One of the biggest misconceptions pet owners have when hiring a trainer is that they are paying the trainer to train the dog. Unless the dog is in a board and train or day training setting (owner-absent training), this is rarely the case. More often than not, you are paying your dog trainer to teach you the skills you need to work with your dog.
Owner-absent training is increasingly popular. This means that a trainer works with your dog at her facility or your home and trains the desirable behaviors for you. There are four basic problems with the owner-absent training concept.
I cannot be there for every second of the dog/handler team’s interactions, therefore the owner must have the knowledge and skills needed to reinforce desirable behavior and prevent rehearsal and reinforcement of unwanted behaviors. One of the biggest misunderstandings about training is that it’s something that only happens within the context of designated training “sessions.” Nothing can be further from the truth. Every second your dog is with you and awake, he’s learning. Behavior is in a constant state of flux; those behaviors which are not actively worked on and maintained will tend to diminish over time.
I get a lot of clients that have brought their dogs to a boarding facility and are now seeking additional services out of frustration – “it worked great at first, but now months later, everything has fallen apart!” That is because the board and train operator gave the dog the skills he needed to succeed temporarily but neglected to give the clients the skills they need to live successfully with a dog. The owners have not been set up for success and thus, are destined for failure and frustration.
This is why service dog training schools require that the individuals who are adopting a dog receive training as well. One guide dog program requires that adopters spend a full month on the campus learning to care appropriately for the dog before they are allowed to bring their guide home. No guide dog programs that I am aware of just allow a disabled individual to pull up to the curb, fill out some paperwork, and leave thirty minutes later.
There are limited situations where owner absent training may be the best option. Certainly, I have a few clients who have taken advantage of “day training,” where I work with the dog while they are away at work during the day. Before I take any such clients, I must make clear to them that it is not a free ticket to good behavior – they still need considerable training to maintain and further develop the behaviors. Getting a behavior on cue is only the tip of the iceberg; it’s a starting point, not an end point in the lifespan of a behavior. Behaviors are like muscles, they must be exercised appropriately and regularly or they go flaccid.
While owners rarely want to hear it, usually training the people takes more time than training the dog. Many have bad habits that they need to “unlearn.” (Don’t feel bad – I can’t even tell you how many bad habits I’ve had and had to unlearn!) Building new skills does not happen overnight, and owners need encouragement and thoughtful coaching until they are comfortable enough to deal appropriately with the behavior in the trainer’s absence. It takes time to learn how to manipulate reinforcement contingencies, identify opportunities for undesirable behavior and develop strategies which will be effective in those instances.
Often, owners send a dog to a board and train situation because they don’t want to do “the work” of training. I’ll let you in on a secret – if you have the right instructor and methods, training should not feel like “work” at all. It should be the most fun you ever have with your dog. It should be something you look forward to doing together. It should give you and your dog a whole new appreciation for each other. If it’s not, hire a new trainer!