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Positive Training Fail - Scout's Story

Several years ago, we met a 3-year-old hound mix named Scout. The owners were at the end of their rope. Scout did not like the TV. Anytime they tried to watch TV he would attack it. And he didn't just bark or make noise, he literally jumped up and punched the TV, knocking it over and breaking it. The owners had rescued Scout a year before and had been unable to watch TV with him in the room since. They were very kind owners who wanted to do the best by Scout. They sought out the help of a behavioralist and had been under the care of that trainer for 9 months. The traditional path of training for this type of reactivity is to find the threshold for the dog (the closest point the dog can be to the offending stimulus without reacting) and treat them profusely. The theory is that you are trying to build a positive association with the stimuli while slowly moving the dog closer and closer and extending the exposure time - treating the whole way. After 9 months and thousands of dollars in training, the owners were able to watch 4 minutes of TV with Scout 20 feet away before Scout would flip out.  

Needless to say, this approach is not convenient to daily life. They contacted us to see if there was anything we could do to help. Scout was a very sweet boy with lots of energy and eager to please. Scout had a very high prey drive, which means he wanted to "get" anything that moved quickly - squirrels, rabbits, wheels, and movement on the TV. And if you think about it - guess what hound dogs like Scout have been bred to do for decades?? To chase and corner all different kinds of critters! So his tendencies makes sense, right?

When we look at a dog and family partnership like this, what we see is a simple lack of communication. Scout is a very friendly, outgoing dog who loves his family, but doesn't understand what they are asking him to do. He doesn't like the TV and the movement. The only thing the owners were told to do is give him cheese when the TV is on for short periods of time. Can you see why Scout might be confused? This may make some sense to us, but it is not a clear message in dog language. 

We held Scout on a leash about 10 feet from the TV and told the owners to turn it on. When Scout started getting fixated on the screen we told him 'NO' in a very firm, deep voice and gave him a leash correction. He broke his fixation on the screen and looked at us like "What was that??!!" When he looked at me and stopped getting overstimulated I gave him a treat. We did this a few times and Scout started ignoring the TV. I had the owners practice and Scout was listening to just the 'NO' command and was enjoying the exercise. Our visit took about 45 minutes and we completely fixed the problem this poor family had been struggling with for 9 months.  

Unfortunately, the family had originally gone to an "All Positive" trainer who was trying to fix the problem with the same techniques that zoo keepers use to train wild animals in captivity. These techniques can work well if the animal is under complete control and your full time job is to get them to learn the desired activity. If the animal lives in your home and cannot be caged 24 hours a day, how can we expect this approach to be realistic? How much time can a person be expected to spend training their dog every day? Luckily for Scout, this family was very patient. Most owners would have returned him to the shelter where Scout would have been at risk for being euthanized because the problem would have resurfaced at any home that had a TV in it. By simply communicating with Scout in a manner that more closely resembled dog language - black and white, yes and no - we were able to get him to understand exactly what we wanted him to do.  

To us, this is the fair way to train a dog. We believe that most people want to keep their rescued dogs and do right by them, but they need the fastest, most convenient way to stop unwanted behavior. How many people do you know who would spend thousands of dollars and countless hours of training in order to watch 4 minutes of TV? Not many. Let's start listening to what our four-legged family members are trying to tell us! By listening more to them, we are building a two-way communication that will create the best possible relationship you can have with your dog.

Good boy, Scout!