Online Behavior Advice: Help or Harm?
Dog Training 101 has been successful beyond my wildest imagination. We now have over 50,000 members, with approximately 100 new members and about 10,000 views per day. We manage all this with the help of about 30 administrators and professional trainers who officially volunteer, plus the thousands of client-members who maintain our community spirit and joie de vivre. We have heard from thousands of our members that we helped keep their dogs in the home, or helped them live happier, more fulfilling, and less adversarial lives with their furry family.
Rules of engagement
Online advice is fraught with challenges in communication—people are very sensitive, even fragile, around dog training issues. They often feel as if they have failed. Unkind, unsympathetic, or judgmental advice almost guarantees the message will fall on deaf ears. So our first rule is be kind.
The trainers who have most influenced me, and thus the page, epitomize the art of kindness in dealing with dogs and clients alike by listening while being compassionate and empowering: Risë VanFleet, Grisha Stewart, Suzanne Clothier, and Daniel Munier (one of our amazing trainers on site).
Another critical issue is responsibly diagnosing the problem behaviors. Some clients are very good at laying out “just the facts,” while others tend toward more emotional interpretations. We have to ask questions to get at the issues while minimizing defensive responses. So instead of asking “Did you punish the dog?” we can ask “Is it possible you inadvertently scared the dog by…?” Additional communication challenges arise with technophobes or when English is not a first language; in those cases, we try to use simple language and avoid any jargon.
Who we are
We have a group of wonderful admins who help on a daily basis. It would be hard to call each one of them out individually (we have 16!), but they include professional dog trainers, psychology and sociology students, artists, and even people who have discovered the magic of dog bonding through Dogs 101. They are all people who demonstrate great human skills—perspicacity, compassion, grace, and the rare ability to avoid arguments. We have our “Trainers’ Circle,” a group of trainers who consistently exhibit an ability to take time with individuals, to be kind under pressure, and to diagnose and recommend treatments that are within current best practices. We also have a support page for the many “unvetted” trainers who volunteer. On this site we discuss more difficult training and diagnostic issues, peer-reviewed literature, client relations, and compassion fatigue. One of our favorite topics on this page is “how to reach clients” (we borrow a lot from Risë VanFleet’s book, and I have sent out numerous copies to aspiring and active trainers). It’s a real challenge to approach the internet with kindness each day, and our admins and trainers do a phenomenal job of supporting and inspiring each other.
Determining resources and best advice
One of the most important things we’ve had to do to be successful and avoid conflict is decide on which resources and methodologies we as admins and trainer-members should recommend. We post new and interesting videos and resources regularly on our trainers’ page and discuss pros and cons there. We have an informal list of trainers who we feel that we can recommend with almost no concerns, and others who we make sure to check each link or video more carefully before sharing it with people asking for help.
Originally, we discussed methods based on peer-reviewed research and personal experience. Members were expected to make their own educated decisions. Over the years, as the group got larger, discussions got more heated, arguments got repeated time and time again, and I personally counseled several members through rehoming or euthanizing their dogs. We realized we had to make things simpler for people seeking help. They didn’t know enough to make good choices, they often conflated moral barriers with effectiveness (e.g., they thought that if an intervention was placed higher on the humane hierarchy, that meant it was more effective). We reviewed all of the professional training organizations’ ethical statements and many well-known trainer and behavior consultant websites. We experimented with our own dogs. And, we conducted an online survey of the professional trainers on our site.
With several hundred professionals responding, our survey showed that even trainers who use aversives recommend having a professional teach aversive methods in person. Our professional colleagues (with members in IAABC, KPA, ABPT, CCPDT, and PPG) and our personal experience tell us that all basic behaviors can be taught using rewards-based methods, and that many pet owners can understand how to do this from written explanations or videos. We are truly Dogs 101: We use simple, readily available, and humane methods. Variations within those parameters are acceptable (with several hundred trainers and thousands of client-members, we get to review a lot of professional training videos). There is an amazing level of consistency across the good training videos—in each, you can see the basic principles of behaviorism at work. We do get a few that stand out as being unusual and effective, which we encourage (Leonard Cecil’s video on “participant modeling” stands out here). Client-members who are not seeing results with our recommended methods are encouraged to seek in-person help from a qualified professional as soon as possible.
Our hard line on “prohibited recommendations” is the intent to cause pain, discomfort, or fear (exemplified by things such as prong or electronic collars). I personally am very “pro-empowerment” and oppose compulsion, even in arguably “R+” methods such as “nothing in life is free,” but our admins and trainers vary. The bottom line is that we look for methods that are effective, do not cause pain or fear, and build trust between owner and dog. Our favorite trainers build in choice and enrichment. One area where the general consensus among admins and professionals differs from my personal opinion is in the use of crates. I am generally opposed to contemporary crating practices common in the U.S., but since it is “industry standard” (I estimate around 90% of the professionals on my site recommend crating dogs when you cannot be home), we allow crating options to be posted on the page.
How we help
Our top 10 questions all revolve around the reasons dogs get surrendered to shelters—house soiling, destruction (often separation anxiety issues), pulling on leash, jumping up, reactivity, barking, fear of strangers, resource guarding, in-home dog-dog aggression, and child-dog interaction issues. Occasionally we get brag posts or fun stuff like “how do I teach my dog to find me?”, but more than 50% of our posts are people who really are concerned and hoping to avoid rehoming their family member.
Many behavior problems are rooted in physiological issues such as medical problems or unmet needs. We try to address health and welfare concerns first and foremost (asking questions!), and progress more or less through the Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow 1943, Michaels 2015). This often means we recommend a vet visit, even recommending seeking a specialist or a second opinion. For some low-income clients, this can mean helping them find a low-cost clinic in their area. And, of course, we make people aware of veterinary behaviorists and the IAABC and CCPDT certified behaviorists.
For non-dangerous issues like potty training, we empathize with the owners and offer “best practice” approaches. Even for these, we frequently recommend a vet visit to rule out health issues such as urinary tract infections or gastrointestinal distress. We often refer people to specialists if we think that there might be additional issues such as an anxiety-based component to the behavior.
For more challenging (and potentially dangerous) issues such as resource guarding, reactivity, or fear, we try to give industry-standard best practice advice on management and training. We offer links to other resources (such as Kikopup or Glasgow Dog Trainer videos, articles from the Whole Dog Journal, or books such as Mine by Jean Donaldson or BAT 2.0 by Grisha Stewart), and we almost always refer the client to professional web-based organizations for in-person trainers or behaviorists (e.g., IAABC, PPG, APDT, CCPDT, and ACVB). We usually give them a few “expert tips” to alert them to special issues that novice handlers often miss, such as choosing an appropriate distance or increasing criteria too quickly. Perhaps most importantly, we instruct them that if they don’t see significant improvement, or if the behavior gets worse, to seek advice from a qualified professional. We reassure them there is no shame in seeking help and remind them ”in the words of Bob Bailey, ‘dog training is simple, but it isn’t easy!’”
When children are involved, we almost always start and end our advice with an exhortation to get professional help. We give links to appropriate resources to help them locate a reputable professional, as well as links to several web pages on living with children and dogs which cover basics such as “Be a Tree,” interpreting body language, and stress management.
Our main goal is to reassure people that they are not alone, that help is available, that there is no shame in having challenges, and refer them to the many excellent resources that are publicly available. We also try to have a fun and uplifting site. Many behavior problems are rooted in boredom or anxiety—by having a fun site, we can encourage people to engage more fully, spend more time, and have more fun with their pups. And for those who are really distressed—well, we all know it is easier to walk into a doctor’s office that has a suite of services such as daycare, mammograms, and pregnancy tests than to walk in to one that only has a large sign saying “STD TESTING”!
Challenging the critics
It’s amazing what you discover as you go along—I started the group with an eye toward modeling an academic classroom, and have moved toward a model more closely resembling a suicide hotline or social services program. We have serious ethical concerns about recommending treatments for aggression and fear-based issues—this comes up a lot because of the potential for someone to be hurt as the result of a client implementing a procedure they don’t fully understand, or because the dog has a more serious issue than is presented online, thus placing people and dogs in potentially dangerous situations. However, we also know that there are serious risks if we don’t offer support. A large proportion of our clientele either do not have access to a high-quality professional trainer, or will not access them for whatever reason. We also know they are already getting advice, much of it quite dangerous, from family and friends.
There is an enormous amount of information available online from other Facebook groups, YouTube, and blog sites. Much of this information is harmful or dangerous. As an experiment, I recently did a YouTube search for “resource guarding” and “separation anxiety.” My first three hits on both of them involved extensive use of negative reinforcement and punishment—techniques that are considered “last resort” under the ethical guidelines of all of the major professional organizations. As professionals, we know that these techniques are not only ethically distressing, they may be ineffective or downright dangerous.
Finally, while what we do may be seen as competing with ethical professionals, I believe we actually reduce the inhibition clients may have toward getting professional help. There is some evidence from the health model that getting good, low-cost, empathetic, and non-judgmental advice actually reduces embarrassment and prepares the client for seeing a professional (e.g., Czyz et al. 2013, Rickwood et al. 2005). We regularly refer our client-members to existing high-quality resources, provide emotional support, and encourage them to seek professional help. So while we are sympathetic to the argument that an in-person trainer is critical to correctly diagnosing a behavior issue, we believe that the best way to get them to a professional is for them to get high-quality online support.
We welcome new trainers to the Dogs 101 site! It is an enormous task and our “open admission” policy means that our professional to amateur ratio is low. Getting and retaining high-quality professional trainers—even if just for a comment a week—is critical to our continued success keeping dogs out of shelters. It is also an excellent way for trainers to practice client communication and diagnostic skills. If you want to join—just let us know!
Testimonials from the Group
Testimonials from the Group
Testimonials from the Group
I’d like to thank our admins without whom Dogs 101 would be impossible:
Rachel Emery, Johnna Perkins, Cliff Erhardt, Katie Fleming, Mandy Widmark, Emily Stewart, Cole Faust, Brenda Migliorino Rogers, Debbie Craycraft. Tasha Wilson, Gemma Legg, Lindsay Marie, Cameron Coale, Jackie Thomas, and Zoe Darley.
Caitlin Coberly Ph.D is an ecological consultant, survey tech, dog trainer, and the proud “mom” to a small farm including eight amazing Pointers, four elderly horses, three cats, and innumerable bees and pigeons. As a dog trainer, she focuses on fundamental well-being and working with natural instincts, including force-free bird dog training.
Czyz, E. K., Horwitz, A. G., Eisenberg, D., Kramer, A., & King, C. A. (2013). Self-reported barriers to professional help-seeking among college students at elevated risk for suicide. Journal of American College Health 61(7), 398–406.