The Communicative Approach to Training Theory for dogs is not a specific method. As I have stated throughout, clearly I hope, it is more concerned with augmenting and improving any method that you may choose to follow with your dog. It is primarily a thought process that helps you build a relationship with your dog. It will help you to get into your dogs head, and heart, and he into yours. We were meant to work together with dogs, and the possibilities are limited only by your willingness to learn, and share the opportunities with the grandest member of the animal kingdom, your dog. That belief on my part, leads to the writing of this chapter. It seems fitting to address both trainers and trainees regarding “how” to work together to benefit all involved. It is my sincere wish that not a few professional trainers will adopt at least some of my thinking with the Communicative Approach, and apply it in their own program. Let’s start there, addressing Trainers.
For The Trainers.
No matter what type of method you prefer, it should be your foremost goal to help people and their dogs share fulfilling lives together. Whether they desire a well-behaved pet, an agility champion, a schutzhund qualifier, or any of the other dog sport disciplines, you have an opportunity. For what? To build an emotionally fulfilled, mentally, and physically healthy companion.
The state of the dog training industry today often makes this goal difficult to achieve. Yes, I understand that this is a job, a way to make a living for many of us. I’m all for it, as I am in the same boat as you. I have a strong desire to eat, every day, and eat as well as possible. That requires that I make money, training dogs. However, the question that I was forced to reckon with became, “Do I want to train dogs for people, or with people?”
The Communicative Approach to Training Theory for dogs, is about people. The dogs benefit fully from it, but it is about the opposite end of the leash. As trainers, we should be most interested in teaching our clients to understand their dog from the “leadership” quadrant, to borrow the parlance of Operant Conditioning. It is now quite common for trainers to set up their practice based on a “Board and Train” scenario. The owner drops off the dog, and the facility isolates them in their kennel for up to 5 weeks, with twice daily 20 minute training episodes, and twice daily potty breaks. It adds up to less than an hour per day for the dog. Usually, the trainer is charging a package price for various levels of training, and they charge in the range of $250.00 to $1000.00 per week. Not a bad situation for the trainer. When the dogs’ owner/steward/parent returns at the end of the time allotted/contracted, they usually have a dog that 1) Sits 2) Stays 3) Does “Place” 4) “Comes to…” and 5) performs “Down”. Well and good. The owner will receive an hour or so watching the trainer put the dog thru its’ paces as he or she taught it, and may even be handed the leash themselves to clumsily imitate the routine. They will then happily take their beloved dog home and watch the training deteriorate slowly, as the training is only perfunctorily maintained by the owner. Six weeks later, they will call the training facility, stating that the dog needs to have the trainer “refresh” the dogs training. Not a bad scam for the trainers bank account. Planned Maintenance. Like needing a new set of tires for the car every 6 weeks. Professional Trainers, We Can Do Better.
Our training programs should always involve people. You will still be able to make the living wage that you need, and I support you fully. I’m doing the same thing. But the “product” that of a much higher quality, and sustainable for the now “trained” human component of every team. Rather than needing “maintenance” on eroding skills, our customers and their dogs will be encouraged to move into different advanced and varied types of training at our facilities. Repeat customers. The backbone of any business.
Most of the dog-centric sports today are noticing a rapid aging of the participants at their events. Young people are not becoming involved, due to a number of factors. Chief among them is a lack of encouraging mentorship from the elders among us.
Yes, I know that there are many other factors, but lets’ address mentorship for now.
If a trainer takes people under their wing with their dog, you create an atmosphere that says, “You can do this! And there’s a lot of fun to be had!” Too many in the “industry” of dog training, much prefer to keep our knowledge to ourselves, wanting the client to be dependant on our expertise. Others will opine that an individual needs a university level education to work with dogs in any meaningful way. Horse hockey. I’ve written this already, but I’ll write it again: We’re not training for a space flight to Alpha Centauri here folks, and secrecy is not necessary to protect the mission! If you claim to have the answer to dog training for all people and dogs, sharing your wealth of knowledge will only help them to keep their dogs happy and out of shelters!!!
Make yourself available to the willing, and train them as welcome partners. Not only will this NOT damage your business, your attitude might well keep them coming back, firm in the knowledge that you are interested in them, and their success!
In case you are wondering, yes, I have worked in “board & train” facilities. My opinion of them was formed over several years of observation and participation. I have literally begged clients to be a part of the dogs training sessions, to learn with them, and to carefully develop the relationship of a leader and a follower. Not with myself being their dogs leader, but with themselves as leader. My practice now does not allow any dog to be trained by me alone, but always in conjunction with the human paying the bill, and taking the dog into their family. It’s just a better way to train.
As the professional, this will make changes necessary for some of you. But those changes are for the good. It is truly unfortunate how many trainers I have heard and read saying, “I don’t really want to work with people. Just let me work with their dog alone.”
Sad words indeed. You are performing a public service for people, not dogs. When dog owners develop the skills and the mind-set to improve their dogs’ life, everybody wins. You, as the professional, can be the catalyst to something better.
This type of training protocol will make changes necessary. No longer will you be able to limit your training program to Sit, Stay, Down, Place, and Come. After your client and their dog have mastered these foundation skills, you will need to offer more, if you want repeat business. (which you do) There are many other skills that you can learn and teach. Scent Work games, Agility, Advanced Obedience, Schutzhund or one of several other protection sports, Trieball, Barn-hunt, Fly-ball, dock-diving, Obstacle Racing, Search & Rescue, Canine Good Citizen levels, therapy dogs, Reading dog programs, PTSD dogs, Comfort dogs, and other activities that I may be overlooking. Diversify yourself, offer more, and enjoy your profession more. That last sentence brings something to mind, which I want to expand on. A benefit that you may not recognize.
On a regular basis, I talk to fellow trainers that express that they are feeling “burned out” as trainers. This is owing to several influences, such as long-hours, uninvolved clients, complaining clients, clients that refuse to continue re-enforcing your training, and a thousand other reasons. Dog Training can indeed become a “job”. Real life, get-up-in-the-bleary-dawn, get me another cup of coffee immediately, Thank God it’s Friday, “work”. (What dog-trainer gets Saturday off?) When you can offer other types of training, your own enthusiasm will grow. You’ll attract the type of clients that “want” to be involved in the program, and positive things happen. You may have less time for a high volume of borderline students, but you will enjoy having a smaller number of students that want to come to you. They will spend more for your services, and life-long customers are developed.
The Communicative Approach to Training Theory for Dogs relies almost exclusively on the humans involved. Is it more work? In some ways. Is it more satisfying? I can tell you, without reservation, absolutely! My personal clientele pool has become a smaller, but more motivated group. We have developed close personal ties, the dogs are better trained and sustained, and any problems or concerns that develop are quickly and easily addressed and corrected. It’s a better way to work.
For The Trainees
You have decided to hire a professional trainer for your dog. Congratulations! Are you ready to do your part? As you may have already gathered, my first advice is this: Don’t drop your dog off at the training facility, write a check, and drive away. Don’t leave your dog alone with a total stranger for 2 weeks or more, no matter how beautiful the facility may be, and return hoping for a well-trained, perfectly behaved dog. That’s similar to leaving your child with a religious cult for 6 months and hoping to welcome home a balanced, contributor to society. Within the influence of either, the individual might be disposed to “proper” behavior, but the training requires the Teacher’s continued influence. You are not part of the students influence.
There. I’ve just made an entire part of the dog training industry throw this book across the room.
I’m not sorry though. My experience has shown me that I’m absolutely correct in my conclusion that you, as the dogs’ owner/keeper/handler/steward must be heavily involved in the development of your dog. Anything less, is a disservice to your dog.
The problem that has developed though, is a reflection of the society in which we live. We have become an “instant gratification, do-it-for-me” society. ” I can’t be bothered to earn anything with hard work and effort, and I have a right to whatever I want, and right now.” We will be far better off when we realize that this attitude is not sustainable in the long-term. We ultimately become so self-absorbed that happiness, or the possibility of happiness, is an unreachable goal.
Training requires patience, perseverance, and a well-thought out plan. Farmers cannot just find a plot of empty land, throw out a few hand-full’s of seed and hope for a successful crop. There is much work to be done before a harvest is reaped. Soil testing, replenishment, watering, tilling, and plowing. Followed by proper planting, weeding, and protection of the immature plants. Farmers are the most patient of people. Farmers tend to be humble, because they work with what may be the most humbling of situations. The natural world of creation. And that, is exactly what we are dealing with here with our dogs. The natural world, created by a loving God, to enhance our human existence. We can hardly control the weather, or the soil of the earth, and they have no consciousness. Dogs, even though created for us, have a living and vibrant mind with emotion and consciousness. They need our leadership, and our compassion in equal measure. They will never be able to thrive in a system that requires everything now, everything ideal, and without our personal, human responsibility. And neither will we…
So, how should you work with your trainer?
The responsibility is on you. First, you must ask questions. Probing questions. Before you commit to any program. Questions like:
* Do you intend to allow me at every training session with my dog?
* Do you practice one, singular approach to training?
* Do you understand multiple methods of training?
* How will you determine the best method for my individual dog?
* Will I be holding the leash during training?
* Will you allow me to see and observe your personal dogs in action and at leisure?
Those six questions will tell you a lot about the trainer. They are not the only possible questions, which means that you must listen intently to his or her answers. The Trainer works for you. Hire them accordingly. Many trainers proceed with the incorrect notion that since they are the expert, you work for them.
If the trainer wants to keep the dog for several days, or even weeks, for training separated from you, this is not what you want. You and your dog need each other in order to properly form as a team, or a family. Do not separate yourself from the training process. I know, you are a busy person, and taking time out of your schedule to train your dog is difficult. If that’s the case, please, raise chia pets. Your dog needs you.
If your trainer states that they are a Purely Positive Only practitioner, or use only the “latest, proven, scientifically supported method,” run away. This generally means that leadership, discipline, and structure are not part of their program. They will not use anything they believe to be “aversive”. In other words, wrong behaviors will not be disciplined, but will simply be ignored. On the other hand, if your trainer claims that “Dominance” theory is their chosen method, you should also leave that facility. These trainers leave “relationship” at the bottom of their priorities, to the dogs detriment. Even if a trainer espouses a “Balanced” training protocol, you still have questions to ask, because this can mean different things to different trainers, including, “I don’t really know what I’m going to try, we’ll just have to wing it…” Remember, good trainers have a plan. Great trainers have multiple plans. One for every individual dog, and the owner. The best trainers learn to “think on their feet”, to adapt quickly, and follow through. It’s a skill that takes instinct, and practice. The best trainers are not necessarily the oldest, or even the most experienced. Certificates of Achievement from Trainers schools also do not guarantee competency either. Degrees that supply an alphabet soup of letters to your name on a business card or diploma, can also be deceiving. You do yourself and your dog a huge favor by getting to know your prospective trainer personally, being brutally honest about your own skill-set and experience, specific about your goals with your dog, and using your instinct. You size up people every day at work, church, out in public, and everywhere else. Trust those instincts, they probably serve you well. If a trainer doesn’t strike you as compatible, move on.
Okay, so you’ve found a trainer that you feel good about, and even trust. How can you make the relationship fruitful and rewarding? I’ll assume that you have asked the questions, listened to the answers, and formed a positive opinion already. It’s time for your first training session. What now?
Lets’ start simple and obvious. Show up on time. Not 20 minutes early, as the trainer may have a student ahead of you, and they deserve his full attention. They might be in a good rhythm in the lesson and you interrupt it, in your enthusiasm. Trainers get peeved over this type of behavior. Conversely, don’t show up 15 minutes late and expect to get your full lesson, because he or she may have another client immediately following you. As with all things “dog-training”, timing is everything. Do your part in keeping on time courteously.
Another thing about time is this: Unless invited, don’t hang around the training site after your session is ended, hoping to soak up some free lessons on the back of another client. Chances are, your dog is in a different place in training, and the lesson ongoing may not apply to you. If the trainer offers you the chance, do take advantage of it, but be a courteous observer.
Show up to your lessons prepared, physically and mentally. Have the equipment that you need in hand and organized. Depending on the trainer and the program, this may include your leash, different collars, treats, treat container, certain toys, whatever you need. Proper shoes are always important. Having had a client show up in 4 inch heels, I cannot emphasize the subject of footwear enough. That’s a story I am trying to forget, so I won’t dignify it by recounting it here. Proper shoes, stable, non-slip, comfortable. Don’t show up in sandals either. A dogs foot stomping on your open toes will cause pain that you just can’t describe in polite language.
Which leads me to a subject that has become an epidemic. Leave Your Cell device somewhere out of reach, with the sound turned off. This is DOG TIME, not conversation with your human BFF time. There is NO need to take selfies or video while your lesson is happening. In fact, it should be forbidden. Many trainers actually videotape our lessons anyway, for reference and training, so you needn’t do it yourself. As I’ve stated before, training your dog is “Both Hands, All In” time. Please do your part! I have imagined a modern-day superhero named “Slamming-Man” who walks the streets of an unnamed metropolis looking for loud, rude, and inappropriate users of cell devices. When he encounters one, he approaches quickly, grabs the device, and slams against the near concrete surface. I am only a few experiences from becoming that super-hero myself…
As you work with your trainer, follow instructions closely. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be able to ask questions at the end of your session. Ideally, each session will conclude with a debriefing together, and questions should be welcomed, and discussed. As a trainer, I also feel the importance of handouts that every student can take home to read and review. If a lesson goes somewhat astray of something I’ve published before, due to unique needs, we’ll take the time to take a few notes to make sure that the client is clearly understanding everything discussed.
Cooperation and team work are vital in the trainer/student/dog relationship, and these suggestions only scratch the surface of ways for all three to get along well. The “Golden Rule” covers it well: Do Unto Others, as You Would Have Done To You. If you are hiring a Trainer, treat them as a “Professional”, just as you would like to be treated in your own profession. Most of us have worked hard, paid for continuing education, built business, and sacrificed to do what we love. Showing dignity to others is difficult for many today in the “Me First” culture. This is both sad and unfortunate, but definitely a sign of our divided culture of “us” and “them”. Your dog trainer will put forth their best effort when you treat them with respect.
Conversely, if your dog trainer treats you like you’re an idiot, then they are guilty of the same sin. He or she should always strive to help you understand what they are teaching and demonstrating, and do so with respect and dignity. With that thought, I wish everyone success in your efforts and a happy life with your dog.