“Tails From The Field” is a series of true stories from Chad Culp’s experience in the field of professional dog training. Some details, such as names and breeds, may have been changed for privacy protection.


They invite me into the house and we sit at the kitchen table for what I expect to be the typical minute of small talk and then into the dog behavior problem conversation but this guy just leans forward with his elbows on the table and says, “Hey listen, you seem like a nice guy but, if you use prong collars or choke chains, I can just pay you now and you can leave.” 

Wow! Ok. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge fan of directness but this felt borderline confrontational and totally caught me off guard. First of all, call me crazy, but wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to ask that question before booking the appointment? Anyhow, I had to do a rapid-fire checklist in my head before deciding how to respond. Should I just let him know that I do use training collars and take the money or should I see if there’s a more nuanced conversation to be had? I mean, just because I use prong collars…sometimes…doesn’t mean I always use them. In fact, I sometimes only use a Flexi lead and a harness but the question was, “Do I want to get into that right now?” Hmm? I wasn’t sure because his attitude kind of got my hackles up but I remained calm and thought to myself, “Think before you speak, Chad, think before you speak.” and I’m glad I did because he turned out to be a good guy.  

What I wound up saying was, “I don’t want your money unless you are satisfied with the lesson but let’s talk about this for a minute and see if I can help you.” He was open to it, so I went into how, even though I use training collars, I also know how to train without them. I assured him I would not do anything without his approval and that he would be observing everything. Something like that, this was well over a decade ago, so I’m paraphrasing from an old memory, but basically, we were able to have a rational conversation and I wound up having a successful lesson with him. Successful enough to have him sign up for my Basic Obedience group class. Wanna hear how I pulled it off? Ok, let me tell you a little story: 

Aggressive Bulldog and Zak George Misunderstandings 

The reason for my visit was that he had a young reactive bulldog that lunged, pulled, snarled, growled, barked, etc. at other dogs. Had not been in any fights yet but acted like he was aggressive.

The reason for bluntly pointing out his demands for training without a prong collar or choke chain was that he had been watching YouTube videos by Zak George and had completely “drank the Kool-Aid” regarding training dogs in a positive or force-free fashion. (I have written about this before in the article Dogs Are Not Dolphins.)

At the time, I didn’t recognize the name Zak George but I was well aware of that type of trainer. I explained that I had been certified in positive training and discussed the benefits and limitations of that sort of training. I stressed the fact that it is particularly limited, time consuming and unrealistic for the average person when it comes to stopping aggressive behaviors but we could certainly give it a try. He seemed to be grasping what I was saying, so we were off to a good start. 

After all that talking, I found out that his bulldog was absolutely, 100% NOT motivated by food. Forget about trying to lure the dog, just offering him a treat without asking him to do anything was useless, he wouldn’t take it. Totally disinterested. Not interested in toys either. 

I was astonished. How can he be telling me with such fervency that he’s all about positive training and has been following these videos on YouTube and yet hasn’t even started doing any basic lure and reward exercises?

Virtue Signaling vs The Need for Fast Results 

Here’s the mistake he made, which a lot of YouTube viewers make; he was lured in by the “virtue signaling” aspect of the positive training message. You know, the one that goes, “We are good because we love dogs and those other guys are bad because they want to hurt dogs, so, if you love your dog, you should follow us and, if you follow those other guys, you are a bad person.” It’s clever marketing, everybody and their mother seems to fall for it, so of course my client wanted to be one of the “good guys”. However, he completely misunderstood what it actually takes to make positive training work and, ultimately, what the limitations are when it comes to results. Again, I told myself, “Think before you speak, Chad, think before you speak.” 

The inability to use treats was really messing with my chances of success with this situation but I wasn’t going to give up now. I tried, as politely as I could, to explain that the positive techniques simply wouldn’t work without high levels of motivation from the dog. “It might work eventually but it ain’t gonna happen today.” I said. “You probably have days or weeks worth of homework just to get the dog motivated at all, let alone motivated enough for it to work when he sees a dog.” 

He seemed disappointed and a little curious about what other options were available. I told him we could use a more traditional leash training approach but with a regular collar rather than a prong or choke. I explained the importance of a loose leash and that we would indeed be popping the leash, which I’m sure Zak George would not approve of, but at least we would not use any special collars. He thought for a second and then, guess what he asked me. No, seriously, guess. What do you think he asked me? You won’t believe it. Ok, here it is: 

“Can’t you just take the dog out for a walk and transform him? You know, like the Dog Whisperer on TV.” 

The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan

For those of you who don’t know, Cesar Millan is the most famous dog trainer to ever walk planet earth. He is the rockstar of dog trainers. He literally performs in concert halls around the world and, at its peak, his show was in such high rotation on the National Geographic channel that I don’t think they had time to show anything else. On the other hand, he has become the poster child of evil as far as positive trainers such as Zak George are concerned, which is what made the question so odd.  

“Cesar Millan?” I asked, in stunned amazement. 

“Yeah,” He says, “Can you do something like that?”

“Am I being punk’d?” I thought to myself, looking around for hidden cameras. Nope, this wasn’t a prank. He was dead serious, as if there was nothing totally bizarre about his question at all. “Think before you speak, Chad, think before you speak.”

Odd as it seemed, I was glad to hear the question because it told me I would for sure be able to help. I pointed out to him that, even though I didn’t know who Zak George was, I knew for sure that all of those types of trainers absolutely hate Cesar Millan because he represents everything that they oppose and they were on a crusade to destroy his career. 

I also pointed out that they are not only against particular tools but they are against using any kind of correction or punishment at all. Many of them don’t even believe in saying “No” to a dog. I basically made it clear that Zak George was not offering an alternative way to do what Cesar Millan does. It’s not even close, it is a radically different mindset with a totally different set of expectations. 

“Were you aware of any of that?” I asked.  

He was totally unaware of these facts, and seemed a little puzzled to hear it. The good news is that he was an open-minded dude, once we had a chance to talk things through a bit. I think the fact that he had seen the Dog Whisperer TV show and didn’t think Cesar was abusive at all was the big eye opener. When he realized that trainers, such as Zak George, were up in arms over Cesar he had to reevaluate the stance he had taken when we first sat down at the table. 

I’m so glad I didn’t just take the money and run because the experience was an eye opener. It really elevated my level of compassion for pet dog owners. The amount of conflicting information is overwhelming, people are confused and there is a lot of misunderstanding about what is and is not being offered by various tools and methods. 

The Biggest Misunderstanding

I think the biggest misunderstanding that my client, and dog owners in general, have been led to believe is that positive reinforcement is a viable alternative to negative reinforcement for achieving control, obedience and stopping unwanted behaviors. This is simply not the case. Positive reinforcement is for building motivation and enthusiasm while teaching but has nothing at all to do with stopping unwanted behavior, establishing control over the dog or having the ability to enforce commands. (I have discussed this in the article The Four A’s of Dog Training.)   

Using positive reinforcement methods for reactivity requires a lot of time and patience because you have to remain at a far enough distance to avoid stressing the dog or triggering the dog’s reactivity. Typically, this is so the dog will remain focused on treats but it can also be done without treats simply by allowing the dog to desensitize to the presence of the other dog. The idea is to gradually get closer to the other dog, emphasizing the word gradually. Remaining far enough away to avoid reactivity is called staying “below threshold” and it basically means you can’t just go out and walk the dog. If you do, you need to always have the ability to keep the appropriate distance from other dogs. This is pretty much impossible when the dog’s threshold is hundreds of feet. You may have seen these people when you’re out walking your dog, they are the ones who cross the street, hide behind a car and hold a treat to their forehead chanting “Watch me, watch me, watch me”. 

To do desensitizing, redirecting and counterconditioning exercises correctly, you actually need a controlled environment and an assistant with a well-behaved dog that will hang out at a given distance as you slowly close the gap, approaching the dog’s threshold of reactivity but not crossing it. In some cases, this could mean you are literally working 100 yards from the other dog. Then, let’s say you get down to 90 yards in one lesson. “Yay!” The trainer will say. “Next week we will see if we can get down to 80 yards.” I’m not joking, it can literally be that slow of a process because there is no aspect of controlling the dog going on. Meanwhile, keep in mind, the dog can not be walked while waiting for the next appointment with the trainer. 

To be clear: I am not saying this never works, I am simply pointing out the reality of how slow, difficult and unrealistic it can be. Basically, I’m saying “good luck” and don’t feel bad if it doesn’t work for you. 

Solutions That Actually Work

What usually works really well is a balanced approach of rewards and corrections but, getting back to my story, this little bulldog found no value in the rewards we had to offer and high value in reacting towards other dogs. Hence, I had to use leash corrections and work at a distance where the dog was manageable. This was similar to the threshold concept mentioned earlier but the difference with correction training is that you can push through thresholds quite a bit faster. I was able to walk the dog past the fence with the barking dogs that he always went ballistic over in fairly short order. It took some repetitions but we were able to walk right past them, while they were still barking, and my bulldog friend was quiet. The job wasn’t complete, there was more work to be done, but it showed that it was possible to use corrections without hurting the dog. The owner was pleased but I still gave him the homework assignment of getting the dog positively motivated for treats and/or toys. 

Sometimes You Just Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

My well-intended client had taken on a strong belief while being totally unaware of the details regarding that belief. Let’s sum this up really quick: 

  1. He was so gung-ho about the whole Zak George thing that he almost kicked me out of his house, yet, he had very little knowledge to back up his opinion. 
  2. He was totally unaware of the fact that you need to have a dog that is super-massively-motivated in order for positive training to work for leash reactivity. 
  3. He was a fan of The Dog Whisperer and didn’t realize that Cesar represents Satan to dogmatic positive trainers such as Zak George. 
  4. He believed that positive dog trainers were “doing what Cesar does” but with treats and clickers rather than leash corrections and “tsss!” sounds, not realizing they have a totally different set of expectations and outcomes. 
  5. He was not alone; this lack of clarity is totally common. Even a lot of professional trainers don’t understand this stuff.  

Add that all up and you get millions of well-meaning dog owners who are confused as all get out. 

To be crystal clear, I don’t mean to insult anybody, I’m just sharing this story because it has an important message. It’s not just about a single client, it is about how much is being misunderstood by average dog owners all over the world and how many strong opinions are being propped up by very little actual knowledge or experience. 

Moral of the Story 

There is no need for dog training wars but there is a need for open mindedness and honesty in the dog training industry. There is no need to look at dog training through the lens of Zak vs Cesar when, in truth, there are things that we can learn from both of them. 


Chad Culp – Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant, Owner of Thriving Canine. 

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