This article was originally written for the IAABC website, and has frequently been requested to hand out to dog owners.
You can find a substantial amount of dog training on television these days. But, just like network sitcoms and dramas, quality varies. So how to you watch a television show dealing with matters canine and evaluate what you're seeing? Your training philosophy may or may not be the same as mine, but in the spirit of somewhat scientific inquiry, I think these points will help you make an assessment.
1. Remember you are watching television. That means, at the very least, that you're not seeing training and results in real time. Any ill responses can be edited out. What looks in the program like it took mere minutes may actually have been edited dowm from hours of real time. Events may even be shown in an order other than what occurred in real life. Some of this may be done simply to meet time constraints, but others reasons could be less benign -- to make the star of the show look better, to imply that the technique being shown is faster/easier than it actually is, to omit anything producers would prefer viewers not see. Always keep in mind that television presents a skewed view of reality, partly from necessity and partly from motives of one sort or another.
2. Give some thought to any disclaimers or warnings the show may contain. Yes, we live in a litigious society and producers want to protect themselves, but if a dog training program is broadcast with the caveat "do not attempt this at home," then it isn't serving any real education purpose. It's either nothing more than pure entertainment or it's a purely commercial message masquerading as a regular show. Think about it -- if you aren't supposed to use the techniques being shown, what are you meanto to get out of the show?
3. Turn off the sound so you don't hear what the trainer or the voiceover may be saying, and watch the body language of the dog. Make up your own mind about if the dog is enjoying the experience, if the dog is stressed, what you think the dog might be learning. Most programs repeat regularly (and many people have Tivo), so wathc the first time with the sound off, make note of your observations, then watch again with the volume up, and see how the show's version of what is happening agrees or disagrees with what you saw. Don't just assume that the trainer is right and you are wrong.
4. Ask yourself "is this something I want to do/would enjoy doing with my dog?" Unless your dog has serious behavioral issues (in which case you need face-to-face help from a behavior specialist), training should be enjoyable for both of you. If you don't like what you're doing, odds are you won't do it as often or as wholeheartedly as you should. Training works best in frequent short sessions, so you need to do it often. If you don't like what you're doing, that's not likely.
5. Don't be swayed by the physical appearance, voice, or "presence" of the show host. You may enjoy listening to him or watching her, but that has little to do with the effectiveness of the training. Watch the dog or, if the camera angle permits, watch the face of the owner as training is done to her or his dog. Do they look like they're enjoying the experience, or are they apprehensive or alarmed? Show hosts are chosen because producers expect the audience to like them and tune in to see them. That doesn't make them reputable experts.
6. Look for any follow-up informaiton. Does the show go back and check in on how the dogs and owners are doing? Are the owners given any instructions for how to continue their training? Don't just assume that what may have looked like it worked in the show continued working indefinitely. Training is a fluid process that often requires ongoing adjustment.
This is just a half dozen basic techniques for assessing what you're seeing. If you watch just to watch, it doesn't matter, but if you're thinking about applying anything you see on tv to your interactions with your own dog, please take the time to give it some serious thought.