This blog relates to the seventh episode in the third series of ‘Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly’ shown on Channel 5 on 16.02.21. It is a version of an official complaint to Channel 5, Ofcom, the RSPCA and the Guild of Dog Trainers. I should point out that the three cases discussed below are just examples and that, almost without exception, cases of animal abuse are evidenced in EVERY episode.
The program goes downhill within the first two minutes when the narrator, Joanna Scanlan, announces, “He (Graeme Hall) has helped many owners…………….with his no nonsense techniques”. This implies domination over the dogs. We know from research that dogs to not form an inter-species linear hierarchy – that is within their human family – and do not respond well to dominance training (as with children). Dogs will communicate with us using body language and posturing, facial expressions, barking and other vocalizations, and rely on COOPERATION between the species. The techniques advocated, including a case of ‘flooding’, have the potential to be extremely dangerous (to the human) with the consequential repercussion of a worsening of the unwanted behaviour and psychological withdrawal of the dog. These I discuss below. Punishment techniques are self rewarding for the trainer in the sense that it appears to have quick results, (ideal for a 15 minute TV slot) encouraging even more punishment. If the punishment does NOT work, equally the temptation is to escalate this until a battle of wills ensues, the dog/human relationship potentially breaks down, and the dog learns nothing other than helplessness. In any event the dog cannot learn if he/she is frightened.
The first dog was a Border collie called Frank. Frank becomes highly aroused with much barking when his owners get up to answer the phone, make a cup of tea or get ready to leave the house. After an initial assessment Mr Hall says, “I can tell you what it ISN’T, separation anxiety”. Not only IS the dog suffering acute separation anxiety the dog has, I would suggest, multiple behavioural problems subject to further questioning, including canine obsessive disorder (COD) – chasing his tail, which Hall either misses or chooses to ignore. The protocol for dealing with this would be a program of systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning (SDCC) over an extended period of days, weeks, even months. Hall does not mention this. Instead of this, Hall proclaims, “He (Frank) needs someone to look up to”, whilst the narrator proudly announces, “Frank needs to be shown who’s boss”. In other words a training program based on intimidation, punishment and negative reinforcement, the LAST thing Frank needs. Hall then goes on to give a firm “No” – a negative interrupter (NI) (why not a positive interrupter – (PI)?) and proclaim, “How long did that take?” I would suggest a nanosecond but what has the dog actually learnt? To do nothing, as Hall admits. Doing nothing is a ‘non-behaviour’ – he should actually be teaching the dog an alternative or incompatible behaviour using differential reinforcement (DRA/I) as part of the desensitisation protocol. This could be something as simple as going to bed – if the dog is in bed he cannot be chasing his tail! Hall is encouraging the owners to shout “No” and “Quiet” at the barking dog, adding to the dog’s excitement and anxiety, who presumably thinks they are joining in (with the barking). Furthermore, he encourages the lady of the house to “Puff your chest out a bit”. The dog, which is already in a hyper aroused state, may perceive this as threat with the potential for a counter attack. And, we haven’t even started on the underlying problem of separation anxiety!
The second dog is a Labrador called Lulu. Lulu is showing ‘food aggression’, one facet of the broader behaviour of resource guarding. Unless this is dealt with in early puppyhood it can become an exasperating problem for the owners, as was clearly the case. At one point Hall suggested that euthanasia may be the solution. The owner, in his innocence, believes he has to adopt the ‘alpha’ roll in order to take the dog’s food away although it is not made clear why he wants to take the food away in the first place and is egged on by Hall. As with Frank, the unwanted behaviour may take many weeks of caring and patient desensitisation and counter conditioning rather than the confrontational methods Hall advocates. After a period of such confrontation, Lulu freezes as if resigned, her erect hackles can clearly be seen along the length of her back (piloerection) and, what looks like saliva, can be seen drooling from her mouth. This part is particularly difficult to watch and is reminiscent of a torture scene. Her torment is palpable! Hall fails to mention, or point out to the owners, her body language. What are Hall, the director and the camera crew thinking here? The dog is obviously suffering EXTREME distress all in the name of entertainment. Please, please remove the dog from the situation followed by a period of calming and reassurance rather than the onslaught of the bullying techniques and torment on show! Towards the end, Hall declares, “I want to ramp this up” and encourages the owner to leave his fingers in the bowl. REALLY!
The third dog is a Husky called Nico who has a fear of stairs. Hall’s answer to this is to force the dog up the stairs by pulling on his lead. This appeared to work at the first attempt, but I wonder how many ‘takes’ were actually needed and what ‘training’ occurred whilst the cameras were switched off? He even admits, “There has to be an element of you HAVE to do it”. The dog does not HAVE to do anything against his will. Patient encouragement with one of the the owners calling from the top of the stairs, with the other one freely leading with a food lure, as happened eventually, would be the most obvious solution. The use of food rewards (or any primary rewards) are conspicuous by their absence throughout the whole episode. Food is know to be a major motivator for dogs. Here, Hall is employing the controversial method of ‘flooding’. If not carried out with sensitivity it can go BADLY wrong with the potential for an attack and the dog’s fear being reinforced – the stairs being associated with the punishment (Pavlovian conditioning) – followed by the inevitable fallout – learned helplessness.
Notwithstanding any of the above, common sense, humanity and compassion tells me this cannot be right. The dog owning public are led to believe archaic methods of cruelty and punishment are correct and acceptable. Not only is this in contravention of the Animal Welfare Act (2006) but has also set reward based training (R+) back by many decades. Before any training program is drawn up, a health questionnaire, possibly even a vet check, would be helpful. I must seek a second opinion from the Guild of Dog Trainers, of which Hall is a member, to establish if they condone these methods.
I would suggest the program comes with a warning – ‘DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME’. There is a real potential for someone to get seriously hurt!
NB: As of 7th May, Channel 5 plans to continue with the program with a new, 4th series. Ofcom are taking no action. The Guild of Dog Trainers is silent on the matter. The RSPCA and Dogs Trust, however, have launched a joint investigation. I and my colleagues are also in discussion with Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and Blue Cross.
The related blog here discusses this further: https://volatileplanet.blog/2021/02/07/the-cannel-5-debacle-the-abuse-of-dogs-in-the-name-of-entertainment/