How Fear-Based Training Can Scar a Dog for Life

Yelling commands and yanking leashes? No way! Kinder, gentler methods of training have been proven to work best.

Famous dog trainers have spread damaging information on how to train dogs in the past few decades. By: jackdaw
Famous dog trainers have spread damaging information over the past few decades. By: jackdaw

Dogs have lived with humans for tens of thousands of years. Does it really matter how we train if we just stop the bad behavior and get them to behave how we want?

Dog training isn’t only about how you get there — it’s also about understanding what your dog is like afterward. Some training techniques, particularly those based on corrections, dominance and pack theory, are outright damaging.

There is something inherently wrong with training with fear, dominance and intimidation — where the trainers are “pack leaders” and families are “dog packs.” To follow that theory, everyone must stand, walk and act like a boot-camp drill sergeant to get the dog to behave.

How Did It Go So Wrong?

Bad methods made publicly available in the media had a lot to do with it.

  • In the 1970s, when I started training, Barbara Woodhouse was all over TV espousing “walkies” and her special choke collar.
  • By the 1980s, Matthew Margolis attracted most of the dog-training publicity in Los Angeles. “Uncle Matty” was all over TV and radio telling his success stories. His method was to “correct” your dog into submission and drill obedience into the dog like a robot.
  • And of course, in the 1990s, Cesar Millan marched through Hollywood and made television history with The Dog Whisperer. That alone might have set dog training back about 50 years! He espoused a (very incorrect) theory that held that all bad dog behavior was caused by dogs trying to dominate their humans — so the solution was to dominate the dogs. Yikes.
Cesar Millan and Leo the shar-pei, 2013. Video still by: NatGeoWild
Cesar Millan and Leo the shar-pei, 2013. Video still by: NatGeoWild

Leo the Shar-Pei

Leo had already killed one small dog, which was the reason behind his new training.

He appears in an episode of The Dog Whisperer called “The Gladiator,” where Millan is seen repeatedly letting Leo build up frustration and anger around another small dog. Millan’s method is to repeatedly jerk the shar-pei (and trigger a shock collar) at any sign of activity to try to “bring him to zero.”

Ultimately Millan takes Leo into long-term training to “rehabilitate” him.

I wish I could tell you that the story has a happy ending. I worked with Leo’s caretakers after he had been through Millan’s training and more with another correction-based LA trainer who dubs himself “Dog Man.”

So much damage was done that Leo couldn’t find any peace and safety in the presence of other dogs.

He was in constant fear of corrections, so any subtle warning he might have given was suppressed — and when frustration exploded, he exploded with it. Although he improved with our help, the damage was so severe that I would never feel comfortable telling his family to let Leo near another dog.

Educating the Public

We have to do everything we can to prevent the promotion of damaging training.

Let me put this in no uncertain terms: Time and again it has been shown that training with pain, fear and corrections can damage your dog. What’s more, it has lasting repercussions that in many cases are dangerous to others around your dog.

We also must work hard to promote better, non-damaging ways to train our pets. A lot of dog trainers have worked to lead their clients and colleagues down a much kinder, gentler path.

If you want more information or want to train your dog in a kinder way, seek out the guidance of someone using science-based methods. You can find all sorts of trainer searches at International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), Pet Professional Guild and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.