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The Reality of TV Dog Training

By Niki Tudge and Susan Nilson

The nature of reality television tends to promote the misconception that there are “quick fixes” to training and behavior issues, when, in the real world, a professionally devised and applied training and/or behavior modification protocol can take weeks, months or, in the case of separation-related disorders for example, even years to implement successfully © Can Stock Photo/damedeeso

In recent years, much creditable scientific study has been given to dog training and behavior modification methods and their respective efficacy and consequences. The preponderance of the evidence shown by these studies indicates that the implementation of training and/or behavior modification protocols predicated upon outdated “dominance theory” and social structures (“alpha,” or “pack leader”), usage of physical or mental force, intimidation, coercion or fear are empirically less effective and often create as a consequence “fallout” behaviors, such as fear, aggression, global suppression of behavior, or total shutdown – behaviors which may be dangerous to the human and animal involved.

Unfortunately, and to the great disservice of dogs and their owners, some of these methods – specifically corporal punishment, choke chains, prong collars, shocking with an electronic collar, leash jerks, antibark collars and verbal punishment – are often used in reality television programming. Television broadcasters are responsible for the shows they air and for putting the welfare of pets ahead of what passes as entertainment. The Pet Professional Guild, an international member organization for force-free pet trainers and behavior consultants, thus appeals to all programming organizations to re-evaluate any decision to showcase forceful, painful and aversive training methods and equipment.

Regardless of any disclaimers or warnings given for viewers not to attempt the methods displayed at home, some pet owners will undoubtedly still attempt to use them, potentially leading to situations that risk injury (either to dog, human, or both), and/or psychological damage, and/or are extremely dangerous. In addition, the nature of reality television tends to promote the misconception that there are “quick fixes” to training and behavior issues, when, in the real world, a professionally devised and applied training and/or behavior modification protocol can take weeks, months or, in the case of separation-related disorders for example, even years to implement successfully. The Pet Professional Guild thus respectfully requests television channels to replace programming that promotes aversive tools and methods immediately with competent, progressive, force-free, formally-educated, scientifically-sound trainers and/or behavior consultants.

The current scientific data, in addition to the moral and ethical concerns about mental and physical damage to animals subjected to methods using force, fear and/or pain, have moved numerous professional organizations (including but not limited to the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, and the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) to advocate for the use of force-free, humane training techniques founded on evidence-based learning theories and avoid training methods or devices which employ coercion and force. To cite just one of them: “Aversive, punishment-based techniques may alter behaviour, but the methods fail to address the underlying cause and, in the case of unwanted behaviour, can lead to undue anxiety, fear, distress, pain or injury.” (BCSPCA, 2019). The Pet Professional Guild is just one of the growing number of international organizations that have taken a public stand advocating for force-free animal handling and training.

Pet Professional Guild’s mission is to promote the current and ongoing research and knowledge in animal behavior and training to those in the pet industry and, thereby, pet owners themselves. Further, it is the goal of the Pet Professional Guild to provide the resources, education and mentoring process to all professionals who are committed to following current science and research, much of which indicates that positive, humane training methods are more effective than aversive methods in terms of longevity and overall animal welfare. The Pet Professional Guild proudly counts amongst its ranks many “cross-over” trainers who have successfully abandoned outdated, aversive training methods in favor of humane and effective positive training methods. Many serve as mentors for others wishing to do the same, and the “force-free” movement is becoming a powerful movement impacting the entire pet industry.

As part of that mission, the Pet Professional Guild respectfully submits that showcasing training methods that use force, fear or pain is morally and ethically wrong, as well as damaging to the animal and the human-animal bond, and potentially creates hazards for the pet-owning public that may attempt to use such methods. Showcasing such methods risks creating significant danger for both animals and humans and perpetuates training methods which science does not support as effective and which the Pet Professional Guild deems to be the unethical treatment of animals.

How each of us chooses to treat pets is a voluntary decision but does vary due to our political and cultural diversity. Arluke (2006) discusses how the term cruelty is often minimized and glossed over and that there is a school of thought that “abuse is done deliberately, while neglect is unintentional or even accidental.” He goes on to detail how some believe that abuse results in tragic injury to animals, while neglect “only” creates hardship for them. Rowan (1993) suggests that the term cruelty should only be used in cases where the offender is in some way satisfied from the harm they cause. Regardless of where one stands on this point, however, and irrespective of the motives of the perpetrator and whether the cruelty be sadistic or negligent, no pet intentionally acts in order to seek punishment and no pet deserves to be the victim of cruelty (Hunter & Brisbin, 2016).

Hunter and Brisbin (2016) present a scale of normative behavior towards pets commencing with sadistic behavior and ending with empathy. The scale addresses whether cruelty is defined by motivation or hardship suffered and can be summarized as follows:

1.     Sadistic Behavior: This includes acts of intentional murder and the pleasurable sense of excitement perpetrators experience when inflicting pain. Displays of this are exhibited by audiences at dog fights and individuals who inflict torture on pets motivated by a sick sense of curiosity.

2.     Passive Cruelty: This speaks to ignorance, apathy and a generally immature sense of empathy as the perpetrator has feelings of disgust for or an ambivalence towards a pet, perhaps viewing them as a commodity only. “The moral consequence is that persons displaying passive cruelty ‘unsee’ the suffering of animals.” (Hunter & Brisbin, 2016, p.17). Many passively cruel behaviors are not considered illegal or pathological, like sadistic behavior. Examples include chaining a dog for 24 hours, social isolation, mental and physical deprivation, or just harsh and unyielding punishment and/or mental intimidation on the family pet.

3.     Neglectful Behavior: Although far from ideal, this can sometimes be remedied through local laws. It differs from passive cruelty as it is an involuntary lack of due care and may not be aimed at causing the pet to suffer. This encompasses owners who overlook necessary and important veterinarian treatment.

4.     Empathy: This is shown by people who consider it their moral duty to protect animals from cruelty. They have the ability to understand and empathize with the feelings of the pet and expect society to treat pets as they would like to be treated.

Examples of extreme incidents of dogs being killed or sustaining serious injuries at the hands of pet professionals are regularly reported in the media. These incidents have occurred at the hands of professional groomers, dog trainers and/or boarding kennels, the very professionals engaged and compensated by pet owners to care for their pets. It should, however, be noted here that, the pet training industry is “entirely unregulated, meaning that anyone can say they are a trainer or behavior consultant,” regardless of education, experience, skill, or knowledge – or lack thereof (Pet Professional Guild, 2016).
Listed below are just a few of the abusive practices still seen across the dog training industry:

  • Hanging – the dog is raised off the floor by his collar or a leash, in some cases until he loses consciousness.

  • Swinging – the dog is swung around with his feet off the floor by his collar or leash.

  • Slamming – the dog is lifted up and slammed into the floor or wall.

  • Shocking – electric shock is administered through a collar around the dog’s neck, stomach or genital area.

  • Multiple shock collars attached to a dog around the neck, stomach and genitalia.

  • Alpha Roll – the dog is purposefully rolled onto his back as a means to control and intimidate, often using harsh and offensive verbiage.

  • Kicking, hitting, prodding – the dog is physically assaulted with a human body part or a prod-type instrument.

It may be commonly believed that to work in the pet industry one must love pets, yet this begs the question of how this can be possible given the varied topography of pet care. In addition to the examples of cruelty, abuse and neglect highlighted, we must also consider the number of pet professionals who still rely on outdated practices and cultural myths while ignoring the growing body of science that proposes specific, humane methods and approaches. One might argue that this is somewhat akin to a public policy that accepts the use of alcohol as an anesthetic and leather arm cuffs as restraints by some medical professionals as their standard operating procedure. We now know better. In fact, in most professions that embark on counselling, mental health or education, there is a professional expectation and, indeed, a legal mandate that, no matter what their field, a professional practice according to the best, most reliable and up-to-date scientific research available.

There are two important questions to be answered then:
1. The first is, what causes people, and, in particular, pet professionals to be cruel to the pets in their care?
2. The second is, how do said professionals accommodate the consequences of this cruelty?

While there is no complete or consistent explanation as to why people are sadistic or cruel to pets, those that choose to work with pets as an occupation, a commonality would appear to exist in that those individuals tend to view the animals as “other,” or significantly different to people. Hunter and Brisbin (2016) explain that the person may feel threatened by the existence of the pet, whether it be emotionally, egotistically, or physically. Their cruel behavior is then seen/identified or justified as teaching the pet a lesson, and/or there may be a motivation to nullify the “other” by inflicting suffering. Hunter and Brisbin (2016, p. 19) conclude that cruelty “in its various forms is thus a human emotional and cognitive response to perceptions or predictions of unpleasant contacts with companion animals.” It is not in the best interests of pets to intentionally set out to be annoying or frustrating, or to inflict pain on their caregivers. Frightening or aversive environmental stimulus including punitive pet training methods and scary techniques are more often than not the cause of aggression from pets directed to people.

Passive cruelty or neglect, meanwhile, tend to manifest from convenience or function. For example, in the case of professional groomers or dog trainers, these may be motivated by the need or desire to get results at whatever cost to the pet. Economically, they may be motivated by profit and the need for expeditious business transactions. These practices may include pinning down a dog to trim his nails or applying physical punishment to prevent a dog from pulling on a leash.

For those who do inflict cruelty, how do they accommodate the consequences of their behavior? In other words, how do they cope with it? How does a dog trainer justify to themselves that hanging a dog until he almost chokes, shocking a dog to the point where he is so fearful he loses control of his bowels, or physically hitting a dog, is acceptable on any scale?

We might ask the same of the groomer who physically pins a dog on the grooming table if he does not comply and stand in the position required for the perfect haircut, or of the dog walker who drags and chokes a dog to mandate that he walks at a specific and very unnatural pace. These are all examples of instances that are acceptable practices in the pet industry by individuals who have chosen to make their living training and caring for pets.

Arluke’s (2006) ethnographic study of animal control officers, animal hoarders and shelter workers “illustrated how an individual’s identification of animals interacts with emotions, professional standards and practices, willingness to obey authority and personal identity” These components along with early childhood socialization and experiences can create a social confusion regarding the ethical treatment of animals.” (Hunter & Brisbin, 2016, p. 19).

Hunter and Brisbin (2016) also reference that other studies that indicate a desire for power, social background, or other demographic factors may have an influence on individuals in terms of whether they may display passive cruelty or neglect towards animals.

Alternatively, it may just be that cruelty is influenced by the direct visibility of the act, or differing interpretations of cruelty towards different species. As summarized by Hunter and Brisbin (2016), Siobhan O’ Sullivan argues that animal cruelty is impacted by the visibility of the harm to the animal versus the normative assessments of cruelty and the current legislation to protect the animal.

When sadistic behavior, passive cruelty or neglect have taken place, pet owners may justify this by resorting to moral disengagement. The offender may be able to reconstruct or reframe their behavior as being acceptable without feeling a need to change either their moral standards or their behavior. “Moral disengagement is behavior designed to avoid censure for injurious conduct.” (Hunter & Brisbin, 2016 p. 20).

Vollum et al. (2004) surveyed Texas residents to gauge the perceived severity of numerous violent acts against nonhuman animals as well as the preferred criminal justice response and were surprised as the “findings lend some (albeit limited) support for an important theory of animal abuse (Agnew, 1998), as well as Bandura’s (1990, 1999) compelling theory of moral disengagement.” 

According to Bandura (2002), however, disengagement does not instantly transform a person from being kind and considerate to being cruel but is a more gradual process as they are exposed to more and more uncomfortable situations. In the case of a dog trainer or pet groomer, they may have started out by using aversive practices on pets and found that they paid off, thus making them able to tolerate the acts because of the benefit associated with them. These might involve saving a groomer time thanks to the ease of working with a dog who is pinned to the table, or, in the case of a dog trainer, expediting compliance via the use of shock while suppressing what some would find irritating yet are perfectly normal canine behaviors such as wandering, sniffing or lack of focus. Situations such as these may apply in a more difficult training environment for a professional who is on a time schedule, lacks knowledge, or has little empathy for the pet in their care.

Over time “progressive disengagement of self-censure” occurs and “the level of ruthlessness increases, until eventually acts originally regarded as abhorrent can be performed with little anguish or self-censure. Inhumane practices become thoughtlessly routinized.” (Bandura, 2002, p. 110). It must be of great concern to public policy makers that when a person inflicts cruel actions on a pet and undertakes moral disengagement “the continuing interplay between moral thought, affect, action and its social reception is personally transformative. People may not even recognize the changes they have undergone as a moral self.” (Bandura, 2002, p. 110). This should then be a concern to pet owners as pet professionals are more often than not held accountable for cruelty towards the pets in their care, who have little or no say in their own welfare.

All parties involved need to exercise moral agency, which has a dual purpose. It is both inhibitive and proactive. The inhibitive form is the power to refrain from behaving inhumanely whereas the proactive form of morality is expressed in the power to behave humanely. Therefore, people who practice higher-order morality do good things as well as refrain from doing bad things (Bandura, 1999).

In summary, Vollum et al.’s (2004) findings showed that “people are concerned about the social problem of animal cruelty and believe that it should be taken seriously by the criminal justice system.”  In 2019, The Animal League Defense Fund, the United States’ leading legal advocacy group for animals, released their 12th annual year-end report ranking the animal protection laws of all 50 states.

They ranked each state under a three-tier system ranging from The Bottom Tier, The Middle Tier to the Top Tier. They rank the five best states for animals as:

1. Illinois
2. Oregon
3. Maine
4. Colorado
5. Massachusetts

And the five worst states as:

1. New Mexico
2. Wyoming
3. Iowa
4. Mississippi
5. Kentucky

According to the report: “The disparity in various jurisdictions’ animal protection laws demonstrates the unfortunate reality that, in many places, the law significantly underrepresents animals’ interests.” It goes on to say that “the Rankings Report also presents an opportunity to improve laws everywhere.” (The Animal League Defense Fund, 2019).

As part of the Pet Professional Guild’s Mission, we respectfully submit that showcasing training methods that use force, fear or pain are morally and ethically wrong as well as damaging to the animal, damaging to the human-animal bond, and potentially create hazards for the pet-owning public that may attempt to use such methods. Showcasing such methods creates significant danger for animals and humans and perpetuates training methods, which science does not support as effective, and which the Pet Professional Guild deems unethical treatment of animals.

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Bibliography and Resources

Animal League Defense Fund. (2019). 2018 U.S. Animal Protection Laws State Rankings. Available at:

Arluke, A. (2002). Animal abuse as dirty play. Symbolic Interaction (25) 4 405–430. Available at:

Arluke, A. (2006). Just a dog: Understanding Animal Cruelty and Ourselves. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press

Arluke, A., & Sanders, C. (1996). Regarding animals. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press

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Bandura , A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities, Personality and Social Psychology Review [Special Issue on Evil and Violence] 3, pp. 193– 209

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