Category Archives: Trainer Talk

Collaborate & Listen

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?

(Yes!)

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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.

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Relationship builders

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.

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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.

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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.

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Collaboration

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.

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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 info@anied.ie and I will help you.

Take care of yourself.

Recently, I saw a meme saying something along the lines of, if you died, your job would replace you by the end of the week but your family will never replace you so spend your time wisely. Something like these:

These feel good memes make us feel warm and fuzzy for a split second as we scroll by. But rarely do they offer any actual usable and applicable advice or guidance.

This one got me thinking, though; I’m often thinking about time and how little I have and how poorly I prioritise and look after my time.

I know that, while my clients and students might miss me, they will be able to source suitable resources or another professional to help them achieve their goals. I am under no illusions!

I love my job and I really do aim for 100% commitment to bringing my clients and students the best support.
And in doing that, my nearest and dearest are definitely the ones I eek time from to give to my job. An unwilling compromise, perhaps.

I am sure many many self employed people will find this familiar and as so many in our industry tend to run their own businesses, this is likely something that is experienced by my colleagues, my students and other members of my community.

Professional Boundaries & Self-Care

There is a lot of talk about burnout and compassion fatigue in our industry, and, I am sure, many others. And rightly so; in animal care, we are notoriously bad at setting boundaries and prioritising our own care.

Self-care is presented and often thought of inaccurately and this piece does a great job of clarifying what it should be: Self-Care is not an Indulgence. It’s a Discipline.

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This in-depth piece from HBR shows that Burnout is about your workplace, not your people.
This piece reports on a Gallup survey of 7,500 employees, finding the top reasons for burnout are unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from management, and unreasonable time pressure. These are organisational issues, rather than being under the control of the individual.

But this becomes more difficult when you are both your workplace and your people!

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Boundaries.

What are your boundaries and how do you set them? Be clear about both personal and professional boundaries and commit to them.

Things will pop up causing you to feel like you must compromise. Knowing your boundaries is one thing but it’s quite another to have the where-with-all to stick to them. Write company policies that help support you in committing to the boundaries you have set.

In the modern office-anywhere-and-everywhere, it’s important that you clarify and communicate boundaries in relation to hours of business, availability and responsibilities.

Use features on phones and messaging apps, such as setting to “do not disturb”, using automatic replies and redirecting communication to a more convenient medium, for example, instead of calling, please email.

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Setting boundaries can seem daunting; be clear in what you can realistically do. Decide what your priorities are for a time period – what are the no-go areas? This might mean your phone is turned off or put out of sight during family time, for example.

Have a plan for when you feel your boundaries are being pushed. Take a step back and consider your course of action, rather than just reacting. Maybe you need some time to consider how you will respond.

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Last minute appointments are not vital. Don’t squeeze them in if it doesn’t work for you. Remember, commit to what you can realistically do.

Giving free advice can be risky. First, know your worth and know that free advice is often not valued. But, offering advice without appropriate information gathering may be dangerous and ultimately damaging at a number of levels. We have responsibilities in our profession and gathering information appropriately before advising is important for safety and efficacy.

Make sure to communicate boundaries with your behaviour, and not just words. If something is not possible, it’s not possible. If you’re not available, you’re not available.

No is a complete sentence.

You can say no. Be polite about it and don’t hurt someone’s feelings or cause them to feel bad for asking. Redirect their behaviour and their request.

At the same time, you don’t need to be overly apologetic. Reframe problems into solutions; this helps your approach and that of your clients.

You can take time to think about how you say no, or whether you want to say no. Consider scheduling and define priorities.
Let the person know that you are considering their request and that you will revert as soon as possible. Don’t leave ’em hanging!

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Define your role and responsibilities.

What is your job description? Define your role.

List out your responsibilities to your clients. To their pets.

That’s what you can do and that’s all you can do.

In our world, we are all about the animal and its safety and comfort. We can find it hard to compromise on this, but if we are not caring for ourselves, we won’t be much good in caring for others.

But, we must also be all about the humans, and the human-pet relationship. Sometimes, we find it difficult to put the same emphasis on applying our skills to the human end of the leash. It takes practice, for sure, and unfortunately many trainer education programs don’t emphasise this understanding, but we do. And we are. Here and right now.

You can’t control other people. You can only do your best and you must commit to that. Be honest about your skill set and knowledge. And be your best.
You can’t take personal responsibility for others’ behaviour. Your roles are based in supporting, teaching, educating, mentoring, coaching, counselling. Be your best at those; that’s where your energy needs to go.

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Expectations.

How do you communicate the expectations that clients can realistically have of you?

They can’t understand your expectations unless you tell them!

What do they need to do to prepare for your session, how will you contact them, what are the sales T&Cs, what are your policies about cancelling, rescheduling, refunding?

What can they expect from you?

Be clear and communicate your expectations early on, before everything is booked and paid for. Before there will be confusion or disappointment. Before there is drama and distress.

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Policies policies policies

A big part of business planning must be defining policies, and related procedures, for your business, your company and the day-to-day running.

Define boundary-breaking behaviours that stress you out, or could potentially stress you out. Have clear policies within your business for these to avoid them becoming a problem.

Update your policies based on feedback from your business performance. Record data and adjust and refine regularly.

The biggest challenge for new business owners, is that you are afraid to let anyone down or turn away business. I get it. But, before you even start, you need to erect those boundaries and have your business policies reflect them. And stick to them.

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Stop celebrating exhaustion and over-work.

Compared to self-employed people, employees have a lot of provisions and protections in place to make sure they get appropriate breaks and have time off.

Do you know the legislated breaks and holidays for employees?
You are an employee in your business and it’s time you looked at making sure you have adequate breaks and holidays. Establish boundaries and policies and stick to your guns.

What do you need to do during down-time?
Sleeping, eating well, relaxing, taking time for other activities, hanging out with your nearest and dearest, having fun, resting. These are important for self-care so schedule time for them and don’t compromise.

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Take time. At work.

We can harp on about self-care, but as we spend most of our time at work, that’s where we need to start. If you don’t take that time at work, doing lots of self-care at home just might not cut it.

Work will become a lot more enjoyable, doable and successful when you define, communicate and stick to your boundaries.
Having a breather between sessions will not only allow you to reflect on your last interactions and plans, but also put your best foot forward for your next session.

Taking breaks is not a reflection or your commitment and nor is working yourself to the bone.

Don’t be a hero; take your break.

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Schedule smarter.

We can’t change the sleepless nights, the pressure, the buck always stopping with you, but we can schedule smarter.

Schedule time during which you do all the business essentials, including breaks and self-care.
Give these vital activities enough time and don’t just squeeze them in.

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What are the barriers to taking breaks or time off?
Collect data to investigate when is the best time, business wise. This helps you to best enjoy that time without too much worrying about what you might be missing out on.

Have specific time set aside to do admin and especially remote communications like emails and social media. It’s very easy to allow remote online communication and activity to encroach on all parts of your day.
That phone we carry around all the time allows us instant access to work and instant availability; even though it’s just one email here and one message there, it soon adds up, eating in to time needed for other work or self-care activities. This puts you under pressure, adding to feeling overwhelmed.

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Market smarter.

Market for the clients that you want and that your business needs. Charge appropriately to cover your costs and make sure pricing is reflective of the service you offer and expertise you provide.

Market for the clients that you can help best. Market your special skills and set yourself and prospective clients up for success.

Say yes to work that will enhance your skills, boost your confidence and provide a healthy level of challenge.

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Take time to debrief.

Schedule time.

Reflect on the challenges of the case, the humans, the dogs. Your performance.

Review one challenging aspect of the day, of the session, of the interaction. Learn from it and let it go. Acknowledge the things that went right, that you can build on.

Audio-record while you drive to save time.
What three priorities are you emphasising for that client? What challenges are you experiencing or foreseeing?

Talk to colleagues who will understand the challenges you face and who may be able to see the wood for the trees, when you can’t. This can be a tough business as we spend so much time alone, with our thoughts.

Make time to chat with colleagues who share your experience and can support you. If you must, vent, but don’t live there. Get it out of your system and move on – learn from it if required, but leave it behind.

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Take time to respond to things that wind you up. Don’t respond when you are upset. Let it sit for twelve, or even better, 24 hours.

Acknowledge when you feel overwhelmed before you approach the point of no return. Stop and consider why it’s happening, and how you can move forward.

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Understand cognitive distortions

Recognise the potentially damaging tricks your mind might play on you. When you feel yourself engaged in all or nothing thinking, catastrophising, succumbing to negative bias and impostor syndrome, stop and reflect.

You need a break to consider why you are feeling this way. Seek support from a colleague to help you analyse how you feel and decide on the best way to proceed.

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More on compassion fatigue, for animal trainers and behaviour consultants, from Dr Vanessa Rohlf here.

Although compassion fatigue is most certainly something that many in our field will experience, if you are feeling overwhelmed or down, there can be other things that might be happening.
This is important to address and this piece does a nice job of outlining alternatives: The Myth of Compassion Fatigue in Veterinary Medicine.

These emotional challenges facing us in our work are, thankfully, becoming more and more recognised, which is excellent. Check out excellent resources and support:

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Challenges in animal care

Although veterinary workplaces are discussed frequently, lots of other pros in other areas within animal care may experience burnout, feeling overwhelmed and exhaustion. These industries tend to have less structure and fewer professional programs in place.

As animal lovers and carers, we are drawn to professions that challenge our abilities to cope, making us more susceptible to taking on too much.

We have spoken about dealing with these challenges as dog trainers before: Somewhere In-between.
And this is a great piece, from Comfort At Home Pet Services, on considerations for walkers and sitters: Are you emotionally ready to be a pet sitter?

Build your skill, concentrate on foundations and be the best dog trainer you can be: What the world needs now…

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The awesome thing for dog trainers is that we already have skills in modifying behaviour. Human behaviour is just that, it’s just behaviour. Don’t take it personally.
Call upon your skills: use management, redirection, differential reinforcement, make feedback available and meaningful, shape behaviour, and collaborate with the people you deal with. It’s just people training!

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Behaviour serves a purpose…that’s why we do it!

Behaviour functions for the behaver. This means that the animal is doing the behaviour to get things that they like or to avoid things they don’t like – dogs do behaviour that works for them!

Culturally, we are pretty obsessed with stopping behaviour we view as bad but to modify behaviour, stopping unwanted behaviour might be short sighted but often appeals to the quick-fix addicts.

Attempting to stop behaviour after the fact by, for example, administering punishers is so often too little too late. The dog has already got his jollies.

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Instead we prevent the dog practicing behaviour we don’t like (practice makes perfect, after all!) so that we can clean the slate and establish new, alternative, more desired and ideally, incompatible behaviour.

To modify unwanted behaviour, we need to know the whens, whats and whys.

How does behaviour happen?

Dog training is generally thought to be about telling the dog to do something, using commands and making sure they’re followed through on.
While that satisfies a traditional attitude to our dogs, that’s not really what’s happening at all.

Dogs do behaviours that work. These behaviours work because things around the dog, in the environment, tell them to do a behaviour to access something or avoid something.

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The things in the environment that tell the dog it’s the right time to do that behaviour are called antecedents (A) and the things they access as a result of doing the behaviour are called consequences (C).

When the A’s happen, the dog is getting prepared to do the behaviour and expecting a specific outcome. The A’s tell the dog to anticipate the availability of something the dog likes or to anticipate a way to avoid something they don’t like.

A little mention of management here, before we go on

The conditions in which behaviour happens, the A and the C, have nothing to do with the dog – they are in the environment. That’s why we say that behaviour is in the environment and not in the dog!

To stop behaviour, we must prevent the dog’s exposure to A’s and their access to C’s. That’s what management is – we stop the dog rehearsing behaviour by rearranging their environment.

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Management clears the way for teaching and learning new and more desirable behaviour, providing a foundation upon which to build.

Consider the function of behaviour when teaching new behaviour

This is Ollie and one of his awesome humans. He’s a puppy and has been taught that tugging the mop is the BEST game ever. This commonly happens with puppy behaviours – they are cute and funny, providing endless entertainment for both species.

But the reality is that, in just a couple of short months, Ollie will be able to quickly destroy the mop as soon as it’s produced and that doesn’t make it so fun after all.

Over time, his mop-tugging behaviour has become very intense, more so than with toys.

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Have a think about the A’s and C’s for this behaviour.

The C’s are pretty clear – there is a big pay off in getting to tug the mop; it moves and it’s soft and squishy, which are textures dogs often like to bite; this behaviour causes a surge in arousal with all the component neurochemicals causing him to feel good about it all.

Don’t forget the A’s! In dog training there is an inordinate amount of time devoted to discussion of C’s and not nearly enough about A’s and related factors.
As soon as Ollie’s human walks toward the mop, he is following and watching. You can see his excitement building with jumping up, trying to grab it, even vocalising.
He responds this way when in another room and can only hear the mop too! Ollie might just be a proper mop-addict!

He anticipates a whole lot of excitement when the mop comes out (you’re on your own there, Ollie!). This arousal means it’s really tricky to redirect his attention on to something else and to get him to let go of the mop.

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Modifying mop chasing/tugging

As soon as the mop comes out, Ollie is geared up for some tugging – that behaviour functions for him, providing an outlet for his excitement. If we just take that away, in that context (ABC), where does that excitement go?

Our goal in modifying behaviour is to teach a suitable alternative behaviour – what would we prefer the dog to do?
But that behaviour needs to also plug the gap of the unwanted behaviour so that the dog still gets his jollies, just in a more appropriate manner. The new behaviour functions for the old, unwanted one.

Often times, in reward based training (or what ever label you care to use), we get hooked on throwing food rewards at new behaviour without considering that there was a real need there, on the part of our learner, and a real function being satisfied.

When we remove that outlet for that animal, we may be effectively suppressing behaviour but because we are reinforcing a more desired behaviour, often with food, we think that’s ok. And it might be.
But, our training plans must include consideration for the function of unwanted behaviour, ensuring that those functions are satisfied.

(Want to learn more about this? Check out this introduction to the A-B-Cs of Behaviour webinar for the tools to design training plans. )

For Ollie, we will tick lots of these boxes, with the help of his awesome family:

  • no mopping when Ollie is around – management
  • short one to two minute training sessions of ‘leave the mop’ exercise in the clip above – he learns that he gets his tugging jollies when he hears “leave it” and that the mop coming out makes his toy available for tugging…we are switching up those A’s and C’s
  • continued practice on play and tugging in other contexts too to really get some control and responsiveness built in
  • plenty of outlets for normal puppy behaviour in lots of different ways throughout the day (#100daysofenrichment is great for puppies too!)

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As we move forward, we can start to build other alternative behaviours into this context; for example, the mop coming out means crate time or garden time with a yummy stuffable or sniffing game.
And we might use some strategies that have been successful with less intense mop chasers too.
Ultimately, the presentation of the mop will mean chill out over there but first we gotta make sure he’s getting what he needs out of this mop business. Training is a journey, not a destination, and we’re in it for the long haul!

Not the be all and end all

It might be strange for a dog trainer to say this, but I’m just not that impressed by obedience, by trainers barking out “commands”, with compliance and with expectations that their dog should obey.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching a trainer with slick mechanics work (and I especially LOVE the joy in their learner) or watching some really cool antecedent arrangement (management or setting the learner up for success); that definitely floats my boat.

Relationship and engagement produced through that is awesome, but superficial obedience and blind compliance; nope, not for me.

But, it’s easy to see why many will be enamoured by it.
I get it, pet owners want an easy life; we want dogs to slot into our busy lives and we certainly don’t want our dogs’ behaviour to embarrass us…after all, there are no such things as “bad” dogs, just “bad” owners, right?!

Maybe it’s the shame or dread of shaming.
Maybe we are still stuck in our cultural attitude toward our relationship with dogs; us in control and them being subservient.
Maybe we get our jollies by being in control, or certainly perceiving that we are in control.

Whatever’s behind it, understanding the time and place for obedience is important. Obedience isn’t the be all and end all, and sometimes it’s not what we have and it’s not what is needed.

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Is it really obedience? Or is it just suppression?

In general, pet owners want to be able to stop their dog doing unwanted behaviour. When we think of obedience, this is often what we are thinking of…how do I stop my dog jumping, lunging, pulling barking… or whatever.

If that’s how you’re approaching this, you might already be off on the wrong foot. Behaviour doesn’t really go away; learning means that neural pathways are established in the brain and that’s not really undone. Instead, we develop new neural pathways that produce alternative behaviours and we strengthen those, with repetition, so that new, alternative, and hopefully more desirable behaviour, is established.

Punishers suppress behaviours but teaching alternative behaviour is the real key to success. That means that stopping the dog practicing unwanted behaviour (to prevent further establishment) while reinforcing desired behaviour is the solution to training problems.

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Despite that, a whole range of products, equipment and ‘miracle cures’ are available designed to suppress behaviour. Indeed, that’s what most training tools do. Suppress rather than teach.

Those tools or techniques that cause the learner stress through fear, discomfort, pain, act to not just stop behaviour but to suppress it, convincing the dog that the world isn’t safe and that they better not step out of line. This looks like an animal who is quiet and tolerant, even calm. They stop offering behaviour. They effectively shut-down the weight of the stress being so great.

This clip, from Eileen And Dogs, shows some examples of dogs who appear biddable, well-behaved and even calm. But, look closely.
These dogs are still and frozen, moving or behaving very little. That’s what’s not right here – these dogs are not behaving as they would normally. Their normal responses are inhibited by the stress they are experiencing.

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I can see why this might appeal. Look how little these dogs are doing. Look how quick we got compliance.

But this isn’t real life. This is TV-training. And dogs are not robots. They are responsive, sentient, learning beings for whom it’s normal to react and interact. And when that’s not happening, something not’s right.

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Is it really obedience? How do we really get obedience?

What most people think of as training, or at least, as trained behaviours is probably not what they have at all. That’s because achieving a truly trained behaviour is not an easy thing. Simple, yes. Easy, no.

In dog training, we use the term ‘under stimulus control’ to describe a behaviour that is well established in response to a cue in a range of contexts (might be a word, body position or movement and so on).

A behaviour is under stimulus control when the learner responds to the cue quickly and efficiently, every time, the learner doesn’t offer that behaviour when not cued, the behaviour isn’t offering that behaviour when a different cue is presented, and other behaviours are not offered in response to that cue.

It’s also commonly presumed that the dog is responding to the verbal cue you use (“sit” or “down”), and even that’s in doubt with dogs being more likely to learn about contexts and your body movements than the words we use. (D’Aniello et al, 2016) (D’Aniello et al, 2017)

You might like to check out Dr Dunbar’s SIT TEST which asks, “does your dog really know sit?”.

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Of course, we probably don’t want or need rigid stimulus control in a lot of pet-dog contexts; we want to be able to say certain words in certain contexts and not have to contest with a responsive dog throwing behaviours at us.

Truth is, it’s vastly underestimated just how much repetition and consistent practice is required for dogs (and humans) to establish behaviour reliably. And then you add distractions into that and we need MORE work. The magic number of 10,000 reps is often used to help illustrate this challenge and while that can vary, to help your dog perform behaviour on cue in a range of circumstances is a big ask.

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Sometimes, obedience is just not the answer

Obedience can actually get in the way of what we want to achieve with our dogs, in some situations. And this is especially true if obedience is being held above all else.

Feelings first

Your dog is using his behaviour in an attempt to cope with the goings on and it’s a very honest account. It’s telling you how well your dog is coping, or not. Your dog’s behaviour is information.

If your dog is feeling distressed or worried in a particular context, his behaviour will let you know. When stressed, the brain is generally looking for a way out – how to get the body out of that stressful situation.

That means that behaviour will be related to getting away, escaping or delaying social interaction or to scare something away.

Attempts to distract, redirect or correct the dog’s behaviour will often rely on obedience – the dog is told to sit, the dog is verbally intimidated or is restrained in place.

For the most part, if the dog is trying to get distance, give it to him. Not being able to get away from something scary or overwhelming makes it more scary.
We are concerned with feelings right now – if the dog is stressed, not allowing him escape will increase that stress.

Better feelings bring better behaviour.

But the opposite can happen too – better behaviour will bring about better feelings. In this context, we might get the dog that distance they crave when they are showing only mildly concerned behaviour. Calmer, quieter, more polite social behaviour gets you distance – crazy dog behaviour not required.

The problem with sit

It’s good to review, to critique and we are doing that quite a bit in dog training right now.  One question we might ask is, why do we teach dogs to sit?

Sitting isn’t really a favoured position by dogs, in natural situations. They tend to sit mostly when they aren’t sure about something (we often call this information gathering) and they might tuck their bums in a sitting motion should they be uncomfortable with something around their back end, such as another dog sniffing them.

Associating sit with amazing rewards and being careful when we ask for sits will go a long way to keeping it positive and happy. But, when we don’t establish this, sitting, when asked, may not be a pleasant situation for your dog at all.

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Obedience classes in the face of fear

A training class will be full of people and other dogs, in a confined space, around lots of high value resources, with everyone on lead and a little tense.

Such is the understanding of the application of obedience, on a pretty regular basis, I will discuss this with a client who wants to bring their dog to an obedience class to help with behaviour related to fear, shyness, aggression, “reactivity”.

Putting those dogs in such an environment means that they will have difficulty moving away, achieving distance and gaining relief. And while their behaviour may be suppressed in this situation, so they appear tolerant, it’s probably not helping them feel better about being in close proximity with triggers.

What’s that dog really learning about triggers? How does that experience make that dog feel?

Obedience is not a priority for puppies

This by far one of my biggest bug bears – we have tons of time to teach puppies to come when called and walk nicely on lead, but such limited time to help them develop comfort and confidence.

Before puppy learns the rules of obedience, they need to learn the workings of their world. Obedience and even food rewards can mask puppy’s experience of their world around them at the most important time for them to experience that world.

Puppies must develop life skills, rather than obedience behaviours. Life skills build on behavioural tendencies partly inherited and affected by their first weeks of life, and by the time they go to their new homes we are rushing to make sure we make much progress as adolescence looms.

I wish puppy owners would spend time bringing their puppies every where, going for car trips, people and dog watching, helping puppy develop comfort with handling, grooming and husbandry, learning to play and engage with their humans, and being able to settle in confinement. If that was the priority, I would see far fewer dogs later on for behaviour work, that’s for sure.

Getting puppies out into the world and guiding their pet owners is the central focus of AniEd puppy programs.
Puppies learn to choose their humans, when they’re ready and they have finished taking in all the information they need to be comfortable; SNIFF, EXPLORE, OBSERVE.
Engaging with their people becomes a cue or signal from puppy that they are comfortable and confident with the situation.

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The beauty of this comfort-first-obedience-later approach is that you get really cool engagement and even obedience as a side effect, without much extra effort.

Think comfort first – if the dog is comfortable, their behaviour will follow and we can build obedience behaviours into that, if you like.

Make dog walks more dog

A simple way to reduce the pressure and add a little more dog to your dog’s life is to re-think your dog’s walks.

When it’s safe, let your dog be a dog. Let him sniff (and sniff and sniff and sniff and sniff…), let him wander and roam (safely), let them roll and dig.

Take the pressure off, loosen the lead, prioritise quality over quantity, don’t get hung up on walking in front. Obedience doesn’t need to be front and centre when you take your dog out.

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You’re dog’s not broken. You don’t need to fix him.

All behaviour functions for the animal. Generally, dogs are doing behaviour that gets them things they like and allows them to avoid things they don’t like.

Your dog’s behaviour isn’t and can’t be “bad”. It’s just behaviour.

Most of the unwanted behaviours that dogs do, are normal dog behaviours. Behaviours that dogs need to do. That are inbuilt and part of the package.

We have made arbitrary rules about the sorts of dog behaviours we like and don’t like. Dogs don’t know about that until we try to reshape their experience with human-imposed-obedience.

Dogs must get to be dogs. Meeting their needs will provide a better more solid foundation for appropriate behaviour than obedience alone.

Dogs are not robots. Sometimes they can’t obey.

Obedience is a human made construct based on our arbitrary rules for how dogs should behave in the human world. The dog is often the last to find out about it.

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When a dog can’t or doesn’t comply, the first thing I look at is the environment. Remember, behaviour is in the environment, not in the dog.
The environment is causing the dog discomfort and for obedience, there first must be comfort.

Maybe the goings on are causing the dog to feel over excited, worried, cold or too hot,  maybe they are conflicted or distracted.

Maybe our training isn’t so hot, maybe we just are not close to sufficient stimulus control so your dog doesn’t know how to respond in these new or overwhelming conditions.

stress signals
Sometimes stress looks a lot like disobedience.

None of it is deliberate or willful. Behaviour is information. Listen.

If you want to really train, look at your dog’s environment and change it up so that the behaviour you like is going to happen.

What do we do instead?

I’m not suggesting that there is no place for obedience training, teaching behaviours and improving your dog’s manners. Training is happening all the time, regardless of what you call it or how much you consciously participate. Your dog is learning how to get the good things and avoid the bad things all day, every day.
Training just aims to make sure that the behaviours produced are ones we like.

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While it might seem like semantics, I suggest a mind shift might be considered. Instead of aiming for compliance and obedience, think about willing engagement, think about providing your dog with guidance in experiencing their world, think about letting your dog be a dog.

Sure, training is still happening but instead of it being obedience led, we can let it be a little more dog-led.

This doesn’t get you off the hook. I do think that most pet dogs need better guidance from their human partners. They need better and more outlets for their behaviour. They need more help learning to just be with their humans.

Your job is still to set your dog up for success, to arrange their environment so that they are safe, and to make sure they have outlets for their behaviour, constructing that foundation.

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We can provide all that, while getting joyful and willing engagement from our dogs, without ever mentioning the O-word.

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Moving to this mindset is what’s behind #100daysofenrichment – an entire ‘training’ manual without mentioning or prioritising obedience once.

Check it out here!

 

Setting ’em up for success

We often talk about it, setting the learner up for success…but what does it mean?

Traditionally, we think of ‘training’ as being about barking out “commands” and showing ’em who’s boss but now that we have a better understanding of animal behaviour and learning, that approach is redundant.

Behaviour is in the environment

That’s another one we say a lot: behaviour is in the environment, not in the dog. Behaviour doesn’t happen in isolation; your dog does behaviour in certain conditions. These are the Whens and Whys of behaviour.

When does your dog do a behaviour (any behaviour)?
Who’s present? What’s just happened? Where are you? What have you just done? Any and all of those things might cause or trigger behaviour.

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Why does your dog do a behaviour (any behaviour)?
What does your dog get after a behaviour? What does your dog get away from after a behaviour? Any and all of those things might be the reason he does it.

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Behaviour happens in certain conditions for certain outcomes. Dogs do behaviours that work!

Teaching our dogs involves us setting up the whens and whys so they are less likely to do unwanted behaviour and to make it easier for them to behaviours we like. That’s setting them up for success!

Your dog’s behaviour is information

Unwanted behaviour, for the most part, is normal dog behaviour. We’ve generally put our dog in a situation that makes inappropriate behaviour happen.
We haven’t set them up for success.

That means our dog’s behaviour, whether appropriate or not, is information about how well they are able for that situation. Training gives your dogs the coping skills (behaviours) needed to deal with the environmental situations we put them in.

Your dog’s behaviour in a situation, gives you information about how well you have prepared them, or not.

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Puppy Party

Follow the progress of Bonnie’s babies on our Facebook page. We have been working with these six puppies who were born while their mum was in the care of A Dog’s Life. Bonnie’s babies, and Bonnie their mum, have been in a wonderful foster home, learning about life in the human world and getting ready for going to their new families.

At about 6.5 weeks of age, they came for a puppy party with a community petcare course I was delivering. This was their first big outing, away from their home and away from their mum. A BIG challenge for such young puppies that meant a longer car journey, crate confinement, a new place, lots of new people and all new sensory overload.

No such thing as “bad” behaviour

Living with humans, for dogs, is tough. We have made arbitrary rules about what behaviour is acceptable or not. Dogs are born with a ton of in-built behaviours that humans, for the most part, don’t like. We humans have come up with all sorts of inventive and aversive means to suppress this unwanted dog behaviour under the guise of asserting that we are in charge and attempting to mould them to conform to our preferences.

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You would expect that bringing six young puppies to a school environment would cause all sorts of chaos and put them in situations that allow for lots of mischief that people find inappropriate, and we might not want them to practice.

This is where setting them up for success comes in…

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Knowing all this means it’s my responsibility to help them cope. At just over six weeks, we can’t really expect these puppies to have many skills, but we have been preparing them by bringing them on short car trips, spending some time in crate confinement, meeting lots of new people and spending time away from their mum.

Training and appropriate exposure helps to set the scene and set them up for success by adjusting the picture so each puppy is better able to choose appropriate behaviour.

Behaviours of concern: distress related behaviour while confined in their crate during the journey there such as vocalisation, attempts to escape, squabbling with siblings

Whens: in the car, longer duration of confinement, intermittent stopping and starting in rush-hour traffic

Whys: frustration at being confined, wanting to move about, wanting to move away from siblings, wanting comfort or contact with human, needing to toilet, hunger

Setting them up for success: 

  • puppies were brought to an area where they toilet before travelling
  • puppies were brought to an area where they play before travelling so they were just getting ready to sleep as we left
  • puppies were given their breakfast shortly before the opportunity to toilet
  • I set the crate up in the car before bringing them out – the crate was lined with puppy pads so it wasn’t too slippy and was absorbent
  • one of may favourite puppy hacks is to smear the walls of the inside of the crate with something really yummy and irresistible
  • then I turn on the heat in the car, play classical music and we all bask in the calm!

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Behaviours of concern: toileting every where, hiding or escaping, chewing stuff, getting in the way, being distressed in a new place and without mum

Whens: in a new place, without their mum, access to lots of space, after a period of confinement

Whys: exploration, having fun, reunite with mum, to toilet

Setting them up for success:

  • get set up before they come in
  • cordon off an area of the room securely and safely, away from the door, so people can come in and out easily without disturbing the puppies
  • set up a blanket and toys from home that will smell like mum and familiarity
  • have newspaper and puppy pads on the floor
  • lots of places to hide
  • plenty of novel objects too
  • high value chews and loaded snuffle mat to engage with as soon as they arrive, that will keep them busy while they take it all in and will help with calming
  • having more chews, food and toys available than there are puppies – this reduces competition

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Behaviours of concern: behaviour associated with feeling overwhelmed at the new place and new people

Whens: once they arrive and are brought in

Whys: it’s all new and lots of new experiences lumped one on top of another can be pretty stressful

Setting them up for success: 

  • getting everything ready before bringing the puppies in
  • allowing them plenty of time to settle and find their feet before all the new people arrive
  • giving them time to choose how and when they interact with the environment and the people
  • no luring or looming from the class attendees
  • allowing the puppies to choose

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By the time puppies had explored and chewed, toileted and played, they were ready for another nap so were pretty sleepy when everyone began to arrive, and soon nodded off.

Behaviours of concern: vocalising, biting, chewing, jumping up, making strange and hiding

Whens: all the people are present, new place and new people, just woken up

Whys: experiencing distress or startle, to escape social interaction, hungry and wanting food, to toilet or to sleep

Setting them up for success: 

  • allowing them to wake naturally
  • having food and space to toilet available immediately upon waking
  • more stuffed Kongs than puppies
  • having attendees sit back and allow puppies to choose to interact
  • no picking up the puppies
  • giving clear instruction
  • teaching attendees how to interact (rather than emphasising how not to) and providing them with new skills and awareness
  • allowing puppies to choose how and when they engage and interact

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The puppies had a great time with minimal stress for everyone. We had peaceful car journeys, they coped amazingly well with being in a new and weird environment, they were friendly and outgoing with everyone and then slept all the way home!

Bonnie’s babies are ten weeks next Thursday and will be getting their second vaccination. By the weekend they will be ready to go to their homes. If you would like to add a fantastic companion to your family, get in touch with A Dog’s Life.

 

How can you set your dog up for success?
What the behaviours you might be concerned about? What are the relevant whens and whys?
How can you prepare your dog with behaviours for coping and how can you adjust the picture so it’s easy for them to choose appropriate behaviour?