The dog training world is, to say it bluntly, a shit show. There’s a gigantic over saturation of information and the worst part is most of it conflicts with each other. One of the most frustrating things I experienced in my life was when I was first starting to study dog behaviour and the articles that I read online would always have something to say about another article that was writing online. You just finished Article A and moved on to Article B, but Article B is all about how Article A is garbage. Then you’d shake it off and read article C to learn that A and B were garbage.
What the hell!?
The truth is, because dog training is unregulated, people of any experience level can hang a shingle, print a business card and call themselves a dog trainer. There’s nothing wrong with being a dog trainer though and I’ve even found myself growing a bias for people who call themselves “behaviorists” despite the fact that I know great dogmen and women who call themselves behaviorists.
I’ve walked through the coals and burned my feet, so I know how you’re feeling when it comes to this. So where do you take your information? How do you know who is right and who is wrong? How do you know what you should listen to and what you should abandon?
Take EVERYTHING With A Grain of Salt
Don’t believe anything anybody says ever. Well, don’t do it blindly. If someone tells you something, look into it. I started doing this every time someone shared a stupid news story on Facebook. You would be surprised how much of what is shared on social media is BS (except this blog… right?).
Listen, everybody is going to tell you what has worked for the 5 dogs they’ve had in their lifetime and they might be right. I can tell you I hear more crap than I do truth on a daily basis from most dog people so it can be hard to find reliable information.
I recommend you put on a critical thinking cap whenever you read information about dogs. Much of what you deem “right or wrong” will depend on your view of dogs. For example, if you believe in the dominance model of dog training, information will be filtered through that belief. If you believe as I do where I think most dogs are willing to give us what we want if we earn it from them, that will affect your filter as well. Be aware of your biases and try not to dismiss information until you’ve closely examined it and made sure there’s nothing you can take from it to apply on your own journey.
Hire a Professional/Get a Mentor
I fell short on this in my career until only recently when I’ve started talking and discussing some of my struggles with people who have been there and done that in the industry. If you have a problem dog that you can’t seem to get a handle on (regardless of how many dogs you’ve had in your life… put your ego aside for the dog’s sake please), hire a professional or find a mentor who shares your ideals about dogs. Don’t settle for someone who is ready to tell you all the ways you see dogs are wrong. There’s different viewpoints from every professional out there and as much as some trainers hate hearing me say this… dog training is as much an art as it is a science.
Smart people learn from their mistakes, but successful people learn from the mistakes of others so they don’t need to make them.
Hiring a Professional Part 2—The Specialty
Be aware of what the trainer or mentor you’re hiring is good at. My specialty is aggression, anxiety and hyperactivity. You could broaden that to “pet dogs” which means if you want to learn the finer points of agility, fly ball or conformation obedience I’m not the trainer you want to hire. I’m the guy you hire to get your dog to stop biting grandma and molesting your guests, not the dude you want to hire for a 200 score on the field.
Everybody has a bread and butter aspect of dogs that they are amazing at, so make sure you hire a trainer that is good at those things. Don’t go to an agility or fly ball trainer to learn how to solve behaviour issues and don’t come to me if you want to lower your time around the agility ring.
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Study, test, evaluate, decide
There’s been loads of things that I have read or studied that have been way out on a limb for me, but I did it because every little bit of information I gain means a smaller percentage of dogs slip through my fingers and don’t see improvement. Of course, I have my 80% techniques that I use on all dogs, but I also have a small selection of 20% techniques that might only see a few dogs, but when I pull them out and they work I’m very happy I learned about them.
When learning things online or in print, make sure you follow the process outlined above. Don’t just read about it and make opinions about what you read… test it and see. Which leads me into my final point.
Listen to the damn dog!
I’m so sick and tired of people relying on “What dogs do” and “what science says” as a barometer for success of techniques, methods or approaches. What is your dog telling you? I make micro adjustments to all of my approaches depending on the dog I’m working with. If you get three or four of my clients in a room, you might be surprised to hear them all tell you that I’ve told them all different things. Why? Because that’s the dog they have and the information they required.
The pressure that I use, the techniques that I apply, if I use food or not, if I use punishment or not, am I firm or encouraging in my voice… all things that change from dog to dog.
So the ultimate barometer of what works and what doesn’t is your dog… not studies, not what dogs to do to each other, not what other trainers THINK is best but what YOUR DOG thinks is best and what he tells you he understands and gets.
Don’t get discouraged with your research either because at some point, just like I did, you’re going to find something that ties it all together. In the mean time, your job is to keep turning rocks!