Professional Trainers: Tread Carefully

May 13, 2019

Professional Trainers: Tread Carefully

Being a professional dog trainer and instructor is a gift, a privilege and a position that should not be taken lightly. Anyone and everyone who calls themselves a "professional dog trainer" or "instructor" needs to understand the responsibility that is upon their shoulders. Your words and actions carry incredible weight and significance to any dog owner, handler and fellow trainer who comes into contact with them. Tread carefully.

Think First

​If you've been working with dogs professionally for any period of time, you know the importance of thinking first. Having a plan of action. What is your criteria in any given moment? What is your plan? What is your Plan B, C, D and E?

The same approach MUST be used when you are conducting yourself in public , with your clients, colleagues, follow professionals and on social media.

What is your criteria when you post something, be it a video, a blog or a rant? What purpose does it serve? Does it rise to the level of professionalism that anything associated with you should? Or, is it meant to simply get "clicks", whip people up into a frenzy or stroke your ego? If so...what are the consequences of this?

What is your plan when you discuss something or post about it? Meaning, what are you expecting people to do with this information, and who is your intended audience? What if someone outside of this group ingests this information, will that be problematic? For instance, if you were to skim over an interaction you had a with a highly aggressive dog, in an attempt to explain how you "cured" it, yet you failed to go into any detail regarding the amount of prep work, management tools, and follow-up procedures that you used, not to mention failing to clearly define what constituted as "cured", could you be setting others up to horribly fail if not get horrendously hurt?

All too often things are taken out of context, over-simplified and the speaker or poster themselves, not the reader or the receiver of this information! It's seen as if the whole story is too boring, too wordy, too scientific, too lengthy or too complicated to get into all the details, details that are crucial for anyone to understand the complexity of a given situation.

You are a teacher, first and foremost. It is your responsibility and duty to have a thorough understanding of these concepts and master a way to digest and translate them to your clients, both canine and human. To do otherwise is to skimp out on your responsibility. It also can have dire consequences.

Set an Example

If you are a professional dog trainer or instructor, you are an authority figure, whether you want to be or not. People will latch onto your words and your actions, and will mimic them down to the smallest detail in some cases. Things you didn't even know you did they will latch onto. Let's say every time you ask a dog to sit, you also bob your head. People who are trying to learn from you will bob their heads too. Now just think if you were to say or do something more consequential and these people mimicked could this backfire?

If you were to paint an incomplete, or worse still inaccurate picture, you will find anyone and everyone who sees that picture will potentially do the same. Think of how terribly this could go wrong, particularly when you are talking about serious behavioral cases.

How you approach things, whether it be a particular behavior, a certain exercise, training as a whole or dealing with others, it will rub off on your formal clients as well as anyone who comes across your content.

If you are patient, understanding, kind and use good humor, you will find that your clients and receivers of your information are as well.

If you are impatient, easily frustrated, close-minded and dismissive, the same applies.

Ironically, I have found this piece to be particularly difficult for my fellow positive reinforcement professionals to wrap their heads around. Positive reinforcement does not, and should not, only apply to the dogs that we work with. Rather, it must also be applied when working with your human clients and when interacting with or speaking about your colleagues, even those you may not agree with. All too often those of us who claim to be positive reinforcement professionals with our dogs do not seem to have the slightest clue on how to apply these very same techniques when it comes to interacting with our own species.

Now, I am not claiming to be without fault in any of this. I'm not. I do, however, constantly think to myself, "What would someone who doesn't know anything about dog training, perhaps someone who just adopted a dog from a shelter or brought a new puppy home, what would they think about what I posted, talked about and so on? How am I setting an example for them?"

Am I encouraging them to be understanding of their new canine companion?

Am I giving them the information they need to better understand their new dog or puppy?

Am I promoting them to develop a relationship that is based on trust, respect and understanding?

Or, am I, even inadvertently, promoting them to fail, setting them up to hit a wall where they will get frustrated and flustered with their puppy or dog? What will that do to their relationship? How could all of this go terribly wrong?

By being mindful of how we conduct ourselves as professionals will allow us to set an example for how our clients can work with their dogs and interact with their fellow classmates and dog lovers.

Reject Constant One-upmanship Pissing Match

This last part will be a fairly touchy subject that will certainly rub some people the wrong way, and I apologize in advance. However, it is important to discuss.

As professionals, we need to do all we can reject the one-upmanship in all forms.

If you have done your studies, whether it be apprenticing with another trainer, going to school, working directly with dogs or a combination of all three, you are expected to know what you are doing. The quality of your knowledge, and justification for you calling yourself a "professional dog trainer" or "instructor", does not hinge on the need for you to be better than another. That is not how this works.

The skills that you have mastered, those are yours and yours alone. You and I may both teach basic obedience classes, but I am fairly certain we would both have a different take on it, put our own spin on the material and the words we used to describe certain exercises may vary greatly. All of this is how you and I would make our classes our own, to make them work with our personality, personal strengths and weaknesses. That customization of material is what good teaching is all about. Again, being able to understand information, master certain skills, digest them and then translate those skills to other people and their dogs so they can actually understand and digest it themselves.

Where I see professionals getting tripped up is they are caught up in the pissing match, and not just with other professionals, but dogs as well.

The first instance is easy for people to visualize: one trainer touting how they are better than another. They've achieved such and such in X amount of time whereas the other trainer would never be able to do such a thing.

No one should be doing this. It is immature, unprofessional and unhelpful. It promotes being close-minded and will stifle your own learning and growth as a professional. Don't do that.

It is the second instance that I think needs more careful and blunt discussion.

To better explain this, please indulge me to share my experience of how this manifested itself in the horse world. Filled predominantly by young girls and women, one thing I noticed and practiced myself was false bravado. Horse will do what I say since I am a mighty woman warrior, hear me roar! Look how strong I am, I can make this 1,000lb beast go from Point A to Point B and if it even THINKS of giving me lip, I will show it who's boss!

Here's the thing: all of that tough girl stuff, it is a front. I've been in those situations where I thought I was Queen Bee, walking three horses at once, strutting my stuff...until one of them spooked. How quickly all of that bravado fades away as you are helplessly being dragged 10, 20, 100 feet.

The same applies to dogs and it frankly makes my stomach turn.

Now, do not mistake this discussion to be about anything related to training approach or methodology, it doesn't. It has everything to do with trainers thinking they are tougher than they are and making bad decisions as as a result. Worst still, by doing so they are promoting their clients to do the same...that is the part that keeps me up at night.

For my first Doberman, Zeus, if someone confronted him in a tough-guy or tough-girl manner, to show him "who was boss", I have no doubt he would have mauled them. And a 90lb Doberman can do a ton of damage.

Here's the thing: there are lots of dogs like him. There are lots of situations where pushed just enough, a dog will react and all dogs have sharp teeth contained within strong and powerful jaws. I have seen some horrific bites over the years, people suffering from permanent nerve damage in their hands after they chased after their 20lb dog who stole something, hide in the closet and then repeatedly bit and thrashed at the person while they were cornered. Why did this person do this? Why would they chase and corner a dog? Because they thought that was what they were supposed to do, what they should do, it was something a professional had done or talked about doing.

Another example are trainers who walk their multitude of dogs off-leash, out in public, to show how well-trained they are. All thanks to the professional being amazing. I am not discounting that these professionals have skills or that their dogs are well-trained. What I stress about is most dog owners are not professionals. They are not devoting their life to dog training. They have other interests, other passions. But they may also have three or four dogs who know a few behaviors, are fairly good at-home and walking them on-leash is a an off-leash walk it is!

To discount the amount of work and management that goes into even walking ONE dog off-leash, not to mention two, three, four, five, TEN, is insincere and simply wrong in my book. This is a tangible issue that has serious consequences. What will this person do with their three off-leash dogs when they encounter another off-leash dog? What if a fight breaks out? What are they supposed to do then?

Or, what if their dogs chase after a bike? Or one starts chasing a deer, the other two follow and all three of them run out in to a road?

These are not outlandish possibilities. They are real. All because they saw a post or a video of a trainer doing it. Worst still, that post was made to show off the trainer's skills, to showcase their bravado. Can you see how this is problem?

Try to keep all of this in mind when you are training dogs, teaching classes, posting videos, blogs or rants. Keep the bravado in check. It will keep you safer and, maybe even more importantly, all of your clients, current and prospective.

Final Thoughts

Please, if you are professional, no matter your training approach, methodology or background, think about how you describe encounters you have, how you would train a certain behavior, complete a particular exercise and what it is that you do in given situation. Know that people are reading, watching and listening, and they will apply what you tell them. Think of the guilt you would feel if someone got hurt because they followed advice you didn't even know you were giving simply because you not being clear or were trying to demonstrate your worth and bravado.

Being a professional dog trainer and instructor truly is a gift, a privilege and a position that should not be taken lightly.

Tread carefully.

Dianna L. Santos has been professionally training dogs since 2011. Having specialized in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, Dianna's main goal is to help dogs learn how to be successful in a human world. She does this by outlining ways dog owners can better understand their dogs while designing fun and effective training programs and games both ends of the leash will enjoy. Dianna is also particularly passionate about Scent Work is on a mission to promote the idea that ALL dogs should be playing the sniffing game!