‘The Dog Whisperer’ & other animal TV shows – Entertainment over Education?

Even though we’re acutely aware of how the media distorts realities to captivate our attention and play with our sensitivities, we still fall victim of their games. In the past 50 years, diversity gave way to just a handful of mega companies that self-righteously shape our values, our beliefs and our decisions. As we’ve learned more about human psychology, we also gave power of control to those who know what we like, what we dream of and what we react to. So to stand out amongst the many other shows available, the media is feeding us with what works: the sensational, the cruel and the spectacular. As animal lovers, we can get very emotional when presented with scenes of animal love or animal cruelty. But reality is never that entertaining. Life is more balanced, evolves at a slower pace and is multifaceted. Yet, with many animals in desperate need for better living conditions, whether in the wild, in zoos or in our homes, we need to keep learning about their needs and pay attention to what’s going on. We need real information, not exaggerated, outdated or purposely distorted perspectives that only give us a narrow understanding of any given issue. I’m a believer in education so I appreciate any effort to bring forth information. Without REAL knowledge, we can’t make real progress. The data is out there for those who look for it, in books, the internet, seminars or specialized magazines, but rarely on television. Even in an era where media is everywhere, the challenge today is bringing the right information to the broader public.

Ken Ramirez training dogs at the SheddAs part of our development of the Pet Tutor®, we have been working with Ken Ramirez’ team at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.  Last week, our team was privileged to be part of the annual meeting of the International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association (IMATA) that was held at the Shedd. Marine trainers across the country were gathered to keep up to date with the latest advances in their profession. This is a whole new world for me as I’ve focused most of my career on dogs, horses and people. Learning about dolphins, beluga whales and sea lions, was quite a treat! As I sat through the different presentations it became quite obvious that we’re all doing the same thing. We’re working with animals because we feel a deep connection with them and we want to make a difference. At the IMATA, just like at the APDT, ORCA or Clicker Expo conferences, trainers of all animals, on the ground, in the water, or in the air, are looking to get better at what they do, stay on top of the latest advances in animal science and ultimately improve the living conditions of the animals they work with. How do you provide mental stimulation to a polar bear so he’ll stop pacing in his enclosure? How do you help a first time sea lion mother to properly care for her cub? What’s happening in the wild that has increased the number of sea lions affected with herpes or cancer and is shortening their life expectancy? These are just some of the questions that were brought up at the IMATA regional workshop.

Beluga - husbandryWe’re not forced to live with an animal and when we make the decision to bring an animal in our care, no matter what the species, whether in a zoo, an aquarium or in our homes, we take on the responsibility for their life. There is little difference between a polar bear pacing in his enclosure and a Weimaraner chewing on the furniture when left alone for 8-10 hours a day. Dogs, lions or dolphins are all animals in captivity. Their needs may vary from one species to the other, but in large, they all need food, shelter, social contact and mental stimulation. They also need to learn how to interact appropriately with people for the safety and benefit of both the animal and the trainer.

Most people don’t chose to work with animals, but many of us have a deep fascination for animals of all kinds. That’s why so many of us have dogs, cats, birds, fish, snakes, turtles, fish, rabbits, hamsters, etc. in our own homes. We take on the extra work of owning animals for the opportunity to develop a relationship with them. So naturally, we also want to know more about them, learn how they think and feel, how to care for them, how to keep them happy. We enjoy watching the monkeys and lions at the zoo and follow in we how dolphins flip in the air in perfectly synchronized figures and dogs run through the different obstacles on the agility course. Where can we have easy access to information about our favorite subjects? Sitting in the comfort of our living room, our television has become over the years, the ultimate informational tool over any other media. Compared to a dry scientific publication, or even a non-fictional book, playing on our emotional triggers, our TV shows are interesting and entertaining at the same time, keeping us interested and asking for more.

Dolphins jumpingThe reality however is that, even when shows are aired on credible TV stations, it doesn’t mean that their content is accurate, nor is it a true reflection of what other specialists in the field would agree with. No matter what fancy name you make up for it, there is no acceptable way to kick or strangle a dog. There are no quick fixes and spectacular turnarounds for aggressive dogs despite what the ‘dog whisperer’ leads us to believe. At the same time, I can’t say I disagree with everything he teaches. But how can the general public make the difference between valid or false information ?

In the documentary ‘Blackfish’, there is no justification to deprive any animal of food for the sake of training. I was very saddened and even outraged by some of things I learned. Though we certainly need to take a close look at the consequences to the animals we keep in captivity, here again, as I talked with some of the marine trainers at the IMATA, I found out that there is much more to the story than is shown on the screen. Some practices as they are depicted, are now outdated by several decades and condemned by modern animal trainers. No matter the species, professional trainers look for ways to alleviate stress and improve the animal’s quality of life, not the other way around.

Sea lion trainingThe truth has many shades of gray that are often left out when put up on screen. But such descriptions of animal treatment or miracle rehabilitation, draws our attention and keeps us watching the show. We either want to believe in the miracle recoveries or are outraged by such misleading information that teaches owners to apply inefficient and dangerous methods. Either way, with only partial and sensational perspectives, we’re affected on a very emotional level, and we keep watching the show… As the ratings go up, so do the chances that the TV stations are looking for more ways to keep us hooked. This problem also sometimes applies to information on the Internet as pointed out by Julie Hecht in her blog ‘Your dog doesn’t love you and other sound bites’: ‘media outlets often oversimplify canine research findings. Instead of reporting’, she says, ‘the media often puts a spin on the findings that doesn’t necessarily follow from the research itself’. In the end, we need to make sure that we take the time to look for the facts behind the sensational to build a more accurate picture of a story. What we learn from one show should spark questions and lead us to look for more information on the subject and never take it for granted.

So what happens to REAL information when the competition has all the cards in hands? Unfortunately, professional trainers are faced with an endless need to reframe what the public believes about animal training before they can even start teaching. How can we make factual information interesting enough to increase the public’s interest? I wish I had an answer to that question. What I do believe is that we all contribute in our own way to how we, as a society, treat other living beings. When we chose to work with animals, we become their ambassadors, the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves. I dream of a day, when basics of animal care, is taught in schools as part of the curriculum, when all dog owners are required to attend training class and when using treats and positive reinforcement has become the norm. In the meantime, the best we can all do, is keep on learning, keep working on contributing to the lives of those countless beings, that make our world so incredibly wonderful.


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (MedicalMutts.com), a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (SmartAnimalTraining.com).

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Posted in Misc, Positive Animal Training, Psychology
5 comments on “‘The Dog Whisperer’ & other animal TV shows – Entertainment over Education?
  1. Gerry says:

    An excellent desciption of an enduring problem. In this age of the “sound bite”, getting people to read and think seems to be increasingly difficult. Unfortunately, we also see some professional trainers with the same limitations, with some training schools promoting “3-month experts”.

  2. k2k9dogs says:

    I can’t recall Cesar Millan ever claiming that he “quick fixed” or had a “fast turnaround” with any dog in his care. Quite the opposite, he always talks about being patient and taking your time. His TV editors edit down the show (no longer on the air, I might add) to make it look like changes were accomplished in 20 minutes, but anyone should know that that is TV editing! I’ve met Mr. Millan three times. He is a wonderful human being, caring, gentle and kind. Thanks for listening.

  3. cynthia47 says:

    However trainers train marine mammals (whether they are actually food deprived, which I believe they are – or not), they are simply not meant to be kept in pools : there is far more to well being than just a full belly (and full of what? they are not meant to be eating dead fish). The main difference between your bored dog and these animals is domestication. Absolutely nothing can ever justify marine mammals kept in captivity and performing ridiculous tricks for humans. It is disturbing and shameful for us all.

  4. I have to agree with k2k9dogs re Cesar Millan. And one thing not mentioned in his/her comment is that at the end of every episode of “The Dog Whisperer…” was a disclaimer advising viewers to NOT attempt his methods at home without the assistance and/or guidance of a professional trainer.

    I should add that it was Cesar’s show and Cesar himself indirectly that influenced my decision to enroll in the Animal Behavior College dog obedience training course.

  5. dana says:

    While I agree that the animals who are currently in zoos, aquariums and other captive arenas, should have the benefit of improved conditions, including training, a true goal should be to eliminate animals from captivity. The reality is that most of these businesses are for entertainment and profit purposes.
    I hope it’s true that SeaWorld has stopped withholding food (dead, frozen fish) in order to increase motivation to perform tricks for the public. Is it also true that they have stopped using a “neutral stance,” (no food, which is punishment) for “refusing” to perform a trick?
    Except for *true* conservation of animals, there is no reason to keep them in captivity. We do not need zoos or aquariums for education. And, although I feel compassion for all animals taken out of their natural habitats and placed in artificial ones, I find it most egregious for the larger mammals, particularly the Orcas. The size of the pools compared to their bodies is beyond cruel. Forcing them to perform silly tricks considering the complexity of their brains is barbarous. And separating families of a species who would naturally stay together for life is heartless.
    These sentient beings are where they are not because they are less intelligent than humans but rather because they are not able to defend themselves from being captured. And when they aren’t captured, they’re bred. Is it right that Sea World’s Tilikum is separated from other Orcas, to live a lonely existence? Yet he is a money maker, providing what is needed to create baby Orcas.
    Babies are big attractions at aquariums and zoos. When the babies grow up, there isn’t always room for them and are sometimes executed.
    I follow you on twitter and love your dog training articles and have high hopes that through them more people will be educated about about science (reward) based dog training. The NatGeo show is the worst thing that has happened to dogs since the invention of the shock collar. From the moment that show aired, I knew it would be bad news for dogs and for dog owners, of which most are unaware that harsh based treatment of dogs is not only unnecessary but can also create more problems than it’s attempting to solve.
    My hope is that this country, on federal, state and local levels, will start protecting animals from abuse in the name of training and from captivity for entertainment sake, which needs to start with citizens not supporting zoos, aquariums, circuses, and any another venue that exploits animals for money.

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