Friday, December 6, 2013

How To Choose A Trainer

Group classes are popular, but you don’t have to join a class to have a well-mannered dog. In fact, there are dogs that are not good candidates for a group setting because they are too anxious or too excitable to learn in the proximity of other dogs and/or people, or have a bad association to a training type facility. 
You can train your dog yourself if you know how, and yes, that includes socializing. Socializing simply is exposure to stimuli that are, or possibly will be, part of the dog’s world, and exposure means it happens at the dog’s comfort level and without pressure. That is critical, and many mistakes are made in the name of socializing. 

However, if you own a pup, or dog who is suited for group classes, it is more cost effective than private lessons, and can be a lot of fun. 
Private or group, sessions are in reality skill-building lessons for owners. Dog trainers train the people, not the dogs. Now I sound like Cesar Millan, but it’s true. Think about it: even if a trainer sees a dog an hour a week for 24 weeks, 3 consecutive 8-week courses, and that is pushing it because much of the general public quits before, that are still only 24 hours. Meanwhile, the dog is with her people for about 370 waking hours – more or less depending on how much one sleeps. Take away an 8-hour workday, it still leaves more than 200 hours cause there are weekends too, right? 
So, it’s got to be training the people how to train their pooch, and here is the crucial part: How that is done can determine, or strongly influence, whether a dog turns out great or has, sometimes lifelong, issues. 

In essence, there are two types of trainers: The ones who do things to dogs, and the ones who do things for dogs. You want the one who does things for dogs. Why? Because studies suggest that cognition and emotion can’t be separated, and that toxic stress in the classroom impedes learning. For the longest time our school system buoyed the mantra: “Turn your brain on and leave emotions outside the classroom door”. Not any longer. Things are a changin’, and it is not any different with our dogs. 
Dog-centric handling benefits people too by extension, because a dog not under pressure, and not threatened with pain, has fewer behavioral issues. 

Now that we have determined that not all trainers are alike, the big question is how to find a good one. What are the criteria to look for? 
Certification can be one, but unfortunately the dog industry, other than veterinarians, is unregulated in North America. 
We don’t have national standards, and anybody can open a school of some sort and certify whoever dishes out several thousand dollars for a 6-week course in dog training. 
Experience is great, but on its own not enough. Without ongoing professional development, being in the business for 20 years can mean doing the same thing for 20 years and being very proficient in that, like correcting a dog like it was taught 60 years ago. 
Even academic credentials alone don’t necessarily equal competence, if they come without hands-on experience. Dogs in human midst aren’t lab rats. Behavioral laws established in the lab have applications in real life for sure, but there is more to it, and some things are better learned by doing, instead of reading, or at least in addition to reading. 
I, after almost 20 years being involved with dogs, still meet the occassional one who makes my brain hurt and I need to think outside the (Skinner) box. 
The best dog pros understand the science behind behavior, have experience with a variety of dogs, and most importantly a genuine interest to continue to learn and grow. 

Doing things for dogs and understanding the science automatically rules out tools designed to inflict pain: The choke, prong and shock collar. Walk away from a trainer who uses them. Also walk away when:

  • A trainer forewarns you of his methods
  • A trainer sees the need to explains herself to a child 
  • A trainer states that it doesn’t really hurt 
  • A trainer justifies inflicting pain with it being unavoidable because the dog is dominant, willful, or intentionally disobedient

I am not a fan of trainers who stipulate certain gear, and I’m referring to the snoot-loop Gentle Leader type nose harness. Many dogs find it highly aversive, even more so than a prong collar, and still some facilities make its use mandatory, including for puppies. 
Even the clicker, undoubtedly a positive tool, should be optional. Lay people can find it awkward, and spend more time focusing on the clicker and their own body awareness than the dog. They miss things, and become frustrated. I had private clients who ditched positive reinforcement training altogether, and I had to convince that they can be train humanely and effectively without that tool. 
I get it, group classes, by virtue of dealing with a number of different people and dogs, can’t provide the individual attention owners get who opt for private sessions, but there should be some flexibility. 

Good trainers reveal openly and honestly how they work with dogs. All dogs, regardless of their actions. 
It should be stated on their website, they should answer your email when you ask, and allow you to watch a class in progress. They explain their method with precise words and not euphemisms that disguise what they really do. 
A good trainer understands, and points out, when a dog needs distance or a break, and encourages and facilitates that. That means that the owners will learn to understand basic body language, critical for the relationship.
Relationship and mechanical training are intertwined; with commands you explain to your dog how your life together works, and they can offer support and guidance when he is uneasy and conflicted, but the relationship has priority: When it functions, training is quicker, easier and being together mutually rewarding. 

It is the trainer and facility’s responsibility to create a climate conducive to learning, and that means also being nice to all humans. Inter-personal skills are as important as relating well with dogs. No one should openly call you down, or the breed of dog you own. Of course we all have our preferences, but if your trainer doesn’t like seniors or children, teenagers, men or women, shepherds, Labradors, or toy dogs, she needs to keep that to herself. 
A trainer should not make fun of you, or use your dog’s challenges as a center stage bad example, like some teachers did in the good old days when I went to school, ordering the dumbest kid to the front of the class to solve a math problem or read out loud. 
I’ve seen it all. It is called bullying. 
And a trainer who treats you and yours kindly, but yells at her staff, also fouls the atmosphere, and that too affects your dog. Studies with rats showed that one stopped pushing the lever to obtain food if another was shocked. Of course, being sensitive of others’ stress signals means to be perceptive of potential danger, and evolutionary speaking that is necessary for survival. Because of domestication, I believe that dogs are not just susceptible to other dogs’ distress, but also ours. 

Personally, I don’t particularly like large groups, with many dog/person teams coached by several trainers and assistants. It can get cramped, and the continuity that owners need could get lost. I’ve attended classes with my foster pup where the advice changed within 10 minutes from one assistant to another, and had I not known myself what to do, I would have been utterly confused - and indeed other participants were.
But if the area is large enough to spread out, and if the head trainer makes sure that each instructor relays the same message, it can work fine. 

Lastly, I love course setups where a dog won’t advance to the next level until skills are solid – however long it takes. Taking it slow at the foundation level expedites success in the end, and good trainers know that. However, sticking to it is not always easy: The people pay and have certain expectations, so the trainer adjusts and pushes the dog through, instead of explaining, without making the owner feel stupid and frustrated, that not every dog learns the same things at the same rate. So, the onus here is more on the owner than trainer to be patient. 

Humans make choices for their dogs. They have the power. 
Humans that are informed make better choices, and if there are many informed humans, trainers are forced to change or go under.
I want to empower you to ask questions, and have the backbone to walk out of a class and away from a trainer when something doesn’t feel right. If you feel uncomfortable, imagine how it feels for your dog.

If you choose right, your dog will trust you, the leash, the facility and possibly other new places because he has experienced that being with you on unfamiliar ground is still safe. 
Once a dog has the confidence that new is safe, details can change and he will still be able to relax and perform. 
Our Aussie Davie trusted us without reserve, and had a very positive association to the training facility, and it showed when we went to their Halloween party, and everyone was dressed up and the place decorated. It was dark, and there were spooky sounds, and she still behaved wonderfully, and we all had a great time. 

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