WHY NOT ALL TV DOG TRAINERS ARE GOOD! Review of “Dogs Behaving Very Badly” recent episode of Jax, the Belgian Malinois with separation anxiety. It’s a long one but it’s well worth a read.
I don’t ever usually watch Graeme Hall because I simply cant stand watching someone show a lack of understanding of dog behaviour and body language, but my friend mentioned a recent episode involved a dog who became anxious when left home alone, so I decided to take a deep breath and watch it.
And of course, I came away from it with many, many comments I wanted to address!
Jax is a lovely young Belgian Malinois, and at the start it is mentioned how the owner got Jax for company after he was diagnosed with leukaemia. Jax follows him round the house and when the owner leaves the house Jax becomes very anxious immediately, barks, runs round the house etc. I am going to raise quite a few concerns I have with the ‘advice’ that Graeme Hall gives in this episode.
It is not a ‘true to life’ scenario
1) So first of all, before they even start looking at Jax and his behaviour, there is not only Graeme in the house, who is a new, unfamiliar person to Jax, but also the camera crew, so another unfamiliar person/s with unusual equipment. Now right off the bat that is likely to influence Jax in some way. It is not mentioned if he is wary of new people or not, but when Graeme first sits on the sofa and does the typical human gesture of holding his hand out to greet Jax (this is never necessary…dogs have an awesome sense of smell and can smell you quite easily from multiple feet away…no need to stick your hand in their face), the dog actually looks a little uneasy. He is standing on the sofa next to his human and slightly edges forward while keeping his body weight back a bit.
One of the reasons I (and all other qualified CSAT’s) work remotely, is because we ensure our presence does not influence the dog’s behaviour and therefore what we are seeing is true to life.
No body language is being monitored at all
2) Graeme then takes the owner outside to see what Jax does. At this stage there are NO cameras inside the house, so they are solely going by what they hear Jax do (ie vocalisation) rather than looking at other intricacies of behaviour that we know are important to monitor. There is no mention of body language, of stress signs, of escalation rate etc. By the time a dog is barking (if that is their ‘go to behaviour’ they are far too anxious….as professionals we are looking for the much more subtle signs of anxiety so that we can ensure the absences do not ever push that dog into anxiety.
No – this is NOT the owner’s fault!
3) When they came back in and chatted further, Graeme says some things that I think it incredibly wrong and misleading. They discussed the owners leukaemia and treatment as the reason for getting Jax, and Graeme then says “that explains an awful lot” and talks of “the reasons that led to this extremely tight bond” as being very sad. Basically saying the owner’s reliance on Jax for company and comfort has caused this over attachment and is the reason why he cant leave the dog alone, and there is no evidence that this is the case at all.
There are numerous potential causes of separation-related problems, and we know a lot more about what does not cause it over what does, but while over attachment to the owner can lead to anxiety about being home alone, so can negative early experiences, a traumatic experience while home alone, a change in family circumstances, and dogs can also have a genetic predisposition to develop the condition (G. Flannigan & N. Dodman, 2001). None of this was mentioned, and instead the blame is essentially placed on the owner.
Lack of knowledge and understanding
4) Graeme then suggests they take a gentle approach so that Jax does not get too anxious (great!) and suggests the owner starts on increasing distance inside the home, encouraging the dog to not follow everywhere, and suggests he starts by simply standing up, taking a step, then moving back and sitting down. Yes, there is nothing wrong with this, as it starts to desensitise Jax to the owner moving away and coming back before the dog has experienced anxiety, and that is the way to show a dog that alone time is safe. But – Graeme also has the owner introduce a verbal cue of “relax” every time he steps away.
The way a verbal cue has any meaning to a dog is by associating it with a relevant behaviour. So, for example, dog sits and gets rewarded, then we start to say the word “sit” just before we lure the dog into that position. By doing this the dog learns “sit” precedes them putting their bottom on the floor then being rewarded, so the word “sit” means ‘put bottom on floor’. Fine. But – when working on separation anxiety we are NOT working on teaching a behaviour, we need to work on changing the dog’s emotional response, the way they feel, about being home alone. Therefore no word is needed, nor will it be helpful. In fact what can easily happen is by adding a word before we move away, we teach the dog that that word is what is known as a pre-departure cue, so whenever we say that word it predicts we are about to move away from them and they are going to feel an emotion they don’t like, so they can start to show anxiety as soon as they hear that word.
Also, saying the word ‘relax’ isn’t going to make Jax go “ah ok yes, sure, you’ve told me to chill so I will ignore my anxiety and relax now”!
5) When the above does not really work, and Graeme is essentially not sure what to do as he has been pushing Jax too far and he is always getting off the sofa and following, he says “we could use a couple of treats”, so gets the owner to say the word ‘relax’, move away a couple of steps, go back and give Jax a treat. I mean….credit where credit is due I guess, its pretty amazing to see Graeme using food rewards, but, it isn’t the right context here sadly.
I love using food rewards in all other aspects of training and behaviour work….using well timed food rewards (no – that is not bribery or ‘fluffy’ training!) to create alternative emotional responses and associations (bearing in mind all behaviour is driven by how the dog feels) and therefore modify behaviour works so well! But – not with separation anxiety. There are a number of reasons why, and that’s a topic for another post, but in this situation, all that is happening is Graeme is teaching Jax a rather nice ‘down stay’. He is lying on the sofa, ears priced and very alert, while the owner moves away, adding greater distance each time, then goes back to reward Jax. Is Jax relaxed? No. Is he waiting for the food? Yes. Is this helping him change how he feels about alone time and be more relaxed with it? Nope! This was a bit of a ‘trial and error’ approach by Graeme, something that is also seen later on in the programme too but is more concerning to me.
Additionally, lets remind you again about the presence of Graeme and the camera crew….meaning that Jax is not alone so this is not true to life anyway.
6) Also, when Graeme was getting the owner to move away and then go upstairs and tell Jax to ‘relax’, a couple of times Jax was looking at the camera, and, Graeme also held his finger up at Jax at least once and said “aahh”, possibly when he felt he might be about to get off the sofa and go and see where his Dad was. So is this really Jax becoming more relaxed with being apart from his Dad? Nope…especially when you look at the body language.
7) Then another day Graeme comes back to work on them leaving the house, and this is the part that concerns me because it was very much trial and error.
On the plus side (lets focus on those small glimmers) they did plug cameras round the house to supposedly keep an eye on Jax. Great. Cameras and being able to have eyes on your dog inside the house when working on a separation anxiety protocol is essential.
Guesswork and incorrect, outdated information
Then, however, it goes downhill. Graeme starts by saying “we’re gonna pop out for a minute. If he’s good we’ll be coming straight back in, ah good boy, that’s nice”. Now right off I knew a minute is WAY too long for this dog. Then Graeme starts to talk to the owner about how, if he comes back in when Jax is barking, the barking will work for Jax and therefore we will encourage him to bark when left alone. The owner is told to only come in when Jax is quiet. It is widely known, and has been for many many years, that emotions cannot be reinforced in the way behaviours can be reinforced (Rise VanFleet, 2011), so this is once again, out of date information that has been proven to be incorrect time and time again
8) There is NO mention of body language, of stress signs, of what ‘threshold’ means and why it is vital to keep Jax well under threshold when working on a separation anxiety protocol. The insinuation is that all we want to do is stop Jax barking. But I saw so many other signs of stress during this programme.
9) After both Graeme and owner leaving the house and Jax barking almost immediately and jumping at the window, Graeme got the owner to go and stand by the front door until Jax was quiet, then go in. Then repeat the same thing!! Not long after, the commentator on the programme said “Graeme’s plan of going out for ‘just one minute’ quickly comes tumbling down”, and Graeme himself says “it turns out a minute is too long”! He then suggests 15 seconds, but again he is not basing this on anything. Its just guess work. He is not looking at the behaviour that Jax displays.
So this is one of my main concerns with Graeme….he does not really know what he is doing. Not only is he guessing at the time to leave this dog, but he gets it wildly wrong! When I work with clients there is NO guess work. I identify various necessary information in the initial assessment, and then from then on all of the plans I set for each client on a daily basis are absolutely created with that individual dog in mind, and designed to ensure the owner comes back in the front door before that dog becomes anxious, and at the most feels slightly uncomfortable.
10) Then instead of going out of view, Graeme has himself and the owner stand on the driveway where Jax can see them from the front window, and Graeme says “look, there’s no panic anymore”! So apart from the fact he has leapt to the front window as soon as they left, licked his lips (stress sign) and now can see them anyway! Graeme would not have seen the lip lock even if he knew to look for it because he was not looking at the camera. Graeme then has the owner repeat this – of course we don’t know how many times due to TV editing (Ill mention this later) – and then they go out of sight.
When out of sight I don’t know if Graeme looked at the cameras, I think he maybe did a couple of times, but I would suggest maybe not because he kept going back out onto the drive to look at the front window and see if Jax was there, which he was, so again of course Jax will have seen HIM! That would have affected the behaviour!
11) Now at the end, yes, there is a clip of Jax lying on the sofa, alert, but not barking, but there is no mention of how many times this had been repeated, of how long that absence was etc, and that clip looked to me to be from the actual TV camera rather than the ‘in home’ cameras, in which case its not likely to be a clip of Jax when alone. Graeme also said “now that is a chilled dog”…..directed at Jax lying on the sofa very alert, ears up, looking intently forward. That is not what I would personally call a chilled dog!
Editing = hugely misleading to the general public
12) Finally….please when watching these shows dont forget the marvel that is TV editing!! NO behaviour is truly modified and emotions changed quickly. Yes behaviour can be suppressed fairly fast (that is absolutely NOT my bag and is hugely unethical), but it can become easy to think by watching TV shows that behaviour should be easy to change. It isnt and nor should it be. Think of humans – if we have anxiety, or fear of flying, or a phobia of needles, would we expect those to be magically fixed after one session with a therapist or a week of anti anxiety meds? No of course not.
Just because someone is on TV, does NOT mean they are giving good advice!
So if you have managed to get to the end of this – well done!! There was just so much in that short programme that bothered me, and I feel so strongly about separation anxiety and working on it the ‘right’ and ethical way.