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single combat

At the risk of alienating colleagues on both sides of The Great (and Largely Imaginary) Divide, here are some brief and unapologetically provocative thoughts on the recent adventures of our industry’s most over-exposed personalities.

I briefly considered naming this piece, Two Things I Am Having Trouble Getting Excited Over, but feared that wouldn’t be catchy enough. And really, the number one priority of any top-tier trainer has got to be maximizing eyeballs, am I right?

Cesar Millan

Let’s talk about the pig episode first. For anyone currently living under a rock: first, let me congratulate you on acquiring some truly enviable real estate; second, feel free to find the video on Youtube or rely on my description. It shows a TV entertainer and self-styled aggression guru performing an ill-conceived and poorly executed stunt involving some pigs and a dog with a history of attacking them. A pig gets bitten. There is some blood, and some squealing.

Is it hard to watch? That’s subjective, but I would have to say no, not compared to a hundred other things I’m forced to watch, like Donald Trump making a sickeningly plausible run for president.

Is it animal cruelty? I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve read the California statute and would call that a stretch. It seems pretty obvious that the injury to the pig, while stupid and unnecessary, was the unintended result of more than one serious miscalculation, not of malice or even insensitivity. The real crime was National Geographic legitimizing this nonsense by packaging it as cutting-edge behavior work.

Speaking of errors of judgement, it’s been apparent for some time that the balanced training community, in so far as one exists, may have made its own regrettable miscalculation in hitching its wagon to Millan’s star. Designating the charismatic savant originally marketed as the Dog Whisperer as balanced training’s patron saint and prime-time champion has arguably spawned a generation of trainers focused on branding and showmanship ahead of knowledge or technique. 

Should Millan be forced off the air? I’d rather people simply stopped watching, but if the consequence of this particular bout of ineptitude happened to be the end of Cesar 911 or even the end of an already lengthy career, I could certainly live with that. Because as much as I find the outrage over this specific incident somewhat misplaced, Millan remains someone I cannot bring myself to defend. He bought into his own myth on the ground floor, and the rest is history.

That said, let’s not pretend it’s really about the pig. Last time I checked, there was a whole show on TV about killing pigs, not to mention the genuine atrocity that is modern factory farming. The disconnect between the standards of welfare we insist on for our pets and those we quietly tolerate for our food animals, even when they are the same animal, is infinitely more unnerving than the worst things Millan has ever done. And I will add that the worst things Millan has ever done do not compare with the things truly abusive trainers do on a regular basis.

victoria stilwell

On to Victoria Stilwell and the bite she incurred while filming police dogs in action for her latest television project. Video of this event is unlikely to surface, but based on the scant information available, it is apparent that Stilwell was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s unclear if there was handler error or not, if there was error on the part of Stilwell or not, if the dog was well-trained or poorly so. It’s also unclear who was actually responsible for orchestrating events or for keeping Stilwell and others safe.

Stilwell’s first public move after sustaining the bite was to blame the dog’s handler, an accusation she has since stepped back. To my mind, adopting the guise of a dog training expert in such a context signals a measure of personal culpability, but falls short of explaining the public fit of schadenfreude incited by this all-around inglorious incident.

To wrap one’s head around that, one would need to remember that Stilwell has made a career of capitalizing on our industry’s political divisiveness, and has not been at all shy about vilifying whole classes of trainers as lazy and abusive based on no less scant information. And one would need to remember that like Cesar Millan, she was never a real dog trainer prior to being cast as one on TV.

So, the conspicuous murmuring that karma was at work as much as the Malinois who tagged her, while certainly unkind and admittedly unprofessional, is also really easy to understand. In other words, it’s not actually about the pig. It’s about the longstanding and entirely righteous resentment many career trainers feel at having been publicly chastised by an actress who never walked in their totally unsexy shoes.

the take away

Neither of these events can reasonably be taken as an indictment of any existing training method. In the first case, there was no identifiable method; in the second, no training was occurring. If either speaks to anything, it’s to the collective folly of our adopting a pair of non-trainers as the champions of our competing methodologies.

The idea that either ever represented the pinnacle of our profession has always been a pretense, and neither has frankly been a good ambassador. If Millan permanently distorted the concept of balanced training into a faith-based bravado-fueled affair reminiscent of rattlesnake handling, then Stilwell surely planted the enduring suspicion that positive reinforcement trainer was synonymous with poser. 

For the record, I hope that Stilwell recovers swiftly, that Millan retires quietly, and that neither ever headlines another dog trainer conference. Meanwhile, I hope the rest of us can tear our eyes from the spectacle long enough to realize we have a great deal more in common with one another than with either of them.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2016.

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Originally published in IACP Safe Hands Journal, Spring 2015.

Behavior seems to be the hot trend. From leash reactivity to separation anxiety to resource guarding and other aggression issues, trainers are confronting behavior problems right and left. But what is behavior work and behavior consulting, compared to traditional training? Who is qualified to do it, and what does it involve?

Whether one is forced to handle behavior cases by necessity, or eager to market oneself as a behavior specialist, it pays to be informed of current and emerging professional standards, and to familiarize oneself with the essential elements of a responsible approach.

Keeping up with industry jargon can be challenging, so here’s a basic behavior glossary:

behavior: anything an animal does, often in response to a situation or stimulus.

behaviorism: the theory that behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings, and that disorders are best treated by altering behavior patterns.

behavior modification: the use of empirically demonstrated behavior change techniques to increase or decrease the frequency of behaviors, including positive and negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment, and extinction.

animal behaviorist: someone with a graduate degree in a related field (like zoology, ethology, biology, or psychology) and post-graduate certification. He or she may be certified by the Animal Behavior Society as an Applied Animal Behaviorist or CAAB.

board certified veterinary behaviorist: a veterinarian who is certified in the specialty of Veterinary Behavior.  Board-certified specialists are known as diplomates or DACVBs.

behavior consultant: a professional working with animals to solve behavioral problems. Behavior consultants may or may not be degreed or certified, but should pursue extensive and ongoing education in animal behavior and training. Recognized certifications include CDBC and CBCC-KA, awarded respectively by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.

Bottom line, if you don’t sport a PhD or a DACVB, best not call yourself a behaviorist. Nonetheless, it’s wholly advisable to pursue a broad education in canine behavior and to highlight your qualifications as a behavior consultant.

So, what should a behavior consultant bring to the table, and how do successful consultants approach real cases?

Assessing Problems

Every case should begin with some manner of assessment, the accuracy of which will depend largely on history taking and observation skills. A good history teases fact from fiction. “My dog often barks at men that approach us,” is useful data. “My dog hates men!” is unhelpful speculation. Keen observation is equally critical. If concern exists over behavior around a new baby, one should be prepared to recognize subtle signs of stress, avoidance, or predation.

The consultant should also be ready to identify if basic needs are being met. Adequate diet, exercise, and medical attention should be prerequisites to any training or behavior modification program.

A Structured Approach

The solution to every behavior problem, regardless of intensity or complexity, will involve some combination of the following three components. Their relative priority may vary from case to case, but all deserve serious consideration. A truly comprehensive solution will typically involve all three.

Environmental Management: Limiting Unwanted Behavior Through Environmental Controls.

Managing exposure to environmental triggers is often a critical first step in changing behavior. All behavior is functional on some level, including problem behavior. Whether the goal is winning attention, persuading a stranger to retreat, or defending a resource, dogs will generally do what works.

By limiting opportunities to engage in unwanted behavior through environmental management, we prevent those behaviors from being reinforced, as happens each time they work as expected. This breaks the cycle of unwanted behavior and opens the door for teaching your dog what to do instead.

Good management will immediately reduce stress and/or conflict, without being unnecessarily intrusive. The need for management should decrease over time, as alternate behaviors are consistently reinforced.

Obedience Skills: Teaching Alternate or Incompatible Behaviors

Many common behavior problems are essentially “default” behaviors, things dogs do naturally in the absence of being taught otherwise. Teaching and reinforcing incompatible behaviors is frequently key to the long-term solution of behavior problems.

This requires considering what one wants the dog to do and focusing on training those behaviors, ahead of focusing on what one wants the dog to stop doing. Practical alternative behaviors may include basic obedience skills, or any other skill the dog might fairly be expected to master under moderate to high levels of distraction. For example, a dog that lunges at other dogs on the street might be trained to heel, while a dog that jumps on visitors might be taught to sit for attention.

As with environmental management, one should generally seek methods that are minimally intrusive. Strategies focused on suppressing behavior are avoided when other effective solutions exist. Good obedience training also helps build relationship and communication, the benefits of which extend far beyond specific behavior goals.

Classical Conditioning: Counter Conditioning and Desensitization

To avoid the need for eternal management and also help the dog on a psychological level, it’s sensible to invest in conditioning a better emotional/physiological response to known triggers.

Classical conditioning, or respondent learning, involves altering reflexive emotional and physiological responses, either by repeatedly pairing relevant stimuli with something pleasant or valuable, or through careful exposure that gradually desensitizes the animal over time. An example might involve pairing proximity to children with cooked chicken or gradually acclimating a dog to children via regular exposure at a safe distance.

The result is a decrease in the perceived need to behave aggressively, fearfully, etc. This can dramatically increase the likelihood of the dog making good decisions on its own in unexpected situations, even when guidance is lacking or management breaks down.

In limited cases, one may choose to condition an avoidance response through pairing a stimulus with something aversive. Snake avoidance training would be one example, as would be pairing an aversive with attempts to ingest something dangerous like rocks or tennis balls.

LIMA Principles

Even with a sturdy framework in place (our three problem solving components), designing a humane and effective program that is both comprehensive and individualized can be daunting. Given the many options that exist, it’s useful to have some guiding principles for choosing the best strategy.

Understanding LIMA principles and their practical application is considered a basic competency within the field of behavior consulting.

LIMA requires that trainers and behavior consultants use the “least intrusive, minimally aversive technique likely to succeed in achieving a training objective with minimal risk of producing adverse side effects.” [1] In practice, this means achieving results while minimizing cost to the learner and risk to any involved.

Following LIMA guidelines has additional advantages, beyond minimizing risk. They focus the trainer on respecting his subject and maintaining learner control, promote clarity in problem solving, and prevent abuse.

To be clear, LIMA does not dictate a positive reinforcement only approach. It does challenge the trainer to think outside the box of merely suppressing unwanted behavior, and to develop the skills to address behavior problems without undue reliance on deprivation, pressure, or punishment.

Emptying the Closet

Solving serious behavior problems, especially those involving aggression, should not be left to intuition, attributed to mystical factors, or performed impromptu while narrating into a camera. Success is rarely a function of charisma or the product of daredevilry, any more than effective obedience training ever has been.

Behavior may be the new black, but rest assured, no need to to flock to the runways or pay exorbitant sums for those head-turning logos. While trend seekers gawk at outrageous collections, others are quietly organizing their closets, editing their wardrobes, and shopping strategically.

A rational and responsible approach to behavior may not draw looks on the street, but it also never goes out of style. 

1. [Steven Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Vol 3]

 

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Originally published in The APDT Chronicle of the Dog, Spring 2015.

This article stems from a conversation at last year’s APDT conference regarding the advantages and pitfalls of board and train programs. I was asked to share my perspective as a trainer who offers a number of such options, aimed at resolving obedience and behavior problems ranging from housebreaking to aggression.

For trainers who have cut their teeth instructing classes or conducting in-home lessons, board and train may represent a final frontier, to be approached with some amount of trepidation. Between the level of responsibility implied by the format, and its reputation as ethically questionable terrain, it’s no surprise many trainers harbor reservations. And in case you don’t, others certainly do on your behalf, like the blogger behind “Beware! Of Dog Trainers Who Want to Board and Train Your Dog!”

My own induction into the business centered around board and train, initially assisting more experienced trainers and later working independently. In hindsight, I can’t claim pride in all those programs–roughly fifty over two years. But I got an up close look at how board and train works, or in some cases doesn’t, and developed my skills as a handler along the way.

Since opening a full-service facility in 2003, I’ve played a lot with the format and had the opportunity to compare results with those achieved through group classes and private instruction. We’ve fielded a lot of questions, answered legitimate concerns, and gained a solid understanding of the reality behind the image.

 

Reality v. Perception

How Punishing Is Boot Camp?

The primary concern over board and train among prospective clients reflects its persistent reputation as psychologically brutal and physically punishing. Kennel-based programs seem the most prone to skepticism, eliciting visions of military-style boot camp.

It certainly can be a high-stress experience under the wrong conditions, but it almost never needs to be. We consistently find dogs enjoy our programs, which include alternating group play and training sessions with down time in between (less social dogs are exercised individually). If we haven’t won them over within the first few hours, we will have over the next few days. Even behaviorally challenged dogs usually learn in short order that life at our kennel–for all its newness–isn’t nearly as confusing or frustrating as life at home. Stress tends to fall away rather than build in such cases, as the rhythm and routine of daily training and exercise sink in.

Who sends their dog away for training?

Trainers frequently question the calibre of client interested in board and train. It is implied they must be lazy or uncaring, looking for quick and dirty fixes to all the problems they let fester.

While I’ve consulted with a handful of reprobate owners who did fit that unsavory profile, the majority have been the opposite. Many already invested significant time, effort, and money into training that did not meet their goals. Others unexpectedly found themselves out of their depth with a dog they recently adopted. Some are simply looking to make the most productive use of time their pets would need boarding anyhow, whether during a honeymoon, family vacation, or remodeling project.

In nearly all cases, there is above-average commitment to the dog, acute awareness of training’s impact on both behavior and quality of life, and readiness to make a non-trivial investment toward a successful outcome.

Wouldn’t it be better if the owners were doing the work?

Responsible owners naturally question the wisdom of taking themselves out of the equation, especially in the case of longer programs. Trainers do as well, for legitimate reasons. We all wonder if it might make better sense for them to learn along with their dogs, working together as a team from start to finish.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced that’s always feasible without additional support or intervention, and promoting the notion that it should be puts those teams at risk of giving up out of frustration.

Meanwhile, how many parents regret not teaching their kids algebra themselves? How many riders opt to break their own horses to saddle? No matter how competent and dedicated one may be in any number of areas, there are certain projects it makes good sense to delegate.

 

Pros and Cons

So, is board and train a good fit for your training practice? Consider the following pros and cons.

Pros

  • Efficiency: You will impart skills faster and adjust more fluidly to feedback than the client.
  • Consistency: You have control over the dog’s whole experience for the duration of the program.
  • Expertise: Mistakes are less likely, which is key when the margin for error is small.

Cons

  • Expectations: Managing and meeting client expectations is more critical than with other formats.
  • Responsibility: The flip side of greater control is greater responsibility.
  • Regression: You may be held more to blame, fairly or unfairly.

 

When It May Be the Best Option

All things being equal, we rarely recommend board and train ahead of less expensive or invasive alternatives. But certain factors (beyond the obvious convenience) do argue in its favor. Here are some examples, along with actual scenarios from our case files.

Untenable Situation

This could involve a dog whose basic needs have become impossible to meet, or whose behavior prevents owners from performing basic functions like going to work. Risk of serious injury, especially to a child, also counts as untenable, at least where no foolproof management strategy exists. Such cases demand immediate intervention, whether in the form of board and train or owner relinquishment.

Toxic Environment

When the dynamic between dog and owner has deteriorated due to fear or frustration to the point of being fragile or toxic, or the home environment is not conducive to productive work, removing the dog to a neutral location may be key to breaking behavior cycles and facilitating a fresh start. Dogs often have an easier time accepting new rules or protocols outside familiar contexts, and owners may be more inclined to appreciate their dogs’ efforts and successes following a period of separation.

Urgent Deadline

It can be tempting to disparage owners who only come to grips with the fact their dog is ill-mannered in the face of a looming deadline, like the birth of a child or a move to the city. But they deserve credit for attempting to address the problem before it’s entirely too late, and to the extent it can be with professional support, board and train may represent the most reasonable course of action.

Special Needs

An owner who is compromised due to age, injury, or circumstance, will naturally require extra assistance in raising and training his pet. Likewise, certain dogs require special handling in order to succeed. Board and train may not be able to resolve every conceivable mismatch between dog and owner, but for many it represents the best chance at a good long-term outcome.

 

Real Cases

Below are some examples of real cases in which we either recommended or consented to board and train programs.

Example 1:  1-yr-old Siberian Husky with separation anxiety manifesting in defecation and destructive behavior. His owners were essentially housebound, unable to leave together except during the hours their dog spent at daycare. They had tried crate games, interactive toys, webcams, pheromones, in-home training, and behavior medication. The last straw was having to attend their best friend’s wedding in shifts.

Example 2:  1-yr-old Dogue de Bordeaux with guarding tendencies, unmanageable on leash and living with first-time dog owners in a downtown condo. Owners feared for the safety of visitors, passers-by, and neighbor dogs. Remedial training and socialization was required before the the dog could be handled responsibly at home or in public.

Example 3:  2-yr-old Australian Cattle Dog attacking inanimate objects in and around the converted factory building where he resided. These included door mats, recycling bins, the neighbor’s empty stroller, and every door and gate between their fourth story loft and the property line.

Example 4:  1-yr-old Coonhound raised by experienced dog owners, who had become locked in a bitter and emotional conflict over how to address their dog’s mounting aggression issues. They used the time their dog was in training to reconnect with each other and focus on presenting a united front going forward.

Example 5:  2-yr-old Golden Retriever possessive over toys. He had bitten his owner over a tennis ball, significantly shaking her confidence.

Example 6:  1.5-yr-old littermate Potcakes (Caribbean island dogs) with a history of fear aggression and little positive exposure to children. Owners were expecting their first baby in three months.

Example 7:  1-yr-old Labrador Retriever in need of better leash manners. Owner was busy recovering from the ankle break she’d suffered while walking her.

Example 8:  6-mo-old reactive GSD with visually impaired owner. Puppy was in need of intensive behavior work and remedial exposure to the world outside his house.


Practical and Ethical Considerations

Before booking your first board and train client, there are some practical and ethical questions you ought to consider.

Assessment

The importance of a reliable assessment strategy cannot be overstated. It is critical one knows how to distinguish between solvable and unsolvable problems.

Our assessment begins with an online consultation form, followed by a phone call confirming basic information. We then arrange an in-person interview of between thirty and ninety minutes, either at our facility or in the home. That choice is usually left up to the client, but some cases do call for one or the other. If there are doubts as to how a given dog will respond to the kennel environment or staff, the meeting takes place here. If there is particular concern over the household dynamic, we visit the home.

With both the Siberian Husky and the Dogue de Bordeaux, I insisted on a ninety-minute home visit prior to committing myself (and wound up staying over two hours in both instances). In the first case, this was to better assess the level of separation anxiety, which turned out to be less than one might think based on the history. In the second, it was to confirm the dog posed no discernible threat to either household child. Had my observation of that dynamic turned up red flags, I would have instantly declined the job and pushed for rehoming.

If a dog’s fear of new environments or people presents an obstacle, we might ask the client to attend one or more private lessons at our facility prior to confirming enrollment. We have also required pre-program sessions in cases where client commitment was in doubt.

Remember that saying no is sometimes the best option, even in the face of pressure or at the eleventh hour. One of the sanest decisions I ever made was to refund a client’s deposit on the day she arrived to drop off her Portuguese Water Dog. Over the weeks that had elapsed since the initial consultation, she had failed to supply required veterinary and behavior evaluation forms, and ignored instructions to address her puppy’s poor weight. After she became argumentative, I cut her a check and showed her the door. That puppy would have been a breeze to train, but her owner’s open disregard for our policies and recommendations was ultimately a deal breaker.

Results

In addition to a reliable assessment strategy, one should have a clear vision of the goals you intend to achieve and a solid game plan for how to get there. The ability to set realistic goals and predict likely outcomes is critical to both shaping and meeting client expectations.

If the objective is to prepare the dog for the arrival of a new baby, what specific steps will you take toward that end? What skills will the dog learn, to what degree of reliability, and how will they apply to predictable challenges?

No trainer can guarantee permanent results based on a few weeks of work, much less a mere ten days, but he or she should be able to predict with fair accuracy what may be achieved with a given dog within a given timeframe. In other words, board and train can and should be goal-oriented, while always avoiding pat guarantees.

Suppose we book a recently adopted dog with leash reactivity for our short program (ten days). We can reasonably predict notable improvement in the dog’s leash manners, heightened attention and responsiveness under distraction, and an increased threshold for reaction to triggers, based on the scope of our standard assessment and the results of a hundred prior programs. We may also acclimate the dog to new training aids, and typically conduct a controlled assessment of his or her baseline attitude toward other dogs and capacity for safe off-leash interaction.

In other words, we guarantee to provide significant insight and a foundation on which to build, along with instruction in both general principles and specific techniques. We do not guarantee to “fix the problem.”

As one might guess, a lot rides on the exit and follow up sessions. If highly tailored one-on-one instruction is not your game, you may not want to choose this particular adventure. Either way, there is enormous value in creating and maintaining additional resources, whether in the form of written handouts, a video library, or custom DVD.

Long term results will depend primarily on owner follow through. That said, the trainer has more control over what the dog comes away with in board and train than in other formats. This means greater opportunity exists to build robust behaviors and skills, but also that the trainer may legitimately be held to higher account.

When Training Is the Easy Part

Being a professional trainer does not automatically qualify you to board client pets, particularly ones with behavior problems. Just as serious trainers can resent amateurs claiming pro status without adequate knowledge or experience, licensed kennel operators have been known to voice legitimate concern over trainers taking the board in board and train a bit too lightly.

First, there are legal considerations. Familiarize yourself with local laws. Are you properly licensed and zoned? Do you carry adequate insurance? Training out of one’s home does not relieve one of these or other responsibilities.

Second, there are safety considerations. These include managing flight risk and exposure to household pets or family members, preventing self-injury while confined or isolated, and insuring adequate food and water intake. Some dogs require non-standard enclosures, extra levels of supervision, or extra layers of security. What protocols do you have in place in case of emergency?

For the record, the most disastrous outcomes I’ve experienced first hand had nothing to do with training. One represented a failure at the assessment stage, in so far as critical information regarding a potentially life-threatening medical condition was withheld by the client upon enrollment. That dog, a toy poodle, died on the way to the emergency vet, minutes after suffering a grand mal seizure while sitting in his crate. The other involved underestimating the difficulty in maintaining a labradoodle’s long coat over a three week program. That dog required shaving before returning home, to the utter mortification of his owners, one of whom wept loudly during much of our exit session. This will be referred to at See Spot Run for all eternity as the thousand dollar haircut, as I knocked that amount off his bill in a fit of remorse.

 

Last Words

Board and train is not for every dog, client, or trainer. However, It is a sound option for many, and the only viable answer for a few. Be legal. Be safe. Be honest. Be effective. And be ready to wake up at 4 AM as needed, to let a dog out.

 

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The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers finally released its new position statement on electronic training collars. The announcement was made without fanfare in the latest issue of its online newsletter, which cited the adoption of the new policy during the CCPDT’s May board meeting:

The Board of Directors adopted the Electronic Training Collar position statement presented by the Electronic Training Collar Task Force. This position statement will outline the CCPDT view for the use of electronic training collars in dog training. A formal release of the newly adopted position statement was made at the end of June.

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The new policy statement leads with a nod to tolerance, acknowledging the existence of diverse methods and “certificant profiles”, and flatly stating that electronic collar use is not forbidden.

Conflicting prescriptions follow, however, including the suggestion that negative reinforcement protocols should be exhausted before considering the use of an electronic collar, the chief utility of which may be in applying negative reinforcement specifically.

While I appreciate the CCPDT’s decision not to ban electronic collar use among its certificants, the bulk of their policy statement, titled Electronic Collars and the Humane Hierarchy, seems based on a misunderstanding of where remote collars actually fit within that framework.

 

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Electronic collars are arguably one of the best tools available for administering timely negative reinforcement, yet they are stubbornly treated as a tool of last resort for unstated reasons, as if their application were somehow beyond the pale of either that quadrant of operant conditioning or the associated tier in the Humane Hierarchy.

Why do they merit special consideration, versus other less modern or sophisticated tools meant to do the same? Why should certified trainers, presumably well qualified to make responsible choices, be discouraged from even contemplating their use, while other aversive tools are freely discussed and liberally applied. Why are there no policy statements regarding head halters, no-pull harnesses, or citronella collars?

Was it just politics that drove the formation of the Electronic Training Collar Task Force, or are there magical thinkers within the CCPDT who consider electronic training equipment inherently witchy– a beast that defies logical assessment and whose effects may not conform to natural laws? Either way, the result seems confused.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2014.

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As you might imagine, dog trainers are not known for their love of humanity.

They love dogs, or even animals generally. They love the challenge. They love the craft. But they do not necessarily love you, the client. And if it helps at all, they don’t love each other any better.

Add to this a decade of dog training “reality” shows that tend to mislead the general public as to what it is we really do, how long it really takes, and what the result should finally look like.

Should it come as any surprise to us when a client confidently orders up a side of spaghetti with her risotto? [Yes, another cooking analogy.]

Still, dog trainers stew endlessly over having to cope with such random and occasionally distasteful expectations, and frequently suffer offense when our labor or advice goes unappreciated. Meanwhile, our clients wind up feeling underserved or disappointed, because at the end of the day, either their personal wishes were not honored or their needs were simply not met.

Recently, a question was raised on several trainer lists regarding the ethics of squaring a client’s perceived needs with what the trainer deems appropriate to offer, including whether it’s somehow harmful to our profession to discount our usual services in order to meet a client’s stated budget.

Various strategies for resolving this conflict were offered up, some of which will appear in an upcoming feature on Professional Ethics in the APDT Chronicle (part 4 of series by Marjie Alonso).

The discussion brought to mind what an architect client once told me. In his negotiations with clients, he explains that every project has three major variables. These are cost, quality, and scope. He then explains that one may control any two of those, as long as one sacrifices control over the third.

This encourages an honest and practical discussion of priorities, as you can imagine. And of course, the architect reserves the right to pass on any job that offends his personal sensibilities.

I think in an ideal world, a trainer’s negotiations with his clients would run along similar lines. There would be transparency regarding different options, and the opportunity to engage in a frank discussion of priorities and costs.

Maybe we end up substituting crab for lobster or serving up a smaller portion; maybe we convince the client to splurge after pointing his attention to the bliss being enjoyed at surrounding tables; maybe we even pour a free cocktail to make up for not serving the Cesar salad.

And if despite our best efforts to cajole or educate, the client insists on a side of french fries and a bottle of ketchup with his seafood risotto, we can always send him along to the nearest MacDonalds.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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