Good dog training generally doesn’t make for good television. Television shows are about instant gratification. Magnificent makeovers done in 20 minutes. Full home builds and renovations in 55 minutes. It’s about showing one extreme to another. When it comes to good dog training (by this, I mean ethical, humane and science-based dog training) on television, history has not been kind to our furry companions.
The Dog Whisperer is by far the most popular dog training show that’s ever been aired and was based entirely on disproven “pack” theory and old-school (read: not ethical, not humane and not science-based) dog training techniques. If you want to find out more about the harm of the Dog Whisperer show, a quick google search can provide you with dozens upon dozens of articles and position statements from large reputable animal welfare and behaviour organizations.
In February, Netflix launched Canine Intervention. A show hosted by the lead trainer, and owner of Cali K9, Jas Leverette. When this show was announced earlier in the year, a petition was created to try and convince Netflix to drop the show. Although no one knew the content that would be included, Cali K9 regularly posted on social media demonstrating harsh training methods and aversive tools as a part of their regular training. It wasn’t hard to forecast what might be in the show. It should be noted that many of the posts that showed the lead trainer utilizing tools to show off skills, have since been removed.
So what is the show like? I watched the first episode of the series and here are my thoughts.
Mr. Leverette talks in the show about dogs and the emotions they feel which was nice to see given that many people still believe that dog’s do not feel much in terms of emotions. He also talks about the importance of engagement from the dog and having to be interesting to our dogs when we’re training with them – all true and all good things. In addition, he uses food, praise and toys as a part of his training, showing that he’s not on the compulsion-only side of the balanced training spectrum. Again, a good thing!
He also seems to genuinely care about the dogs he works with and has a great “dog voice”, which is the voice that he uses when working with the dogs.
Mr. Leverette also reminded the client in the first episode about how his reactive dog was a work in progress and that management and moving at the dog’s pace is important. I found this refreshing compared to many balanced trainers that I’ve seen tell clients that their dog is “cured”.
Right off the bat Mr. Leverette talks about being a pack leader. This is outdated terminology and misrepresents the social structure of dogs and how they integrate into our households.
In his visit with his client, his approach is to push the dog until it reacts. This is unnecessary and puts the dog in a stressed state. Good behavioural modification work is done under threshold (over threshold is when dogs react) so that it can address the underlying causes of the reaction – the dog’s emotional state. In that session, he pushed the dog so hard that the dog had re-directed aggression to its guardian. That was a moment which damaged the relationship between that guardian and their dog and it did not have to happen.
Mr. Leverette ended up telling his client that the only choice was to do a 3-week board and train at his facility. Board and train is a popular service with balanced dog trainers. I am not a fan and perhaps I will do a post on it one day. Regardless, the show implies that the guardian of the dog cannot rehabilitate this dog himself. Good dog trainers everywhere teach their clients how to manage dog’s similar to the one in this episode and how to achieve meaningful behavioural change without ever even interacting with the dog themselves in some cases. Most dog guardians have the capacity to work with reactive dogs themselves, without requiring a board and train. It just takes a committed dog guardian, which this guardian clearly was.
During the time at the board and train, we got to see some of how Mr. Leverette trains dogs. What did I notice during this time? Mr. Leverette uses very thin rope as collars and gives many corrections on this. The dog at one point had a very red neck. I’m not saying this was abuse, just that it clearly irritated the dog’s skin. Mr. Leverette also had surprising training techniques. He used the word “no” many times throughout the sessions and it meant many different things. He used “no” to tell the dog to not move, he used “no” to tell the dog not to react and he used “no” to tell the dog to leave it. This is confusing for dogs. “No” can certainly be used as a cue for a specific behaviour, but not multiple behaviours. Which is why this was surprising to see from him. He also corrects the dog for reacting to new people she meets. This didn’t surprise me since many balanced trainers prefer to correct and suppress behaviour instead of addressing the source of the issue.
I saw many other things I am not going to write about in this post because it’s getting a little long. Suffice it say, Canine Intervention may be an improvement of the Dog Whisperer, but it’s still teaching and promoting outdated dog training techniques, some of which have the potential to cause escalations in aggressive behaviour (correcting dogs when they react for example).
I truly believe Mr. Leverette loves dogs and cares greatly for the dogs he works with. That was clear. But I always find myself confused when I see someone in his position without any credentials or continuing education. There is no “world’s best dog trainer” out there. All dog trainers have their strengths and weaknesses and every single dog trainer out there can learn so much from regular continuing education. Mr. Leverette could become a phenomenal dog trainer and dog advocate if he employed more modern and science-based dog training methods. Methods I have no doubt he has the skillset to utilize. But he is operating on old-school methodologies based in suppressing behaviour. I’m sure he’s helped many dogs. But how many dogs could be helped without the use of force if he learned how to fully utilize modern science-based methods?
My final words: Dog training TV shows still hasn’t caught up to modern-day science-based dog training. If you do decide to watch it, be warned, just like “as seen on tv” products, you may be disappointed.