• Riley Morgan

A plea to the public: Please stop using 'board and train' facilities.

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Out of all the requests for training that I get, I'd say at least a third of them sound a little something like this. My dog was being challenging and I didn't have the time to work with an in-home trainer, so I sent him/her to a board and train place, spent thousands of dollars with them, and my dog came back worse than he/she was when I sent them there, even though they guaranteed results. Now he/she has bitten people multiple times and I don't know what to do. If a trainer or facility is guaranteeing results, turn around and RUN. Anyone that has a true understanding of canine behavior and the psychology behind it will tell you, the results of training are never guaranteed. No two dogs learn exactly the same way. No two dogs are alike. Even dogs reputably bred to be working dogs can flunk out of the police academy. Nothing is ever guaranteed. If someone is promising you a well behaved dog, within a specific time frame, and you're paying thousands of dollars up-front to get it, it's a scam and what it will do to your dog is irreversible. Let me explain further. Background: For purposes of this blog, "Board & Train" is referring to any trainer or facility that takes dogs at a 'residential training program.' Other terms frequently used for it may be 'bootcamp,' 'play and stay,' 'K9 Academy,' etc. Trainers/facilities advertise behavioral modification and obedience training results in 2-6 weeks, for anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. You drop your dog off and once a week or so, you'll get videos "showing" the training your dog is getting, and the progress he/she is making. Do not be fooled; there is forethought behind these videos. Once your dog is home and his/her behavior has regressed, he/she has bitten, or he/she isn't as well behaved as you'd hoped, the trainer can say "you saw the videos, he/she did learn, the problem must be with you." And then they can either offer to take your dog back for more training, for more money, or you're out the money and your dog now needs counter conditioning and behavioral rehabilitation to try to undo the damage. No matter what they advertise their training as, the methods of this 'intensive training' are cruel.

Methods: I'd like to precede this section with a warning; some of the methods explained below may be hard for some to read. I feel strongly about being brutally honest about the things that happen at board & train programs, because the truth is the only way to educate people as to why they are so dangerous. If you are bothered by descriptions and stories of aversive training techniques, please skip ahead to the next section. These are the three most common methods used at board and train facilities, even in those that claim to be positive reinforcement based.

  • Deprivation: Deprivation is the practice of depriving a dog of either food or freedom. For freedom deprivation, dogs are kept in a kennel or crate for 23 hours per day to start. When they are allowed out, it is only to go to the bathroom. They are not given any attention, affection, or mental & physical stimulation or exercise. Gradually, they have to "earn" the privilege to come out of the crate for longer periods of time. Their time outside of the crate consists of training sessions, usually with a prong or e-collar, sometimes worse. If they disobey, they are returned to the crate until the next day. With food deprivation training, dogs are deprived of meals. They are forced to work for their food, only being fed a few kibble at a time for obeying commands given by the trainer. The greater problem with this is that while a dog is learning new commands, they are not going to perform the action reliably enough for them to earn enough food to sustain their Maintenance Energy Requirement (the minimum caloric intake to sustain their bodies while being crated 23 hours per day.) Many dogs come back from 'board and train' facilities having lost a noticeable and considerable amount of weight. The trainers will claim it's from all of the physical exercise they received, but more exercise would cause muscle growth/gain, not rapid weight loss. Dogs will often return with gastrointestinal issues, dehydration, food aggression, resource guarding issues, and crate anxiety. It's not difficult to understand why.

  • Corrective collars: As I briefly mentioned earlier, collars are often used during training to 'motivate behavioral changes.' Prong collars, choke collars, e-collars, and shock collars are commonly used at these facilities. All of these aversive tools are used to force the dog to obey by way of fear or physical harm. The dog is not learning what the desired behavior actually is; they are learning what not to do and what the punishment is for doing it. Often clients will say that they used an aversive collar to train, and can't understand why the dog regressed once they stopped using the collar. I always explain this phenomenon with a quote that I feel best fits the situation. "A great leader is respected, not feared." When you are training a dog using an aversive collar that relies on fear or force, the dog will likely obey for as long as the fear or force remains. As soon as you remove the fear/force, the dog will regress, because the punishment is no longer immediate. In essence, they haven't actually learned what to do, they have only been taught that there is a punishment for certain actions, when they are wearing the collar. The dog has been trained to a collar, not to the action, and now the dog carries fear/anxiety around the commands, making behavioral rehabilitation harder for trainers like myself to fix.

  • Physical force/asserting dominance: Though the first two may have been hard for some to read, this is the section to skip if you have a hard time reading about abuse & cruelty. Physical force and the assertion of dominance over the dog comes in many forms. Some 'trainers' use crops/whips, similar to that of a horse trainer. Some use physical force (hitting, throwing) to force the dog into a submissive position. I have seen and read police reports of 'trainers' punching, kicking, and slamming dogs into the ground to force them into a fearful, submissive state. The concept of this training is that the dog is broken down to a completely submissive state, and then trained to obey the handler/alpha. Moment of unfiltered, brutal honesty - this 'method' of training is absolute bullshit, and any trainer that participates in such training deserves to be treated the same way they are treating the dog. Multiple 'trainers' have been outed for using physical force that is considered Animal Cruelty in most states. I won't share links because they're incredibly difficult for me to watch, but if you want to see first hand the horrors that these dogs are subjected to, you can Google/Youtube 'board and train dog abuse' and find some rather well known instances that have made mainstream media lately. Many times, dogs will exhibit a 'fight or flight' response to various triggers upon returning home, leading to the dog biting 'unprovoked' or 'unexpectedly,' when in fact, the bite is completely predictable based on what the dog has gone through. Often owners will ask me why their once bubbly and loving dog is now skittish, fearful, and passive since coming back from the board & train facility. Can you really blame them? They have been through unspeakable things. Dogs' minds don't function the same as humans, so dogs do not have the ability to rationalize. They do not understand being subjected to such inhumane treatment. As soon as a client says 'my dog went to a board and train facility,' I can list off the issues their dog has since acquired without them even having to tell me, and I'm spot on 100% of the time. I have seen dogs return from 'bootcamp' the following physcial injuries: broken or fractured bones, brain swelling, damage to internal organs, missing permanent teeth, anal prolapse, bruising, and lacerations to the skin. Those are just he physical injuries. Imagine the mental trauma that goes along with them.

The Aftermath: Now that I've explained what these poor dogs go through, let me fully explain what happens after a dog comes home from training. I'm going to tell you the story of one of my favorite dogs in the world, who I'll call "Charlie" for purposes of privacy. Charlie is a year and half year old mixed breed (lab/shepherd.) He was one of the sweetest dogs, but he liked to pull on a leash, jump to greet people, and chew things sometimes, because he received no training as a puppy. His owners were 'too busy' to do the half an hour a day recommended training from their in-home trainer, so they decided to send Charlie to a board and train 'bootcamp' with a man that promised them the world. For nearly $4,000, Charlie would go for four weeks of bootcamp-style training and come back a brand new dog. During the month he was gone, Charlie's owners received videos of Charlie walking nicely on a leash, greeting people without jumping, etc. The day finally came to pick Charlie up and bring him home. Charlies owners arrived to find a sad, thin, ghost of a dog that looked like Charlie, but didn't seem like him at all. They brought him home, and almost immediately noticed that quite a few things were wrong. They rushed him to the vet, and were shocked to find out that Charlie was suffering from a prolapsed anus, caused by malnutrition, starvation, dehydration, a urinary infection, and extreme stress. The vet began to question the owners, inquiring as to why the dog was in such poor state, why hadn't they brought him in sooner, etc. They explained that he had just returned from a board and train program. Following surgery and treatment, the vet demanded the name of the facility that had 'trained' Charlie, as he was a mandated reporter of abuse/cruelty and Charlie's neglect was evident. Charlie returned home and physically recovered, but his problems were not over yet. Behaviors he had never exhibited prior to training started to surface. He was cowering in the corner, retreating to his crate, passive urinating on the floor, resource guarding and hiding his food and bones around the house, growling and lunging at strangers. The once happy, friendly, well socialized, and outgoing dog was now a totally different animal. His owners became increasingly more concerned when he began to growl and snap if they tried to put his collar on to go for a walk or for a ride in the car. His behavior escalated when his dog walker, someone he had known and loved since he was a puppy, tried to put his harness on him to go for a walk, and he bit her arm so badly she needed to go to the hospital. This is about the time Charlie's owners called me back and apologized for not listening to me from the beginning, and asking me if there was any way I could help them, if he could come back from this. Currently, Charlie is undergoing behavioral rehabilitation. He is learning to trust humans again. He's getting a lot of counter conditioning using positive reinforcement, praise, and affection on his own terms. He will never go back to the dog he once was, but we're certainly going to try to undo some of the damage done by the 'trainer' at the board and train facility. Don't worry, the facility was investigated and the trainer no longer works there, though the company itself still continues to use the same training methods. PLEASE. PLEASE. PLEASE. Stop using board and train trainers/facilities. Even if the advertise that they don't use aversive training techniques, even if the dogs on their website look happy and healthy, even if they claim to train the dog in their own home, even if they promise you the world and they seem trustworthy, the risk is just not worth it. There are so many other training options out there. For the love of dog, do your research on trainers, ask questions, and run, far and fast from board and train facilities.

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