Doggie Boot Camp

Good Idea or Bad Idea?


Doggie boot camp is not army training for your canine companion. It is a service offered that takes your untrained, undisciplined dog for a month and provides rigorous training. It isn’t cheap, but (if the claims they make are to be believed) you will get a marvelously well-mannered dog. Assuming you can afford the money, is it a good idea or a bad idea? Please take a minute and check out the following website (from doggie do right), one example of this sort of service:


This is a very well put together site. Lots of pictures of dogs playing, having fun. Promises of the dog you’ve dreamt of delivered to your door after only a month.


In theory, this is a very nice idea (if you can afford it). In practice, it is a terrible idea. Here’s why.



“Dog Training” class is a misnomer. Dogs already know how to be dogs. What a dog training class does (if it is any good) is teach the dog’s trainer how to train the dog. The theory of operant conditioning (first put together by Dr. Skinner) is the model most dog trainers use. In operant conditioning (which is a way of explaining a lot, but not all, of human and animal behavior) there are five dimensions:

P (PUNISHMENT): You can punish a dog for doing something wrong, or withhold punishment for doing something right (P+, P-)

R (REWARD): You can reward a dog for doing something right, or withhold a reward if the dog does something wrong (R+, R-)

E (Extinguishment): If a behavior is neither rewarded nor punished (no P+, no P-, no R+, no R-) it will go away.  The trainer controls some but not all rewards, and some but not all punishments.


It turns out that applying P and R to a dog in a way that makes sense to the dog is not trivial. As a matter of fact, teaching people to apply P and R to a dog is what you should be learning in a dog class, from the first class to the most advanced. Learning to do this in a consistent manner in a way that makes sense to the dog is very difficult, and that is why people with many years of experience training dogs still go to class. Sometimes it takes a second set of trained eyes to figure out what the dog is learning from you. At any rate, the only people who don’t really need a dog class are people who have successfully trained dogs for many years – in other words, they have been to class many times. If you take a dog who is trained and give it to a person who both has not done the training and is not very well versed in training techniques, E (extinguishment) sets in. The dog will forget it’s training.



A rather large body of work with marine mammals (dolphins, killer whales) has established the rather counter-intuitive notion that marine mammal training that was based wholly on reward (R+, P-) was significantly more effective that training that included punishment (P+, R-). I do not believe there is any debate among marine mammal trainers on this point.


Dogs are NOT marine mammals. But as a result of this work many people have been experimenting with dog training based on only rewards (R+, P-). It is well established that dogs can be well trained on R+/P- systems with no punishment.


It is also well established that expertly applied punishment can be effective in training. Police dog trainers have used shock boxes and other P+ paraphernalia for many years.


If you are already an expert trainer with numerous national level titles read no further.


For the rest of us, there will be time when we are going to screw up. For R based training, you are going to give rewards at inappropriate times. For P based training, you are going to punish at inappropriate times. Which does the most damage to the dog? When (notice I didn’t say “IF”) you get pissed off at your dog you are going to lose your temper. If you are an R based trainer, you are going to withhold some reward – perhaps your approval or a treat. If you are a P based trainer, you are going to (fill in the blank – yank the dog’s prong collar, activate the shock box, hit the dog’s snout). Which does the most damage to the dog? My claim is that inefficiently applied training technique is fairly common among most dog trainers. Poorly applied training technique leads to a less-than-optimal dog, whether you are using P+ or R+ training. A poorly trained R+ dog will end up sweet but mischievous; a poorly trained P+ dog will end up dangerous.


Most doggie boot camps train using both P and R and expect you to do the same[1]. You will have at most an hour or two of training. You are going to screw up. Even IF (notice the big IF) the boot camp trainers are competent, you are not. If you punish your dog inappropriately you are going to end up with a messed up and possibly dangerous dog. P+ or R+ based training requires your action within no more than 3 seconds from the dog’s actions to be effective. You don’t have much time to ponder whether or not to hit the shock box or hand the dog a treat. With only an hour of coaching from the boot camp trainers you cannot become a competent dog trainer. FYI, the Leader Dog people require an entire MONTH from a prospective new handler. That’s one month, full time, living on Leader Dog facilities. The dog is presented to the handler fully trained; the month is to teach the handler (usually someone blind) how to handle the dog. It is ludicrous to think anyone will pick up what they need to know in only an hour.


The “good” dogs at the doggie do right website are all wearing correction collars (choke chains). This is one method of delivering punishment. Nearly all the people who use choke chains (and prong collars) do not use them correctly. With only an hour or so of training the chances of your using them properly are nil. These devices WILL damage your dog if misused or overused. At least one study has linked their common usage to premature canine death.




My neighbors are very nice people, but with two kids, and both adults working full time, they lead pretty hectic, busy lives. Into this stew of rush, rush, rush they brought a Norwegian Elk Hound puppy. He was brought to obedience class, but there never seemed to be time to train the dog during the week. The dog did what bored puppies do – he destroyed walls, tiles, furniture. He was very sweet natured, but naughty.  Something had to be done.


The dog was shipped off to boot camp. The camp (in another state) brought the dog back after a month. The handler from the boot camp was not satisfied with the dog’s performance, and offered to keep the dog another month at no extra charge. Two months after he first left, the dog was brought back and certified by the boot camp as trained.


The training appeared initially to work nicely. The dog heeled, sat, and came on command.


My dogs played with this animal quite regularly before being shipped off to boot camp. When he returned, however, their attitudes changed completely. They clearly didn’t like him any more. I have no idea what changed in the animal, but they took an instant rather dramatic dislike to him. The last time they played together was a couple of days before being shipped off to boot camp.


The dog’s owners received maybe an hour’s worth of training when the dog came back from boot camp.


Fast forward four years. I had frequently seen their dog outside, and always gave him a quick pet when I was dogless. But when I went into their house their dog threatened me. This dog has apparently threatened guests before. This dog had become dangerous[2].


It seems irrelevant to me if the dog’s change was a direct result of boot camp, or the result of the owners not being adequately trained on how to handle their animal. The net result is that they now have a dangerous dog, and that would NOT have been the case if they had trained their dog themselves.




“Money will buy you a pretty good dog but it won’t put the wag in its tail” (old saying). If you have a dog you must spend quality time with it if you want a well-behaved loving animal. A dog is not a car: someone else can fix your car and it will work well for you. No one else can fix your dog but you; people can help you fix your dog, but YOU have to fix it. If you don’t have time to train your dog get rid of the dog! Your dog is not going to love you because you spent money on it.


If you don’t have time to train a puppy, don’t get a puppy. If you don’t have any time at all to train, don’t get a dog.



Copyright Gary Hughes-Fenchel, September 2005. Feel free to distribute unaltered copies of this document. It may only be copied or distributed in its entirety exactly as it appears and must include this copyright notice. Any editorial comments must be clearly labeled as such and must appear either before or after the unaltered document.


[1] No, I haven’t surveyed all boot camps to come to this conclusion. However, the boot camps I have directly checked out – and those I have been told about – all use punishment as part of their training protocol.

[2] The conclusion that the dog’s bad attitude is the proximate result of being sent to boot camp is mine. A proper scientific study would require a control, which is not present here.