There are a lot of Dog Trainers. Just check the Internet. There are online lessons and classes offered by Dog Trainers, free how-to videos by Dog Trainers, and even organizations and conventions for Dog Trainers. It’s not really surprising considering there are tens of millions of dogs that live with people in their homes. There is definitely a demand for professionals who can help people with teaching and managing our dogs. But being a “Dog Trainer” doesn’t mean that you just train dogs.
Anyone who owns a dog is, in one way or another, a dog trainer. Someone who trains their dogs. In the literal sense, they train their dogs to live with them. Whether it’s just teaching their dog the “rules of the house” or how to be polite around family and guests, every dog owner teaches their dog not just behaviours but about how to get along in their particular human’s environment.
So there are Dog Trainers and there are people who train their dogs. They are decidedly NOT the same thing. There are very distinct differences between these very different jobs.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that a professional Dog Trainer works with people.. A Dog Trainer is there to help the dog owners learn how best to train their dogs. A skilled Dog Trainer will have ample experience and expertise in training dogs but also knows how to work with clients and teach effectively. So the job is really about educating people more than it is about training the dogs. That said, any professional Dog Trainer would tell you that it would be wonderful if that were strictly true but it’s not. It isn’t just about teaching people about dogs. People who hire Dog Trainers come with expectations. And those expectations can vary widely from reasonable to wildly unrealistic.
Meeting a dog owner’s expectations while still passing on quality information about dogs and training can be a challenge. The reality is that you only get paid if you provide a service that addresses what the client is looking for and that can mean a lot of different things. From learning to deal with different personality styles to managing expectations to dealing with limitations of time and commitment, teaching people is as much about getting them to hear and understand as it is about working with the dog. There is a lot of people management in professional Dog Training.
So there is a balancing act that Dog Trainers need to manage between being effective teachers of people and being effective teachers of dogs. That process can create many interesting strategies for teaching dog owners. But nearly all of them require the Dog Trainer to convey the important aspects of teaching animals in ways that their clients can easily understand and use. The creativity and effectiveness of some of these strategies is truly remarkable. The most successful Dog Trainers seem to have an endless supply of short, clever exercises and lessons to help their clients get the results they want.
What they want versus what they need
Most often professional Dog Trainers step into a “life-in-progress” with the client and their dog. They are called when the owners have found themselves unable to deal with some training challenge with their dog. They have to make an assessment not only of the dog, but also of the client and their household in order to create a plan to address the client’s concerns. Even then a clients habits, personal beliefs about dogs, or their inability to accept change can make the process slow and difficult. It’s not easy work.
In some ways, professional Dog Training resembles the work of a doctor in an emergency room. Trainers are called upon to provide solutions to an incredible variety of behaviour and training challenges. They must teach them to people with varying amounts of skill and experience. Those people also different levels of commitment to actually going home and teaching their dog what they’ve learned. In a very real way, Dog Trainers are providing a kind of “behavioural triage.” The challenge is to provide what the client wants AND what they need to solve their issue.
What most dog owners really need is a better understanding of behaviour and the process of teaching animals. A better understanding of why dogs do what they do and why they make the choices they make can go a long way to resolving many problems. Learning the principles of proven training processes and how dogs learn can significantly reduce the amount of time and effort that needs to be spent on training the dog. Perhaps what dog owners need most is a good perspective on how the training they do with their dogs can simplify and improve their relationship and their life with their dogs over the long term.
An imperfect reality
Technically, I am a professional Dog Trainer. I carry a certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. But I have shied away from the usual work of a professional Dog Trainer. I don’t teach classes and I only rarely take on private clients. I choose not to make Dog Training my full time job. It’s a passion that I pursue because I enjoy it. And that helps me avoid many of the challenges that professional Dog Trainers face.
In general, I don’t have to conform to all of the demands of clients in the imperfect world of modern dog training. I have the freedom and flexibility to choose who I will work with and how we will work together. When training my own dogs, I take a comprehensive approach to set them up for a happy and comfortable life in my home. It’s a much more proactive approach than we used to take before we discovered modern training based on science. Having the option to choose my clients and training opportunities allows me to bridge the gap between being a professional Dog Trainer trying to satisfy the demands of my clients and the proactive training I do with my own dogs.
There is a wonderful essay by Karen Pryor called “It’s Not What You Do. It’s How You Do It.” The essay discusses the difference between what Pryor calls “Method” training and “Principle” training. “Method” training is teaching someone how to teach a particular behaviour. Think of it as a “recipe” for how to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash or to retrieve an object. A step by step guide to getting the results you want quickly and easily. “Principle” training, on the other hand, is less focused on the steps or the result and more focused on understanding what makes the training work. To borrow from Karen Pryor’s essay title, “Method” training is what you do in the training and “Principle” training is how you do the training with your dog.
The imperfect reality is that professional Dog Trainers must deal mostly in “Methods.” They work within the constraints of time, funds, and client expectations and hope that they can teach enough “methods” for some of the “Principles” to somehow make their way to the client’s brain. To be sure, any good Dog Trainer will go in with a plan to try and pass on some of the principles of good training but client demands, restrictions, and attention spans can make that very challenging.
Buyer beware, seller be better
As a dog owner who trains his dogs, I need to think about training with my dog in the context of our lifestyle and lifetime together. With any luck, we will be together for a dozen years or more. Whatever I choose to train my dog, it should make life easier for both of us for years to come. What I need to achieve my training goals with my dogs will be different from someone else. There are no standard rules that apply to every household. And no one understands my limitations and those of my dog better than I do. It’s the same with any owner and their dog. So we each set our goals and make our own way.
Any Dog Trainer will only get a glimpse into the life that an owner and their dog share. They may be called in to address a particular issue in a limited amount of time under very specific circumstances. Then they will do their best to address the client’s wishes as well as pass on valuable knowledge that their client can use from then on.
Dog owners may want to shop carefully when looking for a Dog Trainer. Can the person you hire to help only address the current issue you have with some method or strategy or will they make the effort to give you more information, some training principles to help you find your own solutions in future? Is your Dog Trainer eager to sign you up for more classes that just teach you more tips and tricks to get what you want from your dog or are they showing you something about your dog’s behaviour so you can make better decisions on your own?
As a professional Dog Trainer, I’m not really interested in teaching the same dog training trick a hundred times just to solve my client’s issues and move on. From a business perspective, that might seem like a good idea. Become skilled at teaching a particular set of clever training methods for this or that behaviour or behaviour problem. But if I do that, I may only be addressing a symptom and not really dealing with the underlying cause of my client’s problem. The “method” approach might guarantee me more business and even satisfy the client’s wishes. But am I really doing the best job for the dog and their life with their owner?
I wish I could tell you that there were simple answers to these questions but I don’t think that is the case. It’s an imperfect reality. Some professional Dog Trainers need to make a living out there and often times clients don’t know enough to accurately tell us what they need. So it remains a dance between what we can sell and what the market will bear. It’s the law of supply and demand played out over the lives of dogs.
If you are looking for a professional Dog Trainer, choose carefully. Look for one who will educate you and not just solve your problems. If you ARE a professional Dog Trainer, be a teacher in the best sense of the word. Don’t just give the client what they want, try to show them what they need and teach them the tools to have a happy and successful life with their dogs.
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