DOG TRAINING AND THE MEDIA

DOG TRAINING AND THE MEDIA

An NAIA Conference Report


By: Jan Gribble  Date: 01/8/2012 Category: | Canine Issues |

In 1998, in the course of researching an article on the American Humane Association Dog Training Guidelines project, I became increasingly aware of the influence the media has played in the public perception of dog training methods and equipment. In most forms of media, allegations of abuse and neglect are rarely supported with sufficient factual information to enable the reader or viewer to independently verify the validity of the allegations. The public should be concerned about these allegations and lack of supporting documentation because unverifiable statements made by an individual or an organization are frequently self-serving and may be untrue or presented in a manner designed to mislead the public.

Contrary to popular belief, the media’s job is not to investigate facts and present unbiased information to the public. The media, in the form of newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and more recently, the Internet, is in the business of providing consumers with a saleable product. A good percentage of news and information provided to the public on any topic is negative and focuses on wrong-doing or tragedies, so it would appear that to be considered newsworthy in today’s world, the news has to reflect people in the worst possible light. The ease with which the public accepts as truth what is disseminated through the various forms of media allows the perpetuation of falsehoods or partial truths with little additional effort and plays a major role in how and why the media operates.

Misrepresentation of facts, either intentional or unintentional, is rampant in most forms of media. This misrepresentation can be due to several causes: a reporter, editor or writer trying to make the topic more inflammatory to keep their viewers or readers interest; misquoting individuals or using quotes taken out of context; sloppiness; a lack of research on the topic; and editing to fit space or time requirements without attention to the overall effect upon the article or news story. Intentional misrepresentation is usually the result of bias, either on the part of the person reporting or the person providing the information. While obvious bias is often easy to recognize, hidden bias is much more subtle and therefore more dangerous.

However, the media is also open to manipulation by others. In many instances, especially when dealing with a well-known organization or individual, the media simply takes the statements made at face value and does no further checking on the accuracy of facts. If an individual or spokesperson from an organization is quoted enough in the media, the person will become an “expert” within a short period of time. Once a person has been designated as an expert, it is not uncommon to see his statements taken as gospel regardless of the topic under discussion.

Examples of misrepresentation and bias abound in the media. A look at recent stories on dogs and dog training in all areas of the media indicates that the trend is to portray traditional methods of dog training, as well as certain types of equipment, as abusive and inhumane. Remembering the goal is whether or not the story is saleable, it is not surprising that stories revolving around injury and death to dogs at the hands of dog trainers are more “newsworthy” than talking about the numbers of dogs which have been successfully trained, without harm, by using certain training methods and certain types of equipment.

By using eye-catching headlines such as “Dog torture condemned” – an article in an Australian newspaper which quoted an RSPCA spokesperson on the evils of anti-bark and remote training collars – the general public is being led to believe that anyone using these devices is automatically abusive and inhumane to their dogs.

Articles discussing the differences between “traditional” and “clicker” training or different types of training equipment often imply that certain types of training or equipment are abusive. “New breed of dog trainers just says no to punishment,” an article published by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune on October 8, 2000, and published on its website, is a good example of bias. In this article, reporter Kristin Tillotson describes the controversy between the “cookie pushers” and the traditional “yank- n-crankers.” She mentions the AHA guidelines stating, “[t]he guidelines denounce such disciplinary tactics as holding a dog’s head underwater or using pinch collars (choke chains with sharp* metal prongs that dig into the dog’s neck). They emphasize ‘reward-based’ or positive-reinforcement training, in which dogs learn solely by getting treats and praise whenever they perform a desired task . . .”

The description of clicker training would make anyone who uses a clicker cringe, but her description of a traditional trainer as one who believes that “an owner must establish dominance over his or her dog which, depending on the size and temperament of the pooch, may involve choking, hitting and screaming at it” is appalling. While the article apparently attempted to portray all types of training methods fairly with quotes from those who use all types of training methods, Tillotson’s conclusion clearly shows her bias: “I’d rather have a dog who doesn t obey perfectly every single time than a dog who slinks up to me in fear.” Thus she leaves the general reader with the image that an obedient dog can only be trained by using abusive methods.

A classic case of misrepresentation of the facts is found in the numerous articles which have quoted AHA representatives who claim that the need for developing humane dog training guidelines was realized when a dog trainer was acquitted of cruelty charges when he showed the judge a book in which “helicoptering” was described as an acceptable training method. I have yet to find a dog trainer who believes helicoptering is anything other than a defensive action taken to prevent injury, and have certainly never seen it described as a “training method” in any book. What I did find, however, was the court case at issue. The judge’s written opinion makes no mention of any book being introduced into evidence and clearly indicates that the actual court case had been misrepresented to many different sources. The judge wrote that the case boiled down to a question of the credibility of the witnesses and the state’s burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In rendering his decision, the judge considered the testimony of many individuals, including the dog’s owner, the trainer in question, and the expert witnesses testifying for both the prosecution and the defense. Ultimately the judge found the testimony of the dog’s owner to be less than credible. It didn’t help the prosecution’s case when one of its experts, a state policeman who trained police dogs, testified that given the circumstances described he would have behaved in a similar fashion. This is a good example of how “facts” reported by an authority, in this case representatives of the American Humane Association, are taken at face value by reporters and not fully investigated.

Even scientific literature is not immune from misrepresentation and bias. A “study” which has been widely cited to support citronella anti-bark collars as more effective and humane than electronic anti-bark collars was published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association in 1996 (“Comparison of two antibarking collars for treatment of nuisance barking”) Reading the article, it becomes apparent that there are numerous flaws in how the study was conducted as well as how the results were reported. Nine dogs started the study and only eight completed it. Instead of a rigorous method to actually determine the efficiency of each collar, the dog owners were given instructions to use the collars for two weeks and report on whether they felt the reduction in frequency of barking, intensity of barking and duration of barking were much greater, greater, about the same, less than or much less than before the use of the collar. This type of study cannot be duplicated and is not considered to be statistically valid.

While these are only a few of the many examples of bias to be found in the media's portrayal of dog training and dog trainers, each clearly represents a growing trend to portray dog training and dog trainers as cruel and abusive to animals. The media is not the only problem to be dealt with in addressing this issue though. The public’s willingness to accept what the media prints or reports as factual without requiring supporting documentation or proof must also be addressed. That section of the public which accepts, without question, that what they read or hear about dog training as accurate, is being conditioned to assume that training their dog, by and large, makes them cruel to their dogs. This growing trend increases the likelihood that dogs will not be trained, and therefore more likely to persist in undesirable behaviors which may ultimately result in them losing their homes.



* Editor’s note: Pinch collars do not have “sharp metal prongs that dig into the dog’s neck” as asserted by the reporter in the quoted article; the prongs are blunt and do not injure the dog.


About The Author

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Jan Gribble -

Member/Volunteer/Partner/Article Writer of the National Animal Interest Alliance.




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