I'm No Magician - Getting Realistic About "Doggy Bootcamps" | The Collared Scholar

My dog is aggressive with other dogs,” the exasperated woman explained over the phone. “He goes into full Cujo mode when he sees them….it’s really quite scary.” 

The dog was a two year old German Shepherd, and he had gotten so bad, she wouldn’t even take him out. Wouldn’t take the risk of having her dog in public, as she wasn’t confident she could manage him, even if he were on leash. 

“The last time he had one of his freak-outs,” she continued, “I got in front of him and he bit me. I need to do something about this before he really hurts someone.“

I felt her frustration spilling through the phone line. Having had my own aggressive dog, long before I knew anything about dog behavior or training, back when I was a biochemist who sat in a lab coat all day under pale fluorescent lights, I could relate. Having an aggressive dog is scary, and it was easy to feel completely and utterly hopeless.

As was typically the case, I explained our programs. 

“I think the bootcamp sounds best. I really just want someone to take him and train him. I can’t manage him right now.”

We talked a bit further, and I made arrangements to meet the beast. 

When I arrived, the massive 100lb German Shepherd greeted me with excited tail wags and mounds of slobbery kisses. As his owner and I sat to chat, the dog repeatedly pushed a toy into my lap, and when I didn’t respond to his demands for attention, he settled himself at my feet, letting out a sigh as he laid down and curled himself into a ball, head resting on my foot as he made himself comfortable. 

We chatted for a short while about the dog’s issues, the dog’s routine, and the dog’s history. 

Then, she said it. 

“I can’t wait for him to come home so we can go to the dog park!”

“Whoa there,” was my response. “Let’s talk about the realities of Board and Train. I’m for sure no magician.”

Board and Train programs and doggy Bootcamps have become a popular training option for dog owners who want to their dog to learn basic manners, as well as for those dealing with worrisome behavioral issues. Trainers proudly proclaim that they can solve your dog’s behavioral problems in a matter of weeks, delivering you a perfectly trained pooch in no time flat.

Dog owners watch flashy demonstrations and get sold on the idea that their dog will get constant training with an experienced professional, and they expect their dog to look the same upon return from a few weeks in a trainer’s care. But there are some realities you need to know before settling on a doggy Bootcamp or Board and Train program. 

  1. We aren’t magicians – I tell my clients this all the time. I can’t change your dog’s DNA. I can’t change their genetics. I can’t turn a Border Collie or a Malinois into a Lab. And I can’t make a dog who hates other dogs all of the sudden want to run and play like a puppy at the dog park. I’m not a magician, so don’t tell yourself that I am. And I promise, other trainers can’t perform magic either. 
  2. Training doesn’t happen overnight – You’ve given us a pretty hefty task: To undo years of reinforcement history in a few short weeks. This doesn’t happen overnight. And in some cases, reinforcement history will creep back in. So be sure to manage your expectations. And if someone promises you perfection in a few short weeks, they will probably be getting pretty heavy handed with your pup. Make sure that’s really what you want before you sign the contract. 
  3. Demo dogs don’t matter – Okay. So this is only a little true. But don’t get sold on a program just because you watch a flashy demonstration. Here’s the story – it takes us YEARS to train our dogs. My demo dog is 9 years old, and I don’t train in the same methods much at all as I used back then. So is she a great representation of what you can expect? Nope. It’s why I only use her at big events and photoshoots, and it’s why I am always honest about her training history. You can use demo dogs to gauge a trainer’s competency and to gauge their methods to an extent. You can see if the dog looks happy or coerced. But definitely don’t use it as a gauge for what to expect. Trainers have worked their dogs for years – it isn’t a representation of what can be done in a few short weeks.
  4. You’ve got work to do to! – Bootcamp or Board and Train programs don’t absolve you of responsibility in the training process. You have work to do too. When your dog comes home, you’ll need to reinforce the training that was established. So make sure you get with a trainer who provides follow up training for you and your family. You need to learn how to reinforce training at home and what to do if a problem arises. Your dog learned to listen to his trainer while at camp, and while that can absolutely transfer when the dog returns home, don’t think that you can just go back to living life and reinforcing the way you did before your dog left and end up with a perfectly trained pooch.

In-kennel Board and Train and doggy Bootcamp programs can be awesome solutions for kick starting your training or for getting your dog over some serious issues. Board and Train is actually my program of choice for getting a handle on immediate issues and for getting the training process started. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that they will magically solve all of your problems overnight without you having to be involved in the process at all.

Behavior change is work, and it takes time if it is to be done right. Don’t get sucked into flashy demonstrations with dogs who have had years of training, and don’t be sold by empty promises that your pup will be perfect upon his return home in just a few short weeks. If trainers are making those promises, they aren’t being realistic, and I’d venture to say it’s likely they are going to use some pretty punitive methods to get their results. 

Instead, be prepared to put some work in, and understand that these programs are just jumping off points, designed to lay a foundation and get a handle on some glaring issues. We can teach behaviors, get consistency, and start the process of behavior change, but upon your dog’s return home, you’ve got some work to do to maintain the training.

Know that, as your dog’s owner and handler, YOU have to be involved, and you have to reinforce and continue to maintain the behaviors when your dog comes home. Be prepared to put some work in and listen to your trainer’s instruction. Ignoring them is your quickest route to failure and backsliding, so take their advice and put it to work.

When selecting a Bootcamp, be sure you ask about training methods, ask about expectations and set them accordingly, and ask about follow up. Make sure you are fully informed and that you know what to expect, and don’t let yourself get sold on good marketing or flashy demos. It’s cool seeing my dog in a perfectly focused heel off leash, and even walk backwards at my side. It’s fun to watch her fly through her positions, alternating between sit, down, and stand at lightning speed, then recalling to me and dropping into a down mid sprint at the slightest command. But your dog won’t be able to do that at the end of a basic three week training program. So don’t use that as a gauge of what to expect. 

Get realistic with your expectations and be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get to work when your dog comes home. Remember, trainers aren’t magicians, and there is no magic training wand to solve all of your problems. Although Board and Train and Bootcamps can be extremely helpful, they are not a mystical solution to all of your training problems, and there is a lot of follow up work to be done afterwards. So be prepared to get on board. And for God’s sake, listen to your trainer and follow their instructions. They want you to be successful. But they need your help to make that happen!

Chelsey Montgomery