Friday, July 20, 2012

Are Dog Training Reality Shows Helpful or Hurtful?

By Julia Williams

Given the popularity of “reality TV” programs and the large number of pet owners in the world, it’s not really surprising that dog training reality shows exist. First there was the Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan. Then came Victoria Stillwell’s It’s Me or the Dog, aka “Supernanny for dogs.” More recently, CBS began airing episodes of Dogs in the City with Justin Silver.

I've watched that show, but since I just have cats it was purely for entertainment purposes rather than learning about dog training or getting tips to solve a dog behavior problem. From that perspective, it’s amusing to watch; however, I’m aware that many dog owners and dog trainers have major issues with the methods and scenarios portrayed on the show, and I think they have valid concerns.

I do believe it’s possible for a dog owner to glean some helpful information from Dogs in the City or any other dog training reality show, and in that respect these shows could be helpful. Still, they might just as easily be detrimental…to the dog as well as their family.

The main concerns I have with owners taking tips from a dog training reality show are 1) unrealistic expectations, 2) the “one size fits all” misconception and 3) unsafe training techniques. I’ll cover each of those briefly.

Unrealistic Expectations

Most people understand that reality shows are scripted just like every other TV program. Scenarios are meticulously planned, executed and edited until there is little, if any, resemblance to real life. No network would ever take the chance that “good TV” just magically happened while the cameras rolled, and dog training reality shows are no exception.

Nevertheless, some people mistakenly believe that a behavior problem presented on the show can actually be resolved as quickly and easily as they make it seem. People buy into the show’s concept that you can make a few minor adjustments and voila, your misbehaving dog becomes an angel and everyone lives happily ever after. Sadly, that’s not going to happen in real life, because good dog training takes patience, consistency, commitment, practice and time.

One Size Fits All

Dog training reality TV shows would have you believe that you could employ the same techniques used on the show with your own dog and have a positive outcome. That’s not necessarily true because every dog is an individual, and what works for someone else’s dog may not work for yours. A dog’s age, temperament, history and physical ability should all be considered, and could affect whether a technique will be successful or not. Despite what’s shown on the show, there is no “one size fits all” solution to any dog behavior problem.

Unsafe Training Techniques

This is the biggest issue I have with dog training reality shows. When Dogs in the City first aired, many online discussions centered around the qualifications (or lack thereof) of Justin Silver, the show’s star. Dog trainers in particular doubted the claims that he was a dog behaviorist in real life, and said he was actually a stand-up comic and a dog walker with no formal education or experience as a dog trainer.

I didn’t research Justin Silver’s background, so I don’t know if he’s qualified to give out dog training tips on television. What I do know is that, again, this is a reality TV show and not real life. It’s entirely possible that CBS chose him not for his dog training skills or experience, but for his likeability and good looks. Yes, he’s cute, funny and charismatic, but that doesn’t mean he’s presenting safe training techniques. In fact, there are many examples online of specific techniques of his that both dog trainers and dog owners took issue with. One said “As a trainer I was appalled at some of the things I have seen on each episode… I would not recommend this show to any client as a way to pick up more tips.”

I also saw things that could be incredibly harmful if anyone in real life attempted them with their own dog. One episode featured a severely overweight and overfed Puggle. Justin’s recommendations for a proper diet and providing more exercise were fine. The family played games with the dog at a park and then Justin told them they’d be going on a 5k run with the dog later that day! They filmed the poor obese dog dutifully trotting along with his overweight owners, and they all triumphantly crossed the finish line.

Now, a responsible pet owner would take their dog to the vet for a thorough checkup before undergoing any exercise regimen. They certainly wouldn’t make an obese dog run a 5k race when the only exercise they ever got before was waddling into the kitchen for their CANIDAE food! Maybe what was shown was the way it actually went down, but more likely it was all for dramatic effect.

I can’t say this often enough – reality TV dog training is not real life. Problems arise when dog owners who don’t know anything about dog training or how reality shows work decide to try out what they see. I really wish these types of shows came with a warning, something along the lines of, “This show is for entertainment purposes only. Do not try this at home.”

Photo by gomagoti

Read more articles by Julia Williams


  1. Ah yes - like the time it took my brother-in-law two days to retile my bathroom. I said, "It doesn't take this long for Mike Holmes on tv." (The conversation, much like the television program, is edited here. I am really not that horrible of a person). Completely unrealistic expectations.

  2. Oh I so agree with you. I don't like any of those reality shows. They are not really real in my opinion. And those dog training or cat stuff is pretty darn scary. I agree that all dogs and cats have different personalities and so do the owners. That is a crime to take an overweight dog on a run. It gives me the chilly bumps. There are so many obedience schools, people should do. Thanks for this post.

  3. Plus the TV people do such a very QUICK job of training a dog, and we who train at home know it just doesn't work so fast.

    It requires showing, doing, showing and doing, helping the dog to know just what you want. I think it takes a while, especially with a willful dog like mine!


  4. What a good article. We don't get a lot of these types of shows out here (tho we're just getting that 'My Cat from Hell' show starting next week) I guess it's like with any of those reality shows - don't try this at home!

  5. Fantastic assessment, Julia. Unfortunately, just like with crime dramas and everything else on TV, the storyline must be solved and tied up with a pretty bow at the end of the episode. Reality becomes very disjointed, unrealistic, and quite the opposite of what it is trying to teach us!

  6. Great post, Julia. This is a good word of caution to people not to just blindly copy what they see on TV ... each animal is different and unique!

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Have a great weekend (and tell your kitties we say "hi!")

  7. We don't watch those shows, but the scenario you described is really scary, not even good entertainment.

  8. I have 4 cats and they are all different, I agree with what you write!


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