Oh boy, do we love our convenience! It is likely that we have all been frustrated enough to consider sending our dogs away to a bootcamp for some training and come back perfectly trained or at least more manageable. Sounds like a dream!
Oftentimes it is a dream not come true, and the results are not as you expected - the dog comes home and the trainer claims the work was done and the dog performs perfectly for them, but the transfer to you is not as smooth. This is because there is little to no reinforcement history with you (the dog has not been reinforced for the behaviour enough by you), or the learning was contextual (dog can perform at the trainer's home or location but cannot generalise it to your home). This tells you that you must be part of the process.
Other times it is not a dream but rather a nightmare. More often than not, we hear of dogs being sent to a board and train program where they are traumatised beyond belief. Here is where the story begins.
Years ago I met a couple in my condo building with two lovely beagles (we'll call them Denver and Georgia). They were about a year and a half old, litter mates and had been living with the couple since 8 weeks of age. When we saw them in the lobby or elevator, the dogs would sit silently staring at the door and completely avoiding all eye contact with me and with Parker. If any dog moved toward them, they would swiftly move in another direction as if they hadn't noticed them. I always thought it was odd that they were so anti-social and even then when I wasn't a trainer, I noticed their blunt affect.
One day we ran into each other on a walk - a quieter side street in downtown Toronto between two major, high-traffic streets. Both Denver and Georgia were off-leash but wearing collars. I was impressed! Two beagles, off-leash in the city and their recall was incredible. He would whistle once and the dogs would spin on a dime and bolt back to his feet and sit. He saw my reaction and he proudly stated that he sent them away for four weeks of board and train here in Toronto and the person sent them home perfectly trained. He said they haven't needed to lift a finger since - that both dogs are "bombproof". In his hand, he held a small remote. He would hold down a button whenever he felt the dogs moved too far from him and would release it as soon as they came running back. It never sunk in until a few years later. They were wearing shock collars.
I remember feeling so impressed and almost jealous that he had that level of control and his dogs seemed happy, however looking back, they were robotic; ears pinned, flat affect, empty eyes, socially unresponsive, tails tucked, lowered bodies.
Fast forward more than a decade and I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, the owner of a successful dog training school, and a lifelong student of behaviour.
A client contacts me to bring her dog in for an assessment as he is reactive toward children. The client and her husband arrive for their appointment with their lovely dog (we'll call him Stanley) and I start with my typical questions. It turns out Stanley is reactive toward babies and children and they are concerned that he will bite. He does have a long history of dog-aggression as well, but they really want to focus on the baby-challenges. Whenever I have a client who is concerned about their dog's reactivity toward children, I have to ask the uncomfortable question "are you planning to have children in the future / in this dog's lifetime?". The answer this day was yes and the most concerning part was that the baby was due to arrive in a few short months.
My stomach dropped because as any professional trainer will tell you, behaviour modification takes time and is not guaranteed. Here we have a dog with a bite history and a baby on the way. I asked more questions and found out that Stanley would only have to hear the sound of a child and he would immediately "glaze over" and start hyperventilating and drooling. This was concerning to me and I was not interested in re-enacting it just to see it - the description was enough to convince me we had a serious problem on our hands. I asked if he had ever experienced a traumatic event and the story follows:
Stanley was sent away to a trainer here in Toronto who offers board and train, who guaranteed results with the dog-reactivity and child-reactivity. What occurred in the four week program is horrific. A shock collar was used to "control" Stanley in the home and on training walks. The trainer would play the sound of babies crying or children laughing/screaming and if Stanley reacted with barking or growling or even a movement toward the sound, a tambourine would be used to startle him (or "snap him out of it" as they were told) or a high level shock would be administered. Over time, the barking, growling and movement toward the sound or trigger disappeared. Training was considered successful and Stanley was sent home "cured" and with a list of new behaviours such as "sit", "down", and "stay" which also looked marvellous to the untrained eye.
Upon arriving home, Stanley's guardians were devastated to find Stanley spending 95% of his days for the next two months hiding under the dining room table, unmoving and "completely zoned out". It was easy to understand the new reaction to children (glazing over, hyperventilating and drooling) based on the methods used in the board and train environment.
The saddest part of all of this is that there's no guarantee that after extensive behaviour modification (over the course of a few short months) to undo all that was done in the board and train program that Stanley is going to be a safe dog in a home with a new baby. It isn't a chance that most parents would want to take, but then who will adopt a dog with a bite history and behaviour challenges? Is it fair to drop him off at a shelter and hope for the best? You can imagine the devastation the family feels.
It's hard to believe that in Toronto, where we are most spoiled with such fantastic trainers who are educated, certified through reputable bodies, humane, ethical, and professional, we also have hobby trainers who are well-meaning but uneducated and other trainers who claim to be professionals but are proven to use methods and tools that are considered inhumane and cruel. It's all part of having an unregulated industry and it's what we trainers fear the most.
In the news recently, another trainer in Toronto allegedly neglected and abused a client's dog in a board and train program.
"We when arrived he was in a crate which was too small for him. He was wearing an electronic shock collar and martingale collar and she asked me to put a prong on him. We were told he somehow broke his brand new martingale collar while in his crate. There are no bite marks, fraying, nothing to show this was chewed off my our dog. In fact it is missing a metal ring that literally would have had to be snapped off under extreme pressure.
When we took him from the crate he was trembling terribly. He looked so exhausted and weak. She has us take him for a walk where she would only allow him to pee one time. When he tried to pooh the poor guy shook uncontrollably as blood poured out into a pile on the sidewalk. He had nothing but blood inside him. We were absolutely horrified. She told us that this is normal in feral dogs. (But he is not feral he has lived here for over two years) she showed no concern for him at all. He tried multiple times to poop on his walk and simply had nothing but lots of blood. While we walked back to her home there was literally blood dripping from his bum. As soon as the session was over we called out vets office and asked what to do. They told us to bring him in immediately. We arranged with a friend to come pick him up as we don't own a vehicle.
When we visited the vet we discovered a large wound on his neck which we speculate came from the electric shock collar if not from that we can only imagine what would have caused that wound which was bleeding, he had sore like wounds on his legs, he was diagnosed with colitis due to stress which was causing the bleeding from his bum and he also was starved and lost 2lbs."
So the bottom line is this: don't send your dog away for board and train bootcamps. You adopted a dog. Put in the time to bond with your dog, teach your dog, learn from your dog, and make it an experience. Behaviour change is, after all, a lifelong project just like it is for the rest of us. Don't be misled by testimonials and reviews. Don't be convinced by a well-meaning friend who "got great results". Do your research, talk to us, let us share what industry standards actually exist and help us convince the government that we need regulation in order to protect the lives of the dogs in our care.
If you have experienced something like this with a trainer, do not stay silent. Speak up. Advocate for animal rights and do not allow these "trainers" to continue practicing animal cruelty and neglect. You are your dog's voice - use it. Document - photos/videos, vet bills, report to Animal Control AND SPCA immediately. Do not back down.
Caveat: We know that there are qualified, educated, humane, ethical, certified, transparent trainers who offer board and train programs. They are few and far between. Some of these board and train programs are well-used for times where the dog needs a break outside the city to decrease stress, or when families go on vacation and want to continue the progress we're making in training.
Behaviour challenges are best resolved with YOU present.