As someone who runs a pet care company in Manhattan I had a lot of hope for the new CBS show “Dogs in the City”. The host Justin Silver seemed like the perfect pick for a show about the trials and tribulations of urban dog ownership. I couldn’t wait to watch this dog trainer who moonlights as a comedian! “Dogs in the City” was going to be my new summer stress-relief show and I was looking forward to watching a man who could educate his clients and make light of what those of us in the business do on a daily basis.
The pilot episode “I Speak Dog” (CBS Wednesdays at 8pm) began by introducing us to three of Justin’s clients who needed help with three very different problems. We meet Beefy the famous skateboarding bulldog who isn’t walking with his owner’s new wife or letting her sleep peacefully at night. Rosie is a lovely Bernese mountain dog whose owner is concerned about her weight and food consumption. Charlotte spends her days at work with her owner but has a bite history and lunges at everyone in the office.
Justin Silver was entertaining, the dogs were cute, and I was pumped!
And then the show came back from commercial.
And I was yelling at the screen for the next 45 minutes.
One of my life goals is to help educate the public about proper dog handling skills and punishment free training methods that are scientifically proven to be both the most humane and successful methods available to us. I am rooting for Karen Pryor and Victoria Stilwell to overshadow the poor training knowledge of the Zeitgeist. When “Dogs in the City” aired, Positive Reinforcement Trainers everywhere got a huge slap in the face. When Justin Silver was called a behaviorist on “The Talk” we got a fist in the gut. When he “taught” Rosie the “Leave It” command by pushing her in the chest and hitting her in the chin Positive Reinforcement Trainers everywhere received a giant knock out blow to the head.
My heart sinks knowing that so many viewers are going to watch this and “try it at home”. I’m going to do what I can to support my corner. I welcome feedback from owners, walkers, pet sitters, trainers, and behaviorists. I don’t know everything, but as someone who works with an amazing trainer and city dogs every day I do know that there is a better way. Welcome to “Dogs in the City DEBUNKED!”
EPISODE 1: I SPEAK DOG
Please watch the episode to better understand Justin’s solutions. I sum up the solutions below.
Client: Beefy, the Skateboarding Bulldog
Issues: Beefy won’t walk with his owner’s new wife & has separation anxiety
Justin Silver’s Solution for Separation Anxiety: Beefy is barking at his owners when they are in bed and he is not. To curb this Justin puts beefy behind a gate and has his owner (Patrick) step out of sight. When Beefy starts barking Justin gives him a treat stuffed Kong. Then he has Patrick show himself to Beefy and yell NO!
Justin Silver’s Solution for Walking: Justin brings his own dog to help train Beefy. Then Justin puts a martingale collar on Beefy and has Patrick’s wife jerk the collar so that Beefy will walk. They he gives him chicken.
DEBUNKED: Separation Anxiety: Justin Silver is rewarding Beefy for barking. Instead of giving him a treat filled Kong to occupy him and then walking away he gives him the treat filled Kong after he’s been barking. This is rewarding the barking and sending the message that barking = food reward. When he has Patrick come back into Beefy’s eyesight while he’s barking this is rewarding the barking with exactly what he wants: his owner! Justin is teaching Beefy that barking is going to bring his owner back. Essentially, Justin makes the problem worse by reinforcing exactly the behavior he is supposed to be eliminating. Walking: Justin brings his own dog to this appointment and states that his dog is going to help teach Beefy to walk. Then he ties the dog up and ignores it for the entire session. He introduces Beefy to a martingale collar, which is the less severe version of a choke collar. Martingale collars and choke collars cause damage to the trachea and spine (Martingale collars are much less severe and less damaging and are useful for breeds like grey hounds because their heads are the same diameter as their necks. Using a cloth martingale on a grey hound makes sense because the tightening action prevents it from slipping off. Using a martingale on a bulldog is unnecessary). He has the owner give Beefy what he calls a “cue” but is really a “correction” to let Beefy know that it is time to walk by pulling on the leash and tightening the collar around the dog’s throat. This is not a command (like “lets go!”) but an unnecessary correction. He is not teaching the dog a new command or how to walk but simply correcting him . We only see the owner walk 3 steps with the dog, choke Beefy again and then give him chicken. I don’t call 3 steps a walk, do you? Adding the chicken as a reward after the choke makes the association in Beefy’s brain that choke = chicken. What does that have to do with walking? And didn’t he say his dog was going to help with the lesson?
Client: Rosie, a gorgeous Bernese Mountain Dog
Issues: Owners are concerned about her weight & She eats everything
Justin Silver’s Solution for Rosie: Justin takes Rosie to the vet to make sure that she is a healthy weight and to get sound nutritional advice. Then he teaches Rosie “leave it” by pushing her in the chest and hitting her underneath the chin when she goes for food he has dropped on the ground. He makes “eheh!” noises when she looks at the food. When Rosie is ignoring the food Justin gives her the food he said she couldn’t have.
DEBUNKED: While I appreciate that Justin took Rosie to the vet, using force to “teach” a dog is not okay. Nor is rewarding the dog with the item that it was supposed to ignore. This simply teaches the dog not to grab the item right away when its owner says “leave it” but to wait a second and then it is okay to go grab the item. “Leave it” is not about teaching her when it’s okay to eat the food. “Leave it” is supposed to teach a dog to leave whatever it is they’re going for… and that they are not going to get that item ever. Instead, they should get something else from you, be it a favorite healthy treat, a toy, or even praise and some love.
Client: Charlotte, who goes to work with her owner
Issues: Bites & Lunges people and dogs that enter the office
Justin Silver’s Solution for Office Aggression: Justin first tells his client that she should leave her dog at home until the aggression has been curbed. Then he draws an invisible line on the floor and instructs the owner not to let Charlotte go past that line. He tethers Charlotte to a spot underneath a desk to limit her movement. His final advice to the owner is to warn guests that she is there and to come out of the office to speak to them.
DEBUNKED: When Justin enters the office and Charlotte lunges at him Justin allows the behavior. Why not turn his back and cross his arms to both protect him and teach Charlotte that jumping gets her nothing? This is dog-handling 101 but I guess he didn’t get the memo. Props to Justin for telling his client to leave the dog at home but unfortunately, this is not what happens. Nor does he work on changing Charlotte’s behavior at all. He teaches his client how to manage the behavior, BADLY. He tethers Charlotte underneath a desk, creating an area that she will probably start guarding. While they are “practicing” the new set-up Charlotte bites another dog! As his ending solution is that the owner come out of her office to greet clients there has clearly been no progress. I also have to mention that he continually calls this an “aggressive” problem when the correct term is aggression. He also says “The aggressive case is when the dog is misunderstood and protecting his owners” as if all aggression cases are the same. There are so many causes of aggression from protecting/guarding to insecurity, anxiety, fear, etc. A lot of aggression cases in NYC stem from the lack of proper socialization.
Next time on Dogs in the City DEBUNKED: We look into Justin Silver’s training background and qualifications. Hint… he doesn’t have any.