So there you are…you are standing in your living room amidst the remains of your couch, now reduced to upholstery fabric and foam (is this really what they make these out of? You expected something a little more substantial, given the sum of money you are still paying to that trendy furniture showplace downtown–no payments for the first six months!) Fergus, your prize Sherpa Double Doodle that cost you more than you paid for that couch, is looking innocently up at you from the scattered tumbleweeds of fiberfill. “That’s it! Fergus, you are going to a dog trainer!”
So what should you know about dog trainers? How do you talk to them? Not all dog trainers are created equal. Some have eons of experience, while others do this as a hobby for the neighbor’s dog. Some have certifications, accreditations, memberships, etc. Some believe in all positive training methods, while others believe that the shock collar is the only way to go. Obviously, as a Karen Pryor Academy graduate (that’s the KPA CTP on my name), I’m going to hope that you go with a good dog-friendly trainer. There are plenty of good articles on how to find a dog trainer, so I’m not going to dwell on that here, except to suggest that you do your research and find a trainer that you are comfortable with.
When you make that first phone call, be reasonable! Dog trainers are, on the whole, very busy people. Most keep odd hours and are not necessarily available to drop everything to answer the phone right away. Usually (hopefully!), this is because they are working with a client, driving to a client, taking careful notes and doing research for or about a client, or, and this happens occasionally, they are outside taking some much needed time off with their own dogs. Do not be afraid to leave a message. Most really will get back to you very quickly!
Be polite! “Hi! I have a dog in need of training! What are your rates? What methods do you use?” works much better than, “I have a dog that needs to be trained. I can’t afford your exorbitant rates, but if you don’t help me, immediately and for free, I will be forced to take him to the nearest shelter and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT!” Let me assure you that, when faced will caller #2, I will hang up the phone. I will not feel even a little guilty about it—life is too short to deal with a stranger’s attempt at emotional blackmail. I don’t make a lot of money doing this. Trust me—if there’s a Lexus parked outside, it’s not mine! My jeans get jumped on and torn, drooled on, probably have remnants of cheese and hotdogs in the pockets despite repeated washings. I do this because I wake up in the morning and love what I do. That said, I have to pay for my house, my car, my horse (yes, I have an expensive non-dog hobby too!), and all of the seminars that I try to attend in my not-so-copious amounts of free time. I simply cannot do this for free. My prices are as reasonable as they can be while still covering (sorta) my expenses. If my prices are out of your range, please tell me. Perhaps we can work something out—a payment plan, or even some bartering. But do not try to engage my services while attempting to devalue them. It will just put us at odds, and you will not get very far with me.
Be realistic! Haggis the Scottish Terrier is probably never going to be the dog you can leave loose in your house with your daughter’s beloved pet guinea pig. Haggis may try to convince you differently, but I believe the guinea pig should have a say in this as well! Likewise, Snapper the Cocker Spaniel may not want to be hugged and grappled by all sixteen of your grandchildren. He’d probably be much happier quietly working on a Kong in his crate until the chaos dies down. Dog trainers can help with specific problems, and we can teach both the dog and the owner a common language so that they can live together happily—but we can’t change your dog’s personality!
Have an open mind! I am a “clicker trainer” and I explain that right up front with my students. It is a method that has worked well for me, and I believe in it. I would love to explain how it works and how we can use it in some completely mind-blowing ways to communicate with your dog. It takes some skill and timing, and it feels clumsy at first. Remember when you first learned how to drive a stick shift? It feels like that! Believe me, I do understand! Like everything, it takes practice. I can’t tell you how many times I have clicked, and then lobbed the clicker at my confused dog. Or dropped the leash, the clicker, the treat, and everything else while fumbling to…oh…what was I doing, ack CLICK! Trust me, it gets easier! And at the end of it all, you have a dog that is very tightly bonded to you (no, not just your treat pouch). You have a partner.
Don’t forget your sense of humor! Be willing to laugh at yourself. Be willing to laugh at your dog. Be willing to laugh at me! One of my favorite training moments was when I was teaching Cherry (my beloved American Staffordshire Terrier) the difference between touching a target with her nose and with her paw. She was getting frustrated, and I wasn’t reading her frustration level very well. Finally, after being asked to touch the target with her paw, enthusiastically bopping it with her nose several times, she got fed up, picked up the target (a tupperware lid) and threw it at me! I still have that lid. I laugh every time I see it. But I also learned a very valuable lesson that day. Cherry now can easily touch a target with the requested body part, and even now knows which paw (right or left) that I want her to touch the target with. Your dogs will teach you as much as you teach them, but you have to be willing to laugh and learn. And if you want a quick smile, go watch Fenton, the deer-chasing Labrador retriever, who clearly had better things to do than return to his owner! Whether the owner realized it or not, he was getting a quick and public lesson from Fenton. Fenton finds chasing deer to be far more rewarding than returning to his owner for what would otherwise have been a quiet walk in the park. All of our dogs have a bit of Fenton in them!
And finally—PRACTICE! I can tell immediately whether or not you have worked with your dog that week. It’s obvious. Even if you tell me you practiced, if your dog is telling me a different story, I am inclined to believe your dog. This does not mean I am going to call you out on it. I am far more tactful than that! But I might suggest far more structured practice times. We all have busy jobs and busy lives. My own dogs don’t get as much attention as I would like (one of the drawbacks of working with everyone else’s dogs!). I’m not going to judge you, just like I hope my dressage coach doesn’t judge me for the occasional weeks that I don’t even climb onto my horse, far less ride him. But understand that training your dog, as with many things, is a progression, and you are not going to move forward unless you put in the time. I can teach you, and I can coach you, but I can’t do it for you.