Tag Archives: Change Your Behavior

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.

A Shaping Plan That Sparks Joy

The decluttering technique known as the “Konmari Method” outlined in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo makes very good sense when viewed through the lense of behavior analysis. Kondo sets her followers up for success. Her process looks an awful lot like a well thought out shaping plan, and boy do I love finding good examples of effective human behavior modification in real life.

No matter where on the neat freak to slob spectrum you land, I’m willing to bet two things:

1. You wish your home was beautifully organized and would stay that way forever.

2. You know the current location of your kitchen plates.

Dishes have an easily defined place and after mealtime they get washed, dried, and go back in the cupboard where they belong. Why isn’t everything we own that easy to clean and put back? My husband and I are not slobs, but we’re busy and during the workweek items tend to land… anywhere. We pick up on the weekend, and we LOVE when everything is tidy and in it’s place. It would be lovely if our apartment looked more put together on a daily basis, but our focus is elsewhere.

As busy as I am, my dresser drawers are living proof that Marie Kondo’s method works. I dumped and organized my tops in October.

Here are those drawers now (8 months later), still perfectly organized. And no, I did not clean up before taking this photo. I just opened my drawer.

Here are those drawers now (8 months later), still perfectly organized. And no, I did not clean up before taking this photo. I just opened my drawer.

Kondo approaches decluttering in a way that makes SENSE. She’s serious when she says you only have to do this process once. Here is a brief outline of the process and why it works:

  1. The first step is to gather each and every item you own from one category (example: shirts)

    You’ll be surprised at how much you have once it’s all in one place – reality check! You pick up each item and ask “Does this spark joy?” and then keep only the things you love. You also thank the items you’re not keeping, before sending them on their way (hopefully donated to goodwill). Instead of feeling guilty, you feel grateful. When you’ve gone through the process, the items you still have are ones you really care about. This motivating operation makes you much more inclined to take care of the clothes you have, because you love them. Taking care of your stuff is no longer a chore.

  2. The second step is to learn a new skill – folding is your alternate behavior.

    I used to hate folding and thought this would be the part of this method that didn’t work for me, but there is something magical about the way clothes are folded in the Konmari method. Each item is inspected, so you notice stains or rips that need mending, and can see at a glance if it’s time to “thank the item for it’s service” and let it go. Once folded, each item stands on it’s own, placed next to other items of the same kind. It’s reinforcing to see how all of my clothes sit beautifully next to each other in the drawer. I’m motivated to keep it up because it’s useful to see all my options at a glance. The clothes I’ve folded properly are never wrinkled when I put them on again.

  3. The last step is to designate a place for each item.

    It’s easy to put something away when you’ve designated a spot for it so you know where it goes without thinking. Instead of organizing based on how easy it is to get to an item when you need it, you organize based on how easy it is to put an item away. This smart motivating operation will make us much more likely to put our things where they belong! Maintaining organization is about modifying your environment so that you know where each item belongs and it’s easy to put things back in their place.

  4. The process teaches you to listen to your gut when answering the question “Does this Spark Joy?”

    Kondo insists the process starts with items that we are least emotional about (tops) and work up to items that have the most sentimental value (letters, photos). This is an excellent shaping plan. It takes effort and practice to connect with our true selves and decide what is of value to us. So many of us don’t know what we want or love and don’t give ourselves permission to honor our true desires. What we love is buried under social pressure, the taste of our family, friends, and peers, trends in advertisements, and other psychological muck. But that doesn’t matter. You don’t need to go to therapy to go through this process. Marie Kondo’s simple question: “Does this Spark Joy?” is one that each person can answer for themselves if they are willing to take a moment and listen. Looking at and being surrounded by the items you have chosen to keep is reinforcing, so it’s easy to continue the process. As you move along you get better at listening when your gut answers “yes!” or “nope” and the process of letting go of material objects that DO NOT “Spark Joy” switches from daunting to liberating. The physical objects that remain inspire happiness and gratitude. The Konmari Method of Tidying Up becomes more than a way to keep your house clutter free. It’s also a practical practice of saying yes to joy and letting go of everything that does not serve us. With practice and an incremental shaping plan, it becomes easy to face – and answer – the big questions. Does my marriage spark joy? My job? The city I’ve chosen to live in?

  5. A practice of Gratitude.

    A helpful recommendation therapists often make to their dissatisfied or depressed clients is to end the day by writing down 5 things they are thankful for. This is a great first step, but Konmari takes it further and helps us generalize the practice of gratitude so it becomes a regular part of our everyday lives. Going through the process of “Konmari-ing” your home helps awaken gratitude for the things you have. Replacing unwanted thoughts and behaviors (complacency, lack of appreciation, feelings of sadness, failure, or of not keeping up with the Jones’s, of not getting what we thought we wanted or deserved out of life, of keeping things or doing things out of obligation) with thoughts and actions of gratitude has shown time and time again to be a large factor in countering depression. Each time you touch an item, examine it, fold it, and put it away you are practicing gratitude. The process of “Konmari-ing” our homes leads us through small actionable steps we can take to reawaken our own small joys, which lead to discovering big joys and passions.  Through this process, Konmari is helping us shape ourselves, in tiny micro criteria, towards being happier and more fulfilled.

So, what does decluttering your home have to do with dog training? So many of my day training clients see their dogs performing new behaviors for the first time and look at me like I’ve performed magic, so it’s apt that the title of Marie Kondos’ book is “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. But it isn’t magic – it’s science. The laws of learning apply to all living beings on earth, not only to our canine companions. Shaping molds our behavior whether a plan was carefully developed by a behavior analyst, dog trainer or merely by life. We learn through shaping in small steps of criteria, repeat what has been previously reinforced and cease to do that which has been punished. Want a cleaner home? Use this to your advantage. You don’t even have to write a training plan. Konmari has done that work for you.