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.
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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.