What is rehabilitation and how does it differ from training? – National animal training


Sometimes watching Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer on TV, his techniques may appear dramatic, drastic or downright dangerous! That’s because his work often involves rehabilitation rather than training. It is important for people to understand the difference between rehabilitation and training.

What is training?

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What is training? Image by washingtontimes.com

In humans, training may be:

  • Intellectual / mental – Children in a classroom increasing their proficiency at math.
  • Physical – Athletes exercising their bodies and improving their sports performance.
  • Intellectual and physical – An actor     memorizing lines and also practicing behaviors, for instance Meryl Streep training to play the role of Julia Child.

We train animals for:

  • Obedience – Learning to understand commands and to perform them on cue.
  • Agility / ability – Performing sports or work, such as teaching a horse to
    jump or a dog to find victims after a natural disaster.
  • Trick training  – Learning cues and practicing behaviors which
    may require a high level of athleticism, such as
    Sheryl Crow’s amazing horse Lady C, trained by Sue De Laurentis.
Learning to understand commands and to perform them on cue. Image by pinterest.com

It may help to anthropomorphize.

In this video Honey the Great Dane is learning to salsa dance using clicker training …

… which is very similar to Pamela Anderson learning the steps to the cha-cha-cha on Dancing With The Stars. 

In the cases of Honey and Pamela, you have two healthy, intelligent, well-balanced beings learning new tricks and improving their proficiency. Training to learn new skills and training to improve performance can be accomplished exclusively using positive reinforcement methods, such as clicker training. Rehabilitation requires professional intervention.

What is rehabilitation?

equine assisted therapy
How Horses Help With Mental Health Issues. Image by everydayhealth.com

Rehabilitation in humans involves providing therapy to people in order to restore them to health. Rehabilitation therapy can be:

  • Physical – After a stroke, the victim may need to learn to speak or walk again.
  • Mental – A mentally unbalanced person may have become addicted to drugs and alcohol or may engage in criminal activities. Treatment requires professional intervention to bring the person back into balance.

Animals also may need mental rehabilitation, primarily if they have been abused by humans. Instead of substance abuse or anti-social behavior, animals may develop dangerous coping mechanisms such as aggression (biting in dogs; biting, kicking and striking in horses), as well as withdrawal or obsessive behavior manifesting in self-mutilation. These behaviors in animals are often the reason they are euthanized or slaughtered. People wind up in jail, on the streets or in mental institutions; some commit suicide or hurt themselves; and they are ostracized and ignored by the rest of society.

Image by todaysveterinarypractice.com

Please keep in mind, rehabilitation work in animals, like humans, is not to be undertaken by amateurs, hence the warning NatGeo channel posts before The Dog Whisperer. Rehabilitation requires an experienced professional. Dog and horse rehabbers may become injured during the course of their work. People like Cesar Millan and Steve Markwell are frequently bitten, and they cannot immediately react to the injury, but rather must grit their teeth and carry on.

In the video below, Tom Cole is working with Buster, a chocolate Labrador retriever. Buster is extemely resource aggressive, meaning he is ferociously possessive of food, bones, toys, etc. In his second week of rehab, Buster has come a long way. Notice how Tom uses lots of positive reinforcement as well as firmly but gently establishing boundaries of acceptable behavior.

Buster, like many unbalanced people, was given conflicting messages in his youth. He was treated roughly by an aggressive and dominating owner and thus learned to become aggressive and dominant in kind. In addition, no one took the time to teach him socially acceptable behavior. Rehab work in animals almost always includes socialization of the animal with well-balanced members of his species. In humans we call it ‘group therapy’.

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Rehabilitation After Surgery for Dog. Image by ovrs.com

Unbalanced humans in need of rehabilitation may be involuntarily incarcerated or institutionalized, and forced into treatment, which is very dramatic and drastic. Rehab isn’t pretty. The therapy involves immediately arresting destructive behaviors, followed by teaching alternative positive behaviors, building social skills, and developing trust and self-confidence.

People and animals in need of rehabilitation deserve our compassion – oftentimes they are highly intelligent, enormously talented and capable of fulfilling heroic potential. Society must not throw away people – or dogs and horses. Rehabilitation works!

Pay attention to some of the words used in this video about Lindsay Lohan’s personal financial crisis, particularly –

She’s not got anyone in her corner loving her well or establishing boundaries.


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