Thoughts on experience and education
When I first started as a dog trainer, I was like the many trainers that I warn my clients about today. I severely overestimated my skills and I wanted to help dogs. I was always in the positive reinforcement (R+) training camp, but even though I never actively or intentionally hurt or scared dogs, I failed some, and that's because ineffective training, even R+ is just as dangerous as harsh methods and I'll get into that more later.
This is obviously not something I'm proud of. If I had it to do again, I would absolutely make different choices. It is a stain on my career in my eyes, but it is the honest truth and I think transparency is important here. I so wish I could have done it differently. Fortunately, I did recognize this deficit fairly early on, and I started what would become a long love affair with continuing education.
In the beginning I had very little to spend. I would read books, journals and buy Behavior DVDs. If you came up in the same era as me, you know what a huge deal the annual Tawzer Dog Black Friday sales were! They were a lifeline for me for learning. As I learned, I gained more business because my skills were growing and I had enough to start attending in person conferences each quarter too.
I began to treat a higher number of dogs, and as a result I started encountering more whose behavior I didn't know enough about to treat, but at the time there was only one other trainer in the area and they used extremely harsh methods. The cases I thought I could be effective on, I would research extensively before proceeding and then treat. It was effective, but extremely time consuming and I was working something like 13-15 hour days 7 days a week because of all the behind the scenes research I was doing. It was a very intense time in my career and put a huge strain on my home life, but I didn't want to be that trainer ever again.
Between the learning I was doing and the cases I was encountering, it became clear that the cold hard fact of existing in this field is that you will never know it all, and you can never stop learning. In fact, the more education I had under my belt, the more insecure I became about my skills and my knowledge. I knew enough to know that I needed to learn a whole lot more, and this is a mindset I've been in since...
At 7 years in, the business was doing very well, and I had more funds to commit to continuing education and (with some additional fundraising) I took my second formal, 2 year course on all things behavior. This course was life changing for me, and I graduated with honors. It was also an incredibly painful process because there's nothing like being armed with a heck of a lot more knowledge and having hindsight to shine a light once again on all of the areas you could have served your clients better. It was both an exciting time, and a time to reflect and own and feel my shortcomings.
Since that program, there has not been a gap in my continuing education. I am quite literally always enrolled in something. Always.
At 13 years in, and armed with a shitload of education, I am considered a respectable trainer now. I have a very good reputation amongst my peers and often have other trainers who I hold in extremely high regard take my courses. To be a trainer's trainer is huge in this field. They are the ones who recognize quality and lack thereof so it means a lot to me when they value my skill set enough to entrust me and my team with their dogs.
My closest friendships are now with other behavior experts who coming up I admired, and it feels good to finally be in that circle. But... a regular theme for us all in discussing the field is continuing education.
At this point I have been through so many programs I don't even think I could name them all, and for some, I do already know a lot of what the material covers, but there is still some gem to take away, because even in the areas I am familiar with, I learn alternative scripts -- new ways to broach a familiar topic with clients that might be more effective or at minimum compliment the old scripts. For the really exceptional courses, I am learning tons of new information and adding to my curriculum, all of which compliments the rest and serves my clients well.
For every course, every single one, there is a moment or moments where I feel that familiar discomfort. The realization I could have done better.
I am more gentle with myself these days because I know that for the rest of my career, there will be breakthroughs and improvements in the field, some of this now wasn't a lack of education, the information just wasn't available earlier, period. I know that I am staying current and it is no longer the case that things that should be core for any trainer are lacking, but I also know now, there will always be more to learn.
In my opinion, there are two types of trainers. The ones who think they know it all and think their skills are good enough, and those who recognize that they know very little.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but the ones who recognize they know very little are some of the best practitioners in this field.
These trainers typically have massive amounts of education under their belts, and when you have invested so much in your education, you become humble. You recognize that there is always more, that there are people who dedicate their whole careers to piecing through the minutiae. The scientists and researchers -- they are the true experts, and though their focus is often finite, collectively, their findings are always coming down the pipe to help us do better and keeping up with it all will ultimately help us serve our clients better. When you look at their work and their dedication to animal behavior research, you cannot help but find humility. We are standing on the shoulders of giants.
The most dangerous to dogs and families are those who think they have it all figured out and are content with a "good enough" approach. They sometimes don't even see the glaring problems they're creating for the household.
Complacency has the ability to inflict serious harm on our students and their families. Complacency in the hands of the incompetent is dangerous.
I feel that we as trainers have an obligation to never stop asking ourselves one simple question:
"How can we do better?"
We work with two highly and complexly emotional species, and our entire job is to increase welfare for both as they live together. At its core, that's what dog training truly is. We need skills for working with both to be effective.
I mentioned how early in my career that I was in the positive reinforcement camp, and also that I was in over my head. I mentioned that I was the trainer that I warn my clients to avoid today. Here's why:
Poorly executed, "positive reinforcement style" training is just as dangerous as any other method of training.
- If the behavior doesn't change, clients will often move on to different, harsher methods that kill the undesirable behavior and run high risk to create other behavior problems.
- If we are ineffective, and they do move to harsher methods that band-aid the problem, this can impact dogs in that family for generations to come. They don't often recognize the problems they are creating by scaring the dog. They think that in order to impact change, they must employ ever harsher corrections. This could not be further from the truth, but clients often look at trainers as all are created equal, so it's an easy jump to assume the method is the problem when it's actually just shoddy execution.
- Clients do not have an endless surplus of money. If they blow it on ineffective training or training that creates other complications, dogs can lose their homes or even be euthanized.
Shoddy positive reinforcement is just as bad as using aversives because the outcome is often the same. A dog remaining unnecessarily stressed, often their undesired behavior getting more pronounced, a family who cannot handle things as they are, and a lack of critical understanding by all for the truly innocent - the dog itself. The dog ends up paying for all of the human errors along the way.
This isn't a field for a "good enough" mentality. Complacency hurts families, dogs, and our field.
My motivation for writing this is plentiful.
I do not want good intentioned people who are genuinely trying to help dogs to have to face the same self imposed reckoning. It is a painful process. It hurts a lot.
I do not want you as clients to fall prey to those with the "good enough" mentality.
I want clients to know that when we cannot help you, we will refer you to a vetted trainer who can help. It's not because they're our buddies, it's because we know their work is solid and we don't want you to fall into the hands of the incompetent or cruel. It hurts to see families failed, and we want to prevent this because it is heavy on our hearts to play cleanup on a dog who deserved better.
If you're a client we've referred out to a vetted trainer but instead moved on to someone who told you what you wanted to hear to make the sale or could get you in faster and then failed you, it hurts us -- They should be building off of what we started, not destroying confidence and trust. We also see this happen often when a trainer we refer to doesn't have immediate openings and because we live in a world of instant gratification, everyone wants things NOW. But that mentality when it comes to your dog and their brain and their behavior and their welfare is not OK. Did you know it is totally normal for really bad trainers to have really quick availability? Why do you think that is?
- They just aren't good so aren't booking up like the skilled trainers are.
- Or, they will often take on way more than they could possibly be effective on because for some it's about money not about results.
- Some will give you immediate availability to get you in the door and then after the eval have months between sessions. I even have clients who fell prey to take the money and run schemes.
Bottom line: With every interaction we are impacting behavior. It's critical for those you select to guide you through that process know both how to impact the behavior at hand and understand the long term ramifications of utilizing a specific method. If they don't, it is common for the symptom to be "fixed" while creating a laundry list of new problems.
We are at a point in this field where demand outweighs immediate availability for qualified help. It often takes time to get on a qualified trainer's schedule. Our field lost some great trainers during the pandemic, and the cost of living has become so high here in Colorado, others have moved out of state.
To complicate things further, there is never a shortage of unqualified help. When I started my business, there were just 2 private training companies on the entire North side, plus the Humane Society. Now, a quick search reveals... Well... I stopped counting at 75 results. 75!!!
Even just 2 years ago I counted around 35. There are people coming out of the woodwork ready to take your money but unqualified for your case. Only a handful of those trainers would I feel comfortable referring out to, but anyone can spontaneously be a trainer. Our field is unregulated.
There is a lot of room for damage in today's climate if you don't vet your trainer first. You've heard me say plenty of times that it is critical to research your trainers on their skills, not just sign on with first available. If you end up in the wrong hands, you've got money lost on ineffective training at best and at worst a long and costly road ahead to undo their damage -- that is if they haven't turned you off of the field all together.
Good trainers know their limitations, they have case types they specialize in and case types they won't take on and will refer our. If they have a wait list, don't be discouraged. Good trainers know they need to be 100% present for you and your dog. Managing the schedule to prevent exhaustion is key to your getting their best self in your session.
When vetting a trainer, ask what consequences they will employ to increase behavior and what they will use to decrease behavior. Weed through the fluffy language. They're really good at downplaying tools. Electricity delivered to the dog is often described as a tickle, for instance. It's not. A tickle wouldn't impact behavior change. The fluffy language just serves to make clients feel comfortable about hurting dogs. If any of it is something you would not want done to you or your child, it is a problem. If you used this tool on your co-worker if they made a mistake, would it get you fired? If so, move on. And finally, your trainer should absolutely have participated in recent continuing education and they'll gladly tell you about it when asked. It is a big fat indicator they are striving to improve their skills and do not fall into the "good enough" mentality. They are the ones asking themselves,"how can I do better for my clients?"