Last year, I happened to notice a dog training company called Sit Means Sit popping up everywhere around town. Out of curiosity, I investigated and learned that they were part of a larger franchise. I read into their methods, viewed videos, and researched the process of becoming a Sit Means Sit franchisee. I found myself enraged and published an, er, “emotionally charged” article. Here is what I had learned:
After paying a fee, the “franchisee” is given THREE weeks of training. Included in that comprehensive three weeks is instruction in the Sit Means Sit “proprietary training system” that centers around their branded shock collar, as well as “ tried and true “closing” techniques and effective ways to prospect for clients.”
With this newly acquired expertise in dog behavior and marketing prowess, the franchisee is then sent out into their specified region, where they are permitted to accept money from the public to train their dogs “faster, smarter, better.” Training however, is not the sole source of revenue for the newly minted dog behavior expert. They are also given a commission on all sales of their $225 proprietary shock collar. As their website tactfully states, “This is the “next great business opportunity”.
I’ve elected not to make the current article about the problems and dangers of using shock collars, as they have been detailed ad nauseum elsewhere. Instead, I’m including some relevant notes and links as an “addendum”, which you can find at the end of this article.
The aftermath of posting the original article was interesting. Pet owners and ‘people on the street’ types were mainly supportive. Among my dog training/pet professional peers, reactions were decidedly more mixed. “Why give the company attention?” “Just do what you do and ignore them.” “Don’t give them publicity and credibility.” “It makes your business look bad.” These were typical responses.
This line of thinking drove me nuts, frankly.
When some jackass on TLC greenlights the Sit Means Sit Happy Fun Hour TV show (with Honey Boo Boo as a lead-in, no doubt), will these same people remain silent? Or is that when the barrage of criticism is supposed to begin? Certainly no shortage of Cesar Milan criticism out there.
Sit Means Sit began franchising in 2009 and in 4 years has already grown to 70 franchises across the US. In 1989, Starbucks had 46 franchises. Now they have over 13,000 in the US alone. Of course I don’t believe that one day we will see 13,000 Sit Means Sits, but if you think they’ve peaked at 70, you’re kidding yourself. With or without me giving them publicity, you’ll likely be seeing them plenty more in the future.
A few months ago, I was at a local street fair and I saw a Sit Means Sit Austin booth set up. I knew I had no choice but to confront them. I could feel it in my bones. I also knew it was a terrible idea. I was woefully unprepared for such a confrontation. But I felt that not doing so would be hypocritical after posting my article. So, I stormed up to their booth and basically laid into them. I was angry. In no way do I believe I got the message across effectively. I was just too emotional and unprepared for the conversation, not having given the subject much thought over the past few months. In the interest of keeping this article concise, I’ve posted notes about the encounter on a separate page: Click here to read.
Arguing my side effectively was not the point though. I knew I would never get through to them, just as they know they will never get through to me. Sit Means Sit and Sit Means Sit Austin have every right to build their business and expand all over the world. My hope is that they aren’t permitted to do it without some kind of fight from the pet community (or at minimum, with some level of discomfort!). Even if I did wind up looking like an asshole, I didn’t care. That’s a small the price to pay if I got the 9 or 10 spectators to consider Sit Means Sit techniques for even a moment. They might still choose to shock their dogs in order to get them to lie down on a mat, but at least I may have added a small pang of further thought to the process. I don’t care how it affects my business. I’m a horrible business man and my bank account is proof of the matter. I believe it’s important to call things out when you believe they are wrong. Most of the people I respect in this world do it.
I am well aware that in the grand scheme of things, there are much bigger fish to fry in this world. Homeless animals, fracking, the royal baby… but becoming a dog trainer requires absolutely no certification, licensing, curriculum learning, or official training. So I think there is something important about policing ourselves to some extent.
1. Shock collars are tools that need to be used with the utmost of skill and expertise, if you are going to use them at all. Aversives in general are very complicated to use.
“punishment (e.g. choke chains, pinch collars, and electronic collars) should not be used as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems. This is due to the potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals.
Sit Means Sit and other companies will tell you that they don’t use the shock collars as aversives… in other words, they don’t use the shock collars to punish dogs, but rather they use them as a “tap” to get the dog’s attention. But, as the legendary gun and working dog trainer Robert Milner explains:
“The electric collar delivers a punishment, an aversive. Whether you dial it big or dial it small, an electric shock is a punishment. Desensitizing the dog to shock (collar conditioning) does not change the fact that is an aversive. Desensitizing merely allows the trainer to use a larger shock without triggering a flight response (bolting).
(Good video piece on Robert Milner here.)
Always try and put yourself in your dog’s brain mentally! This is more than just “I let the guy shock me and I barely felt it”. Does the static charge you might feel when you touch your hand on a doorknob “hurt” or is it just an unpleasant surprise? If I trained you that every time you touched a knob you got a static charge and then where given 25 cents would you ever learn to enjoy that static charge feeling? You might enjoy the result of money, but I’m guessing you will probably always dislike static charges. And that is with the ability to control the timing of the charge yourself… you know that as soon as you touch the knob, the static charge will happen and can prepare yourself. The poor dog, on the other hand, has to rely on the imperfect timing of a human handling a remote control in order to make his/her predictions.
This is nicely put little passage in an article by Drayton Michaels about dog trainers who rely on aversives:
“They do not explain that dogs make associations based on being safe, unsafe or neutral due to functions of the amygdala – the fear regulating part of the brain. They do not explain that dogs work very well with predictors of reinforcement. Meaning when the dog sees a leash it usually predicts a walk. When a dog hears a beep setting on a shock collar it predicts a shock – i.e. pain.
Now transfer this predictive learning to hearing a beep from a shock collar, or a “shzt shzt” that precedes a neck jab, now seeing a passing person predicts being choked, jabbed, shocked etc… These bits of stimuli such as people or dogs etc…now predict fear and pain and now that stimulus has a negative association or a further negative association. The results from abusive methods are aggression, fear, being anxious or shut down dogs.”
2. Two recent projects funded by the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have led to increased pressure by animal welfare groups in the UK to ban their usage in England and Scotland (they are already illegal in Wales).
3. This video makes me sick. A 4 Month old happy crazy German Shepherd being “trained” by a Sit Means Sit branch.
Of course, your average joe will just see a dog behaving nicely. But try and observe how the body language changes during the ‘training portion’ and how the puppy starts holding his body much lower and how the puppy’s movements become more cautious. This is a puppy just waiting for a zap to come from nowhere. And for what purpose?
4. Training is not about “control” people!!!! You don’t try and “control” any kind of living being, whether it’s a child or a dog!
5. Give me a shock collar and a 3 year old child and I’ll show you a “well behaved” toddler.