Today, I’m honored to have a guest post from someone that’s been on the podcast twice (once in 2016 and once in 2017) to talk about a unique challenge that new dog trainers face – taking on clients that you’re not ready for to make ends meet! This scenario has a multitude of implications that I’ll let Rachel explain below.
Some of the most frustrating situations I’ve encountered in my career as a professional dog trainer is when a positive reinforcement-based trainer takes on cases that they don’t have the skill set for. Don’t get me wrong– these trainers have the best intentions and they genuinely want to help these dogs– but a lot of the time they end up doing more harm than good.
We are all, for better or worse, in a highly-competitive field with a high overhead and relatively low-income potential. To compete in an oversaturated market, most of us rely on social media in some aspect or another to increase our visibility. However, we must accept and respect when we post on public forums, groups, or even our own Facebook account and get questions or unsolicited criticism about our methods. Without this system of checks and balances, our careers would be even more susceptible to “whisperers,” dominance trainers, and untrained hacks. While I agree that positive reinforcement trainers should be working together for the greater good of the movement, constructive criticism delivered in a non-confrontational manner encourages learning, improvement in training, and continuing progress in the field.
Aside from inter-industry drama, newer trainers might wonder why it’s a big deal if they take on a dog that exhibits problem behavior beyond that trainer’s particular skill set or comfort level. After all, how are we supposed to learn without experience? Isn’t stepping outside our comfort zone how we all continue to grow? My view is that if the desired behavior change isn’t achieved, we’ve taught the pet parent that positive reinforcement doesn’t work. Not only can this harm how the public views positive reinforcement training, a trainer taking on a case above their experience level inherently places the trainer’s learning experience and income potential above the well-being of the dog and expectations of the owners. This is antithetical to our commitment to our craft, our clients, and the animals themselves.
As a thought experiment, imagine a novice dog owner who has a dog displaying “aggressive” behavior, such as snapping at strangers visiting the house. She’s not sure how to address this behavior, and after doing some research she decides to go with a trainer who markets themselves as R+ savvy and force-free. Many, if not most, of these pet parents have at least one acquaintance or a family member who’s told them to use a shock collar or prong collar when the dog aggresses or states something along the lines of, “You just need to be dominant and show that dog who’s boss.” In fact, any day of the week you can turn on the television at a given time and see this advice peddled on TV shows or infomercials. Despite this, the pet parent isn’t comfortable with heavy-handed methods and ends up hiring the R+ trainer. The pet parent works with the trainer for months, sometimes years, but the dog just isn’t making a quantifiable change in the behavior. The pet parent has spent thousands of dollars, but they still don’t feel confident in the dog’s training. The pet parent is now discouraged and believes that R+ doesn’t work for “aggressive dogs.” Out of desperation, the pet parent hires an aversive-based trainer.
This is where good intentions become damaging: that well-meaning trainer was the catalyst that turned this client– a pet owner who wanted to go about training in a non-confrontational way– into a confrontational-based trainer because the R+ trainer didn’t have the correct skill set for that particular client. Had the trainer been honest with themselves and referred the client to a trainer or behavior consultant who specializes in aggressive behavior, the client would have gotten the help they needed using positive reinforcement methods and achieved timely results.
Just as animals need to learn from small approximations and positive experiences to shape behavior, so do we as dog trainers. A trainer with little or no previous experience with aggressive dogs is taking a huge jump in approximation by agreeing to consult on such cases, and the willingness to take such a leap is as much a sign of training naivety as it is a representation of the person’s enthusiasm and excitement to be working in an industry that we all love. Being well-versed in respondent and operant conditioning and canine behavior is the first step, but slow, gradual, and preferably supervised hands-on experience is just as important with cases where the consequences of making mistakes or simple lack of progress is so dire.
I am the first person to admit that there are many situations outside of my experience base. For example, competition and canine sport training is not my forte. Could I train a dog to compete in obedience and agility? Yes. Are there many others who could train that dog more efficiently? Absolutely! And that’s why I refer out those cases to trainers who are better than me in that particular realm without any hesitation.
So please, if you’re a newer trainer who really wants to help pet parents and their dogs succeed with positive reinforcement-based training methods, refer the difficult cases to someone who knows how to handle them and shadow the trainer or behavior consultant that you refer your client to so that you too can learn how to work these kinds of cases. Don’t try to learn by doing and figuring it out as you go; learn by observing a behavior professional through the lens of your understanding the science of behavior.
About Rachel Golub, CDBC, CPDT-KA
Rachel started her animal training career at the Escondido Humane Society in 2008. She began as an Adoptions Counselor and was quickly promoted to Assistant Trainer in the Behavior Department. Rachel went on to apprentice under some of the top trainers in Southern California, receiving her certification as a Professional Dog Trainer from the CCPDT in 2010, and in 2016 she received her Certified Dog Behavior Consultant certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. In addition to her expertise on dog training, Rachel also has training experience with cats, parrots, exotic animals, and domestic livestock such as horses and pigs.
In 2009, Rachel founded her own company dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, and placing dogs with behavior issues. This company evolved into San Diego Animal Training where she continues to consult with rescues, shelters, and private individuals to transform difficult dogs into adoptable, loving companions.
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