Cults in Dog Training???   - by Roger Hild

“In a way, I find dog people and their strong ideas on dog training methods to be almost like religion.”

This comment, made by a member of a dog-training discussion group to which I belong, reflects similar thoughts that have, at times, occurred to me.  As debates rage on about methodology and theory, as people passionately state their beliefs and try to convince others, the religion analogy seems to fit.  The passion dog owners have for their dogs is what drives most in their search for what’s best.  This speaks to the need for CAUTION as there are those who, being aware of the depth of feelings involved, would seek to exploit and manipulate the passions of others.

Knowing how there are people searching for good dog trainers and due to recent events that resulted in very painful experiences for some of these owners, I began to look past the religion analogy.  I began thinking in terms of the experience these folks described as “cult-like.”  I don’t mean to say that these people joined a cult or even that those holding out the “holy-grail” of dog training are themselves a cult.  What I want to do is expose the tactics and psychology that are used which are similar to those used by cults.  I also hope to help people become aware of what to watch out for when researching someone to help train their dog.  These points would apply whenever we are entering into a teacher-student type of relationship.

The following points I got from:  which is the web site for “AFF (American Family Foundation).  Throughout the following quotes, the word “leader” can be used in place of the word “group.”

The AFF is a nonprofit, tax-exempt research center and educational organization founded in 1979. AFF's mission is to study psychological manipulation and cultic groups, to educate the public and professionals, and to assist those who have been adversely affected by a cult-related experience. AFF consists of a professional staff and a growing network of more than 150 volunteer professionals in fields ranging from education, psychology, and religion to journalism, law enforcement, and business.

“Cults & Mind Control 

What is a Cult?

A cult is a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leader, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.

These groups tend to dictate, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel, claim a special exalted status for themselves and/or their leader(s), and intensify their opposition to and alienation from society at large.

Because the capacity to exploit human beings is universal, any group could become a cult. However, most mainstream, established groups have accountability mechanisms that restrain the development of cultic subgroups.”

“What is Mind Control? 

Mind control (also known as "brainwashing," "coercive persuasion," and "thought reform") refers to a process in which a group or individual systematically uses unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s). Such methods include the following:

1. extensive control of information in order to limit alternatives from which members may make "choices."

2. deception

3. group pressure

4. intense indoctrination into a belief system that denigrates independent critical thinking and considers the world outside the group to be threatening, evil, or gravely in error.   An insistence that members’ distress (much of which may consist of anxiety and guilt subtly induced by the group) can be relieved only by conforming to the group.

5. physical and/or psychological debilitation . . . . in which attention is narrowed, suggestibility heightened, and independent critical thinking weakened.

6. alternation of harshness/threats and leniency/love in order to effect compliance with the leadership’s wishes, isolation from social supports and pressured public confessions.”

“. . . contemporary cultic groups induce dependent states to gain control over recruits and employ psychological (sometimes physical) punishment ("dread") to maintain control. The process, in my view, can be briefly described by a modified "DDD syndrome": deception, dependency, and dread.”

“Although the process here described is complex and varied, the following appears to occur in the prototypical cult conversion: 

- A vulnerable prospect encounters a cultic group.

- The group (leader[s]) deceptively presents itself as a benevolent authority that can improve the prospect's well-being. 

- The prospect responds positively, experiencing an increase in self-esteem and security, at least some of which is in response to what could be considered "placebo" The prospect can now be considered a "recruit." 

- Through the use of "sharing" exercises, "confessions," and skillful individualized probing, the group [leader(s)] assesses the recruit's strengths and weaknesses. 

- Through testimonies of group members, the denigration of the group's "competitors" (e.g., other religious groups, other therapists), the tactful accentuation of the recruit's shameful memories and other weaknesses, and the gradual indoctrination of the recruit into a closed, “no falsifiable” belief system, the group's superiority is affirmed as a fundamental assumption. 

- Members' testimonies, positive reinforcement of the recruit's expressions of trust in the group, discrete reminders about the recruit's weaknesses, and various forms of group pressure induce the recruit to acknowledge that his/her future well-being depends upon adherence to
the group's belief system, more specifically its "change program." 

- These same influence techniques are joined by a subtle undermining of the recruit's self-esteem (e.g., by exaggerating the "sinfulness" of experiences the recruit is encouraged to "confess"), the suppression or weakening of critical thinking . . . . These manipulations induce the recruit to declare allegiance to the group and to commit to change him/herself as directed by the group. He or she can now be considered a convert embarking on a path of "purification", "enlightenment", "self-actualization", "higher consciousness," or whatever. The recruit's dependency on the group is established and implicitly, if not explicitly, acknowledged. Moreover, he/she has accepted the group's authority in defining what is true and good, within the convert's heart and mind as well as in the world. 

- The convert is next fully subjected to the unrealistically high expectations of the group. The recruit's "potential" is "lovingly" affirmed, while members testify to the great heights they and "heroic" models have scaled. The group's all-important mission, e.g., save the world, justifies its all-consuming expectations. 

- Because by definition the group is always right and "negative" thinking is unacceptable, the convert's failures become totally his or her responsibility, while his or her doubts and criticisms are suppressed . . . or redefined as personal failures. The convert thus experiences increasing self-alienation. The "pre-cult self" is rejected; doubts about the group are pushed out of consciousness; the sense of failure generated by not measuring up to the group's expectations is bottled up inside. The only possible adaptation is fragmentation and compartmentalization. It is not surprising, then, that many clinicians consider dissociation to lie at the heart of cult-related distress and dysfunction (Ash, 1985). 

- The convert's self-alienation will tend to demand further psychological, if not physical, alienation from the non-group world (especially family), information from which can threaten to upset whatever dissociative equilibrium the convert establishes in an attempt to adjust to the consuming and conflicting demands of the group. This alienation accentuates the convert's dependency on the group. 

- The group supports the convert's dissociative equilibrium by actively encouraging escalating dependency, e.g., by exaggerating the convert's past "sins" and conflicts with family, by denigrating outsiders, by positively reinforcing, chanting or other "thought-stopping" activities, and by providing and positively reinforcing ways in which the convert can find a valued role within the group (e.g., work for a group-owned business, sell magazines on the street).

- The group strengthens the convert's growing dependency by threatening or inflicting punishment whenever the convert or an outside force (e.g., a visit by a family member) disturbs the dissociative equilibrium that enables him or her to function in a closed, nonfalsifiable system (the "dread" of DDD). Punishment may sometimes be physical. Usually, however, the punishment is psychological, sometimes even metaphysical. Certain fringe Christian groups, for example, can at the command of the leadership immediately begin shunning someone singled out as being "factious" or possessed of a "rebellious spirit." Many groups also threaten wavering converts with punishments in the hereafter, for example, being "doomed to Hell." It should be remembered that these threats and punishments occur within a context of induced dependency and psychological alienation from the person's former support network. This fact makes them much more potent than the garden-variety admonistions of traditional religious, such as "you will go to hell if you die with mortal sin.”

“The result of this process, when carried to its consummation, is a person who proclaims great happiness but hides great suffering. I have talked to many former cultists who, when they left their groups and talked to other former members, were surprised to discover that many of their fellow members were also smilingly unhappy, all thinking they were the only ones who felt miserable inside.”

When I began looking at cult-like experiences, I was looking at it from the point of view of someone who might get unknowingly taken in.  What is the psychology and group dynamics that work on the individual and could anyone be conned by a “good enough salesman?”  I was very curious as to what types of “hooks” are used and also why would someone, over time, willingly hand over so much control to someone else.  Why would someone hand over his or her decision-making capacity and self-confidence?

I  believe this also is a relevant dog training discussion.  The obvious hook for someone who loves their dog, and who is having serious concerns about their dog, would be someone who comes along and holds out what they see as the only hope.  They might sell themselves as a type of messiah meaning they and no one else can save this dog. 

Initially the client invests hope in this new system or individual. Such systems or individuals (that make almost magical claims) would then somehow convince the client that all failure was the fault of the client and, through guilt, have the client redouble their efforts to achieve something that is always just beyond reach. One must be very careful when investing so much emotion and handing over so much power, that they are not being taken advantage of and are getting, in fact, what they bargained for.