On Dieting and Dog Training

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Me and my chihuahua, Mr. Big.

Let me start by saying that my facility, Roverchase, began a Biggest Loser Competition on December 26th. I come to you in a carb-deprived state to share some of my thoughts as I’m trying to take my mind off of my profound desire for a deep fried pizza.

I decided, as many of you may have, that I was going to stop dieting and start a clean eating lifestyle. Truthfully, I like healthy food - I really do. I’m just a lazy cook, so I also really appreciate a front door delivered pizza, chinese food, or pasta after a 12 hour work day. So here I am, 8 days into clean eating, and I’m realizing it’s hard! I have a lot of habits to break and a lot of new behaviors to learn. This got me thinking about my work in animal behavior and how amazingly similar it is to what I am trying to accomplish with my diet.

It took me the better part of a decade to gain the 50 lbs of unhealthy weight I am now working to lose. Many factors played a role in my weight gain. I have genetic orthopedic issues that played a huge role. I have a family history of obesity. I really love sweets and deliciously fried food. I also hate the gym – it creeps me out (no offense to people who love the gym, I admire you and am working to find a love for this scary place!). My weight gain is a consequence of both nature (genetic orthopedic issues and familial obesity) and nurture (my regular consumption of processed foods and nonregular implementation of scheduled cardio exercise). I am anxious to lose the excess weight and become more healthy and active. That is a wonderful, genuine, life-improving, and healthy desire. My efforts to achieve this goal could save my life or certainly prolong a healthy life.

There are many ways I could lose weight that would be much faster than clean eating and healthy exercise. However, as we all know, faster is not always better. I could, for instance, severely decrease calories. Would I lose weight quickly? Absolutely I would. Would it be healthy for me in the long run? Absolutely not! It would cause muscle loss, stress on internal organs, loss of bone density, and increased stress on my heart. I could put my life at risk by starving myself. I could also take a dangerous weight loss drug and the weight would just melt off! Unfortunately, these drugs could cause increased risk of heart attack, stroke, or other life-threatening episodes. In addition, while the drugs do cause fast weight loss, they don’t actually change behavior. The medication causes loss of appetite but not change in diet.

The problem with choosing a program, whether it be weight loss or dog training, based solely on speed of results is that you are ignoring many other very important factors.

Why is it fast?

Is it healthy?

Will it ultimately achieve my long-term goals?

Is it sustainable?

These are all very important questions to ask.

I have heard so very many times that aversive dog training methods (shock collars, prong collars, choke collars, etc) used for training are faster and more effective. I have also heard that shock collars or prong collars “save a dogs life” that would otherwise be euthanized. But do they really? Do they really “save a life” or do they simply get results? What are the side effects? What else is happening to the brains, the bodies, and the souls of these animals when we use these methods?

We are fortunate that in 2015 we know exactly what aversive method training is doing to the brains and bodies of our beloved companions.

  • We know that harsh-method training increases cortisol levels (the stress hormone) which affects the function of the endocrine system in our dogs. The endocrine system is what controls hormones, certain brain functions, growth, development, sleep, and mood.
  • We know, from scientifically sound and peer reviewed studies, that aversive method training (such as corrections from shock collars and prong collars) actually increases aggression in our beloved companions because it affects the way their brains function and their bodily systems respond.

Since we know these things to be true, I must ask - are we really “saving a life,” or are we just accepting that results equal health?

My health would actually be worse if I chose the “quick fix” in my weight loss endeavor. I would be thinner, but dangerously unhealthy. Adjusting my lifestyle to adhere to a healthy, clean eating diet and exercise routine will take months of everyday practice to achieve my goal. But when I do, I will have new habits and a sustainable behavior pattern. I would never risk the quick-fix when PhD nutritionists and doctors all over the world warn me time and time again that it is ultimately so dangerous for me.

Why then would we, as a dog loving community, risk the quick fix of aversive method training when PhD animal behaviorists and veterinarians all over the world warn us time and time again that it is ultimately so dangerous for our beloved dogs. Are our dogs’ mental, physical, and emotion health not important enough to us to take the time to apply healthy and effective methods? Are we so fixated on a quick miracle solution that we are willing to go against the current scientific findings simply to produce results?

My fellow dog lovers, I plead with you to make this your 2015 resolution: I resolve to denounce the quick fix and promote the long-term health of both my dog and myself this year. I will work hard, practice daily, redirect mistakes, and reward successes until I reach my goal.

Join me this year in believing that we can make a difference. That not just our dogs’ lives, but the quality of their lives, matter.

Happy New Year to each of you. I wish you and your dogs health and happiness.


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Positively Expert: Abigail Witthauer

Abigail resides in Birmingham, Alabama where she owns Roverchase, a large dog training and care facility. Abigail has been training dogs professionally for 15 years and resides with several animals, most famously, Mr. Big the Chihuahua (Instagram @MrBigChihuahua).


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4 thoughts on “On Dieting and Dog Training

  1. Holly Parker

    Thank you for your thoughtful, honest and informative post. These two topics are near and dear to my heart. I appreciate the way you related dieting/exercise and dog training. Makes a lot of sense!

  2. anne

    I also recently have noticed a parallel between dog training and weight issues! I am a huge fan of positive dog training. Recently, I have been reading about applying positivity to becoming healthier and happier (and hopefully weight loss in the long run); instead of letting fear rule my choices.

  3. Sally Wing

    ANYTHING that requires discipline and positive behavioral changes toward a noble goal is WORTHY of you! Good for YOU (and you dogs) and THANK YOU for being honest & accountable. Inspiring! 🙂 sw

  4. Kalia Jeanette Rork

    I have a personal fitness trainer who is a dog lover and works to help disadvantaged and homeless dogs in her spare time. She and I have developed strength training and stretching exercises for me to do while on my dog walks! More and more we will incorporate fitness routines into fun dog activities! My pup enjoys it and so do I!

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