Training Clients:  Helping Dog Training Clients Learn to Train

This discussion is a continuation of my previous article on how to improve group classes.  In addition to re-thinking group class formats, I also feel we need to put more time and attention into helping our human clients learn how to train.  So, once again, what can we do about these issues?

I still feel that we’re very good about breaking down behaviors down for dogs, but we fail to do the same for humans; we forget that owners do not have good training chops.  It’s our job to help them.

Some behavioral problems are overwhelming to clients, and I feel we need to break the problem down into manageable segments.  Let’s take jumping up as an example.  There are a variety of problems with teaching a dog not to jump:  owners oftentimes actually like and encourage the behavior; owners are often preoccupied and unaware of the behavior; some dogs are not that obnoxious, and therefore not that noticeable; some dogs are so bad that the project is simply too overwhelming for the owner and they have a hard time getting started.  Most importantly, though – owners don’t have theory!  They can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, as we do.

I’ll use this as  one example of a way we can break a problem behavior down to make it easier for the owner.  In group classes, I have a no-dog orientation, and one of their homework assignments is to work one aspect of jumping up – usually the one I’m about to cite.  I have them tell me the worst time for jumping, and we go through each individual’s situation and address the logistical issues. As trainers, we pretty much know when dogs are going to jump up – inevitably, when people first enter the house.  If we take the jumping up behavior and break it down for the owner, it’s much easier for them to deal with.

I talk to my clients about their actual routine when coming home from work – what the physical setup is like, what they are wearing and what they have with them (i.e., children, groceries, etc.).  I have them keep treats in the car or by the entry door; if they wear good work clothes, I have them get a smock to keep in the car; if they have groceries or children, I have them leave them in the car until they’ve worked with the dog; etc.  Then I tell them exactly what to do.  Once they have this situation mastered, they can then move to another.

By approaching the problem in this manner, we’ve taken an overwhelming situation and broken it down to a manageable task.  By doing this, we set the client up for success – when they see that this works, they are encouraged to move to the next task.  In addition, the dog is getting the basics of a new behavior which the owner can then generalize quickly to other situations.

This is an example of breaking a problem behavior down – we still need to help the owners with obedience training!  A tool I think we overlook is giving both the dog and trainer a head start by actually training the dog for them.  This is particularly easy to do in a private session – a little harder in group class, but still doable.  Many trainers – particularly positive reinforcement trainers – have adopted the attitude that owners should train their own dogs in order to develop a “bond” with the dog.  However, we never consider what might happen if the training is so frustrating that the owner gets discouraged!  Does this help or harm the “bond?”  I personally feel that training is not necessary for developing a bond – I think enjoying each other’s’ company is more likely to develop a good bond.  We give the training a little boost, then the owner takes over and has fun training their dog because they are successful, which thus strengthens the bond.

Finally, I let my clients train my dog before training their own dog.  I want them to know what it feels like when the behavior happens as it should.  I feel that this is a very helpful technique for the owner.  They now know what they are aiming at and because they know what the behavior is, when they get it with their dog, they are more likely to reward the behavior.  We forget that owners have no specific knowledge of what they want – they have a general vision.  They know they want their dog not to jump or pull on leash.  They know they want a well-behaved dog.  But they don’t know the specifics of what that means.  If we can give them a little taste of what they’re going for, then they will recognize it when it happens.

If we think about it, we’re asking way more of owners than we would ask of an apprentice!  We wouldn’t expect someone brand new to the training field to begin on wild and crazy dogs with no theory under their belt. We give them the theory and we walk them through the training, step-by-step.  If a dog is too difficult, we start them on an easier dog.  And these are people who want to do this!

These are just my thoughts on training clients, and I know the longer I’m in this business, the more thoughts and ideas I’ll have on the topic of client relations; not only do I see training clients as my job (versus training dogs), but that’s the part I most enjoy and want to be successful at.  Another thing I know is that the readers of this article have many creative thoughts on this subject that need to be shared, as well.

Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.