Saturday, January 21, 2012

What's a Real Trainer?

This is going to be one tough topic to cover because obviously, you are going to assume that I prefer myself to all other trainers. Fortunately, that is not the case. Even as a dog trainer myself, I can not only appreciate other trainers who have put in the time and education required to do the job right, but I also have use for them just like you do. In some ways, I have more use for them. First and foremost, it helps immensely to be able to bounce ideas back and forth among people who share similar ideas and experiences. We can always add a perspective that someone else may not have thought of. Not to mention, dog trainers enjoy classes too. For instance, because my focus has primarily been manners and obedience, it would be great to attend a competition agility class if I decide I want to compete at some point (or just for fun!) Obvious examples aside, I am absolutely looking forward to attending some classes as a student with my youngest dog for the simple reason that it will be nice to NOT be the teacher for once! I enjoy instructing but it's been too long since I've been on the other side of the class and I can only see that experience as beneficial to both myself and my dog. This is true of a good class regardless of your level of experience.

So, what class do you join? Which trainer do you trust? I have an advantage over most at this point because I've gone through much of the experience, education, and mistakes myself. I know exactly what I'm looking for and what I won't tolerate. Unfortunately, about 99% of you are going to do what I did many years ago and walk into this blindly. The biggest problem? You have no idea that you can't see.

Other dog lovers are going to offer a variety of helpful tips that will make complete and perfect sense. My favorite one is this:

"Find someone whose methods you agree with!"

I hear that one all the time. I was given that advice too! It made perfect sense to me because I thought I knew exactly which methods I agreed with. In fact, I thought I had a very solid foundation of dog training knowledge to work from as I had grown up with and trained dogs even as a kid. Unfortunately, small training victories aside, I didn't have a clue.

Look at it this way: If you were choosing a new math tutor for your child what would you be looking for? What could you possibly be looking for? Respect would be high on the list. If this person didn't respect both you and your child's desires and needs then what good would they be? How terrible would it be if the tutor bad-mouthed you behind your child's back or didn't follow through on their commitment to help him/her with math?

Second, and just as important, would be whether or not the new tutor actually knew what he/she was talking about. Do they really know math or are they just basing their knowledge off the fact that they've seen every single episode of Sesame Street featuring "The Count?"

These are things that you can usually pick up on pretty easily when it comes to most instructors. What you wouldn't do in this scenario, however, is expect to know exactly how something should be taught. Finding someone whose methods you agree with is only feasible if you're actually very educated on the subject yourself. You might have a general idea but you aren't necessarily going to be qualified to tell someone how to teach a subject that you do not excel in yourself.

On the other hand, what you can do and what I hope you would do is make sure that your instructor is not a person who is going to cause any harm to your child in any way, shape, or form. You wouldn't pay someone to slap, yell at, or otherwise harass your kid every time they got something wrong. No one would benefit.

Dogs don't need that either. I know that the first thing some of you may consider in response to my example is that dogs and people are different. You might also be thinking that we're not teaching dogs math, we're trying to get them to behave. This is true too... but this is also where your understanding of the situation starts to become a bit more murky and where a Real Trainer can be extremely helpful. A human being can completely understand what you're asking for, via the miracle of the spoken word and/or our advanced communication skills. Your dog has no idea how to communicate to you and that breakdown of communication is exactly the reason most dogs exhibit undesirable behaviors. The type of trainer that most people are drawn to will put a band-aid on this problem by using a knee-jerk aversive response to inflict fear and pain but that person does not necessarily succeed in actual communication. I'm not saying that we have to literally talk to the animals (though that would be great) but it is damaging to the relationship when fear and pain are the basis of training rather than calm communication. This would be like taking that unruly human child and never speaking a word of English to him but rather expressing only your most intense feelings by way of physical punishment with a sprinkle of occasional reward. You may think you're very calm when delivering the punishment but you can bet on the fact that your pet is a mess on the inside, flinching every time he thinks a correction might be coming.

It is extremely unfortunate that despite the many, many organizations out there that educate and certify dog trainers, many trainers (assuming they even bothered to further their education beyond TV and old wive's tales) will throw that very knowledge out the window to adopt the "easier" route. It is a sad fact that most people believe some level of force is beneficial in training and that some dogs need to be pushed around to be taught anything. If I wanted to triple my number of followers tomorrow I could write up a post defending outdated "wolf pack" theories and forceful training methods.

That would be the easy way. That is how I started too. The truth, whether you believe it today or not, is that weeding out the good trainers from the bad is extremely easy. But you first have to let go of what you think you know. I grew up with dogs all of my life and thought I had things figured out. I'm not proud to say that while I've never purposely hurt an animal, I have used leash jerks, choke chains, and prong collars in an attempt to get a point across. Fortunately, I went on to become a real trainer and embraced every new bit of information I could find. I didn't choose my current methods because I like rainbows, butterflies, and hugging trees. I know very well that a few leash jerks probably won't physically damage my dog for life. This isn't about me thinking that dogs are fragile or incapable of bouncing back. It's not about me trying to say I've never been absolutely infuriated with something one of my dogs did (I have many times). This is about what happened to me once I began to dig deeper and learn how dogs really work. If it were as easy as a prong collar, choke chain, or showing your dog "who's boss" we would ALL be professional dog trainers. You wouldn't be reading this blog, that's for sure. Believe me, if all behavior problems could be solved by showing your dog that you were stronger and in control we could fix everything in one quick session. Actually, most dogs would be perfect canine citizens from day one in your household. It's just not that easy, but we so badly want to believe that it is.

My advice is this: Choose a trainer whose methods show respect for you, respect for your dog, and respect for the relationship that you want to have with your dog. Choose a trainer who has not only been educated but actually uses that education during his/her classes. A fancy certificate means nothing if your trainer abandons everything he/she formally learned and slaps on a choke chain or prong collar instead of implementing a true understanding of the situation. It would be like your math teacher skipping straight to passing out calculators, only the calculators don't add up and randomly shoot sparks at you.

Don't fall victim to the idea that positive reinforcement doesn't help with the more difficult dogs. That argument has been debunked a million times over. The only disadvantage that trainers like myself have when it comes to working with more difficult dogs is that our methods aren't nearly as exciting as the trainers on TV who are so out of control of the situation that they look like they're man-handling Cujo himself.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of trainers out there who appreciate and put to use the methods and science that has proven true and humane over and over again. Look for someone who has expanded their education beyond those generic alpha rolling, leash popping, and other TV-glorified ideas and you'll be off to a great start. I'd love to be able to simply say that you should look for a "positive reinforcement trainer" but it has become all too popular for people to use this title yet still practice against it. I'd also love to recommend one particular certification over another but the same problem is cropping up in that regard. Trainers are attaining certifications from fairly respectable institutions but abandoning their formal training to mimic what they see on television and what sells more classes instead. Some never really had a real grasp on their coursework to begin with, if they even bothered to go that far. Many of their clients end up suffering for it in the long run.

I can only hope that this message is shared and spread despite its unpopularity. Feedback and comments are always welcome as this topic could easily benefit from much more discussion, assuming the discussion remains respectful. :)

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