Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Share Your Pieces

I'm going to let everyone in on a secret. When I was in my early 20s, and of course knew everything there was to know about dog training, I had a lot of opinions and a big mouth to shout them with. I was derisive of other methods, often pretentious and sometimes condescending.

Now, I'm pushing 40 and my greatest piece of knowledge is that I really know very little. Dog training is a like a giant puzzle, the kind your parents made you do on rainy days before there was xbox and the internet, and we all have a handful of pieces. We can put together our corners, and see that the picture can be beautiful, but we jealously hoard our pieces and glare across the table at those who hold other pieces, rather than put them together. 

This is a growing trend in our industy. Not just a trend to keep the pieces to ourselves, not just a trend to be content with our own little pretty corner, but a trend to dump gasoline on the table and burn the puzzle to ashes.

This trend comes in the form of youtube wars between trainers, of groups that sic a pitchfork mob on an unsuspecting professional, of hashtags and bash pages and vicious insults slung back and forth that no reasonable adult would offer face to face, emboldened by anonymity or thousands of miles between parties. 

Here is the truth, whether you like it or not. We lump trainers into two types: those who use an aversive, and those who do not, but within each type is a vast difference from one to another. Of course in each style there are people who it "right" and people who do it "wrong", whatever that means to you. However, the overwhelming majority of highly successful trainers are taking pages from both books, and doing great things while the extreme fringes clutch their pieces to their chest and insist they know what the picture must be, although they've never laid on eyes on most of the rest.

True change can still come, from the trainers who are working together, the ones who show the same level of kindness, patience, and consistency with one another that they show for dogs; they have the entire middle of the picture. And they're sharing their pieces. 

I'll tell you what they aren't doing. They aren't turning around and pointing to the trainers in  the corners and shouting, "They're wrong! They hate each other! They don't know what the middle is and they aren't sharing!" Nope, no time for that and no tolerance for it, either. 

Here's another truth of dog training, a hard one to swallow and I'm sure I'll take some heat for it. Food is popular because it works. Clickers are popular because they work. Prong collars are popular because they work and e-collars are popular because they work.

Twenty year old me would be appalled to hear it. 

Each of those tools can also fail utterly, but I'm not getting into that. There's a myriad of articles and videos out there describing what everyone else is doing wrong. I'm tired of the vitriol. I have so much more to do with this life, so much more to see and learn and do, so much more good training to spread around and dogs' lives to improve. I'm not saying use a tool you don't want to use. If you aren't committed to your tools, I can guarantee your use of them will be lacking. I am suggesting you take the time to learn about them. Each style has huge followings because they bring something useful and effective to the table. 

Isn't it time to focus on that, on the great things you can do? Rather than shout that Your Way is the Only Way, show it? Share your techniques and ideas, and try the techniques and ideas of others. You may be surprised with how little some of them actually conflict with one another. You may not like them at all, they may not work for you, but now you understand them better, and that can only improve you.

For those you with your pieces in a death grip in one hand, and a lighter in the other, this probably isn't for you. You probably aren't ready to let go. You might never be, but the rest of us can learn from one another, help and respect one another, we will all show the world a beautiful and complete picture, and no one will notice the now restrictive, angry little corners are gone. Turns out hostility isn't part of the picture.

Make dog training better. 

Share your pieces.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Why I changed my mind on certification

I come from the "old school" of dog training. I know some of you out there twenty years my senior are scoffing right now, but at 36 years old, I was trained by your contemporaries. I learned valuable skills, important skills I don't believe should be tossed to the wayside in the face of more modern styles. I feel strongly about combining the old with the new for a superior result. 

There is, however, one bit of old fashioned thinking I am ready to toss out the window forever- the idea that certifications are worthless, stupid, and just a "piece of paper." Even ten years ago, as I was training dogs for 8-12 hours a day, I snickered at the very idea that  paper had more weight than a leash in my hands, all day, every day.

Then, something amazing happened, at least I think it is. As social media exploded, someone as opinionated and bull-headed as me was drawn like a moth to the flame to dog training discussion. I saw, to my shock, the vast numbers of people with precious little experience or knowledge hanging out their shingle as "professional dog trainers". As someone who works very hard for her money, the idea of taking it from others without the requisite skills to do so sat very poorly with me. 

I also began to research on the requirements for certifications. I found organizations that sought to push only their style and agenda. I found online for-profit schools that handed out a certification without proving that one ever handled a dog in person. 

And I continued to be turned off by the idea. After all, I had the reputation of a well-known facility behind me, titles on my personal dogs, clients with titles, and an excellent local following. I hardly needed to prove anything.

However, I was not quite getting where I wanted to be with my own dogs. In AKC, I could not quite break that 195 score. In schutzhund, my dogs were flatter than the judges wanted to see. I needed more. I started to look outside my sphere of knowledge to other trainers. Respected trainers who I've come to consider trusted friends in spite of never meeting them in person. Youtube channels of trainers considered the world over to be geniuses. Seminars held by the very best that changed the way I saw dog training, and thusly changed my life. 

Then, I saw the names of organizations I'd not heard of before, and when I read up on them, thought, "Now there's something I can get behind!" My search to improve myself, to grow when I felt my work was stagnating, coupled with the sheer volume of people calling themselves trainers, started changing the tide for me. 

Social media is truly a powerful force. I've seen work that inspired me, and seen work that horrified me. Videos of hard-working, joyful dogs in stark contrast to dogs being downright mistreated in the name of training. And I started to think that maybe our industry needs more. 

Standardization, in the face of some of the extreme agendas the dog training world is facing, is a slippery slope. I still must believe, if this is my life's work, if I am truly qualified to do what I do, how hard is it apply for a certification? Why shouldn't I put forth some effort to show the world that people who are respected peers and superiors think I have a right to charge for my services (especially now that I have struck out on my own)? And perhaps the most important of all, why on earth wouldn't I choose to throw my lot in with trainers who believe bettering ourselves and one another through a united community where we can freely share ideas and learn from one another? What has always appealed to me about this career is the neverending learning process, if you keep an open mind.

I'm not saying a certification will guarantee quality, especially depending on the requirements of the certifying body. They do vary wildly. I'm also not saying one can't find a stupendous trainer without one. 

I'm saying that maybe we as a community of dog trainers need to consider protecting our industry by coming together under a banner that best represents us, before the banner of a group with a one-sided agenda becomes forced on us. Certification is not only for yourself, for your marketing, for your business, it's to protect all of us. The internet has made our world much smaller, and we can bury our heads in the sand no longer.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A sensible approach to finding the right dog trainer for you

   Happy 2016 to all my readers! I'm sure for quite a few people, getting some training for your dog is somewhere on your resolution list, especially after Rover lifted his leg on your Christmas tree, or Spot took a choice chunk off your ham when no one was looking.

   How to go about finding a dog trainer? Certainly the internet is besieged with articles on how to find one, and after reading many of them myself, I am disappointed to see many are written with the purpose of promoting the agenda of the author, whether they urge one method over another, or a specific certifying organization. Some even go so far as to malign other training styles, which in my opinion, does a great disservice to everyone. 

   In response, here's my contribution the already dizzying array of advice and opinions, based on over fifteen years of observing the successes and failures of average dog owners seeking training. 


Does certification matter? Dog training is an unregulated industry; absolutely anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, hang out their shingle, and take your money- qualified or not. It seems a good idea to go with a "certified dog trainer." Unfortunately, not all certifications are made equally. Some are difficult, requiring lengthy essays, case studies, and video of the trainer at work to be reviewed by a board. Some are only written exams, while others are paid for through online-only training courses, and given without anyone seeing the trainer so much as touch a dog. 

However, certification does show a modicum of dedication to their field. There is not a single qualified professional out there who isn't capable of earning a certification, getting one is a matter of personal choice. When considering a trainer, ask who they are certified by, then you may do a bit of homework into that organization if you so choose. You can even ask your trainer why they chose to go with that organization. My organizations of choice are due to our ailgned mission statements. Some are quite a bit of work to obtain and show a definite degree of knowledge and experience. 


What about a trainer who has earned training titles? If your goal is earning a certain title or degree, working with a trainer who has earned them is, in my opinion, necessity. What if you aren't interested in titling your dog? Chances are, you just want your pet to behave. Should you care about titles?

Yes and no. If your dog pulls you on walks and doesn't come when called, a trainer who's titled in obedience, and whose clients have been equally successful, will likely serve you well. Their skills in obedience training have been proven in a fresh, highly distracting venue, judged by a qualified and unbiased third party, and often an alternative to certifications for some trainers.

Dog training is a broad field with many specializations. If your dog has a problem with resource guarding, a trainer who excels in hunting trials or has many agility titles may not have the skill set you need. If you want to try your hand at dog sports such as IPO (schutzhund), it's unlikely a "big box store" pet trainer will get you there.


Here's where you must start paying close attention. Many seasoned trainers care little for titles or certification, but are still outstanding at what they do. It stands to reason a trainer who has done great work for 10, 20, or 30 years will have an excellent reputation among local vets, groomers, breeders, and average owners. Has no one ever heard of the trainer you're considering? Not so much a whisper of a footprint anywhere online? This could be the sign of a novice who may or may not have the experience to effectively train you or your dog.

Read reviews online, but read them with a grain of salt. Dog training is an emotionally charged subject, so it's not uncommon to see multiple glowing reviews next to multiple poor ones. What that should tell you is that trainer's style may be perfect for you, or completely wrong for you. Some styles are highly polarizing among the entire dog community. The only way to decide for yourself will be to meet with the trainer and observe some training. Which leads me to my next point:

Methods and Training Style

The authors of "how to find a trainer" articles don't know you. They don't know your dog. I don't consider it my place to tell you how you should train your own dog, even though I feel strongly about my own style. Every year, thousands of dog owners have great success and utter failure under a myriad of methods.

More important to me than method is the quality of that method's execution. Read up a bit, get an idea of how you want to train, but keep an open mind. You may not want to train with food, but there could be a stellar trainer in your area who can help you reach all your goals who does. You may be horrified with the idea of a training collar until you see how happily a local balanced trainer's students all work. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone may help you and your dog attain a higher level of training than you previously imagined possible.

Professionalism and Responsibility

After all this, you think you have a trainer you want to try, so you contact them. How engaging is your trainer? Do they answer your questions fully and kindly without condescension? Do they ask you questions about your dog, gathering as much information as possible? 

Do they spend more time maligning other trainers and different methods than they do explaining what they can do themselves?

Has your trainer taken the necessary steps to run a legitimate, legal business? Do they require proof of shot records before training? All questions to strongly consider.


Depending on the services offered, you may have the opportunity to observe a trainer at work, in person or in video. Look at the whole body of work in the session you watch, but remember that one session does not tell the whole tale for that dog. Perhaps the dog you see with it's tail tucked at heel was so nervous in previous sessions it could not walk on a lead at all- or perhaps the trainer is confusing the dog.

Be aware of stress signals. Now, I am the last person to call "stress" a dirty word in training. Sometimes, dogs will show signs of stress on the road to being a happier, more well adjusted dog. If you see a concern, ask questions. Does the trainer acknowledge the signs of discomfort in the dog, and explain how they will eliminate them, or become defensive and short when questioned? At the end of a session, a dog should be in a better place not only behaviorally, but mentally and emotionally.

Most important to remember, don't be shy to ask someone when you see a well behaved dog for the name of their trainer. Often, people are happy to discuss it or offer you a recommendation. Talk to your vet. Talk to your groomer. It's not uncommon for them to see well-trained dogs come in over and over who've worked with the same trainer. Training is a financial and time commitment, you owe it to yourself, and your dog, to do some legwork first. 

Happy training!