Just When You Thought the Barbara Woodhouse Days Were Over

While enjoying a walk along my local seaside promenade the other day we spied an exasperated woman screaming at her dog and violently pulling its head back whenever it got more than a foot in front of her. After half a dozen of these actions she finally yanked the poor cowering dog so hard she almost took its head off and lifted it off the ground even though it was a big dog.

Deciding enough was enough we caught her up and admonished her, (not always a good plan), but she turned her frustration and anger on us saying she was doing nothing wrong and that her dog behaviourist had advised her to do it. She suggested I should have a word with him. I replied that I would be glad to do so, but I was sure he hadn’t quite told her to be so violent. My wife gave her a parting comment that the days of Barbara Woodhouse were long over, but are they?

For those too young to remember Barbara Woodhouse was a highly celebrated and regarded dog trainer across the world in the 1970’s and 1980’s with TV programmes, books and documentaries about her methods. This was mainly because of her perceived eccentricity which always makes good TV, but she was regarded by many dog owners with misbehaving dogs as a saviour. But others looked upon her as heavy handed and cruel with her domineering methods.

Dog training is big business and lucrative.

History often repeats itself and recently there has been controversy about an American dog trainer named Jeff Gellman visiting a seminar in Scotland. He is alleged to hit dogs with a rolled up towel and uses prong collars and remote control shock collars to keep dogs in line. The use of such instruments of torture are much used in North America and are readily available on the internet in the U.K. He has become another showman celebrity with tens of thousands watching his YouTube videos. Owners queue up willing to pay £750 for a session with him, but the Scottish SPCA were not happy about his visit or his methods and there is even a change.org petition against him. Dog training is big business and very lucrative but as always totally unregulated.

Genuine and sincere dog trainer or another showman – you to decide.

But his methods highlight the great division that still exists after decades of research and debate regarding the best and most humane way of training a dog to fit in with our modern lifestyles. Every self proclaimed dog behaviourist and trainer has their own ideas or choose the in fashion dogma of the day. But then everybody likes to think they are a dog expert.

The argument over negative and positive reinforcement.

The main division between the “experts” is whether “aversive” or “negative reinforcement” training i.e. using a bit of brute force like Mr Gellman and Barbara Woodhouse is cruel and counter productive and stress dogs out compared with “positive reinforcement” where dogs are bribed with treats and praised to toe the line.

A recent study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour indicated that 65% of dogs trained with “aversive” or “negative reinforcement” (note we must have technical terms for all this) methods i.e. using punishment showed signs of stress such as mouth licking, shaking and whining compared with only 8% of those trained by “positive” or reward and praise methods. Whether this is scientifically sound or not, common sense dictates that hitting, yanking and electrocuting dogs is probably not the most humane course of action.

It seems to be human nature for us to always complicate issues and so we have established a new science: the science of animal behaviour in which we can become professionals, get diplomas and degrees, put letters behind our names, carry out research, argue, debate, write papers and come up with exactly nothing conclusive or tangible. We now live in a world of dog behaviourists, clinical animal behaviourists, psychiatrists, counsellors and a variety of trainers to make dogs compliant and contented with our modern lifestyles.

One side of the argument maintains that the positive approach leads to them being spoilt and entrenches bad behaviour whereas those against the punishment approach believe it causes mental trauma and impacts long-term welfare. Realistically the sheer act of training a dog to comply with our selfish demands is an act of dominance whatever method used to make it comply with our will. For many owners, like the exasperated lady on the promenade who was obviously at the end of her own tether, any method that solves the problem is OK with them, cruel or not.

Our lifestyles are the cause of their behavioural and mental health problems.

But ironically it is us who have inflicted our mental health and behavioural problems onto them through our lack of understanding of their needs. The world and our attitude to dog management and care has radically changed. They have to be under our control at all times and because of our hectic lives we have no option but to leave them home alone, fail to walk them as we should and generally do not give them the attention they desire. We have confused them to the point where they do not understand their role in our lives. We are barking up the wrong tree, if you’ll excuse the pun, by focusing on changing our dog’s behaviour. Perhaps we need a science of dog ownership to help guide us into being more thoughtful and responsible owners.

I do wonder if we read too much into dog training. I have little practical experience of dog training. I have always been willing to put up with the odd foibles a dog of mine might have and find ways of circumventing any problems that might arise because of them, rather than destroying their will and individual character, but this method doesn’t have all the answers either.