As a dog trainer your job is more than just teaching a few tricks. You're an investigator, a counselor and problem solver among other things. At least I hope that's what we aim for.
Part of being a problem solver is identifying all possible variables that are preventing the dog to live and learn to its fullest potential. You're also working with people, so as an additional bonus you get to be a coach and sometimes even a marriage counselor.
There are a few things that will make you a better dog trainer. These things are primarily KNOWLEDGE and EXPERIENCE. Enough can't be said of how important these two things are. If you're fairly new to dog training, don't be alarmed, it'll come with persistence and patience.
I want to add another thing that WILL make you a better dog trainer however. And that is TAKING RESPONSIBILITY.
Here's what I mean:
"I don't know know what's wrong with the dog."
"The owners are obviously making this harder for me, they don't cooperate."
"This dog already has too much of a learning history with these behaviors, we can only do so much."
"You can't save every dog. This is probably one of those cases we can't fix."
"It was the previous trainer who messed this up. Now I have to deal with his mess."
If any of these sound familiar it means you've been in the field long enough to recognize this language either from you or your peers.
Now don't get me wrong! I find myself saying these things too! it's part of being a dog trainer. You need to be realistic about the case and client you're working with. The above sentences are not wrong.
Here's what happens though if you're not careful. You eventually form an attachment to those lines if you don't watch it. Once you do, it's harder to think creatively because we focus too much of our energy on why the problem is the way it is. Kind of like an overweight person who says: "I'm big boned."; "It runs in my family." Or a jerk who says things like: "This is me, that's how I am."; "I'm just very blunt." All these things may be true but if they attach themselves to those sentences it will stop them from trying to fix the problem, right? You can be blunt and polite, you can be big boned and fit.
It's the same trap for dog trainers.
*You don't know what's wrong with the dog? Well, try your best! We don't always know why dogs do what they do. It's unrealistic to expect to know every detail of every dog we're going to work with, or why they do what they do.
*Are the owners not cooperating? work on your communication skills! Learn to talk TO people, not AT people. The problem is not always the owners. More often than not, it's how we communicate with them. "But how do I improve my communication skills?" Read! take classes at your local library! find a group of people that can help you with this. Dale Carnegie and John Maxwell have excellent books on communication and leadership. Check them out!
*Is there too much of a "learning or reward history" with the wrong behaviors? Well, what will change it! What can you do to improve on that? Are you going to have to take a longer approach? are you going to have to communicate this to the clients? Older dogs can learn new tricks you know. It doesn't matter how long of a learning history this dog has, you have to do what you can to help this owner and his/her dog.
*"You can't save every dog." You're absolutely correct! Some dogs are just way too far gone. This however doesn't apply to most dogs. This is a small group of dogs you're going to encounter working with clients. You can't fix it? Ok, how can you make it BETTER? If you can't fix it, don't focus on "I can't fix it." Focus on "How can I make it BETTER?"
*"It was the previous trainer, I don't know what he/she did and now we have to undo everything." Well guess what? That trainer is no longer working with that dog. You are! It's on you now, not the previous trainer. It's your dog, your client, your case. Whatever shit sandwich the previous trainer made for you, you now have to eat and ask for seconds. But you do it because in the end you're passionate about what you do. You can point the finger at the previous trainer, the owner, etc. You can point the finger all you want. At the end of the day it's your responsibility to help this dog and this client any way you can.
Taking responsibility will help you think creatively, trust me! I've had to force myself to stop saying things like "It's genetics"; "that dog is just not thinking". By telling yourself that none of that matters and that you have to take care of things you put yourself in the mindset of "How can I make this better?", "What can I do right now with what I have?"
It's small, but it will help you!
Training is the easy part. Hell, finding the motivation to train is easy too. It's the daily grind and bills and the headaches, you name it. All those things get in the way when it comes to training your dog, or your clients' dogs.
As fun as dog training is, you have to admit, it can get pretty boring at times. It can lose its touch after a few weeks, a few months, or if you're that insane, after a few years. But no one tells you this when you embark on this journey we call dog training.
Gradually we desensitize ourselves to this awesome lifestyle and it's why a lot of people move on. As a dog training instructor I see this first hand with graduates from our program. I'd say about half of them if not less will keep training dogs after a year or so. Some will start training part time and eventually not train at all. If that's what they choose is best for their lives, hey that's awesome! You should find something that pulls you, not something you have to push yourself to do. For a lot of people dog training is just a chapter in their lives and I'm happy with that as long as they're happy with that themselves.
But assuming you're still interested in this field, I know you will have those days in which you don't quite feel like training that dog. Or days in which you'll ask yourself if you can get by with less training than the day before. You'll find ways to shortcut here and there. You might even ask yourself if you made the right choice.
Here's what you NEED to do!
1)Remember why you're doing this!
There was a time you looked at this in awe, am I right? Yeah, you thought to yourself, "Man, that'd be awesome to have a job like that where you just work with dogs all day." There was a time you were not happy with the "JOB" you had. It was stale and there was no growth, there was no newer skill that would make you a better person. There was no connection, no passion and you felt stuck.
One of the best ways to rekindle the passion is simply to remember what life was like before you had what you now take for granted. That will give you a nice sense of gratitude that can be very refreshing.
2)Find a hobby!
That's right! find something that momentarily takes you away from dog training. You really need it and chances are you don't realize how much you need it. I don't care how much you love apple pies, if I feed you apple pies three times a day, seven days a week, you will get sick and tired of eating apple pies! Have you ever done that when you were a kid? Isn't there a dish that you ate too much of that once you loved and at one point the thought of it made you sick because you ate it too much? I know we've all overplayed that one song we loved to the point we didn't want to hear it again.
It's the same thing with dog training. It's great! it's awesome! But you have to take a break! You have to stop and smell the roses from time to time. Doing so will give you something to look forward to, which in return will make you look forward to training dogs again.
The hobbies can be as simple as giving yourself a few hours every day where you do something that is not related to dog training at all! Or at least a few hours a week. You could start a workout regimen, start doing martial arts, painting, taking an improv. class once a week or go hiking on weekends. Or at the very least doing something exclusively for you once a month.
Trust me, you need to do this. You may not feel like you do at this moment, but you need it. If you don't, what will happen is you'll begin to dread this life-style and soon it will become the very lifestyle you once dreaded. Your quality will go down, which will make your clients or boss unhappy, which will then affect you even more, which will make you dread dog training even more. There's no winning for anyone.
Here's another thing that has helped me:
I will actually challenge myself to teach my dog to do something difficult even if it takes me several months to accomplish. This gives me a purpose and a reason to approach every training session with enthusiasm. If you work with clients you can do something similar. Make it a point to learn something new with every client. Give yourself a deadline where you tell yourself: "In two months, I expect to be this type of trainer....., or gain this type of skill....., or have gone to this seminar...., or to have read this many books...."
Having a constant goal in mind will make you look forward to training sessions instead of dreading them.
In closing I beg you to take a moment to assess your situation and take the appropriate steps to ensure you're the most passionate dog trainer you can be. The world needs dog trainers who are eager and hungry to learn and progress.
I have been fortunate enough to have been surrounded by some of the best dog trainers out there. I don’t just mean a trainer better than me whom I happened to admire. I’ve bumped elbows and made friends with authorities in their field, people who compete in sports in a national and international level, people who are passionate and sometimes downright obsessed with dog training. And people who are right now on their way of becoming authorities in this field.
I’ve found that a lot of authors have some sort of agenda that they’re trying to pitch to their audience. These are the folks who advocate the use of discipline or “balanced approach” as they call it. I’ve also read books from people who advocate a “force free” approach and demonize anything that doesn’t fit that criteria.
As an instructor (at the moment) at one of the top dog training schools in the world I find myself defending and attacking all purists in the dog training industry. The defense comes when a “balanced student” mocks the use positive reinforcement. In these situations I tell my students that positive reinforcement is actually the preferred method to teach behaviors and that those “purely positive” fanatics actually have a point in suggesting a purely positive approach. I’m also very quick to point out the flaws of misinformation in the “purely positive” dogma when reaching a plateau.
I will also immediately jump at the so called “balanced” approach when it plants ignorance in the minds of the public. Sure, I wont hesitate to use punishment to address an issue long overdue, specially when the safety of the animal or owners are at stake. But I have learned to view dog training as an art, worthy of conscious analysis, where there isn’t such thing as “purely positive” or “balanced” methods, but simply an open minded approach.
I guess if there’s any agenda to push is that it’s OK to be Purely Positive and it’s ok to be Balanced. The dog and the situation will determine what’s best.
I have been guilty of being anti Purely Positive myself but I have to say that many dog trainers automatically shut down anything that resembles a "Purely Positive" approach. The problem with this mindset is that it limits your perspective and your critical thinking. Yes, you may be right that there is a better way but you want to at least see the whole picture that these trainers are seeing, evaluate what they're doing and are trying to accomplish. Then, and only after you've seen what they see, can you now say "We can try something else".
Is there a "war" between the "balanced" approach and the "Purely Positive/Force Free" approach? Sure there is. It's not a major, all out, violent one, but it is one that promotes bias and close mindedness. Some so-called "balanced" trainers are as stuck up and close-minded as the "Purely Positive" trainers they condemn. See how ironic that is?
I'm tired of defending the "balanced" approach and I'm tired of being labeled as one type of trainer or the other. I want to be a dog trainer for the sake of the dog! for the sake of the owner! not for the sake of a Facebook group, forum or Dog training association.
Now can we please pull our heads out of our asses, stop mocking each other, pointing fingers and accepting that we all could learn from each other? I'll start as I'm guilty of it myself.