There’s probably not one among us who thought, with a lightening flash, that “I want to work with people…I’m going to become a dog trainer..”
The term dog trainer is a misnomer; our most important role is that of people trainer. And for those humans, we are a teacher, mentor, coach and counselor. All because we wanted to become a dog trainer.
But, working with pets means that human behaviour is often a source of great stress and upset. We are drawn to this profession because of our love of animals (the non-human kind) and in our bubble, the culture is that humans are the ones doing harm, being non-compliant, not living up to our expectations and pet owners are easy targets for blame.
Wait a second. Isn’t that the blame we accuse pet owners of laying on their pets? Isn’t that the source of frustration and annoyance for us?
Them & Us
While there are certainly high expectations thrust upon dogs, we professionals often have unrealistic expectations of our human clients too.
It’s not just that humans pay the bills. Our human clients are the ones that will make or break any program we implement. They are the key to ensuring their pet’s welfare.
When you are in the trenches, it’s hard to see humanity in humans, sometimes. Our judgement will be affected by negative bias and confirmation bias, making it even more difficult to see the good in the world and that most people are trying to do their best.
This is a nice summary from Brene Brown: Top Tip: Assume others are doing the best they can.
It’s easy to become cynical. It’s easy to succumb to bias. And it’s all too easy to get sucked into the outrage generated so efficiently via social media.
But, this is infectious and malignant. This attitude spreads and is so often cultural in our industry. What’s more, it’s exhausting. And damaging.
We talked about self-care for pet pros last week (Take Care of Yourself.) and if you have read that piece, I am sure you will note that a lot of what’s discussed is in relation to managing our own behaviour relative to human behaviour.
I understand how easy it is to develop a less than positive attitude to humans. To do what we need to do, we have to collaborate; that’s what motivates us to help, that’s what keeps us in the game, and that’s what prevents the damage taking over.
Humans have a tendency toward tribalism (the trainer wars are real!) and we certainly don’t want this to impact our work with clients. Humans, with whom we must collaborate.
Our job exists to improve, repair, build and nurture the human-canine relationship. We build relationships with both ends of the leash – our job is unique in our position as multi-species teacher.
We spend a lot of time studying this odd pet-person relationship from early, mutualistic interactions to the modern-day complicated human-canine relationship.
It’s our job to understand how this relationship, this unique relationship before you, works for both species. That’s how we help. We tap into that and build and repair, improve and nurture.
Pet owners are going to have all sorts of expectations of hiring a dog trainer. Probably, most of which will be based on their experiences with TV trainers; these guys make their money by ridiculing pet owners, generating outrage regarding pet owner behaviour and doing it all for the camera.
Our prospective clients will be expecting that quick-TV-fix so it can be hard enough for us to sell our wares.
A new client is not necessarily anticipating a supportive learning experience; that’s on us. Our behaviour teaches them to expect that they will be judged and blamed, and that we will make things harder. Have you have uttered the line, “there are no bad dogs, just bad owners”; wonder why pet owners are slow to call in proper help?
We have lots of relationship repairing to do, before we even start and that’s just between the humans.
It’s just behaviour
Human behaviour, while a source of frustration for some, is just behaviour. We find the notion of blaming the dog abhorrent because we recognise that they are doing the best they can in the environmental conditions we have created for them.
That’s how human behaviour works too. I’m sure you will argue that humans are capable of more cognitive abilities, more complex process, have access to information, and ultimately hold personal responsibility. I don’t disagree with you.
But, if I want to modify their behaviour (to modify their pet’s behaviour), that doesn’t matter. It’s just behaviour and I am going to approach it that way.
This helps me compartmentalise, it helps me analyse and de-brief. It helps me recognise when I have done my best and when I could do better. And it helps me walk away without bitterness.
Preaching to the choir & stroking egos
The real inspiration for this piece is the proliferation of posts, blogs and memes shared among professionals, many of whom I admire greatly, that make fun of pet owners, take jabs at their expense, apportion blame and ultimately cause more separation than collaboration.
Who are these posts aimed at? Are we just preaching to the choir and generating cliques?
It’s easy to generate a band wagon, online, for all to jump on to. Maybe, we are stroking our own egos?
Our industry, for the most part, is barely professional, without professional standards and best practice. The way we speak about our clients hurts that even further.
I think a lot of this stuff is shared in joviality and with good spirits, and I bet lots of pet owners seeing them have a chuckle and move on.
I think many are shared without too much awareness; a professional probably wouldn’t dream of saying this to a client in real life, but there is some expectation of protection and feeling of anonymity online (and that can get us into all sorts of trouble).
But, it has an effect. It has an effect on pet owners, for sure, but most worryingly, it has an effect on pet pros. The words we speak (or type) inform our emotional responses which motivates our behaviour.
This thinking sucks us in, makes those biases even more effective, causes us to feel even more disheartened, and makes our job harder.
You need a safe place to vent and debrief. I would not deny that for anyone. And do it, but do it where it isn’t damaging and don’t live there.
I have all sorts of goals for the pet-person team when I work with them, but my ultimate role is to improve the welfare of that pet. I really like people too (and I especially love human-animal relationships), and I want them to experience good standards of welfare too. If their welfare is good, their pet’s is likely to improve also. It’s a real win-win.
I need that person onside. I need them to feel motivated and empowered. I need them to feel supported. And I need to create a safe learning environment. I need all this to achieve my ultimate goals.
Regardless of how I feel about that person, or how much they are to blame, or how unrealistic their expectations are of their pets, or how they should have known better.
I must be able to empathise with them, understand their position, recognise their limitations and realign their expectations with reality.
How can I get their behaviour from where they are now, to where we need them to be? Certainly not by ridiculing them or targeting them, even lightheartedly.
My relationships with clients are collaborations. We exchange information and with that, it’s my job to work out how best to advise, support and coach. It must be reinforcing, it must be do-able, it must be empowering and it must be motivating.
But, that’s not the whole story. We have to ask the dog too and that means we need to put things in place, run the dog through them, and use their behaviour as valuable feedback on how we adjust and refine our collaboration.
Our client isn’t ‘them’. They are a valuable and vital part of our collaboration. It’s all us; the pro, the pet owner, the pet. No one part is more important than the other, and we can’t lose any part of the three.
Williams & Blackwell, 2019, discusses the importance of empowering our human clients to boost efficacy, just as it’s become on-trend to discuss empowering dogs in all our talk about choice and control.
Compliance in our industry is notoriously low. This accounts for the biggest complaint that pros tend to have about clients so it’s easy to see why this will have such a negative outlook on the human end of the leash. (Ballintyne & Buller, 2015)
This is recognised in other industries too where the client is required to make lifestyle changes like in human medicine, for example. Lamb et al, 2018, also outlines factors that affect compliance and at the heart of it, is us, the professional.
The same responsibilities we expect our clients to have regarding their pets, we have to them. If we are pissed because they blame their dogs, well, us blaming them is just as damaging to our relationship, to our collaboration.
And when that collaboration breaks down, it’s the dog that suffers. They are always the vulnerable party.
Push aside our personal feelings, our presumptions about the client’s intentions, and suck it up. We are professionals and our job is to collaborate to help the dog. And that’s well worth it.
This is the focus of our Client Relations course, which is all online, is self-paced and allows you to develop knowledge and skills to best support your clients and improve compliance and efficacy. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org and I will help you.