Can I report an unethical dog training school?

What you can do if your dog was physically abused at the dog training school or if the training school advises physical abuse, article by Canis bonus. September 2017
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.
Clients’ and schools’ recognizable features have been changed to respect their privacy, and out of competitive fairness.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

A tough dog behaviour case

As a behaviourist, I had to learn to have difficult conversations, to leave my judgement at the door and just listen. It can be tough with cases involving physical abuse, but I am holding the dog’s lifeline in my hands so I patiently listen, then hope to make a change.

Still, my stomach churned when I read Max’s intake form. It was plastered with abusive treatment stemming straight out of an obsession for the pack theory and discipline (‘he-just-should‘). The dog-human relationship was in tatters, if the form was anything to go by. So much so that I wasn’t sure I could salvage it.

It turns out we did and Max is doing much better now, but it was hard work.

drill-instructor

The relationship had degraded into an army drill: physical exercise and blind authority.

So I cycled there and, filled with the familiar “Can I turn this one around?” feeling, I took a deep breath, and rung the doorbell.

What a welcome: barking dog and screaming owners

I was greeted by a lunging dog and his screaming owner, trying to tackle him ‘into submission’… Note to self: double-check the owners are actually listening when you list safety measures…

It took a lot of bribery and appeasement, but he eventually decided to postpone my murder.

We sat around the table and took stock of the situation. What had turned Max into this paranoid-aggressive furball? A two-hour conversation later, and the scales fell off his owners’ eyes as they started to see the problem with a new light: not wilfulness, not dominance, but an unhappy mix of:

  • Unrealistic breed-based expectations;
  • A terrible match for an inexperienced family;
  • Under-socialisation as a pup (he grew up in a farm)
  • Well-meaning but oh-so-misguided advice from a dog training school not qualified to advise on serious behaviour cases (it comes up a lot in our unprotected profession).

Frank and Cindy were first-time owners (uh-oh). Frank had always dreamed of this breed – large, with guarding tendencies (uh-oh, read tendency to be fearful and aggressive to strangers, be sensitive to fast movements, and susceptible to over-stimulation). He felt prepared after reading every breed book he could get his hands on (uh-oh, breed books are are as unreliable as a marketing pamphlet). He also got a ton of information from neighbours and internet fora (uh-oh, opinion, or fact?). They wanted to get the dog as Cindy was pregnant so their family would be complete (uh-oh, baby on the way too). And… Frank and Cindy thought it couldn’t possibly go wrong as “His mother and father are national champions” (uh-oh).

Things had gotten so far that Cindy was too scared to be in the same room as Max if Frank wasn’t there.

Spare the rod, spoil the dog…

When they started to experience problems with Max, Frank and Cindy did what any right-thinking dog owner would do: they went to the nearest dog training school. They did not know there is a difference between an education problem, and a psychiatric problem. Neither did the school, who proceeded to deal with the issue with more and more blind discipline whenever he growled or refused to move (out of what turned out to be fear).

  • Jab him on the side to ‘snap him out of it’.
  • Jerk on the leash (starting from puppihood!?, and with a choke collar to boot). Don’t be too soft now, don’t spare the rod, the school told them…
  • Alpha-roll him, as a pup too, until he ‘surrendered’ (i.e. entered into shock, with his trust in humans taking another beating).
  • Drag him, screaming, to his bench
  • And then, when things reached a head and he turned all-out aggressive of his owners, herding him into his bench using a chair as a shield, legs pointing towards the dog.
Spare the rod, spoil the dog...

Spare the rod, spoil the dog…

Some of it crossed Cindy’s mind as being on the extreme side but she figured: “What do I know? They’re the experts”. When she asked the school, they reassured her. “It’s not punishment. It’s ‘correction’.” It’s all in the name I guess…

Frank was also not 100% comfortable with the stuff but it did echo what other sources told him (books, internet, neighbours, dog owners), so it had to be right. That, by the way, is why I am obsessed about evidence-based practices: it offers some protection against misguided opinion, ignorant tradition and confirmation bias.

‘Academically’, Max actually did pretty well. He passed all his classes, up to advanced obedience and fly ball, with flying colour – growling and freezing notwithstanding. But things were getting worse at home. Each time Cindy asked the instructor about it, she got blamed for being too soft.

So they plowed on, dutifully abusing away. Not sparing the rod for… a heart-breaking year and a half!

Where are we now?

After our consult, I left Frank and Cindy with a relationship ‘restore’ program: absolutely no confrontation, teaching alternative responses, helping him cope with  his fears and over-stimulation through gradual controlled exposure, hand-feeding and TONS of quality time. It took a few months, and he is still stiffens up if people bend over him, approach him fast, or corner. And he is not exactly the family baby sitter’s number one fan, but we’re working on all that and he’s making strides. Max was one of the lucky ones as his owners eventually sought professional help, but how many go through this cycle of violence for their entire life?

What happened with the baby, you ask? Max was instantly in love with him and wasn’t even over-stimulated by high-pitched cries as we’d feared.

But these dog training school are an exception, right?

Sadly no. Most give quick-fix advice for serious behaviour problems. Most do not have a smidgin of formal education on dog behaviour pathology, and get their information from things they heard somewhere, ‘everybody does it’, they read in a forum or heard it from the latest celebrity trainer. Not exactly great sources of information.

Don’t get me wrong. Some dog training schools do great behavioural first aid but too many fall in the ‘don’t spare the rod’ category.

Take a look at my mailbox if you want to be depressed: it’s full of reports of clients being told to jerk the puppy’s choking collar, or alpha-roll their dog. Many also tell me their dog got traumatised during puppy ‘play’ time, where fifteen pups of all sizes and temperaments have it out as the weaker ones are bullied away. ‘Let them work it out’, the instructors insist…

I talked to the Dutch animal protection agency (Dierenbescherming) about what I hear from my clients (obviously without naming school or client names) and they confirm that it is illegal to subject an animal – including including in the name of education – to unnecessary force (see details here). The language is vague (what is ‘necessary force’?) , but the Dierenberscherming will certainly take it seriously if several reports are being filed against the same training school.

I myself obviously can’t be the whistle blower. That would flirt with unethical competitive tactics. That, and the fact that you must have witnessed the situation first-hand before you file a report.

dierenbescherming

So what can you do?

If you personally witness a situation at a dog training school that you consider to be animal abuse:

  • Call the Dierenbescherming (national number: 144, many of the operators speak great English in case you don’t speak Dutch). This can be done anonymously. Once they have enough reports, they send an inspector. Do not let your silence perpetuate the problem: they need a fair few calls before they will send an inspector. If nobody calls, countless dogs will continue being abused in the name of education.
  • Alert the commercial contacts of the school if they have any: their accreditation body, their landlord. Chance is, these partners won’t enjoy being smeared with the bad PR and will give the school a talking to.
  • Leave a detailed review of what’s happened on their social media accounts, on Google or on Doggo.

My mailbox is full with these accounts but I can do nothing about it so it’s up to you to be the squeaky wheel.

Illustration credits

No modifications were made to any of the illustrations

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