(apart from love, sweet love, that is)
…is dog trainers, good dog trainers.
Dog trainers with exquisite mechanical skills and exemplary instructing skills. Dog trainers who behave professionally and who emphasise puppy and dog training.
You would think that this is what we have within our population of dog trainers. If we did, then I think we would be in a better place.
Professionalism, regulation, certification, recognition (or lack thereof)
You will commonly hear that the only thing that two dog trainers agree on is, that the third dog trainer is wrong. We hear it so often it is cliché and is largely accepted, which informs our view of our evolving industry.
It is unlikely that professional regulation for dog trainers will be widespread any time soon. We don’t have any sort of minimum standards of anything right now, and this is difficult to establish in such a diverse and divisive atmosphere.
Because there are no standards, there are no standards.
This is not made any easier by the really, really confusing array of certifications and titles, and a stunningly large number of organisations to align with – each and every one can offer you something you just don’t get from another and so on.
Or plethora of educational institutions offering courses, seminars, webinars, books, articles, blogs, tips, clips and promising you that they, over all the others will offer you the very best.
And to add to the in-fighting among individuals, it’s present among professional bodies and organisations too, with one not recognising the achievements or certifications of another.
Developing some sort of structure is tricky because we would have to develop minimum standards in practice, but trickiest of all, there would need to be some incentive to do so.
Pressure needs to come from pet owners, but because of a history of expert advice offered and accepted by everyone from vets to groomers, from TV gurus to the random man in the park, it’s hard to see how there would sufficient motivation for the pet owning population to exert this pressure when I’m not sure many are aware or (dare I say) care about professional standards for dog trainers.
But it is getting better. It is unrecognisable compared to the so-called industry I started in and continues to grow and develop.
Dogs and dogma
Balance, in dog training, is a dirty word. The dominance of social media (I’m allowed to say the D word in this context!) means that polarisation of all things dog is becoming entrenched in our culture.
Listen, there are more than two ways to do most things and that’s the case in dog training. We are dealing with living beings, both two and four legged, and changing environmental conditions – that’s why behaviour exists, is modifiable and is so adaptable.
You can have a wide and varied toolbox without having to venture outside your comfort zone.
And having a comfort zone, that’s ok too. Choosing to train in a certain way doesn’t make you better or someone else worse.
In general, teaching and learning have been moving away from the application of aversive methodologies and emphasising the importance of mechanical teaching skills and careful management of the learning environment. This is good.
But exactly how this is applied varies and therein lies the problem – the dog training world is a polarised place and the more one movement promotes their mantra, the more another movement pushes further and further away.
Polarisation is not getting us anywhere, as the same arguments are rehashed again and again on the various stages, most of them via social media.
Despite our emphasis on un-labelling animal behaviour, we sure spend a lot of time trying to define more and more specific boxes into which we can squeeze our training.
“Positive”, “force-free”, “traditional”, “balanced”, “humane”, “welfare-friendly”, “working dog trainer”, “show dog trainer”, “crossover trainer”…
We are trying to stand out from the ‘others’ with whom we don’t agree, and in doing so pigeon hole our training, skill and knowledge.
Dog training can often be hostile. Social media, which has become an important part of dog trainer culture, makes this hostility more impactful. Clinging to a ‘side’ is negatively reinforced and that’s pretty powerful.
When we are starting out, we want to belong. We need the support, and we might not have the confidence to stand out or pull against the tide. It’s easy to be sucked in and to find comfort there.
That brings us to an interesting point of contention – we might be quick to apply these more modern approaches to teaching to our canine students but not so generous when dealing with fellow two-leggers.
Well, as we say in dog training, you get the behaviours you reinforce, not the ones you want. Behaviour is behaviour is behaviour and regardless of what label you are aligned with, we are technicians and facilitators of behaviour change, so we shouldn’t be finding this so hard, right?!
Science & practice
Something pretty cool has happened in the last couple of decades that has really accelerated our practice but also the trainer wars – dogs have become a popular subject of scientific study. Every week papers are published of scientific merit and we get to drool over them, working out the best ways to apply this new knowledge.
To do this requires a thorough understanding of the principles of behaviour and behaviour change.
We have a whole science of behaviour to call on, and although we still have lots to learn we have a good understanding of lots of areas of natural animal behaviour and how animals learn.
No modern dog trainer can function ethically, competently, effectively without this bread and butter.
Walk before you can run
We all want to sell our wares; it’s an industry after all, and each of us needs to eat and make a living. To do this each trainer is trying to get their unique selling point to the forefront.
In our evolving industry, with our competing educational and certifying bodies abound, there is an influx of courses and seminars and webinars and fads and trends boasting the latest methodology, or more advanced techniques and in some cases, information that will never be applied (realistically or correctly) by most dog trainers.
And as excited as I am about new discoveries and new ideas, I am just as concerned about the loss of focus on the very foundation that’s our bread and butter.
All the sexy stuff is great but to become a really great dog trainer, one of those ones that the world really needs, requires a simply excellent mastery of those foundations.
- learn how to capture behaviour – how to arrange prompts to get behaviour without causing frustration or loss of interest
- learn how to shape behaviour, without relying on extinction – be a better observer, be a better setter of criteria
- develop exquisite timing
- learn how to handle food rewards – how to get them from you to the dog, how to position them to promote learning
- learn about motivation and how reinforcement functions
- learn how to lure so that you get behaviour quickly, and can fade those lures quickly
- learn how to fade prompts, without losing integrity or quality of behaviour
- learn how to manipulate the learning environment so that you can progress and generalise learning
- increase your ROR, and when you have increased it, increase it some more
- build desired behaviours rather than break down unwanted ones
- learn how to supervise dog-dog interactions
- learn how to expose puppies to different experiences to best facilitate their behavioural development
- train your dog, and live what you preach
- develop the gift of foresight so that you can predict and prevent – be proactive, not reactive
- learn how to safely organise teaching so that every one is safe
- learn about muzzling, and barriers and proper management
- become an amazing definer of criteria – don’t settle for good enough
- plan your training, split criteria and be adaptable
- forget about the sexy stuff, forget about aggression and biting and reactivity – get really good at training behaviours, and I mean really good
- and once you have aced all that with dogs, start working with other species like prey animals who don’t like you, or predatory animals who can hurt you – dogs are forgiving and hide a multitude of our sins
- develop skills in applying this to humans too
This list is the tip of the iceberg, and I haven’t even mentioned the people-training stuff, professional & business stuff or the rest of the dog stuff.
(Can you add to this list?)
But if you get really really really really good at this stuff, the other stuff falls into place and all that advanced, pie-in-the-sky information fits right in, is beneficial and enjoyable, rather than overwhelming.
What the world doesn’t need more of…
We don’t need more egos who feature in their own videos more than dogs or dog training do.
We don’t need more dog whisperers, listeners, psychologists, experts, specialists.
We don’t need more gurus with massive social media followings, who can’t seem to demonstrate these basic skills with other people and their pets (as in, being a dog trainer).
We don’t need more rehabilitators, or aggression specialists, or reactive dog fixers.
We don’t need more organisations, or certifications or titles.
(Can you add to this list?)
Be a critical thinker, challenge what you are told and what you believe. Don’t get sucked in.
Above all else, what the world needs now are more great dog trainers.
Get out there and train, teach people, show off your skills, have fun with your dog and be a great dog trainer, making that difference.