Can Your Dog Trainer Solve Your Problems?

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At my very first clicker expo, one of the talks I attended was “Common Trainer Mistakes” by Ken Ramirez. The mistake Ken closed his talk with was “Assuming All Training Can Be Done By Anyone”. I thought of this talk again while reading this blog post recently. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a worthwhile read. In it, my friend and colleague Andre Yeu argues that good trainers are turning down hard cases for fear of not knowing enough. He makes some great points and his post resonated with me. I am The Dog Trainer Colleague Who Undersells Herself, and I might suffer slightly from both Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect he references. Andre warns that when well informed trainers pass on difficult cases, clients are more likely to fall into the hands of aversive “shock and pop” trainers. My differing perspective is that taking a case you might not be ready for is unethical and just as likely to lead clients into the hands of trainers who offer sub par, harmful solutions. Accepting a client without certainty of your ability to solve their problem is a common trainer mistake Ken warned us of.

A quick glance at my books reveals that I’ve spent over $20,000.00 on continuing education over the past five years. Last year I had four times the continuing education credits required to maintain my certification. While I am not a seasoned veteran, I’m good at what I do and I take the responsibility I have to my clients seriously. There are many specialties in training and many paths I could follow to broaden my abilities. I could focus on puppies, manners, tricks, various sport training, working dog training , body conditioning for canine athletes, or behavior modification. Within these specialties are further subspecialties. Some trainers only teach agility. Others only work separation anxiety cases. While I am focusing on behavior modification, many of my clients are interested in more than just manners work. While I would never purport to be an expert in a specialty I have only a basic knowledge of (when was the last time you saw a gun dog working in Manhattan?) I feel that it’s important to have a foundation in all of the above disciplines to best serve my clients needs. The trainers I most respect are humble education junkies, continuing to expand both their intellectual knowledge and their skills. As Aristotle said, the more you know the more you know you don’t know.

Aristotle

Shouldn’t we know what problems we’re qualified to help our clients solve? This is the crux of the issue. There are great schools and organizations, but there is no one school, program, or organization that teaches it all. I  must put my own curriculum together and connect the dots by myself. While I have fabulous mentors guiding me, it’s not the same as attending a well designed comprehensive program where material  builds on itself. Unlike therapy for humans, there are no supervision requirements. When you are continually learning, it’s hard not to feel like you know nothing when there’s nobody there to tell you that you’re doing a great job. We rely on our clients satisfaction to keep tabs on our capabilities, but there can still be a seed of doubt. Could I be doing this better? Quicker? Is there a different approach?

It’s up to each individual trainer to listen to their inner voice and make responsible decisions about accepting a case or referring out. I would rather decline a case than provide a partial solution to a client’s problem, leaving them questioning the efficacy of humane training methods. If we are thoughtful with our self assessments and honest about our current level of knowledge and skill sets, we can make very good decisions for ourselves – and for our clients – about what cases we shouldn’t take on. In this profession, clients come to us with high stakes problems. If a case is handled incorrectly, the safety of a client or the public at large may be compromised. Rehoming or euthanasia may be on the table. If a professional has 90% of the knowledge they need to help these clients, 90% of the knowledge they need is not good enough. The sliver of information missing could result in prolonging the suffering of an animal in severe physical or emotional distress or suggesting euthanasia to an animal that might otherwise be helped.

While not every trainer has the luxury of being surrounded by a community of other excellent professionals to refer to, we are lucky to have that here in NYC. There is an excellent network of trainers, behavior consultants, and veterinary behaviorists in the NYC area that are happy to work together. On the occasion I feel a case might be beyond my experience level, I provide the client with immediate management suggestions while sending the client to both a veterinarian (medical issues can cause behavior change) and a colleague better equipped to handle the case. If you are a fellow trainer, for the good of our profession and our clients, I urge you to to do the same.

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Tips For Dog Owners
  • Read your trainer’s biography and philosophy. If they don’t have one listed, keep looking.
  • Make sure your trainer has obtained a certification. This is not necessarily proof of competence, but it’s a good start.
  • Ask for your trainers official resume listing the courses they have taken and continuing education they have done and/or the seminars and workshops they have taught to other professionals.
  • Ask if your trainer has solved your problem before.
  • Ask who your trainer turns to when they’re stuck. Look up that person’s biography.
  • Ask your trainer in what scenarios they refer out to other professionals. If they don’t list any scenarios at all, keep looking. Even the most experienced behavior modification professionals need to refer to veterinary behaviorists on some cases.

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