Sunday, October 24, 2010

Undertones of "I can't afford a trainer"

Lately, many instances have occurred where the bottom line is a potential client feels they cannot afford a trainer. Their dog is out of line, their lives are disrupted and yet paying for knowledge seems to be difficult to fit into the budget. This makes me wonder what the dog is being fed, how they are being cared for, do they go to regular veterinary appointments and do they have the proper equipment, mentally stimulating toys, outings and more.

All this costs money and educating oneself, and providing education for the dog is these days no exception. In fact, it is simply a paying for knowledge and that can change lives.

What I hear when someone says "I can't afford a trainer," after they have called and clearly wished to have free advice is "I want free advice", "I don't value your expertise enough", "I won't follow through anyway", "my dog is not worth it" or "it is really true, you can't afford it". If that is true what else is being sacrificed in the name of dollars for the dog. If reading this, I am sure the same concerns may have cropped up from time to time.

Giving away free advice, free techniques may be a part of our job at times, but with serious cases there is a need for much more. It takes analysis, assessment, developing a road map, a plan and it takes follow through from owners. No amount of free email advice, or phone chit chats take the place of visual education and paying for a knowledgeable behavior trainer. It can be life changing for the dog and owner, not to mention the whole family.

In reality, really good behavior trainers will work out a plan that won't break the bank. They will make sure the issues are addressed and provide written documentation. They are worth every penny spent. The reality is a challenging dog isn't just going to get better and the future might hold rehoming or even euthansia. Knowledge, spending a few dollars can avoid this most of the time.

As a veterinarian can save a life, this is true also of a good behaviorist, and behavior trainer. It is well worth it. It is a process. It brings results. It should be a part of owning a dog. Classes, private instruction and serious instruction and behavior modification for challenges that crop up during the life of the dog is a part of responsible dog ownership. The challenges will most often not just go away, a behavior trainer should not be put into a position where they experience guilt from a client who can't pay for the knowledge the trainer developed over years and years of exhausting learning and experience. Yet, this is the reality in a day in the life of a behavior trainer. It is a reality in this economy. Since it is, it is important to develop clear policies and guidelines, to offer articles and affordable alternatives, and even a pro bono program, say one pro bono client per year through an application process or intense need acknowledgement.

What should be asked instead before calling a trainer is "can I afford not to", "what alternatives do I have", "will the behavior trainer work within my budget" and "is the behavior challenging enough where liability could result in negative outcomes". A dog brings responsibility and each is a unique individual with unique needs. Getting the expertise of someone who does this for a living should be dollars well spent especially if it helps the dog on the road to rehabilitation.

The behavior trainer can use phrases like "here's an example of what we need to do next (i.e. send an intake form, reactivity screen)" "here are dates available to schedule an assessment" etc. This gets everyone on the right track. Usually the first assessment will be the most expensive and then per session, hourly or more would kick in. As client dog's progress there is often a progression fee, meaning a lowering of the fee as the risk is diminished, the dog progresses and the owner works hard at the process.

Talking the business end out is really where solutions can be created. Always a better alternative then guessing about what should be done and then seeing things go terribly wrong quickly.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Aggressive standard poodle meet clueless walker

Just minding our own business training aggressive standard poodle that seeing dogs passing by from inside the car is no big deal. Our method of choice this day is using a clicker to click and treat for calm. All is going spectacularly well, as this dog's humans light bulb brightens and they implement the technique perfectly ...... until.....

The big yellow lab taking it's male owner for a walk shows up. No barking or aggressing as this pair are only 10 feet from the vehicle when it is very apparent the male is going to allow his dog to "SAY HI" to the doggy in the car. Are you kidding me?

I politely ask and start waving my arms, "please move on, we are training here". The male gives me a clueless look, ok, maybe it was a more questioning look. And then it happens....

Calm poodle aggresses full blast. She was not ready for an up close and personal encounter of the yellow lab type. Remaining calm I split between poodle and lab and told the owner politely the poodle was in training and we were keeping dogs at a distance for now. He moved on but hung around while we continued our training across the street. Several times I saw him pet and tell his dog "It's okay." Luckily, this was the only incident of the session and still....

I always wonder why pet owners truly believe their dogs can meet any other dog.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Reward for good behavior

Positive training protocol using +R (positive reinforcement) and -P (taking away from punishment, such as social or reward) quandrants means training by rewarding good behavior and redirecting or ignoring bad behavior. In the life of a behavior trainer, this is one of the hardest concepts for the human end of the leash to grasp. The alternative is to punish the bad behavior -R by adding painful equipment, harsh voice tones and creating a confrontational environment or +P (adding to the punishment). What I recommend and use myself in training my own dogs is using a clicker or a happy voice marker to mark good behavior. I use +R and -P.

Bad behavior will occur but it is how it is responded to that means the difference between extinguishing the behavior for a moment or for a lifetime. Punishing the bad behavior may stop it in the moment, but will have fallout and often the behavior wasn't addressed so it reappears. By redirecting or ignoring, and rewarding for good behavior you are creating lifelong results.

If I see a puppy or dog chewing on a sock or shoe or other item they should not have, I first remain calm. I find something the dog absolutely loves, like a ball, a frisbee, a filled kong, or even a bit of chicken or liver, and show it to them. At this point the dog will eagerly come to get the proper item to chew or look up from what they are doing.

If they move away from the item, I would use a marker word such as YES! or GOOD! or if I have my clicker, I would click for the right behavior moving away from the item. They would then receive a better reward and I would retrieve the forbidden item and put it up.

If they just looked up from the item, I would go into game mode and toss a handful of treat either up and to the right or to the back of the dog. As they run to get the tasty treat, I would simply pick up and put away the item. Once they come back to me I would click and give a proper chewie or acceptable bone.

To add to the above, looking for the dog to look at and move away from items would receive high rewards, therefore rewarding for good behavior. This makes the behavior strong and the dog simply knows which items to leave and which are theirs to chew. Teaching positive impulse control, attention, recalls, and other skills are done in the same way.

Yet, it is seemingly hard, and one of the hardest things to teach clients many of whom are so attached to dishing out punishment. Many still insist on getting a tug on the leash in, or a loud NO! or STOP IT! or rush forward to grab the dog or puppy by the collar. It is human nature. Rewarding doesn't always come so easy when the focus is on "what is that dog doing now?"

What is the hardest skill to train that you've found? Answer as either as a client or a trainer and please embellish on the why.