Editor’s Note: Lady Freethinker is choosing not to name Jeff Gellman’s clients out of an abundance of caution for their safety.
Rhode Island dog trainer Jeff Gellman made international headlines after video footage from one of his training seminars that showed him hitting a dog with a rolled-up towel leaked onto the internet in December 2019.
The footage of the technique, known as “bonking,” resulted in public outrage, alleged death threats, and increased scrutiny over his other highly publicized methods including routine use of electronic collars, according to the Providence Journal and international news sources.
Gellman — who is director of dog training facility Solid K9 Training, Inc, in Providence — has never been charged with animal cruelty in his home state of Rhode Island, according to a public records search of court documents.
But public concern has followed him from the United States to New Zealand, Australia, England, and Scotland — with the New Zealand Herald, The Courier Mail, The Manchester Daily News, the BBC, and The Daily Mail only some of the publications documenting canceled seminar venues and controversy.
As of Aug.3, six grassroots petitions alone opposing Gellman’s methods in the United States and abroad had cumulatively gathered more than 339,000 signatures.
Gellman has publicly stood by his use of bonking and electronic collars to correct both aggressive and fear-based behaviors. He’s also sold those methods to his substantial network of followers — including more than 106,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel; more than 52,000 followers on Facebook; and more than 36,500 followers on Instagram — many of whom swear by his methods and are eager to speak out publicly on his behalf.
He’s made a hefty profit in the process, according to a Dun & Bradstreet profile for Gellman’s business that reports an annual sales income of $548,235.
Gellman’s name is well known to the Rhode Island SPCA (RISPCA), one of the agencies tasked with investigating animal cruelty complaints.
Special Agent Earl Newman told Lady Freethinker he’s received numerous complaints about Gellman over the years and described Gellman’s methods as “cruel.”
But dog training is an unregulated industry in the state, and Newman added that a number of factors — including how the state’s animal cruelty laws are written and that people are paying Gellman to train their dogs this way — have made pursuing animal cruelty charges difficult.
“We are aware of the issue,” Newman said. “We agree this is not an appropriate way to train dogs. But we have to follow the law.”
Numerous studies have shown that a heavy reliance on aversive methods — or techniques that use force or pain to make a dog comply with a command — can cause physical harm or fear when used at the required intensity for learning to occur and also can damage the relationship between dog and owner.
Other studies have shown that aversive techniques can be dangerous because they do not change a dog’s behavior in the long-term and also can teach dogs to suppress warning signals — such as growling or whining — while increasing fear or aggression, which can lead to serious attacks against people.
We reached out to Gellman and invited him to respond to our questions and concerns via phone or email — two standard ways that journalists connect with sources prior to the publication of a story — and also invited him to connect us to his clients.
Gellman told Lady Freethinker (LFT) that the only way he would speak with us for this story was via a live broadcast through his podcast, prior to publication. LFT Reporter Lex Talamo told him that vetting of information — including possible misinformation — should not be done before a live audience and again invited Gellman to respond via phone call or email.
Gellman declined, and instead posted Talamo’s contact information to his social media pages, asking clients to reach out directly in a post that started, “As usual, there are always folks looking to slander myself, my company, and my clients.”
Jeff Gellman’s Dog Training Credentials
Gellman bills himself as a “nationally known, award-winning dog trainer” specializing “in aggression rehab” on his LinkedIn profile.
According to that profile, he graduated from Charles F Brush High School in 1984. He then went on to function from 1993 to 2007 as the CEO of Miko Exoticwear, a popular sex shop that closed down in 2008 following a “mismanagement of funds” by the store manager, as alleged by Gellman to the Brown Daily Herald.
The Brown Daily Herald article notes that Solid K9 Training was the new direction for Gellman, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as the president of that business starting in 2005.
As for what catapulted him from sex shop owner to dog trainer, Gellman told viewers in a video he posted to his YouTube channel in 2021 that he also got his first dog — a German Shepherd named Max — 17 years ago, which would be around 2004 and the same time his LinkedIn profile says he started Solid K9 Training.
“I was getting dragged down the street,” Gellman tells his viewers. “I was getting jumped on. I was getting bit. My dog was biting other people, my dog was biting other dogs. I was told by many, many other trainers to put my dog down.”
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Gellman continues. “I went down the rabbit hole of learning everything I could, and that just turned into the business that I have now.”
That business expanded to include Jeff Gellman Seminars in 2014, according to Gellman’s LinkedIn profile, through which he tours domestically and internationally teaching his methods.
Gellman noted in a Solid K9 training blog post that he is a self-taught trainer.
“Having fancy letters after your name, taking an online course or even going to a university for animal behavior does not mean you know how to train a dog,” he wrote in a September 2010 post titled “I Abuse Dogs.” “I am self-trained and self-learned, and most importantly, effective. It is my mission to correct the misinformation spread by the so-called experts who do not understand animal behavior nor the needs of dog owners. Most professional dog trainers have never trained a dog out of a classroom.”
Gellman’s LinkedIn profile notes three awards from two publications: Animal Print Magazine’s “Best Dog Trainer” in 2011 and “Best Board and Train Facility 4 years in a row” from 2009 through 2012 from the same publication. His awards’ section also claims he was “Best of Boston-Dog Training Category” in Dec. 2011.
Boston Magazine, which administers the “Best of Boston” awards, told Lady Freethinker that Gellman did not receive their “Best of Boston Dog Trainer” category in December 2011.
Online copies of the Animal Print Magazine showed the cited awards were readers choice awards, in which individuals vote for their preferred service provider via a publication-sponsored contest, and that Gellman’s places ranged from runner up through first place for the cited years.
Animal Print Magazine confirmed with Lady Freethinker that Gellman’s awards are readers’ choice and that the magazine has never otherwise featured him. The publisher also said she has “since removed him as a quick pick option” without additional comment.
Solid K9 Training, Inc, was marketed in Animal Print Magazine in 2010 as a “licensed-bonded-insured-accredited” business, showing the business’s name and a photo of Gellman beside at least six dogs. But public records from the Rhode Island Secretary of State show the business’s registration was effective with their office starting in 2013.
The Secretary of State records also list a registration for Gellman with the business Train the Trainers, also effective in 2013, although those records also indicate that business’s registration was revoked on June 3, 2021, for failure to file required annual forms.
What Gellman needed to do to establish those dog training businesses was fill out paperwork and pay a $230 filing fee for his articles of incorporation, a representative with the state’s Division of Business Services told Lady Freethinker.
Gellman was, at one point, a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals. But he was booted out in December 2019, following a Board review of video footage of his methods, which found that Gellman “was in violation of the Code of Conduct, and he was removed from membership in accordance with our ByLaws,” according to a public post on the association’s Facebook page.
Lady Freethinker could not find an accredited professional canine association to which Gellman belongs or that endorses his training techniques.
We also reached out multiple times to eight individuals who identified as dog trainers and appeared to have endorsed Gellman’s training methods on LinkedIn. Five did not respond. One declined comment. One said she had no idea who Gellman was. One said that he “had never endorsed Jeff Gellman” and that he did not want his name written anywhere in the same story as Gellman’s.
We also reached out to the executive directors of two animal welfare nonprofits who had recommended Gellman on his LinkedIn in 2012. One did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The other said he no longer endorses Gellman.
Aversive Techniques in Dog Training
Training protocols that use force or pain to make a dog comply with a command are known as “aversive” techniques, can range in their intensity, and are not automatically legal.
Pushing down on a dog and telling him to “sit” is an example of a mild aversive. Breaking an animal’s bones or punching a dog in the face– which landed this State Trooper and this Vacaville police officer, respectively, under public scrutiny — are at the extreme other end.
The two aversive techniques Gellman uses that have been most covered by media are bonking — a technique originating with dog trainer Gary Wilkes that involves forcefully hitting a dog with a rolled up towel — and Gellman’s reliance on electronic collars, colloquially known as “shock” collars for the pulse they can transmit to dogs on certain levels.
Questioning the Qualifications of Veterinarians
In addition to the concerns from animal welfare agencies, numerous peer-reviewed studies and leading veterinary associations– including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association — also have reported that reliance on aversive techniques can have serious, negative effects for both the dog and the dog’s guardian, including but not limited to fear, stress, pain, injury, and aggression.
Gellman allegedly told Dog Time that veterinarians are not always qualified to comment on the impact of aversive techniques. Regarding a question about whether prong collars are effective, Gellman said, “Vets will tell you that they are harmful but they do not know how to train dogs.”
Gellman, in a video titled “Abuse Is Being Hijacked,” describes the potential negative impact his techniques can cause to dogs as being possibly “uncomfortable.” But he says frequently, in videos and on his website, that his methods are justified because the dogs allegedly have caused “pain” for their human owners.
“I love dogs, but I love people more,” he said on his website. “I hate seeing people in pain, so the inspiration for my company is to eliminate the pain in people by making sure their dogs are trained and rehabbed.”
In his video “Jeff Gellman’s Rant on Punishment,” Gellman tells viewers that his techniques are “simple, common sense” and not abuse.
“As soon as you start talking about punishment, everybody crumbles and falls apart and screams abuse,” he says in that video. “Abuse? Give me a f****** break.”
Gellman says in his “Abuse Is Being Hijacked” video, “We’re not seeing dogs become more aggressive.”
Providence police incident reports, obtained via public records request, show that Solid K9 Employees were transported to the hospital twice for dog bites — once in 2009 and once in 2010. The reports indicate the bites happened while the employees were moving the dogs and do not indicate what techniques or tools the employees were using on the dogs at the time.
The Providence Journal has reported that the force of impact from bonking is akin to “hitting a dog.” Gellman has spoken out against those types of comparisons via social media on numerous occasions, saying to one social media user that “using a bonker is a very specific protocol” and that “We don’t hit dogs. Stop listening to the false narrative.”
In his video of how to use a “bonker” on a dog — which had been viewed more than 77,000 times as of the publication of this story — Gellman hurls a rolled up towel into a door that appears to be several feet away, where it audibly thumps. He then tells viewers, “Have two or three of them. Boom, boom, boom.”
After the video of his bonking on the white dog at an alleged Las Vegas venue went viral, Gellman stood by his use of the technique.
He told the Providence Journal that he had reportedly learned that the dog’s owner often used a wheelchair and that the dog reportedly “was aggressively lunging at other animals and tipping over the woman’s wheelchair,” and that bonking is “wildly successful at correcting overly aggressive dog behaviors,” according to the Journal. In the bonking video, the dog’s owner is not in a wheelchair, but the white dog does bark before being hit with the towel.
The Association of Responsible Dog Owners (ARDO) — a U.K-based association of dog owners, trainers, behaviorists and scientists that is not explicitly against aversive methods — has raised concerns about Gellman’s bonking method, as demonstrated in the viral video.
In an open letter to multiple media outlets following the leaked video of Gellman’s seminar involving bonking of the white dog, ARDO wrote that it was unknown whether Gellman had discussed the option of rehoming the dog prior to using “such a highly intrusive behavioral intervention.”
They also wrote that the technique, as recorded in the video, likely would not have allowed the dog to know what he or she did wrong.
“Upon the owner saying the word ‘No’, the dog is forcefully struck by the towel within one second. At the point of being struck, the dog is looking up at the owner,” ARDO wrote. “The dog clearly realizes that the punishment came from Mr. Gellman, since it is Mr. Gellman from whom the dog cowers away. There is no indication whatsoever that the dog has associated any behavior towards another dog as the cause of the punishment.”
ARDO continues in the letter that standard ethical procedure when facing unwanted behaviors involves teaching dogs an alternative, whereas Gellman “appears here to rely exclusively on positive punishment to alter behavior.”
They added that a single bonk likely would not permanently change the dog’s behavior, questioned why such a force-based technique was being taught to a “physically impaired” individual who likely wouldn’t be able to repeat the correction, and also noted the possible negative effects for other dog owners.
“We do not believe that dog trainers should encourage naive companion dog owners to resort to physically ‘striking’ or throwing projectiles at their dogs,” ARDO wrote. “The probability of mistrust, avoidance, hand shyness, and/or counter aggression developing between dogs and owners who have physically (manually) punished them is both considerable and avoidable. There are certainly safer and equally if not more effective alternatives.”
Electronic or ‘Shock’ Collars
When it comes to use of electronic collars, some countries have gone so far as to ban them — including Scotland, where Gellman was scheduled for a seminar in 2020 that he canceled. The country’s 2018 guidance on dog training aids states that “training that includes unpleasant (aversive) stimuli or physical punishment (that) may cause unacceptable pain, suffering and distress” would constitute a violation of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006.
Gellman advocates use of shock collars for dogs he says require “intense” behavior modification due to aggression but also for dogs that “are not human or dog aggressive” and who have “high levels of fear and anxiety,” per his website, which notes his board and train options require electronic collars for both types of dogs.
He calls shocking dogs another “meticulous training protocol” in a video posted to his channel titled “Abuse is Being Hijacked.”
“If a dog is doing something improper and I know that if I do a very, a meticulous training protocol, that I’ve seen success with thousands of times, even if it’s uncomfortable for the dog, it’s not abuse,” he says. “It’s just the way it is.”
Gellman’s online shop promotes several models of electronic collars made by E-Collar Technologies.
Greg Van Curen, the president of that company, said the most common use of an electronic collar is to allow dogs to explore off-leash, rather than using them to break unwanted behaviors, which he said was “not as common.”
The operator’s manual for one of the collars promoted in Gellman’s shop contains a particularly cautionary note for using electronic collars on dogs deemed aggressive.
“It is not uncommon for aggressive dogs to associate the stimulation with the handler and to take action against the handler,” the operator’s guide notes.
The operator’s manual further resolves E-Collar Technologies of any liability should an owner be bitten while using the product.
Lady Freethinker sent Van Curen Gellman’s video “How To Eliminate Dishwasher Surfing” — unedited and as posted to the Solid K9 Training YouTube channel — for feedback. In that video, Gellman leads a dog to a dishwasher, which he opens to reveal plates set horizontally at the dog’s eye level. When the dog sniffs the dishes, Gellman uses an electronic collar on a level that causes the dog to yelp.
“His methods may seem extreme to some, but remember, he is dealing with aggressive and dangerous dogs,” Van Curen wrote via email in reply. “A counter surfer is a dangerous situation and using an uncomfortable sensation to eliminate the behavior is the most efficient and permanent method I have seen work.”
As a clarification for readers not familiar with the term, “counter surfing” refers to a small dog jumping onto a counter or large dogs putting their paws on a counter so they can eat food or other items that were left there by their owners.
ARDO, the U.K-based group of dog trainers and behaviorists, reviewed the same unedited video, as posted by Solid K9 Training, Inc., on request.
In a letter to Lady Freethinker, the association said that people, when determining whether a correction to stop an unwanted behavior is reasonable, should ask whether the action is appropriate, proportionate, and necessary.
“In this particular video, we believe that the procedure fails to satisfy the requirements for being ‘appropriate,’” ARDO wrote. “There is no demonstration to suggest that the far less invasive, arguably more appropriate and effective alternative of closing the dishwasher after opening has been considered.”
“Simply closing the dishwasher door, or restricting access to the kitchen itself, would be better, less intrusive, yet equally effective options,” ARDO concluded.
A Dog Trainer Who “Doesn’t Come Cheap”
Gellman touts the amount of free content and information he makes available to viewers, via his YouTube Channel, Spotify Account, website, and radio show, saying on his website that, “The best way for me to help as many people as possible is to put out so much free content so that owners can train and rehab their own dogs.”
That content, including several videos that require people to use shock collars to administer corrections, is available to anyone with an internet connection — regardless of whether they have any background or training in shock collars, the possible dangers, or what constitutes an “appropriate” level at which to use them and under what conditions.
Gellman also offers numerous paid options for people to connect with him.
As of Aug. 6, he offered both 4- and 6-week board and train programs — listed on his website under the header “Have the dog you want, not the dog you have” — that ranged from starting costs of $3,900 to $4,900. He also offered one-on-one training, a shadow program, puppy packages, board and play, and a number of consulting and social media marketing mentoring options.
His 2-day seminars, with tickets available on Eventbrite, range most frequently from $350 to $750 and similar equivalents for other countries. The BBC noted that the lower range tickets for a seminar Gellman was supposed to conduct in Perth (but cancelled) were for people who wanted to attend and take notes, while the higher ticket levels were for people who wanted to attend with their dogs.
Gellman also operates a Patreon account, where people can donate from $10 a month up to $100 a month, along with a $500 a month “mentorship” option.
Dun & Bradstreet is a reputable company that has been collecting financial data for almost 200 years for more than 23 million private companies — such as Gellman’s — worldwide.
A Dun & Bradstreet profile of Solid K9 Training Inc, for which Gellman is listed as the company’s owner, showed Gellman’s combined offerings have netted an annual sales income of $548,235.
The Dogs Of “Last Resort”
The claim-to-fame that Gellman has leaned into, as evidenced by his website, is that he is “the dog trainer other trainers recommend for dogs that have INTENSE behavioral problems.”
Gellman also has publicly decried “positive trainers,” saying on his blog that they have “failed” and “are killing our dogs,” with a nearby claim to “5.6 million unwanted or ‘unadoptable’ dogs” being euthanized in shelters each year “because a so-called expert has deemed them dangerous.”
The ASPCA reports nowhere near that claimed number, citing that euthanasia of shelter pets has declined from 2.6 million in 2011 and currently is closer to 1.5 million animals — with no mention that all the animals are euthanized because they were deemed aggressive. The ASPCA similarly notes that the total number of dogs who enter shelters nationwide each year is closer to 3.3 million.
Gellman also trains dogs who are not aggressive, per his website, which notes that he uses the same methods — including electronic collars — that are required for the training of those dogs.
Responses From Gellman’s Clients
Following Gellman’s posts to social media, Lady Freethinker heard from 35 individuals — several of whom requested anonymity. Sixteen of those people, all of whom said they had positive outcomes with their dogs from using Gellman’s methods, provided documentation verifying that they had paid for one of his seminars or other training options.
Fifteen of those 16 clients said they had tried other trainers prior to coming to Gellman. Issues ranged from fearful behaviors by their dogs — including running away, being afraid to leave the house, being afraid of fireworks, and not being able to ride in a car without barking or jumping — to reported aggressive behaviors — including behaving aggressively at the door, biting, attacking other dogs, pulling, and lunging.
The most cited impact on quality of life for these clients was that their dogs’ behavior had led to stress — with people reporting feeling exhausted, isolated, anxious, and demoralized, and several clients noting strain in their relationships with their significant others. The second most cited impact was fear, including being afraid or unable to take their dogs places and being afraid of being sued or having someone hurt by the dog.
Despite the toll their dogs’ behavior reportedly was having on their lives, only three clients said they were considering rehoming their dogs prior to finding Solid K9 Training. Only two said they were considering euthanizing their dogs.
One individual who contacted Lady Freethinker went so far as to tell us, “In my view he is the God of dogs.”
Some of the other dogs that Gellman has trained with his methods, as written by alleged clients who left positive reviews on Yelp or on his LinkedIn Profile, include:
- A Lab who went from “a bit of a lovable rogue to an obedient dog”
- A “friendly dog” who “just needed help with obedience”
- Dogs of an undisclosed breed who now “stay on their beds, play with toys, and interact with guests in a calm manner when appropriate” so that the owner can host “a 4-hour Super Bowl party” without incident.
Revoking Positive Reviews
Not everyone who positively reviewed Gellman has stood by his training methods through the years.
Defenders of Animals Inc Director Dennis Tabella, who recommended Gellman in a 2012 post to Gellman’s LinkedIn, said he was “concerned” by Gellman’s methods in a 2020 interview with GoLocalProv.
Tabella further told Lady Freethinker that Gellman has “apparently changed his training methods” and that the LinkedIn endorsement no longer stands.
“Although we endorsed Jeff Gellman in 2012 based on our own observation of his training methods at the time, we do not endorse him now,” Tabella told Lady Freethinker in an Aug. 5 email.
What Do Animal Welfare Groups Say?
Whether other shelters with difficult-to-adopt dogs would want Gellman’s methods used on their dogs or their adopters is another question.
Both the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA say they don’t condone aversive techniques in their official statements on dog training.
The ASPCA, which reviewed unedited videos of Gellman’s as posted to his Solid K9 Training YouTube Channel, also offered the following.
“The ASPCA believes that animals and their owners deserve training and behavior modification procedures that are humane, effective, and efficient,” the organization told Lady Freethinker. “We support the implementation of training and behavior modification methods that are based on an understanding of how animals learn, respect who the animal is, enhance the pet/owner relationship, and prioritize the animals’ and their guardians’ quality of life.”
Rob Laroy, the executive director of the Humane Society of Elkhart County, told ABC57 that the use of positive reinforcement is “far superior to aversive or punishment training, which is taught by Mr. Gellman.”
Laroy also disagreed with Gellman’s claims that using his methods on dogs deemed dangerous could save millions of shelter dogs’ lives each year.
“I have heard this claim by Mr. Gellman, and he is welcome to his opinion, but attempting to suppress an aggressive or fearful behavior by creating a situation where you are making the animal more fearful doesn’t seem like the solution to calming the fear, the anxiety, or stress in any animal,” he told Lady Freethinker.
“The truth is millions of pets find themselves in shelters every year through no fault of their own,” he added.
Public Response To Jeff Gellman’s Methods
Gellman’s methods have been deemed so extreme by some members of the public that he has received alleged death threats.
Gellman told The Providence Journal that he received an alleged 25 death threats after a short video of his use of bonking went viral. Incident reports, obtained by Lady Freethinker via a public records request, also show that Gellman contacted the Providence Police Department on alleged threats on two separate occasions — once in December 2019, and once in February 2020.
In the first incident, Gellman allegedly received threats saying “if certain people see him in public they will do bodily harm to him” after one of his dog training videos — allegedly “doctored to look as if training is abusing the dog” — was posted in a Facebook Group, according to the incident report.
The second incident also involved comments about another training video, including one person who allegedly asked “if the man in the video was beaten up or killed for the portrayed abuse” and also involved a person from New Jersey who allegedly left two voicemails on Gellman’s business line, saying “she was going to drive up to Gellman’s training facility to have a talk with him,” according to the incident report.
“Although [redacted] made no specific threat to harm Gellman, he is still concerned for the safety of his family, himself, and his business,” the incident report notes.
Numerous organizations — including the New Zealand SPCA, the Manchester RSPCA, the Scottish SPCA, the RSPCA for England and Wales, and Rhode Island-based Defenders of Animals, Inc — have publicly voiced concerns or downright disapproval of Gellman’s reliance on aversive methods.
Kirsteen Campbell, the Scottish SPCA’s executive director at the time of Gellman’s planned seminar in Scotland, told media that “Gellman uses outdated training techniques which are cruel.”
As for members of the public, the reaction is mixed.
Solid K9 Training’s BBB profile has an A+ rating, which does not take into account the nine customer reviews who left Solid K9 Training with 1.44 out of 5 stars as of Aug. 3. Those reviews included one 5-star review and eight negative reviews.
Yelp reviews give him 4.5 stars. That rating doesn’t include 28 reviews that are listed as “not recommended” on the site — almost all of which refer to alleged abuse — or the 156 reviews that were removed for violating the platform’s terms of service.
Transparency and Secrecy
Gellman tells people on his website that they aren’t allowed to visit or tour his facility prior to signing up for training. He says that this is “for the safety and security of our staff, you and the dogs.” He tells people they can instead “actually see 100 percent of our facility online.”
“Though this breaks the mold of traditional training programs the folks that hire us fully understand since we have created so much know, like and trust prior to the decision making process,” he says. “You can get to know us virtually, and what you see is what you get.”
His website does not otherwise explain why scheduled appointments are not available or how his business is able to accommodate individuals willing to pay between $2,500 and $4,500 to shadow his staff at work.
Signing up for his seminars also entails a level of secrecy, as venue locations aren’t disclosed to participants prior to a non-refundable purchase. Gellman has even gone so far as to change his venue destinations should their locations be made publicly known prior to the scheduled date.
Gellman was scheduled to arrive at an undisclosed venue location for a 2-day seminar in Elkhart County, Ind., on Aug. 21 and Aug. 22.
A grassroots petition to keep him from coming there — which had 3,486 signatures as of Aug. 5 — publicly disclosed they had found out that location was the Indiana K9-Learning Center.
The venue then suddenly changed to a new, undisclosed location, with Eventbrite tickets noting in bold and all capital letters, “THE SEMINAR LOCATION RECENTLY CHANGED AND WILL NOT BE HELD AT ILKC, IT HAS BEEN MOVED TO A PRIVATE LOCATION WHICH WILL BE GIVEN OUT TO TICKET BUYERS PRIOR TO THE EVENT.”
Michelle Steigmeyer, the owner of Indiana K9 Learning Center, told Lady Freethinker she didn’t know why the venue had been changed.
“He Facebook [messaged] me and told me he had moved to another facility,” she said. “I asked him where, and he said he didn’t want me to know. It was kind of strange.”
Steigmeyer said she had been contacted by two concerned individuals who wanted to know if she was aware of Gellman’s training methods. She told Lady Freethinker she was, having hosted Gellman’s seminars in the past — the first of which she viewed, the second of which she had just remained on the property.
When asked about what she thought of Gellman’s methods, she paused.
“The thing about Jeff is he gets dogs that other people won’t take,” she said. “It’s hard to argue with the results.”
Steigmeyer added that her learning center is open to any dog trainer.
“It’s not up to me to decide what is best for the public’s dog owner,” she said. “I would never tell someone they can’t use my venue. I believe in the market deciding who survives and who doesn’t.”
It’s not the first time Gellman has changed his venue after the location was disclosed in advance to the broader public. He was scheduled to appear at the Bark Avenue Day Camp in Bartlett, Ill., but cancelled after activists — led by Steve Dale, a certified animal behavior consultant — disclosed the location in a petition against him.
Gellman found another location at a new and undisclosed venue. In a video message he taped after the seminar, he told viewers of the new venue: “We kept it quiet. Why? Because of all the nonsense.”
In a blog post titled “Training Methods Do Matter,” Dale wrote, “That tells the entire story — what venue or dog trainer would ever be afraid to announce where he or she is conducting classes? Why must it be kept secret? Gellman’s methods are so over-the-top, I was told that if LE [law enforcement] showed up, he could have been arrested for abuse.”
As noted early on, Gellman has never been charged with animal cruelty in Rhode Island.
Allegations of Animal Abuse and Continued Operations
Public records show that Gellman, via his posted online training videos, has been referred to the Providence Police Department twice — once in 2019, and once in 2021.
The first involved a video that was allegedly shot in Las Vegas, which city staff said led to complications.
“Unfortunately, the video was taken in Las Vegas, and the human is paying the ‘trainer’ for services which changes things,” an employee with Providence’s Animal Control Department wrote in the incident report. “RISPCA [Rhode Island SPCA] is looking into this, however, this incident will help build a case but you cannot make a case out of this incident alone.”
The city of Providence did not respond to clarify how paying someone for services would change investigations into possible animal cruelty.
The most recent referral involved another video that city staff said was “an old video that was investigated already,” according to the incident report.
Providence police also have received six complaints about Solid K9 Training Inc, as owned by Gellman at various locations, including from an alleged former worker who reported that Gellman had allegedly “abused and killed dogs,” and from concerned citizens who reported witnessing a dog being “choked” by an employee allegedly pulling the dog into an SUV; allegedly heard repeated “yelping and crying and yelling at dogs” at the facility; allegedly witnessed “beating the dogs they are trying to train”; and allegations that Gellman “has pressured his employees to not report work-related injuries, or misreport the facts as to protect his business and dissuade them from rightfully pursuing worker’s compensation,” according to official city records obtained via public records request.
The Rhode Island Office of Attorney General also received several allegations of abuse, including from an individual who said he had worked for Solid K9 Services for four years, and who also was listed as an employee on annual licensing documents Gellman submitted to the Department of Environmental Management.
“I witnessed such things as Jeff kicking dogs in the chest extremely hard to the point where they would yelp in pain,” the former employee alleged in the complaint, obtained by LFT via public records request. “I witnessed Jeff holding dogs completely off the ground by their collars, to the point where they almost lost consciousness. While he would hang the dogs, he would also utilize an electronic shock collar turned up on the highest level and continually shock the dogs. Jeff would use rolled up towels to strike dogs on their head as a form of punishment. He would also use dressage whips to strike the dogs during training.”
The former employee also alleged that kennels were “not cleaned frequently enough, and the water bowls were also unsanitary.” He also alleged, “Some of them (the dogs) would also be confined in crates that were not big enough for them to stand up in or even turn around.”
Newman, the special agent with the Rhode Island SPCA, said the agency has received numerous complaints about Gellman throughout the years that have been challenging to investigate for a number of reasons.
Newman said many of the complaints involve videos filmed outside of Rhode Island — and so not within the RISPCA’s jurisdiction to investigate — and also that the state’s current laws defining animal cruelty make pinpointing “abuse” difficult.
“All of our animal cruelty cases are difficult to prove,” he said. “You have the owner and the animal, and they’re not talking.”
Dog trainers in Rhode Island don’t currently have to prove competency in any way, he added.
“It’s difficult to enforce when it’s an unregulated business,” he said.
Regarding Gellman specifically, Newman said that RISPCA has not “been able to find any accredited dog training association that he is associated with, and I think that speaks for itself.”
He further described Gellman’s methods as “cruel,” based on his investigations into the techniques.
Newman added that Gellman’s claims that his methods would save dogs that would otherwise be euthanized has been a major obstacle in cruelty investigations.
“Gellman’s argument that these are dogs who would be otherwise killed is tough,” he said. “He has positive results in that these dogs are still alive, and people love him for that.”
Newman added that people need to have realistic expectations when adopting dogs to spare them from unnecessary suffering.
“People want to purchase these animals and have them be these ideal dogs,” he said. “That’s not realistic. These animals want to be animals. You need to bond with these animals, train them properly, and they will respond in kind.”
Fear of Retaliation
This investigation revealed that others have been hesitant to come forward publicly about their alleged interactions with Gellman for fear of retaliation, lawsuits, or personal or professional attacks from Gellman or his supporters.
Newman said that former employees have reported concerns about the training methods used at the Solid K9 Training facility. But he added it’s been difficult for those employees to put anything in writing for fear of retaliation.
“We’ve had complaints from employees in his facility that the techniques he uses would definitely constitute animal cruelty, but they have been hesitant to put something in writing,” Newman said.
Individuals in a Facebook group created as an information hub for those concerned by Gellman’s training techniques told Lady Freethinker they could not speak with us because they were being sued for speaking out against Gellman.
The state’s public records portal did not show any record of that alleged lawsuit as of Aug. 3, and a Providence Superior Court clerk told Lady Freethinker the only individuals who can access filings not yet uploaded to the portal would be attorneys.
There also is the matter of Gellman’s massive number of supporters and how they’ll approach those who attempt to question their treasured leader.
Lady Freethinker fielded multiple uncivil messages from Gellman’s alleged clients after he announced via his social media platforms that we were going to write a story about him. Those messages ranged from name-calling to expressed wishes that aggressive dogs be given to us, and also attempts to discredit Talamo’s professional qualifications that were sent to Lady Freethinker’s founder prior to publication. The messages were received over the course of more than two weeks at the time of this story’s publication.
Problems With Legal Jurisdiction In Venues Abroad
The Scottish SPCA (SSPCA) told Lady Freethinker that the agency has not conducted any investigations into Gellman “due to the fact we only have powers to investigate incidents that have taken place in Scotland.”
“As the videos that were circulating on the internet ahead of his planned visit had been filmed in America, we had no legal rights to investigate him for the incidents,” the SSPCA told Lady Freethinker.
The SSPCA instead wrote to Eventbrite, asking them to remove the event from sale, followed by a joint letter with their English counterparts the RSPCA “reiterating our dismay at his planned visit” and to emphasize “the use of these techniques is wholly unacceptable, with no place in modern day society,” the letters say.
The SPCAS, which have the authority to investigate alleged animal cruelty, wrote in those letters that Gellman had informed the BBC he was planning to use bonking and shock collars, which they believed showed “admission of intent to harm animals.”
“Should the event go ahead in August, we will consider what actions we can take in the coming months,” they wrote to Eventbrite. “Should evidence arise which shows Jeff Gellman has harmed an animal whilst in Scotland, we will not hesitate to investigate him and this may lead to prosecution.”
The animal welfare agencies sent the letters in January. Gellman canceled in March.
Perth and Kinross Council, which oversees the jurisdiction where Gellman was supposed to appear in Scotland in 2020, said they did not discuss Gellman given the cancellation of his event, although they did strongly advise dog owners not to attend.
“We became aware in 2020 of the proposed event involving Solid K9 Training and concerns were raised with us by members of the public about the approaches to dog training and welfare being promoted,” the council told Lady Freethinker via email. “At that time, we strongly advised dog owners against attending and instead encouraged them to seek further information from the UK Kennel Club regarding local trainers and dog training clubs accredited under the Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Dog Scheme.”
How to Train Your Dog Without Violence
Lady Freethinker does not condone any training method that creates unnecessary fear, pain, or discomfort for animals.
We encourage all pet parents and prospective pet parents to thoroughly research any trainer they are considering employing and to choose trainers who use humane methods only.
We also encourage all pet guardians to make informed and considerate decisions when adopting companion animals and to choose an animal whose breed and specific personality and behaviors can be accommodated by the kind of lifestyle they have or want.
Here are some guides that can help dog parents and prospective dog parents in what they should ask prior to enlisting a dog trainer.
- Companion Animal Psychology‘s “How To Choose A Dog Trainer” notes that the best trainers will understand timing of corrections, theories of learning, and also will have good people skills (to explain corrections to dog owners). While dog training is an unregulated business, dog trainers can show their dedication to their industry by continuing their education, belonging to a membership in a professional dog training organization, or will have picked up dog-training specific qualifications (Look for CTC, KPA CTP, VSA-CDT, VSPDT, and PMCT, all of which establish the dog trainer’s credentials).
- The Association of Professional Dog Trainers’ guide has a list of questions you can ask a potential dog trainer to learn more about the methods that he or she will use on your dog.
- If you’re getting muddled by all the jargon out there — “balanced training,” “force free,” “purely positive,” or “minimally aversive” being some — The Bark has a good article on how you can see through the marketing to make sure the trainer you are choosing is right for you.
- In addition to all the advice listed above, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior‘s guide to choosing a dog trainer notes you should be able to observe a class prior to signing up and also that you should feel comfortable with the trainer you are choosing.