Is there any other profession that requires such a diversity of talents as dog trainer ? We become a dog trainer because of our passion for dogs, but the reality can be very different than the expectations. As a dog trainer, chances are, you’ll teach more people than you’ll ever train dogs! Dog trainers need to have good training technique, along with a keen understanding of dog behavior and applied behavior analysis. But without the ability to communicate and teach those concepts clearly while offering compassionate support and practical solutions to the dog guardians who hire us, results are limited, if not nil. As the 19th convention of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) closes its doors, celebrating 20 years of supporting dog trainers across the world, one thing is clear, dog training has become, over the years, an artful combination of animal science, human psychology, effective business practices and technology. The APDT provides ongoing education to trainers who strive to stay up to date with the latest information. Their annual conference is an opportunity to hear from the most influential dog professionals in the world, network with other trainers and find out about the new products on the market. As a behavior consultant for Smart Animal Training Systems, along with our team, I was presenting Pet Tutor(tm), a new remote training system, for the very first time at the APDT trade show. While there, we also gained insights into the current advances of this challenging profession and I was struck with how complex it had become. Here’s a quick overview of this incredible event.
Ken Ramirez, keynote speaker, reminded us right from the beginning: dog training is very much a people job! No matter what level of anxiety or fear the dog may be experiencing, he’ll never be the one to pick up the phone and call the trainer. The dog’s guardian is the one calling, the one paying the bill and the one who will be implementing most of the training or behavior modification protocols. Without the right message, the right marketing strategy, the right website (Chris Lee) and the right services catered to the guardians needs, we may never even get a chance to help at all, as pointed out Veronica Boutelle and Gina Phairas from Dog-Tec. And while we want to assist the dogs, ultimately, our clients are the dog’s guardians. Without their trust and willingness to make changes, nothing is possible. So developing good people skills is at the core of being an efficient and successful trainer.
Guardians come with their own set of ideas and expectations and often need a little convincing before they buy into better approaches to their canine problem. Many are looking for quick fixes and easy solutions, have unrealistic expectations about what it takes to train a dog or treat problematic behaviors. Learning to increase owner compliance is an important skill for any dog trainer (Megan Armstrong). We develop relationships with them, become their coach, their counselor and mentor through situations that may be difficult and emotionally charged. Protocols can be repetitious and sometimes very demanding such as with separation anxiety (Malena DeMartini-Price), and our chance of success depends in large part on our ability to provide daily check ins and ongoing support to our client. In the worst of cases, when all other options have been exhausted and euthanasia may be the most humane solution, more than ever, guardians need empathetic support and guidance to make the right decision for their four-legged companion (Sarah Dykes). Speaking their language, understanding their position and struggles, and respecting their perspective are critical. In addition, as demonstrated by Teoti Anderson, communicating ideas in a language that is both clear and grammatically correct are key elements for a successful working relationship with our clients.
As we establish a supportive and positive working relationship with our clients within the framework of a collaborative learning environment (Imbi Kiiss), we can begin to affect change in the dog’s behavior. Contemporary dog training however, has very little in common with how we used to work just 30 years ago. Today’s dog trainers, regardless of their educational background, have to be able to keep up with the wealth of scientific studies on canine behavior and accurately present it to their clients (Julie Hecht). How does spaying or neutering affect the dog’s behavior? How accurate are we at assessing a dog’s breed? How can bird dog training techniques help when rehabilitating shelter dogs? Do spayed and neutered dogs sniff differently? Study after study, we gain a little more insight into the canine world, helping us define better training and behavior modification protocols but also address welfare and management questions. In the Animal Behavior Journal alone, there are over 65 articles related to domesticated dogs (Laurene Von Klan). Cognition (Brian Hare) and neuroscience (Simon Gadbois) now influence the way trainers work with dogs. Over the next few years, as we gain awareness of how our canines analyze, problem solve and interpret the information presented to them, we should expect even more improvement in how we communicate and teach our canine partners.
Entrenched in science, dog training has become an ever-evolving profession, updating and creating new training techniques and behavior modification protocols as new data becomes available. I’ve been training for so long that I’ve been able to learn gradually as new information came out, but I can imagine that for beginner trainers, the sheer volume of information to digest and the diversity of skills to master could be quite overwhelming. Even the teaching of basic skills has made progress, like Loose leash walking (Gail Fisher), crate training (Casey Newton) or choice-based puppy classes (Grisha Stewart), impulse control (Virginia Dare), total recalls or boom-a-rang dog (Lauren Fox). Dog trainers need to know how to work with dogs when they stop taking food or when another reinforcer may be more rewarding (Kimberly Wilson). Many practice their skills on other species, like chickens, that are far less forgiving than dogs (Terry Ryan). A chicken will provide immediate feedback if our timing is off, if our criteria is unclear and if our delivery is sloppy.
Incorporating human psychology into our practice, we can also improve how we present our classes and what formats we can offer. APDT has developed a program, C.L.A.S.S. that can be combined to any training curriculum, setting standards for dog training classes of all levels (Don Hanson). This program promotes good practices and allows for more marketing opportunities. We learn how to incorporate interactive exercises in our classes that include all members of a family (Allan Bauman) or offer community-based or non-sequential training classes, where clients can drop-in on an as needed basis. Such classes have shown to reach more dogs, reducing their chances of being relinquished (Lisa McClusky). Trainers may also learn how to offer curriculums based on outdoor adventures, like Xtreme hiking, nighttime or camping and real world group classes (Lauren fox).
Many people are looking for more than basic obedience training and need help with all sorts of behavior issues. How effective we can be at treating those issues often has critical implications for the welfare of the dog. Clients can be desperate for solutions and although the training protocols make perfect sense to the professional trainer, they can be challenging for the average person. It becomes essential for the trainer to implement strategies that will increase the odds of the guardians to comply with the treatment, (Irith Bloom). Dealing with excessive barking (Irith Bloom), helping dogs gain more confidence (Mikkel Becker), mastering the art of Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) for reactive dogs (Grisha Stewart), Knowing how to recognize and deal with prey drive (Ken McCort), identifying appropriate play patterns (Nicole Wilde), assess and treat separation anxiety (Malena DeMartini-Price), provide dog reactive classes and preventing dog bites (Colleen Pelar), and recognizing when dogs are stressed and why they fail to perform (Denise Fenzi) are all tools for trainers to work with their clients.
Modern dog training is an artful alliance between science, good procedures and technique, effective teaching, savvy business decisions and technology. Dog training has come a long way and as Ian Dunbar pointed out, has become a friendlier place for our four-legged companions. More progress is still needed however when it comes to our training protocols where many of us still don’t quantify time and trials to criterion. We also need to put more effort into phasing out the training tools like the leashes, collars or treats. That’s when technology can help. We now have access to all sorts of apps, different recorded sounds, video cameras, laptop computers and other tools to assist us. Animal training is becoming more and more high tech with new products offering additional options to work and interact with our clients. Pet Tutor, a new remote training device falls in this category of products and will soon open new ways to train our dogs and help with behavior modification protocols or provide enrichment opportunities, alleviating boredom and anxiety.
On and on, dog trainers today have many techniques to learn from, many options to specialize in, many tools to work with and many talented and savvy mentors to learn from. And with the demands of this challenging profession, also come the rewards. Dog trainers around the world affect lives, enhance the chances of dogs to stay in their families, improve the relationships between guardians and their furry companions, offer support and assistance to new parents or to families with young children (Kate Anders), provide therapy and service dogs to those who need them (Aubrey Fine, Mary McNeight) and offer hopes for rehabilitation to incarcerated man and women (Virginia Dare). Challenging, stimulating, physically and emotionally demanding, dog training is not for the faint of heart, the lazy or the phlegmatic! Thanks for all of those who contributed to bringing us together and putting on such a great conference!
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.