The Dark Side of Dog Training and Pet Care
From BARKS from the Guild (29), March 2018, pp. 14-21
The Dark Side of Dog Training and Pet Care
Referencing the recent ordinance for the regulation of dog training professionals passed in Hillsborough County, Florida, Angelica Steinker discusses real cases of abuse, negligence and death of dogs in, or post-, training, day care or boarding*
*Caution: This article contains violent descriptions of dog death, abuse and neglect.
“Prosecutions under general anti-cruelty statutes are occasionally successful but greatly hampered by the absence of legal standards pertaining specifically to training practices. Provided it’s in the name of training, someone with no formal education or certification can strangle your dog quite literally to death and conceivably get off scot-free.” – Jean Donaldson (2017)
Dog training and pet care professionals, and indeed, pet owners themselves, need to be aware that in many countries, states and counties, laws are woefully inadequate to protect the lives of dogs, or protect them from blatant neglect or abuse when they are in the care of trainers, boarding, day care, or any other type of pet care environment. Where such laws do exist, they are often weak, poorly written and/or not well-enforced, leaving gaping loopholes for perpetrators of animal-related crimes. And sadly, all too often in the media, one reads about a dog who died while at the groomer, or at a board and train facility, or many other such horror stories.
In what some see as a pioneering move, then, Hillsborough County, in the Tampa Bay Area of Florida, recently passed an ordinance called Truth in Training, which is aimed at regulating dog trainers. The ordinance came about as multiple dog owners whose pets had suffered at the hands of so-called professionals started to find out about each other’s experiences. Many had, of course, been featured in the media and people started to realize that they – and their pets – were not the only victims. They also became aware of the fact that there was no legislative professional accountability of the dog training industry.
Truth in Training can be summarized in that it:
1. Requires licensing for boarding facilities that also provide training.
2. Creates a database of trainers via free registration.
3. Requires transparency via a written training plan.
4. Requires reporting of death and necropsy.
In addition, under the ordinance, trainers would have to “provide their credentials to the county for publication and have liability insurance of at least $100,000,” according to the Tampa Bay Times (Contorno, 2017). They must also “undergo local and federal background checks.” Trainers convicted of animal cruelty will be “barred from working in the county.” (Contorno, 2017).
During a public hearing and prior to passing the ordinance, which took 10 months, the county commission heard from multiple victims of dog deaths, i.e. people who had lost their pet, including a former National Football League player whose emotional support dog had died, a couple who shared the tragic story of their family pet dying a slow and grueling death, and another woman whose dog had suffered severe injury, but felt lucky that her pet survived.
The Ultimate Price
I interviewed some of the people whose dogs had suffered and present some of those exchanges here. First, Lorie Childers, whose puppy Sarge, a 3-month-old shih-tzu-Pekingese cross weighing just 8 pounds, died in his owner’s arms after a trainer implemented harsh “techniques” on him.
BARKS: Where did you get Sarge?
Lorie Childers: He was adopted from a foster home in Ocala, Florida. He was a rescue and had two brothers.
BARKS: How did you know that Sarge was the puppy for you?
LC: Sarge was the first to come over to me, and he propped himself up on my shoe. He just hung around with me. I told the foster mom that Sarge was the first to come to me, so he was the one. The foster mom laughed and said he was the first to do everything and that he “probably was the first of the siblings to be born.” Sarge was also the first to die.
BARKS: What happened to Sarge?
LC: Sarge was a healthy and lively [pup] and we loved his special presence in our home. He was smart and thoughtful. I picked Sarge up from day care on the day he died. We began to work with the trainer on teaching him how to heel next to me. Sarge was so happy to see me and just wanted to play. That’s when the trainer grabbed him – clamped his hand over his mouth and held it closed, and grabbed his neck with his other hand. Sarge thrashed and collapsed. His eyes were glazed over and his tongue was hanging out. It was stiff, and it had turned white. I knew something was horribly wrong and told the trainer, “He needs a vet!” I picked Sarge up and rushed him to the nearest animal hospital.
As I was driving, Sarge was crying, struggling to breathe, and was unable to hold his head up. As I picked him up to carry him into the vet, I saw there was blood both on me and on the car seat. Just as we approached the door of the hospital, I felt Sarge’s heartbeat starting to fade. He died in my arms as I crossed through the doorway. Our puppy, Sarge, died on May 1, 2015 at just 3½ months old.
BARKS: How has Sarge’s death affected you, your life, your family?
LC: Sarge’s death was definitely a reference point in my life. His death was unbearable. At the time, I felt surely I was the only one that this nightmare could have happened to, but I then found out I was anything but alone.
BARKS: How was it that you became involved in facilitating a change in county law?
LC: Per the State Attorney’s Office, there was no intent to kill Sarge, so there was nothing they could do. The vast majority of dog training consumers assumed that dog training was a regulated profession and were consistently shocked to learn that dog training is not subject to any oversight. Hillsborough County is to be commended in presenting a clear, concise, common sense ordinance. The leadership and staff are caring and very engaged in their community. They all deserve our respect and appreciation.
BARKS: What would you like to say to dog trainers?
LC: It is not up to the pet owner to know everything, and quite frankly, it is impossible. Pet owners don’t know there are different methodologies. They don’t know about force-free training. Every person I spoke to, who loves their pets very much, would state their disdain for forceful training methods, but in the same [sentence] would say something like, “but my dog knows I am the alpha.” I think the force-free trainers can help with educating the public, perhaps with outreach initiatives to schools, for example.
Mona Shah, owner of Finn, a 6-month-old Portuguese water dog, received a call that her puppy had died during his stay at a board and train facility.
BARKS: Could you explain what happened?
Mona Shah: A friend who was a medical professional recommended the facility. The owner even came to our home, and we extensively interviewed him. He demonstrated his techniques, which were all positive, and focused on behavior modification using body language. The trainer was confident and disciplined, but since he was ex-military, this seemed congruent with his background. It seemed like a good fit, so we made sure Finn’s vaccinations were up-to-date. When we dropped him off, we toured the facility both inside and outside. Group class was happening; everything seemed clean and both clients and staff seemed content. I had never dropped off a dog [at one of these facilities] before, so I had no frame of reference. However, the dogs were kept in crates, and I felt anxious dropping him off since it was the first time.
I called every single day and the facility stated that Finn was fine. On the sixth day, I did not get a call back, so I left a voicemail and called again the next day. At that point we were back in town and again, there was no call back. On the eighth day, I was planning to go and pick Finn up, and they called and said he was fine and that they felt he needed more time for further training. I approved the additional training, then the next day at 6 a.m., I got a call from the facility owner stating that Finn had died overnight. The owner stated that, “we have no idea what happened,” and that Finn was found in a puddle of blood and urine and that staff believed he had had a heart attack. He offered to get a necropsy conducted by his own vet. We declined.
I was a disaster and my children, aged four and eight years, were very upset and could not understand. My husband went to pick up Finn’s body. He was wet and seemed to have been cleaned. Our vet was unable to do a necropsy, so our breeder came and collected his body and took him to Lakeland, Florida to a vet that was willing to perform the necropsy for us. The vet stated that Finn’s death was suspicious, that he had bruising around his neck and blood in his nostrils. She suspected he had been strangled. When you have a constriction of your airway from strangulation, it can cause bruising and bleeding. She also stated that the lungs were soggy.
My husband called the owner of the facility and asked for details of what had happened. He asked the owner if he had strangled or drowned our dog. The owner responded that we should check for pneumonia. In fact, the pathology report did state that Finn had bacterial pneumonia. Infections such as pneumonia can be associated with drowning or near-drowning such as from having been dunked in the water. We often have wondered what happened to Finn and are so incredibly saddened to know that he had suffered at this facility. What is also upsetting is that he had pneumonia, a very treatable condition. The facility realized this but never called us nor called a veterinarian. This decision alone, I would call neglect.
BARKS: What did you do to try to get justice for your family and Finn?
MS: We called the local county Animal Services and were sent to different sites to file a complaint. One was the Better Business Bureau. We were told we could bring a civil lawsuit and, finally, after many phone calls, I found a staff member at Animal Services that investigated cases like this. The staff member stated that this was “an ongoing issue for this trainer” and that we should please share all documents with her.
We held on to Finn’s body and held off the cremation until we heard from the Animal Services sergeant that there was nothing she could do. At that point, Finn was cremated. She also gave us the name of an investigator for another victim, but we never heard back from this person. The sergeant stated that she would continue her investigations and that she wanted to shut down this facility.
BARKS: Did you feel you got justice?
MS: It is hard to say yes or no, but the Hillsborough County ordinance is a start. We think the ordinance will help others be more protected, and I am glad to be part of that. We never wanted to gain anything financially from Finn’s loss but emotionally we were all devastated. True justice would be for this trainer to be shut down and for him to never be able to hurt another animal.
BARKS: Would you like to add anything else?
MS: We have had good experiences with true positive reinforcement trainers and know that the trainer who killed Finn was a bad apple. Both my husband and I are medical professionals and we are in a career which has a lot of oversight and regulations. To be frank, it is a pain to deal with it, but knowing that there are good and bad doctors out there, we understand the positives and necessity for these regulations. I absolutely think that dog training and dog trainers should have regulations and oversight.
Dawn and Rick Bissen’s Doberman-Mastiff cross, Gunner, died after a stay in a board and train facility. The following are excerpts from the criminal seven-page deposition regarding the case:
Thursday, July 17, 2015
• Rick called [the facility owner] and discussed final arrangements with her. Deposit of $45 was made using credit card and remainder of $1,450 was to be paid when we dropped off Gunner on Sunday, July 20 at around 12 noon.
Friday, August 1, 2015
• 2:51 p.m. Rick called [the facility] to check on Gunner and arrange pick-up time for Sunday. [A staff member] said Gunner was doing really well. Rick asked the [staff member] if he was okay because he did not sound well and he responded that he had not been feeling well. [The staff member] said that Gunner was no longer bothered by other dogs and not barking back at them. He said that Gunner has improved in some areas when interacting with other trainers but not as well as he had hoped at this point. If Gunner knew the trainers, he did not shy away from them, but he did not go towards them comfortably without [the staff member] there at his side. If Gunner did not know the trainers, then he would always walk around to make sure that [the staff member] was between him and the unfamiliar trainer. [The staff member] recommended that Gunner remain at the facility for another week for further training, specifically focusing on interacting with the trainers. [The staff member] said there would not be a charge for the additional week and Rick advised [the staff member] that [the facility owner] had originally stated that if Gunner needed to stay longer than the two weeks, there would just be a boarding charge. Rick ended the call stating that he would discuss this with his wife (Dawn) and let [the staff member] and/or [the owner] know.
• 3:26 p.m. Rick called [the facility owner] and advised her that [the staff member] has recommended another week of training for Gunner and Rick just wanted to know if [the owner] felt that another week would really make a difference. [The owner] stated that she had personally been working with Gunner the past day because [the staff member] was out sick. [The owner] said that she did not think Gunner had bought into the program that much and in between Gunner’s time out with his trainers he was just laying around in the kennel. Rick advised that if the training is really not working then another week/month really was not going to make a difference and they would just stick with picking Gunner up on Sunday. [The owner] agreed and alluded to the fact that Gunner may have been licking his leg and developed a couple small sores on his leg. Rick asked if maybe we should just pick Gunner up on Saturday instead of Sunday and she said that would probably be fine, just to let her know what time so she could make sure she was there. She offered to have his sore looked at by their vet or we could just have our vet look at it, if we thought it was necessary. Rick said yes, please have your vet go look at his sore. [The owner] advised she would give her vet a call and let Rick know. Rick advised he would let her know what time he was going to pick up Gunner on Saturday.
[As a result of many phone calls that led to concerns, the pick-up time is moved to that evening.]
• 8 p.m. Dawn and Rick arrive at the facility.
o As Dawn was walking to the kennel she realized that Gunner was in there but was lying down.
o Rick walked out of the office with [the owner] behind him and Dawn yelled to Rick that he (Gunner) was not getting up and something was wrong.
o Rick and Dawn quickly walked closer to the kennel and Gunner slightly attempted to raise his head. There was some kind of fluid coming from his mouth. It looked like a very tacky drool substance. Gunner laid his head back down with no attempt to get up.
o There were open wounds on his legs and he was covered in a horrible stench, a mixture of urine, blood and feces. It smelled like he was rotting. Both of his hind legs were extremely swollen. His two front paws were bleeding and also swollen but not as much as the hind legs. His coat was very wet ([the owner] had advised Rick in the office that she had hosed him down for us). All the other dogs were barking and jumping around. There was a full can of fresh dog food in his dish that was out of his reach. There was a large bucket of water, filled, also out of his reach. There were bugs flying around and on him and we just tried to swat them away with our hands. His eyes were filled with a white substance that ran down his face.
o [The owner] began to walk from the office towards the kennel and Rick screamed to her to call her vet.
• 10:30 p.m. Dawn, Rick and Gunner arrive at Blue Pearl Animal Hospital. The medical staff comes out and tries to get Gunner out of the car but he is unable to move or even get out. They run inside and get a gurney and a sling. Gunner slides out of the car but cannot move his legs towards the gurney and lays on the concrete. The staff and Rick pick Gunner up and get him onto the gurney and back into the hospital. He is now laying on his left side and Dawn and Rick can see his open wound that looks to be so deep it is revealing the bone. We saw the bottom of Gunner’s paws and there was barely any pad remaining.
• 10:40 p.m. The Blue Pearl ER veterinarian, Dr. Kate Brammer, calls Rick and Dawn into an exam room to talk. Dr. Brammer advises that they have Gunner on IV fluids and have completed their initial exam. She advises Rick and Dawn that Gunner is in very serious critical condition and the prognosis is not good. She outlines the severity of his condition, both internal and external. Dawn asks directly, “He is going to survive though, right?” Dr. Brammer responds that she is not sure and that in the initial exams there are just so many things that he will need to fight. Dawn asks Dr. Brammer what she would do in their situation. She suggested that we proceed with getting Gunner’s bloodwork so they could get a clearer idea. In the meantime, they would put him on some IV fluids because he is clearly severely dehydrated and talk again after the test results come in.
• 11:15 p.m. – 12 a.m. Dr. Brammer advises us that Gunner’s test results shows that he is fighting a major internal and external infection. Some of his wounds are very severe and if he survives will probably require surgery. His liver and kidney levels are not good (higher or lower than what they would normally be if he were not so sick), but there are a few good signs and the vet is very cautiously optimistic. His condition is critical and “guarded” for now but there is hope. She will probably try to give him 24 hours to see if there is improvement with the IV fluids and a very high amount of antibiotics. If he did not get up within the next 24 to 48 hours and get the blood circulating in his legs, we would need to “have a talk.”
Saturday, August 2, 2015
• Dawn and Rick [and their children] spend the day taking turns sitting with Gunner in the Critical Care Unit. Each time we leave, he lets out very soft gentle cries so we stay until he falls asleep or until his techs or doctors cover his eyes so he does not see us leaving him. Each time we enter the room he tries to sit his head up towards us.
Sunday, August 3, 2015
• 11 p.m. Rick, Dawn and [their daughter] return to the hospital. This time we brought his favorite pillow from home so he would be comfortable, a hand towel that had been rubbed all over his sister and a Frisbee, since that was his favorite toy and would surely trigger a spark. When we arrived Dr. Brammer was on duty and brought us back into an exam room. She had already warned us that if things did not progress or if he took steps backwards that she would have to “have a talk” with us, so we knew this was not good.
• Dr. Brammer informed us that Gunner had taken a serious turn for the worse in the last 30 minutes or so. His oxygen levels had significantly dropped and his red blood cell count was dangerously low. She advised that he was declining rapidly and it was unlikely that he would ever recover.
• Rick, Dawn and [their daughter] held Gunner and the staff very gently and humanely ended his suffering. The entire staff at Blue Pearl were standing and just crying for Gunner and our family.
• The tech asked if I wanted a paw print from Gunner before the cremation. They could try to have something done but they would have to touch it up since his paws were so badly damaged.
Monday, August 4, 2015
• Rick and Dawn drive to Blue Pearl Animal Hospital and pay the remaining balance for Gunner’s care.
• They also receive the electronic version of the medical reports from the hospital (Emergency Room and Critical Care) .
Tuesday, August 5, 2015
• Dawn reports what had happened to the County Sheriff’s department.
• Dawn is transferred to Officer Jackson who takes a detailed report. He lets her know a detective from Animal Services would be contacting her.
• Officer Johnson (sic) calls back to make sure to let him know if we do not hear from Manatee County Animal Services.
• Officer White from County Animal Services calls Dawn and takes a detailed report. He will be the investigator assigned to this case
Wednesday, August 6, 2015
• Dawn and Rick forward medical reports and before and after pictures to Officer White.
• Officer Jackson calls to provide us with the case number.
Thursday, August 7, 2015
• Officer White responds via email that he has received the information and will be reviewing the file with his supervisor. He will also be making his initial visit to the property either Thursday evening or Friday morning.
Friday, August 8, 2015
• Dawn sends an email to Officer White, thanking him for his update and requesting expediting onsite inspection of the premises.
• Officer Jackson calls Rick to let him know they have not gotten out to the property and would appreciate a report from our vet to add “flavor” to what exactly had happened to Gunner.
• Dawn sends an email to Officer White thanking him for his phone call and update but expresses concern that they have not gotten out to the property yet since there are several other dogs out there.
BARKS: What happened as the result of the deposition?
Dawn Bissen: Our first option was to pursue this criminally. The doctors at the emergency vet said [we should] call the police, which we did that night. We called 911 and told them it was non-emergency. The police officer conducted an initial investigation and then referred it to Animal Control. At this point our dog was still alive. He died two days later after blood transfusions, puppy plasma blood platelet transfusions and everything possible to save his life. His medical report said he was starving to death and that he was dehydrated. He died of starvation and sepsis. I then called the police to inform them my dog had died.
Animal Control assigned an investigator to Gunner’s case. The investigator later said that this case had been so hard on him that he had to take a few days off work just to recover emotionally. He went and inspected the facility and, as anticipated, everything was clean and the dogs were all fed. Animal Control came back to us and said they had recommended our dog’s case to the district attorney.
The District Attorney contacted us about six months or so after Gunner died. She said the best-case scenario was that we catch the facility in a lie but, realistically, our best-case scenario was to pursue this civilly. What the District Attorney knew was that the facility were not going to admit intent because the law states very specifically that if you knowingly withhold food or water or medical treatment from a dog, then you are criminally responsible. Thus, all it takes is for them to say they did not know the dog was not being fed. Because of this loophole, two staff members just had to cover each other saying that Person A thought Person B was feeding the dog, and Person B says they thought it was person A.
In hindsight, they must have known the law because the facility owners immediately had an attorney and knew what to say and how to exploit the loopholes. After considering a civil case we realized that if we took a civil action, it would result in us having to sign a gag order. Since my husband and I wanted to prevent this from happening again it was not an option.
Civil suits are always settled. They do not go to court typically and there was a maximum amount. This was the cost of the dog, which, for us, was $100. Obviously, this would not make it hurt so that they would not do it again. Instead, we opted to be able to tell our story and we carefully share it with people who contact us. We have found out that this facility has done this to dogs before and even again after Gunner died. Today they are still open and continue to be in business. This is why boarding facilities must be regulated so we can all work to protect dogs from this abuse.
Elke Griffin received a call from the pet hotel, where her dog, Blue, was boarding, informing her he was dead.
BARKS: Tell us what happened?
Elke Griffin: I was taking my nephew to Disney that week. Our pet sitter was out of town and I could not get anyone to watch Blue, our 4-year-old terrier-hound mix. I called a couple of places and ruled out several options and then I located a pet hotel in Tampa. My research showed they had good reviews, lots of them with five stars. I later found out these reviews were posted mostly by the owners, friends, family and employees of the facility. After my dog was killed there, I found out that all the bad reviews were hidden at the bottom of the business review site under a heading of “Reviews Not Recommended.” We also learned that it is possible to pay a company to have your bad reviews permanently removed from any review site.
After dropping Blue off at 7 a.m., I got a call at approximately 8 a.m. while we were on our way to Orlando, asking if my dog had had his nails trimmed recently because his feet were bleeding. In fact, I was told all his paws were bleeding [the reason for this was never ascertained – Ed.]. The staff member said they had a vet on staff who would see Blue, but in the end the facility never provided any physical evidence that he saw a vet. The staff member stated that she and another staff member applied [antibiotic] powder under Blue’s nails. She also provided a link where I could see Blue. The link provided a view of him from above and I saw him lying with his head down in between his paws. I said to my friend, “He looks a little too still to be my dog.” I called back immediately and asked if I should pick Blue up, but was assured he was fine. I was told he was just resting because he had played really hard.
Around 2 p.m. I received a phone call telling me that Blue had been hit by a car and was dead. I became hysterical. The details the staff member provided were that they had taken him to a pond off property, without my consent. They said he was hyper and that they were providing an extra service at no charge. This extra service involved my dog going to a pond area which is almost a block from the location of the facility. The staff member stated that Blue slipped his leash and that he disappeared through a crack in the fence, a fence that we were unable to locate, and that he then ran a block and half to a six-lane highway where he was hit by a car. In fact, they lied about him being on his harness and leash. Instead, they had wrapped a frayed leash (like a slip leash) from their facility around him, on one side of the shoulder and under one armpit at an angle. The staff rushed him to Blue Pearl Animal Hospital [in Tampa] but he died on the way there.
BARKS: What further contact did you have with the boarding facility?
EG: I asked to talk to the owner and the manager said that would not be possible. Five days later, the owner finally attempted to call me, but at that point I had hired an attorney. The boarding facility did not pay for Blue’s cremation, but I was offered a variety of amounts of money. They could have offered me a million dollars, nothing would have been enough. I can’t place a dollar value on my dog. I was also offered up to $3,000 if I agreed to sign a non-disclosure agreement and if I did not get an attorney. This was not acceptable because it does nothing to prevent the same thing happening again to another dog family.
BARKS: What did you try to get to justice for Blue?
EG: I started a webpage for Blue and I talked to the Hillsborough County Commissioners. Legally, I had no other recourse because Blue is considered property. I am pursuing this legally to the fullest extent that I can, even if I lose every penny that I have, to try get justice for Blue. I put value on my dog when our legal system does not. He meant everything to me. What else am I going to do?
Peter Castelli’s dog, Max was helicoptered and punched as part of his “training.”
BARKS: Could you please describe what happened?
Peter Castelli: I took Max to board and train for one week and then I took him home. His behavior wasn’t any better, so the trainer kept him for two more weeks. When I went and got him, he was okay but he still did not seem that much improved in terms of his behavior toward other dogs, so I took him back to see the trainer and he was going to work with us and show us how to work with our dog. The trainer was walking Max back and forth in a training area and Max was not cooperating very well. I could see the trainer was getting frustrated and really angry. He then grabbed the end of the leash and started swirling Max around in a “helicopter” move. All four feet left the ground and Max was rotated at least four times. When he landed back on the ground the trainer went over and punched him with a closed fist. I ran over and told him to get away from Max. I took the leash off and put Max in my car. I told the trainer I was going to do the same thing to him and he cussed at me as I was leaving. I took Max to the vet to make sure he was okay. There was no physical evidence of abuse, but my dog was never the same in his attitude toward people and was very mistrusting of people, other than me.
BARKS: Did you take action as a result of the abuse your dog suffered?
PC: Yes, I reported him to the authorities for animal abuse. The trainer was taken to court. The trainer showed up with several attorneys and a statement from several animal trainers that said that helicoptering is a common technique used in dog training. The trainer was found not guilty based on the statement from the other trainers. When I spoke to the authorities in preparing the case going to court, I noticed the sheet the attorney had and saw a long list of complaints relating to this trainer and his facility. I realized I never should have brought my dog there.
The Problems with Dominance Theory
Having heard all these terrible stories, I contacted respected dog trainer and author, Pat Miller and asked her about some of the problems associated with outdated dominance theory.
BARKS: How does the myth of dominance cause abusive situations for dogs?
Pat Miller: Oh my… far too numerous and significant to cover them all. The myth of dominance sets dogs and their humans up for an adversarial relationship. Some dogs succumb quickly to this ill-advised use of intimidation and force, albeit along with damage to the dogs’ trust in their humans. Those who don’t succumb fight back against the confrontational methods, which then elicits an increased level of force from the human. Dogs who don’t ultimately submit to this mistreatment often become aggressive, are deemed “incorrigible” and either live a life of constant mistreatment and abuse, or are all too often euthanized, when a better, more thoughtful approach could have avoided all the drama and confrontation altogether.
BARKS: Do educated professional trainers use dominance theory in their work, or train with force?
PM: No. Just no. Educated, science-based professionals understand that the term “dominance” means something entirely different from what has been falsely presented as “dominance theory,” i.e. permission to abuse your dog.
BARKS: What are three typical problems that are caused by trainers using dominance theory?
PM: 1. Aggression: The dominance myth says that you have to establish yourself as the “leader” through the use of forceful methods such as the so-called “alpha roll.” A training approach that relies on confrontation and the use of physical force has a high likelihood of eliciting an aggressive response from the dog.
2. Damage to the dog-human relationship: A healthy dog-human relationship is based on mutual trust, cooperation and respect. The dominance myth promotes physically forcing the dog into “submission” – a method that destroys trust and doesn’t value cooperation. When dominance trainers say the dog must “respect” the human, they really mean “fear.”
3. Fear: The use of force and intimidation as advocated by “dominance” trainers carries a significant risk of creating fear and avoidance in the dogs subjected to these methods. What these trainers see as “calm submission” is actually a dog shutting down from fear of being attacked and manhandled by the human.
I have spent a lot of time talking with victims of cases such as those outlined above and they seem to have several things in common. First, they have been blindsided to some degree. As consumers, they assumed that there is a level of professionalism, a code of standards to be adhered to, yet when abuse, neglect or death occur, it is shocking to see this is, in fact, completely absent. Secondly, as Lorie Childers explains: “Victims share being in a state of shock and felt helpless when they attempted the normal routes of obtaining justice and found there was none; it’s difficult to process.”
I was struck by the victims speaking at our county meetings, and by the fact that their pain was renewed as if it had just happened yesterday. One woman had tears in her eyes and shared that she had wanted to speak, but told us, “I just can’t.” We tried to console her and encourage her to stay, but it was too much for her and she left. Her dog died 10 years ago.
Trainers and pet care providers need to know that people whose dogs suffer negligence or abuse are extremely angry, and, in some cases, may have lost faith in the industry. While some end up in a state of learned helplessness and choose to put the traumatic event behind them, some are exceptionally strong and brave and give their voice to dogs. The victims presented above found the strength to stand up and speak about the abuse and neglect their dog suffered in a room filled to the brim with trainers opposing any regulation, denying the facts, and victim blaming.
In my opinion, trainers who do not want to be regulated need to set industry standards that clearly define abuse and neglect and appropriately identify pet mental illness. At least one case I heard about at one of the county meetings was grossly mismanaged, given that the dog was in desperate need of a veterinary behavior consult instead of being placed in a board and train program. I believe professionals need to agree upon minimum standards of training, handling and care. In addition, trainers universally need to have better skills, understand and follow functional analysis when the case requires it, address antecedents and create behavior change using positive reinforcement. Physical force, coercion and positive punishment need to be eliminated from training plans.
At the same time, in recognition that self-regulated industries usually fail to achieve realistic change, trainers who care about their profession need to acknowledge that regulation is probably a matter of when, not if. Professionals would do well to become involved in regulation, so the result is an outcome that is humane and force-free.
Writing this article has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. It elicited angry and sad emotional responses. Speaking to victims in person or on the phone was incredibly difficult. I had to force myself to proceed, and I think this is part of why crimes against dogs are under reported or not reported at all. As you finish reading this article, know that you can go and hug your dog, but many victims will never have that luxury again.
A special thank you to Pat Miller for taking the time to read and give comment on this article and to the victims for sharing their stories.
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