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The Trouble with Dog Training Gurus

Updated: Feb 1, 2021


We live in a consumer culture. We’re trained from an early age to want the new, improved, biggest and best version of products and services, from computers to cars, diets to designer dogs. We are also a celebrity culture, focused with laser-like intent on those we’ve put on pedestals whenever they do something interesting or outrageous. So it’s not a huge leap to understand why so many people follow “gurus,” fawning over their words and unquestioningly buying whatever they’re selling.

Many think of a guru as a spiritual teacher or counselor. But, as one dictionary definition states, a guru is “somebody who is prominent and influential in a specific field and sets a trend or starts a movement.” In short, a person people follow because they believe he/she knows something they don’t. While there are some in the scientific community who could be considered “gurus” of a sort, most who come to mind are more flamboyant. They have charisma, and that’s a necessary attribute. Without it, no matter how legitimate the product or information, there wouldn’t be many followers! While some really do have good information to offer, unfortunately, many self-proclaimed gurus simply recycle and repackage old, sometimes erroneous information and present it as something new. Think “The Wheel: Now Rounder and Faster!”

Television provides an excellent platform for gurus. It allows them to edit, package, and display footage in a way that conceals flaws. The finished product seems like magic! This becomes all too evident when one watches dog training shows. Viewers are presented with dogs who have developed deep-seated issues over the years such as severe aggression, and are expected to believe that through the mystical powers of The Guru, the dog is suddenly and permanently “cured.” It is both dangerous and misleading to portray behavior modification in that way. Any dog trainer worth their salt can tell you that changing a dog’s underlying feelings toward the trigger of his aggression takes time. But punishing a dog strongly enough that he’ll appear to have changed his ways makes for must-watch t.v.  After all, it’s instant gratification, and who in our modern culture doesn’t love that?

Instead of training based on sound principles such as desensitization and counterconditioning, we are often exposed to displays of jerking, kicking, alpha rolling, and worse—all “corrections” that supposedly teach the dog and halt the behavior. Of course it does stop the behavior temporarily, because the trainer is bigger and stronger, and is scaring the dog. But punishment simply suppresses behavior. The hapless owners then get to deal with the fallout after The Guru and his magical aura have left town.

There will always be self-proclaimed gurus, and some do offer valuable information. But consumers must be thoughtful and particular about which tidbits to accept and which to discard, rather than mindlessly swallowing everything thrown at them. Some followers tend to have a fundamentalist mindset, accepting everything the guru says and does as gospel. An intelligent person should be able to sit back and question what’s really happening behind the rhetoric. To that end, it can be helpful to watch dog training shows with the sound off. It removes any verbal spin, allowing the viewer to really focus on the reactions of the dog. While the trainer might be saying, “What I just did shows the dog I’m the leader, he’s not stressed” watching the dog will tell the real story. Maybe the dog is fine with it. Or, is he offering stress responses such as lip-licking, yawning, or looking away from the trainer? Is he cowering? Has he shut down completely due to learned helplessness? Believe what you see, not what you hear.

Another pinprick in the hot air balloon of gurus is that regardless of their ability to do something well, those who need the information and support need to be able to do those things proficiently, too. Not to discount good handling skills, but so what if a guru can handle an out of control or vicious dog? The real test is whether the owner can then handle that dog. Otherwise it’s very likely the dog will lose his home or be euthanized after the guru has left. The true measure of good teaching isn’t being able to show what you know or how wonderful you are, but whether you can instill ability and confidence in others.

Here’s my suggestion: take back the power! Let’s agree to never mindlessly follow anyone, no matter how good-looking or charismatic the person may be. Let’s think for ourselves, and accept legitimate information while discarding the flashy but flawed. Let’s make good, ethical training decisions based on sound thinking, scientific studies, and treating dogs with kindness and respect. Maybe if we can shift our approach the balance of power will shift as well, and we’ll end up with trainer role models who demonstrate kindness, clear communication, and patience rather than a quick fix. After all, without followers, what’s a guru to do?


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