A few weeks ago, I started seeing posts on social media from dog trainers I know and admire, warning people about a new show on Netflix called “Canine Intervention.” The show features a dog trainer named Jas Leverette, who says, “I help the dogs that no one else will.”
I watched the first three (of six) episodes that currently appear on Netflix, and my first thought was, “Here we go again.”
The show is scripted and filmed like any reality TV show: Fairly ordinary situations are filmed in a way that dramatizes the problems people are having with their dogs, making the dogs seem incredibly dangerous and destructive, and the trainer is engaged in such a way as to appear near-heroic. He’s shown dispensing pithy pearls of dog-training wisdom, with other brief animal-behavior “facts” appearing in type on screen. Within each hour-long episode, the dog’s problems are improved or resolved.
That’s a good thing, right? We all want people to enjoy their dogs more, and to learn how to train them! So why are so many trainers upset about the show?
There are three major issues: The first is that Leverette is a self-described “balanced trainer.” This has come to mean someone who uses food treats, toys, and praise to reinforce behaviors that they want from a dog – and physical “corrections” to punish unwanted behaviors. Though Leverette also describes his training as “modern,” up-to-date training professionals understand that while force-based training can be effective, there are MANY reasons it’s best avoided:
- Not everyone can make appropriate corrections with the timing required to make them effective
- Not everyone wants to use force with their dogs
- Most significantly, poorly timed or inappropriate corrections are nearly guaranteed to worsen the dog’s behavior and increase his frustration, triggering defensive aggression.
But the usual justifications for the use of force are trotted out. In the first episode, a guy described as a tech-business owner has adopted a pit bull-mix who displays aggression with strangers and visitors to the tech-guy’s home. Leverette says, “If we don’t fix this, this dog is not gonna have a long future…. She won’t have a second chance….” The owner agrees. “This is life or death, pretty much, for her.”
This sort of language triggers educated dog trainers. If an owner is motivated, there are always more ways to train a dog in order to “save” them, without having to resort to pain-inducing tools and methods. And in cases of aggression, it’s well-established that the use of pain, force, and fear in training often worsens aggression.
Don’t get me wrong. Leverette is not shown flagrantly inflicting pain on the dogs; he’s a much more skilled trainer than that. It’s just that his methods call for making the dog do what he wants, when he wants – even if the dog is “flooded” and completely “over threshold,” physiologically aroused past a state of being able to learn. Instead, the dogs simply learn to give up and give in to the force being used.
By the way, it’s never called out or shown explicitly, but when you first see each “problem dog,” they are generally wearing wide collars. When Leverette begins work with them, they are wearing very thin cord-like slip collars. This allows the dogs to be controlled with a lot less overt force; it’s too painful and choking to pull or “act like a fool” (as one owner describes his dog’s problematic behavior) with a narrow cord on your throat. Look carefully and you can see that with these collars, resistance is futile for all but the most defensive dogs; they have to submit. This doesn’t mean they are learning anything, however.
Second, Leverette uses a lot of language that more educated trainers eschew as outdated, meaningless, and immaterial to the science of behavior modification. He issues “commands” instead of talking about “cues” for behavior. Families are described as “packs” and owners are encouraged to be “pack leaders.” Though this sounds kind of cool, exactly how this is accomplished is never well articulated. “Dogs need to trust their pack leader,” Leverette says in the first episode. Um, okay… What, exactly, should an owner do to make their dog trust them? How will we know when a dog trusts us? And how will “trust” make him understand what I want when I cue a behavior? It’s just fuzzy language that sounds good, but can’t actually be described in concrete or useful terms.
In his training, Leverette promotes the use of a plywood platform that he calls a “box.” “In my system, the box is an important training tool to teach new behaviors,” he says in the first episode. “It’s also a first step in establishing the pack leadership that’s necessary,” he says, while the on-screen caption echoes this: “Obedience depends on a dog’s trust and respect for their pack leader.” Again, this is ridiculous. All sorts of animals can be trained to do all sorts of behaviors without much knowledge of their handlers at all. (Want examples? See here, and here, and here. I could do this all day!)
Demystified, the use of Leverett’s box is simply using a platform (a mat can be used just as effectively) as a “station” – a place where the dog is heavily reinforced when he returns to it or remains there. Using a platform, box, mat, or Hula-Hoop on the ground and giving the dog a high rate of high-value rewards will reinforce the behavior of going to and staying in that spot – it has nothing to do with trust or leadership whatsoever. You can train a wild animal or bird to do it, if you want to. (Read this article to see how our Training Editor Pat Miller teaches a dog to “go to your mat.” Or this one, for another perspective.)
My third objection: Anyone who actually trains dogs – including Leverette himself – knows that while a skilled trainer can change a dog’s behavior dramatically in a very short time, it takes much longer for the dog to really learn. The goal is to get them to understand what is desired of their behavior when given specific cues and to motivate them to work for the reinforcements they understand will follow if they performs the desired behavior. In an hour-long TV-show format, even if the passage of time is accurately reflected (as when Leverette takes the dog in the first episode back to his business location for a several-week intensive “board and train” experience), when the dog is returned to the owner much improved, it would appear that the trainer is some sort of miracle worker. Most ethical trainers will tell you: With some instruction, if you worked with your dog for the number of hours each day that I can assure you that the TV dog trainer actually worked with the dog, you’d likely look like a miracle worker, too.
As with that other famous TV dog trainer, it makes for good TV when dogs can be shown displaying dramatic, aggressive-seeming behavior – and then transform in the hands of the trainer into much calmer dogs. But we know that pain (from choke, pinch, or shock collars, including the very thin slip collars that Leverette uses on dogs in the show) can be used to quickly suppress a dog’s dramatic response to whatever stimuli has them worked up – and that pain cannot change how they feel about that stimuli. Without having experienced a change in how they feel about the stimuli that stressed them in the first place, if, back at their owner’s home, there is no painful consequence for responding in a dramatic way, then the behavior will return. Suppressed responses will need to be maintained by continued painful consequences.
In contrast, true behavior modification changes how the dog feels about the stimulus, by initially managing his exposure to it while reinforcing his calm behavior and choice to (eventually) ignore the stimulus. He learns a more desirable (to us) behavior and classical conditioning comes along for the ride, as he (eventually) finds a previously stressful stimulus to be enjoyable as he gets reinforced for his better (more desirable to us) choices.
It’s clear that Leverette is knowledgeable about behavior modification; with the dog who bit several of the owner’s friends (in the first episode), he’s shown doing some desensitization with the dog. But the process isn’t explained in accurate terms; it’s all dumbed down into populist garbage talk (in my opinion); when the captions read at one point, “A dog without a pack leader is a dog who will ignore obedience commands,” I wanted to throw things at the TV! Come ON! But I understand that the way I would put it wouldn’t be simplistic enough for TV: A dog who hasn’t been reinforced with things that are valuable to him for responding to consistent cues with specific behaviors won’t respond to those cues!
I have to say, there were some things about the show that I liked. I am very appreciative that Netflix made a show featuring a person of color (Leverette is African-American); many of his clients, too, are people of color. It appears that he mentors, trains, and hires other POC, and is committed to spiritual practice, his community, and his family. He seems like a genuinely good guy. It also seems like Leverette is much more focused on the practice of dog training – actually teaching cues and specific behaviors to his canine students – than the last popular dog-guy on TV, though he, too, was full of all this pack-leader “dominance” baloney. And YES, all this “dominance” talk is absolute hooey. Read this informative statement about training and “dominance” from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
It’s entirely possible that the TV production company that made the show has run roughshod over Leverette, forcing him to reduce his actual training philosophies and techniques into the catchy little sound bites and captions that so offend me and the trainers I know. Whether he believes them or not, though, my fear is that when inexperienced dog owners see and hear dog training reduced to ambiguous statements about “leadership,” all they absorb is that they aren’t being tough enough with their dogs. It’s no different than saying, “You just have to hold your mouth right!”
The problem with “TV trainers” in general is that TV producers want drama – and good dog training is not dramatic! Teaching people to effectively communicate with their dogs, to give the dogs clear direction and quick feedback when they’ve done the “right” thing, may not reduce to a TV-worthy caption or resolve nicely in an hour. But I wish someone in television production would figure out a way to present truly modern dog training in a way that gave viewers basic instruction in easy-to-accomplish, dog-friendly training. It might not garner the kind of ratings that training celebrities’ dogs might earn, but by demystifying the process and breaking it down just like a puppy kindergarten class, it might actually help WAY more dogs and people.