At the Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference in Cincinnati last month, I talked with Chirag Patel, a British dog trainer who offers instructional services for people and their dogs, cats, and parrots via his business, Domesticated Manners.
I love the opportunity to network and spend time chatting about dogs with great trainers, and the conference is unparalleled — it’s the largest conference in the world for animal behavior professionals. I’d long enjoyed Chirag’s YouTube videos, so I was extremely excited to sit down with him for a chat about dogs and their people.
Dog trainers look for ways to make training simple for people to fit into already busy lives. Chirag is an advocate for training for acceptable and friendly behaviors before behavior problems crop up. “Set your dog up for success and really teach him what you want,” he says. “Instead of assuming your dog won’t jump, just reward your dog for keeping their feet on the floor around people; teach them that attention will come when their feet are on the ground.”
Chirag knows that we dog lovers like doing things that make our dogs happy. While some might say that offering liberal affection, treats, and toys will “spoil” a dog, Chirag disagrees. “You like giving your dog nice things anyway,” he points out. “Provide his special treats at times when he’s naturally being good to reward him for good behavior — like lying on a mat during dinner or greeting a new friend with nice manners.”
Perhaps my favorite part of the conversation was when Chirag touched on what I feel is the reason we owe it to our dogs to teach them the skills they need to be successful and happy companions. “Sometimes we forget that dogs don’t choose to come and live with us — we choose them and choose what their lives will be like within our families, what they will get to eat or drink, where they will sleep, even which friends they choose to meet. And we don’t give them very many choices. So if we say, ‘You’re going to live with me and this is how it’s going to be,’ it’s only respectful to provide for them what they need, and teach them the skills they need to thrive in a human environment.”
Chirag insists that learning happens best in a atmosphere of playfulness and cooperation. He refers to one of the world’s most famous animal trainers, Bob Bailey, who said, “Make it worthwhile for the animals to play our silly little games.” Chirag is a big fan of getting dogs off of canine unemployment and working for their food. “100 pieces of food in a food bowl is 100 pieces of food wasted.” Chirag says, indicating that there are dozens of opportunities in a day to teach your dog desirable behavior.
Chirag was kind enough to introduce me to the iTalk app on my iPad so that I could record the interview. We got to talking a bit about how useful our tablets have been and about how technology can make the business of dog training easier for professionals as well as clients.
Chirag shared my excitement about Sue Sternberg‘s new Dog Park Assistant app for iPhone. This is a great tool, created by one of the experts at reading dog body language, and features tips on understanding what your dog is feeling. “While many dog trainers don’t like dog parks, many pet owners use them,” Chirag says. “This might help them understand their dog if he says, ‘I don’t really like this place, I’m not having fun here.’”
A smartphone or tablet can quickly become a trainer’s (second) best friend, whether you’re using stopwatches, video recording apps, notepad apps for journaling, or apps featuring sounds (like squeakies or thunderstorms) that can be used for distraction or desensitization training. Chirag recommends his clients keep records of training sessions. “If you’ve just gone for a walk and your dog normally barks at dogs, note how many dogs your dog barked at of those they saw,” he says. “You may notice, after a few weeks of training, that your dog used to bark ten times on a walk but now barks only three times. That tells you your training is successful. If he is barking more often, you will need to explore other training strategies.”
Finally, we discussed some of the challenges owners face in hiring a professional trainer, which can be tough in our unregulated industry. Chirag recommends finding an independently certified trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers or a professional member of the APDT. He cautions that not all trainers are created equally, and encourages you to be discriminating. “Visit a few trainers in your area,” he says. “Don’t take your dog; just visit a class and see what sort of atmosphere there is. Are the dogs and people in the class enjoying themselves? If you see anything that looks wrong to you, trust your instinct. You want a nice, relaxed atmosphere where you and your dog are going to have fun learning together.”