Are you feeling frustrated or overwhelmed with your dog’s behavior? If so, you might be considering sending your dog away to a dog bootcamp program. These programs are frequently advertised as an easy-solution to training problems. Unfortunately, dog bootcamp programs aren’t all effective and some can easily lead to the mistreatment of dogs.
Sometimes called a “board and train,” a dog bootcamp is a dog-training program where dogs are sent away from their homes and families to receive training from a dog trainer. Dog bootcamp programs, as the name implies, can be militaristic, which can frequently mean a heavy reliance on punitive- and aversive-training methods, which are scientifically shown to be harmful to dogs.
Dog training in the United States is an unregulated industry. This means that anyone can call him or herself a dog trainer regardless of experience. One of the big challenges to dog bootcamp programs is that you can’t witness how your dog is being treated. While at bootcamp your dog is out of your care, which can lead to mistreatment, such as dogs being trained harshly, kept too long in crates or otherwise being roughly handled.
In most instances, there is no reason to send your dog away to bootcamp training, even if you are dealing with serious training issues. Generally, it is most effective for dog owners to attend group and/or individual training classes with their dogs working with an experienced dog trainer or animal behaviorist. By attending training with your dog, you are not only learning new skills, but are also learning how to be an effective handler.
Training the dog is only a small part of training; a core component of dog training is training the owner how to handle the dog. The dog’s owner needs to learn how to support and manage his dog through a wide variety of situations, which is hard to do if the dog is sent away for training.
Dogs who struggle with reactivity or aggression are often targeted for board-and-train programs, and the success for these dogs is going to be mixed. Some bootcamp style programs flood or overexpose dogs to triggers coupled with aversive training methods such as shock/ecollars and prong collar corrections. This leaves some dogs quiet and shut down, but that’s just masking their underlying discomfort, which hasn’t been worked through. Reactivity and aggression are often deeply rooted in fear, so being sent away to a bootcamp can not only make the challenging behaviors worse, but can also damage a dog’s relationship with his owner.
One of the big challenges of bootcamps is that dogs do not learn in defined periods of time. Just like it might take one person only a couple of lessons to learn how to solve an algebraic equation, it could take another person months of individualized math tutoring to grasp the same concept. Just because a dog is taught something at bootcamp, doesn’t mean the training is done or that your dog will generalize that skill when he gets home. Be very wary of any board-and-train program that guarantees it will “cure” or “fix” your dog in a couple of weeks.
If you send your dog to bootcamp, what he will learn is going to be determined by the type of program. Most dog bootcamp or board-and-train programs will have a particular focus, such as on specific behavioral challenges like reactivity or aggression. Others have a more overall approach teaching basic manners. Other bootcamp programs focus on specialized skills for service dogs, hunting dogs or other specific specialized training. The most effective dog bootcamp programs will also have an owner training component to make sure that the dog owners are also learning the handling skills that correspond to the training their dogs have been working on.
Bootcamp or send-away-to-train models aren’t always bad. Some dog daycare and boarding facilities will have a stay-and-train option where dogs who are being boarded while their owners are on vacation can continue to work on practicing basic cues and skills, so they don’t fall behind in training. These programs may also offer “day-training” options where dogs can get individualized training support while at daycare. Dogs who can benefit most from a camp are dogs who are being trained as service dogs through established and well-respected training schools. In these instances, dogs are being trained and then matched to a handler with disabilities.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by your dog and believe the only option is to send your dog to a boot camp, there are ethical and humane trainers who run board-and-train programs. Here are some things to do before deciding on one:
If you’re going to send your dog to bootcamp have realistic expectations for what your dog will learn while he is away. Always check references for any trainer and facility in addition to touring it before leaving your dog in their care. Dogs aren’t robots who can have their software updated at bootcamp. Even in the best-case scenario that you send your dog to bootcamp and he learns new skills, you’ll have to also learn how to handle your dog and continue to reinforce those new behaviors once he comes home.