personally feel like, walks are his time. Let him explore the world. I walk him at least a mile every day, most days two or three miles.

He also claims that dogs will only learn from positive re-inforcement. He gets annoyed at any suggestion of negative re-inforcement. I have never (and would never) hit my dog. But I have been using negative re-inforcement effectively. Getting angry, yelling, making a loud metallic bang works with my dog. I know that learning for a dog is only possible if the dog is caught in the act, and thus can immediately connect the ideas. I don't yell at him when I discover something after the fact, but if he is caught doing something, I have been using negative re-inforcement.

Now this dog trainer has me seconding guessing myself, feeling bad about letting my dog sniff the world, fighting with him to make him not sniff on walks, and neither of us are enjoying our daily walks anymore. He says, in time, the dog will enjoy the walks even more, once he is trained to walk "correctly".

Also, it annoys me that he uses negative re-inforcement to teach humans, but not to teach dogs.

I am thinking of just dropping out of the class, and going back to doing it on my own. But I am seconding guessing myself again. I have some experience with dogs, but not enough to evaluate this.

One thing I have to admit, this trainer is incredible with dogs. He has a way about him, and it really is something to see. Crazy out of control dogs seem to come right around when he has the leash. His three dogs behave so politely, and definitely are a pleasure to be around. He assures me that my dog can be like that too, if I just do as he says.

But, I want to enjoy the walks with my dog, not fight him. I am not sure. What do you think?
(sorry for the long, ranting explanation)
posted by Flood to Pets & Animals (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I find that letting my dog sniff around lets him think he's the boss, so for on-leash walks he doesn't get to stop and do his own thing. He needs to know I'm the boss. Sniffing around is for off-leash time only.
posted by anadem at 4:09 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

First, I think the size of that class is WAY too large. My dogs have attended several training/obedience classes, and there were never more than eight dogs in a class. Second, if you are going to pursue training with a dog trainer (and truly, I think this is always good to do), you should start with puppy classes, and then work your way up. Third, I tend to agree with you about walks being dog time. They should be able to explore the world; but they should also know who is in charge - maybe that is the point the trainer is 'trying' to make.
posted by AlliKat75 at 4:10 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just like there a million different ways to raise a child, there are a million different ways to raise a dog.

RE: Walks. I half-agree with your trainer. I split my dog walks between "Walk nice!" which means a short lead, walk beside me and let's get some exercise (no bathroom breaks, no stopping, no sniffing) to short periods of "Be free!" when the leash is extended, loose, and my dog can do whatever he wants. This reinforces that I'm in charge, but I know that he deserves his alone time (think of it in Mefi terms as the guy who ignores his girlfriend and chooses to sleep on the couch once in a while).

RE: Class size. Way too large. Try another class and here's a tip - ask if you can sit in on a class BEFORE you sign up to see if you like the method of training and the teacher.

RE: Yelling and screaming at a dog. Well, okay, I can understand that everyone loses their patience once in a while. But watch how your dog reacts to you - cringing, tail between his legs - next thing you know, he'll may nip at you in fear. So no, try not to do this. You are telling him that if its okay for YOU to be aggressive, it's okay for him to do it too.

Good luck, and you'll be fine, really! Give Kenny a pat on the head for me.
posted by HeyAllie at 4:15 PM on April 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

I suspect that pro dog trainers say that negative reinforcement is never okay because of the one doofus who beats his dog and says his trainer told him to do that.

There are many training styles, and it doesn't sound like this is the right trainer for you. I think that if I were you, I'd attend the remaining classes but approach it like a buffet - take what's useful to you and leave the rest. That class is really big, too. I did the puppy-intermediate-advanced classes at PetSmart and our largest class was six dogs. Our advanced class was two dogs (my 30-lb Border Collie mix and an English Mastiff. They made a cute pair.)

Don't poop on walks? Really? If you're not training for Canine Good Citizen or something, train your dog so he behaves like YOU want him to. This is your dog, and it's up to you to determine what you want from him. If you don't mind being pulled, let your dog pull you. If you don't mind being jumped on, let him jump on you (not on anybody else, though... if a person kneels to greet my dog they're getting a faceful of kisses but if they're standing she has to use her manners.)

Please also be aware (I wish I had learned this sooner) that Cesar Millan's dog psychology theories have been completely debunked and roundly criticized. If you're up for some DIY instruction, check out Ian Dunbar's work.
posted by workerant at 4:17 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Having owned a well-trained beagle as a child, I suspect that teaching a scent hound not to sniff might be impossible. At the very least, it might be much more frustrating and less productive for you than owners of dogs that are other breeds.

Otherwise, I agree with the jist of what HeyAllie says.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:23 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a 1 1/2 year old Shiba Inu. I got him when he was 6 months old. I have not taken him to formal training, but I've read books, articles on the internet, and yes watched the dog Whisperer. Since I work from home I have a lot of time to spend with my dog. He can sit, lie down, shake hands, come, stay...etc. And I taught him myself mostly through treat training but again the internet helped a lot. At the end of the day, there is some truth to what your trainer is saying. If you let your dog sniff through out the walk, if you let him walk in front of you, if you let him go where he wants, he may not view as the pack leader. Once that happens it can lead to trouble. On the flip side, I completely hear where you're coming from about wanting to give your dog freedom on walks and let him enjoy the world. I actually think Cesar Millan's techniques really do work. He doesn't say dogs can't go to the bathroom or sniff on walks...but they do so when you allow them to. So there are times when you can give them freedom and then times when you don't give them the freedom. You must be the calm assertive leader...it works. And trust me it's harder then you think. Read Cesar Millan's first book, or just rent the Dog Whisperer and you'll learn a lot. Although your dog trainer actually sounds good, it seems like he's kind of a dick. If you're not comfortable with him, leave the class. Find someone else or train the dog on your on own.
posted by ljs30 at 5:08 PM on April 1, 2011

IMO sniffing on walks bad, pooping on walks great. Negative reenforcement can be great. I use a great trick where I yell at objects I don't want my dog to touch. Let me tell you after I spent a few days yelling at the electrical cords in my house (randomly not just when he goes near them) he knows they are bad and I hate them so he should stay away. There are lots of classes that are Puppy oriented, although maybe not in your area idk. Leave the class this guy sounds too extreme and training adult dogs and puppies at the same time is silly. Would you send your five year old to a high school class even if it was interesting to him? No.
posted by boobjob at 5:24 PM on April 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Kenny is adorable!

I think the trainer's walk philosophy would lead to you and Kenny both not enjoying walks - he's a beagle, he wants to smell. And don't leave his scent in other places so it won't bother other dogs?... I walk my very strong willed dog with a mixture of techniques - sometimes I pull her close and have her walk at my side (sometimes just to have her do it to do it, other times if I want to keep her safe from a car or an approaching other dog), most of the time I let her have some room to sniff and explore (and pee). She loves it - and she knows that when I pull her close she needs to stay close and walk nice. So I'd go with positive reinforcement to get Kenny to understand when to walk like that, and the rest of the time let him explore. My dog loves, loves her walks - and I don't think that makes her think she's the boss.

I almost always go with positive reinforcement - but I will yell like heck if she gets close to danger, and she pulls back. She also knows a sharp "hey, quit it" means to quit it. I don't scare her, I get her attention, and sometimes she needs that to break the momentum she has going.

I have had dogs my whole life, and I don't know that I buy in to this "pack leader" theory 100%. Your dog can love and respect you and understand boundaries without you constantly making sure that he is knowing his place.

For some times of dogs maybe that's different, I don't know, but I have had strong willed and mild mannered dogs, dogs who came to us older and younger, and I think you find a way of knowing what works with each dog. In a class of 41, your trainer doesn't know what works for you guys individually.

Honestly, if you were having good results on your own, I'd drop the class.
posted by mrs. taters at 7:04 PM on April 1, 2011

OK. yeah, 42 dogs, forget it...find a new class.. I trained my pup with only 3 other dogs in the class.

sniffing is what dogs do... I read a little story once about a dog, the dog was saying to the owner, "dont' sniff???!!!! whose walk is this, yours or mine?"""""

I do as suggested above, our walks are split between a short leash, heel kind of walk, and a saunter on a long leash, stop where you want, I'll wait kind of walk.... My command for the short leash is "walk nice", i also use it when there's another dog we have to pass and be polite.

Do some reading... pick up a couple of books by the Monks of New Skete or Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson.

For god's sake, stay away from the alpha dog crap thrown out by Cesar Millan...

and... cute dog, you'll do fine... learn to consider how the pup is thinking, love him, let him be a dog!
posted by tomswift at 7:30 PM on April 1, 2011

Ditch the trainer. You don't put 41 dogs you haven't vetted carefully for aggressive behaviors in a room together, especially ones with behavior issues. Questions of safety aside, there's no way any real training is going on with that kind of sensory overload for both the dogs and their owners. Also, you should take with more than few grains of salt any dog trainer who preaches dominance theory and talks about alpha dogs and pack mentality. For one, these concepts are based on seriously outdated ideas of pack animal behavior based on studies in captivity in assembled groups that in no way resembles how they live in the wild. Mainly, though, these ideas are bogus because dogs have been domesticated and subject to guided selective breeding for literally thousands of years. They're not wild pack animals anymore -- their primary adaptive skill is their ability to please humans.

And please, stay away from all things Cesar Milan if you want a happy, safe pet.

Taking a scent hound on a walk and not letting him smell anything is like making your kids wear a blind fold outside. Smell is how a dog experiences the world around him. As long as you've got him trained to come along when you want him to without dragging, and to follow scents without pulling, your dog is as under control as you could want him to be. Now, as for the debate over positive and negative training techniques, well, first, I +1 the book suggestions of the prior Mefite, and leave the decision up to you. But until you've read up and formed your own conclusions, I'd just advise that you be mindful of the type of behavior and mental state you're trying to produce. Loud noises and yelling or physical restraint produces excitation and heightened alarm, which is usually the opposite of how we want our dogs.

So, for example, yelling at a dog for barking at someone or displaying aggression is only going to make the dog think he's correctly identified the situation as a state of alarm. As a general rule, to get a dog to stop doing something, you're better off using positive training to actively encourage what you want him to do instead. I spent a few years as a dog-walker in NYC, and in my experience, there's never anything you might want to train your dog to do or not do that you can't accomplish just as fast or faster using only positive training techniques.
posted by patnasty at 8:24 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ditch this class immediately. A puppy in a class with 41 dogs is all kinds of wrong. Find a properly sized class (single digits) specifically for his age group.
posted by madmethods at 9:10 PM on April 1, 2011

While I don't necessarily agree that dogs shouldn't be allowed to sniff anything on walks, I have a crazy high-energy beagle/JRT mix and before training on proper leash walking,I didn't even realize how much better our walks could have been. When we started training (in a small class at Petco with 4 other dogs), we spent a LOT of time on walks- teaching her to walk with us, to leave smells behind when we wanted to move on, that she was allowed to sniff things but that she needed to keep up with our pace, no pulling. We practiced every day for about a month, but now she's the best behaved dog ever on walks- people don't believe that she's part JRT because she's so well behaved. She loves walks and still gets time to "explore" but she's pretty much learned that she can't stop and sniff at every single smell while we walk.

That class is ridiculously huge. Please find an appropriately-sized puppy group for him. And have fun, Kenny is adorable and I love beagles, even if mine is only a mix!

(oh, also- if you've been using kibble all this time, I strongly suggest clicker training him! My pup will work for clicks almost as much as she'll work for kibble, although lately we've been feeding part of her dinner in tricks-for-treats time- IME, beagles are especially food motivated, and if you keep using kibble all the time, he's going to get to a point where he'll only do things for treats. Also, if you can find the solid dog food that's sold in rolls at the pet store, I've been told by numerous trainers that it's the best training treat- it's lower-calorie than kibble or treats and is affectionately known around here as "puppy crack".)
posted by kro at 9:17 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Goodness. I wouldn't like that, either. To me, kro's way is ideal: a super well-behaved dog that also gets his/her chance to stop and smell the roses [where roses = pee, poo, and anything dead, rotten, disgusting and/or decaying – all the best stuff].

Our dog doesn't get to pull on the leash, and we need her to be able to walk with us on busy streets and be patient and good while we go in and out of shops, and well-behaved enough to sit out with us in a relaxed way at outdoor cafes (a bit of a challenge, because other diners like to give her tidbits, which gets her a little excited, but otherwise, she's golden) – and she does all that. But I'm very lenient about "her" walks – a bit too lenient, really, so I think I will do more training, as per Dr. Dunbar (Walking On Leash PDF). I have a friend with a beagle, and the dog is impossible; he won't come at all when off-leash, and when he's on the leash he pulls so hard, absolutely non-stop; it's a constant struggle. I'm seriously afraid he's going to injure my friend. And there's absolutely no way she can do the stuff we do: take him shopping with her, visit someone's house, or sit and have a coffee outside. I'd go with strict overtraining rather than that, but I think the problem is perhaps the regimen they learned (yes! this dog had very expensive obedience training!) didn't suit them. If the training is onerous for the owner, he or she is not going to follow it enthusiastically and consistently. I'd not like to follow your trainer's absolute rules; the walks wouldn't be fun, and the training wouldn't be rewarding.

But I'm totally sold on positive training techniques. We got our dog as an adult from a rescue organization, so we didn't get the chance to train her from puppyhood, and positive reinforcement has been excellent, fast, and enjoyable for us. I'm not totally dogmatic (heh) though; I think there may be some situations that may be better addressed by limited (no physical punishment or brutish "Alpha" bullshit) negative reinforcement. But since you are doing the right thing and training him early, you probably shouldn't need to resort to negative reinforcement unless he's particularly intractable and unresponsive to positive methods for some reason. But truly? Usually it is the owners who are not applying consistent rules and expectations that account for positive reinforcement failures.

I'm with those who say ignore the Cesar Milan and Monks of New Skete alpha roll and dominance stuff. No leading animal behaviorists support those methods. But that doesn't mean that they don't espouse calm, confident leadership; this is really the base of all positive training. I think that Milan is a person who is very good/successful with dogs as an individual, but his personal style doesn't port well. I like and read/watch Jean Donaldson (definitely get The Culture Clash; it was my first dog book, that I found recommended by Biscotti here on Ask Metafilter; I also really like Dogs are from Neptune), Patricia O'Connell (I have The Other End of the Leash, which I like a lot), and Ian Dunbar (I just got his The Good Little Dog book; you might want to check out Before and After Getting Your Puppy: The Positive Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, and Well-Behaved Dog), and Victoria Stilwell (we're ridiculously addicted to her It's Me or the Dog TV show).
posted by taz at 4:14 AM on April 2, 2011

Thank you all for your thoughts
posted by Flood at 10:54 AM on April 2, 2011

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