Is Your Dog Trainer a Hack?
Okay okay okay. Take it easy. I'm not here to put dog trainers on blast. I do want to make the distinction between two types of dog trainers you might be presented with during your training and behavior shaping adventures with your dog. Let's get into it.
Among dog training professionals, a "hack" is a dog trainer who tackles undesirable canine behaviors in a random or as-needed way. There will be little control exerted over the multitude of variables at work in any context. The "hack" will pay no mind to the extra body in the room on the second session of training for a dog who resource guards the food bowl, for example. When working a "no-bark" protocol, the hack will likely treat all barks, no matter what is stimulating the barking, as equal.
The results as far as the dog involved in the training is concerned will be unreliable. The dog will appear to simply have "good days" and "bad days", and chances are that by the end of the training block the dog parents, delighted with some progress will be left to bring the work to completion. Unfortunately, because their learning and protocol execution mirrors that of the hack, the training will continue to be unsystematic and, in many ways, unreliable.
The Systematic Dog Trainer
When working with a systematic dog trainer, each step in the training process, no matter the behavior at issue, will be addressed with tremendous detail. Let's use leash reactivity as an example here. The systematic dog trainer will factor in any number of criteria through which the reactive response will be addressed and then adjust those criteria accordingly. These criteria often involve questions of distance, approach, duration, and warm up (or cold trialing). The systematic dog trainer will take the time, no matter how clunky the process, to chart the work being done. In terms of the dog component in this training partnership the results are reliable, long-lasting, and perhaps most importantly, can be reasonably replicated by the dog's owner (provided, of course, they're a willing, active, and motivated participant. Sadly, and much to the dismay of many of us in the industry, this is not always the case).
Depending on what you're working through with your dog, the hack trainer may be just what's required. The differences illuminated in this blog are not meant as a value judgement. They are intended to help you decide the kind of dog trainer you need depending on the behaviors needing address with the pup in your care. Where those behaviors are somewhat complex, potentially dangerous (to you, to others, or to the dog itself), the systematic trainer is going to be what you need to get the work done well. If, on the other hand, you're simply hoping for someone to show you how to teach your dog basic, one- or two-step tricks, the hack trainer can get the job done.
Don't be afraid to ask your trainer what kind of methods they employ in the work they do from day-to-day, and where there prior experience lies. It is likely to get you to where to want to be with your dog more quickly and with greater ease than simply taking your best guess.
I Am Not A Mechanic
It's rare, but it happens. Every once in awhile I meet a puppy or dog parent who believes I am there to "fix" their dog. The behaviors requiring address may be as simple as puppy teething and chewing, or as complicated as human-reactivity/aggression, and the dog owner is eagerly anticipating the moment that these behaviors evaporate... With little to no effort of their own.
Most recently this occurred to me with a young woman here in Toronto and her heeler puppy-mix. When she realized that more than two or three minutes of practice was required to help this puppy mature into a calm, controlled, well adjusted adult, her generally kind demeanor turned to one of anger, ire, frustration, and verbal abuse. She felt comfortable enough, on her home turf, to hurl that aggression at both me and her puppy, escalating with each lesson.
Against my better judgement, I persevered with her and that darling dog, focused on ensuring that the puppy at least get a minimum of training experience during our time together. No matter how many times I pivoted in our protocol to address the client's constant negativity and "He can't do it" attitude, no matter how many options were provided, and no mater how positive I tried to remain during the process, there was no change in the client.
The reason for this is pretty straightforward. The client, in her way, believes that dogs are like machines - when something doesn't work right you take the machine in to get the part fixed or replaced. And that people employed as dog training professionals operate like a car mechanic would with a broken down car.
I'm here to tell you that this is a grave mistake that can cost your dog his life, and not for the reasons you might think.
Puppies and dogs brains develop much like ours in the very early stages of life. What dogs lack (and we enjoy) is primarily the formation of a pre-frontal cortex, responsible for higher learning and reasoning, critical thinking, language comprehension, and the nuances of complex emotional states. The canine brain is a truncated version of our own mammalian brain, with many of the same systems in place: the amygdala, basal ganglia, parietal lobe, etc. This is important to understand because it means that each dog requires treatment as an entity separate from the rest.
In short, what works for some won't work for others. This requires the ability of the humans involved in the care of the dog to be able to modify training protocols and approaches, to stay flexible and pivot to new and different approaches when things fail, and to stick with protocols that take awhile to work until they stick. Like everything else, the timeline of learning for our dogs is variable and dependent on things like context, environment, training partner, neonatal experiences, experiences with the mother dog and in the original home.
That doesn't, however, mean that we should paint our dogs with the brushes of their past experiences indefinitely. Awareness of them and the possible limitations they may impart to the dog in the short to mid-term, is important. But even more important is that we move on from those early life experiences and provide mindful, carefully planned experiences and interactions going forward.
When training finished with the aforementioned client and I made my conclusions on the prognosis of the puppy's success and what required address in her behavior in order to achieve the behavior she wanted from her puppy, she opted to attack me publicly with a "review" on my Google business page. Unsurprisingly, her review made non-factual claims about my final correspondence with her regarding her puppy and her own behavior towards myself and the little one. This final aggressive attack, undertaken from behind the safety of her computer screen, was one I thoroughly anticipated well in advance.
You might wonder why I bothered to send her my conclusions on our time working together and honest notes about what had to change in her behavior in order for her dog grow up to be a successful member of the canine community here in Toronto. Particularly if I knew in advance what her response would entail.
The answer lies in the single fundamental reason I do this work for clients across the GTA.
My primary function as a canine training and behavior professional is to ensure a long life in the original home of the dog by modifying the behavior of the human training partner (dog/puppy parent) to address the needs of both individuals.
This is the ethical imperative I adhere to as a requirement of my certification, and is a reflection of my lengthy experience working with dog/human pairs of all ages, backgrounds, and breeds. If the human counterpart of the dog/human training cannot or will not modify their behavior to meet the needs of their dog, the training protocols we work on together essentially fly out the veritable window the minute I walk out the door. One hour a week is simply not enough time to make a lasting impression on ANY dog. The human counterpart of the training pair MUST pick up the torch and run with it to ensure the long life and success of the dog in their care.
I'm not doing this difficult, compassionate work to kiss ass, equivocate, or excuse poor human behavior. I do it to save dogs lives. That isn't ever going to change. As the scientific and force-free training community grows in experience and confidence in the years and decades ahead, this ethical mandate amongst animal behavior professionals won't remain the exception to the rule.
It will be the rule.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.