Saturday, January 27, 2018

So You Need a Dog Trainer?

I'm not a professional dog trainer. I'm not a professional at a lot of things: mechanic, chef, house painter, or spot welder. 

That said, I have done all of these things, to one extent or another, and I know enough to ask the right questions and listen for the answers when looking for a real expert.

I bet you do too most of the time.

You're a doctor? Fantastic. What kind?

You see that matters.

Both a dentist and a proctologist are doctors, but they work on different parts of the alimentary canal. If you need medical attention, it's a good idea if the doctor is looking in the right hole!

You're a lawyer? Awesome. What kind of lawyer are you? Criminal, drunk driving, divorce, bankruptcy, employment, tax, estate?  You "do it all"? Right. No more questions need to be asked on that score, as far as I am concerned.

You're a plumber? Terrific! Do you put in high pressure boilers or work on nuclear reactors? Do you install gas lines or do you stick to water pipes on new construction? Do you do old house rehabs?

Or are you really a plumber at all? 

That last question is an interesting one, as about half the time when you call a plumber you do not actually get a plumber; you get "Joe the Plumber" which is to say a plumber's assistant whose specialty is snaking toilets, unclogging sinks, and maybe putting in a new garbage disposal or swapping out an old hose bib.

What's this have to do with dogs?

Simple. If you are looking for a dog trainer, and someone presents themselves as such, I urge you to ask a few questions.

What kind of dog trainer are they?

Ask that question, and you tend to get a philosophy answer. "I'm a positive trainer."  "I'm a balanced dog trainer."

Right. But what do you train dogs to DO?

Ask that question and you may get a puzzled look. If so, ask if they are training dogs for shutzhund, truffle hunting, agility, or go-to-ground?

Are they training dogs for doggy dancing, obedience competition, or herding?

Are they training bird dogs, sled dogs, hunting terriers, or running dogs?

Are they training bomb disposal dogs, guard dogs, or drug-sniffing dogs?

Are they training circus dogs or therapy dogs?

These kinds of simple questions tend to knock most self-styled dog trainers on their ass because they don't do any of that.

So what DO they do?

Well, that depends.

A lot of self-described "dog trainers" are little more than trick trainers. They can teach a dog to walk at heel, or to sit when you come to the corner, or retrieve over a barrier. They can teach a dog to carry a basket, or to get their own leash.

But is that the kind of thing you need done?  Will any of this fix "the dog problem" that brought you to this trainer's door?

Probably not.

Trick trainers, and the folks who teach "basic obedience" are a bit like the "personal trainers" down at the gym.

If you go to a gym and tell them you need to lose weight, they're going push you to sign up for a gym membership, and they're going to get you running, weight lifting, and doing squats.

That's all good stuff, but science has shown that those activities actually have very little to do with the problem that brought you to the gym in the first place:  losing weight.

You want to lose weight?  Eat less, and make sure what you eat is mostly vegetables.  About 80 percent of weight loss is due to changing what you eat, not exercise

But if you go a gym,
and tell them you need to lose weight, they are not going to say "this is not the place for you." After all, the business of a gym is signing people up for gym membership, and that is what they are going to do whether that is the right remedy for your problem, or not.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with getting fit and tone, and there's nothing wrong with a dog learning classical obedience training. That said, obedience training is probably not going to solve your critical and urgent "dog problem" any more than doing squats, leg lifts, and bench presses alone is going to solve your 40-pound weight gain since college.  

So what IS your "dog problem"?

The most common issues are lack of recall, leash pulling, leash reactivity, jumping on visitors and family, jumping on furniture, mouth biting and nipping, separation anxiety, crate anxiety, chronic barking, and fighting between two dogs in the house.

How do you solve those issues?  

One word: Punishment.

Punishment sounds like a heavy word, but it's not. It's simply a negative consequence, i.e. it's the OPPOSITE of a food, toy, or play reward. 

Punishment can be so light that a human cannot even feel it, and it is never violent or injurious.  

But many dog trainers don't know much about punishment, and some visibly recoil at the word.

If you are presented with a dog trainer that does not know how, or when, to punish a dog, you are dealing with a trick trainer. These are fine people, but they are not going to solve your chronic or critical "dog problem" in a timely manner. 

Instead, they are going to address the chronic and critical problem in an oblique and inefficient manner. And from their perspective, why not?  Efficiency is actually counter to their business model. As soon as your critical dog training problem is fixed, your need for a "trainer" may abate, and payments may soon stop. Who wants that?  Not the dog trainer!

Here's a simple test. Give a dog trainer a common problem like not having a reliable recall, barking, leash reactivity, or jumping up on guests. Ask him or her how they will work to solve that problem in a quick and efficient manner. What would they do to stop that behavior NOW?  How will they PROOF the behavior so that it remains solid?

If they go off in a wild diversion about needing to get to "the root of the problem" or "starting with basic obedience" or "pack behavior" or "dog psychology," they are probably not the trainer you need to address the serious and immediate dog problem you came to them to resolve.

To be clear, getting a dog to "lock in" a behavior can take time and repetition.  Some breeds and some individual dogs are more biddable and phlegmatic than others. 

That said, getting a hard-wired dog to stop a self-rewarding behavior is not rocket science, and it is rarely achieved with a clicker and a bag of treats alone.

If your prospective dog trainer only knows one side of the two-sided coin that is real dog training, I advised holding on to your money and keep looking.

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Jennifer said...

Well put. All the issues on your list are problems I've faced with most of the dogs I've owned.
On the other hand, all the 'trainers' I've encountered would fail your test.

LRM said...

Well, I'm afraid I can't get with your nutrition advice (study I'm in at Hopkins disputes your veggie recommendation in favor of satiety through fat and protein). But you can train my dogs anytime.


Viatecio said...

Well put, but as Jennifer mentioned, even the good trainers I know would fail your test.

Punishment is only part of the answer. I am all for it, but the other part is simply not letting the dog be successful and interrupting the mindset or actions that lead to the behavior needing punished in the first place. And the ways to do that are so endless and varied that going into them here is not worth the time. We all know them and they are actually effective--and NONE of them involve "ignore the behavior" or "turn your back until he sits." (I did that ONCE on the advice of a 'trainer.' My back told me to never do it again.)

"Don't let him do it" is a phrase that speaks volumes. Sometimes it involves punishment. Other times it means strict control of resources and interactions. It often involves some sort of physical control that, through training (yes, "He needs started in basic obedience" applies here), turns into mental self-control.

The goal of a good trainer is NOT to bleed money out of a client. A good trainer gives people the tools and knowledge to help the dog succeed as well as the ability to extrapolate and apply humane, effective and appropriate solutions to various situations that crop up in the future. The rest adhere to your Dependency Model: The number of people I see being encouraged to retake "basic obedience" classes or continue seeing veterinary behaviorists for infinitesimal improvement "rechecks" is testament. As I like to tell people, if they think their dog is DOING SO MUCH BETTER under one particular protocol and he's still hell on wheels, what the heck was he before?