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.
- Someone is working with your dog when you are not able to supervise the interaction. Have you ever heard of The Ring of Gyges? This moral tale from Plato revolves around a ring which bestows its wearer with invisibility. How would one behave if cloaked in invisibility? How a person acts when they are knowingly being observed may have little relevance to how the same person may act when unobserved. You can never guess how someone will treat your dog in your absence – a trainer may greet you at the door with a treat bag and clicker and have a closet full of shock collars, one of which is destined for your dog’s throat, awaiting your departure. If you choose to go this route, ask for LOTS of references, preferably from clients whose dogs had similar behavior issues as those for which you are seeking assistance. Ask those references about long-term results and continuing support from the trainer specifically.
- You are not being trained. More often than not, well-trained dogs have well-trained owners. I can teach a dog that pulls like a freight train to walk politely on a loose leash, but if I hand that leash over to the owner and she allows the dog to be reinforced for pulling (by continuing forward movement when the leash is tight), the behavior will fall apart. If I train a stellar recall and then the owner begins recalling the dog and providing unpleasant consequences, the behavior will fall apart. If I train a puppy to play nicely and use her mouth appropriately and someone else in the house insists on playing rough with the puppy and encouraging mouthiness and rough behavior, the soft mouth goes away. If I use a crate to house train a puppy but the owner gives the puppy unsupervised access to the entire house, including her favorite place to pee on the rug, the behavior falls apart. It’s not a very valuable service if your dog listens to me and not to you. You see this all the time – one person in the house does all the training and that is the person the dog will listen to reliably. Dogs listen to whomever is a) consistent and b) does the training.
- It’s expensive! Where they are available, the purchase price of fully trained adult dogs with a high level of reliability often runs from $10,000 to $40,000+. Why? Because training a dog to reliability takes time. Because depending on the goal, a new behavior may take days, weeks, months, or even years to meet the owner’s performance goals. Because it doesn’t just happen in ten minute training sessions throughout the day. Because the best trainers know that training is not an event but a way of life.
- It does nothing to reaffirm the dog-owner bond. Focusing on specific behaviors as they relate to the training process is failing to see the forest for the trees. While we focus on the behaviors we like, the fact of the matter is that good training is all about building relationships with your dog. To dogs, relationships are based on reinforcement history. When my clients start clicker training their dogs, even if their goal was a perfect sit/stay, they often first comment on the relationship improvement. “He’s so much more focused on me!” “It seems like he’s smiling all the time!” “We’re having a blast training together. He always makes me laugh in training sessions and wags his tail whenever it’s time to work.” “I can’t believe how smart my dog is/how fast he’s learning!” Things will fall into place a lot more quickly if the dog and handler work together as a team.
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!