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Jan 1, 2013


Most dog trainers have a strong desire to help dogs learn appropriate behaviors and solve the kinds of problems that most dogs experience or create. It is why they get into the business in the first place and it is what they are trained to do. What is challenging for so many trainers is that their success in working with dogs ultimately depends on the cooperation, understanding and follow-through of the people who bring their dogs to them to be trained. Failure to work with people often leads to failure with the dogs. In The Human Half of Dog Training, author Risë VanFleet draws upon her years of experience of working with people as a child and family psychologist to teach dog trainers how take a collaborative approach with clients to help insure the best possible outcomes for their dogs.

Lançado em:
Jan 1, 2013

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The Human Client

Dogs live with people. Dogs depend on people. Like it or not, for the overwhelming majority of dogs, this is the reality. Some of these people are kind and caring, some are more reserved and seemingly aloof, some are downright cruel. Some people train their dogs to live comfortably in the human world; others simply expect their dogs to figure it out on their own; still others give up their dogs for re-homing if things don’t work out as expected. As most of us know, there are gruesome stories about how people treat the dogs in their lives, either knowingly or unintentionally. For canine professionals who often see too many examples of humans behaving badly it can be easy to develop a jaundiced view of the human element.

Because dogs are dependent on people, and because of their co-evolution with humans dating back at least 30,000 years, dogs seem to have a different perspective on the people in their lives. While it seems certain that dogs dislike some of the ways people treat them, and are even more so perplexed by human ways, they not only tolerate us, but seek us out for companionship and connection. Even dogs who have experienced the vagaries of human temperament and behavior seem eager to overlook the indignities and get their relationships with us back on track.

Dogs don’t live in a vacuum. Their lives are populated with people, and those people are extremely important to them. When canine professionals seek to teach new behaviors to dogs or help them overcome problems such as aggression, separation anxiety, fearfulness, or impolite behaviors, their interventions are frequently designed to help dogs live more adaptively in the company of humans. Dogs would probably be perfectly content to continue eating or rolling in unsavory substances; it is because those things are unsavory to humans that we try to change canine behaviors. For a wide range of canine professionals, little can truly be accomplished without the cooperation of a dog’s human counterparts. While most of us realize that the humans are the ones who pay the bills, it goes far beyond that. Dogs’ well-being is intimately entwined with that of their humans, and only if you can reach the humans can you truly bring about long-lasting change in the best interests of the dogs.

This leads to an inescapable conclusion: if you are going to be helpful to dogs, you have to be helpful to the humans who live with them. You have to know how to capture the interest of human clients, how to help them feel motivated enough to follow your suggestions, how to adapt your methods so that they fit into a family’s lifestyle, how to explain concepts and change human behaviors that often involve unlearning lifelong habits, and how to create a comfortable and collaborative climate in which learning is most likely to take place. Whatever you want to accomplish for the dogs must be accomplished through the people.

One of my old college friends, Melanie, acquired three very cute toy poodles several years ago. She adored the dogs but they quickly showed her that they had no intention of training themselves. More and more behavior problems arose over several months: chewing chair and table legs, tearing the stuffing out of furniture pillows, urinating on the carpets, jumping up on people, and barking incessantly at strange noises in the hallway of her urban apartment building. Melanie was a very busy pediatrician and decided to pay for a board-and-train arrangement for two weeks. The trainer met with her when she picked up her dogs at the end of the two weeks, explaining the various cues and procedures to maintain the training. Melanie was pleased with the results and had good intentions of following through. She told me this story when I called to make arrangements to visit her when I had a speaking engagement in her city a few months later.

When she let me into her apartment, I was greeted by the smell of urine and three very cute dogs jumping furiously up at me, pawing at my legs. They barked wildly as they ran through tufts of pillow stuffing in the living room, and I noticed pee pads scattered throughout the apartment. My first thought was to ask her, What happened? but I thought it would probably be better for me to say hello first.

What had happened was that Melanie had not changed her lifestyle to accommodate the dogs. She loved them and reported that they gave her immeasurable pleasure, and she proudly told me that she had hired a dog walker to take them out twice each day. She was frustrated that things had deteriorated, but seemed resigned to the fact that she would have to live in a smelly, messy apartment as the price I have to pay for all this love and cuteness. I tried to share some training ideas with her while I was there, showing how she could build short training sessions into her busy schedule, but I lived too far away to help consistently. I also suggested some other local options for learning more about training herself.

Melanie’s situation includes several interesting features: she had unrealistic expectations of her dogs, she let a great deal of time pass before she sought help, she did not have sufficient dog training and management skills nor did she obtain those skills from the trainer she hired, she became overwhelmed with juggling her schedule and the dogs, and eventually gave up her hopes for a nice apartment. Some of you might be thinking that Melanie really shouldn’t have gotten a dog, let alone three dogs, given her demanding work schedule, and I admit that thought crossed my mind as well. Nevertheless, even with all these problems, what I saw was a woman who loved her dogs deeply, and three dogs who swarmed around her with delight.

Melanie’s situation may not be that different from many of the human clients that canine professionals assist. Similar dynamics are at play; only the specifics might vary. But for some families, the end result is not a willingness to give up their own dreams, but a willingness to give up the dog. People are complicated, and they present unique challenges to canine professionals. There are skills and methods used in clinical psychology, relationship psychology, family therapy, and even play therapy that can readily be applied to training a dog’s humans. Many canine professionals already know some of these skills. These, along with others shown to enhance effectiveness in working with human clients are covered in some detail in the pages that follow. First, however, I will outline some of the people-related problems in dog training and consultation from the points of view of both the dog trainer/consultant and the human client.

The trainer-client relationship

People problems can reside on either side of the trainer-client relationship. Trainers sometimes become frustrated with their human clients. Clients can get frustrated with trainers too. The truth is that both trainers and clients have their own ways of thinking and behaving that can interfere with the work that they try to do together. The rest of this chapter focuses on the types of problems that canine professionals encounter as well as those experienced by clients, with an eye toward identifying possible ways to improve this vital relationship.

The trainer’s point of view

Canine professionals are likely to encounter a wide range of client behaviors they find challenging. Informal surveys of dog trainers participating in online discussion groups, conversations with other trainers and behaviorists, and my own experiences have revealed many obstacles. Some of these challenging people-factors are included below.

It can be difficult to deal with clients who:

•  Have rigid views about how the dog should be trained or managed; are set in their ways.

•  Want to control everything about the dog’s life.

•  Treat the dog more like a human infant than a dog.

•  Cling stubbornly to the use of equipment and intrusive handling methods in lieu of training.

•  Have been influenced by media celebrities advocating outdated theories and unnecessarily coercive methods and who argue these points with the trainer.

•  Are disruptive in class, arrive late, talk loudly, interrupt others, monopolize discussions, or demand excessive attention.

•  Are shy and withdrawn.

•  Fail to follow through on assigned tasks or training protocols at home.

•  Have philosophical objections to the use of food treats or other suggested methods.

•  Resist feedback and suggestions.

•  Are in denial, seemingly, about dangerous dog behaviors.

•  Require their dog to do things that are not suitable for that particular dog.

•  Want the trainer to do all the work and seem unmotivated to do more themselves.

•  Have very unrealistic expectations of their dog.

•  Fail to supervise their children and dogs sufficiently.

•  Do not control their children during classes or sessions.

•  Acquire another dog in the hopes it will resolve the first dog’s problems.

•  Openly air family conflicts and argue with each other about training methods.

•  Think that a single class per week is sufficient for puppy training.

•  Are short-tempered or very sensitive to feedback.

•  Lack self-awareness and confuse their dog with lots of talking, inconsistent messages, arm waving, and the like.

•  Inadvertently or unknowingly reinforce bad behaviors.

•  Struggle to learn training concepts and methods, or are slower to learn than others in a class.

•  Fail to think of dog trainers as professionals; expect advice and services for free or very low fees.

While this list is not exhaustive, it illustrates the range of human behavior that can interfere with dog training and consultation work. Many of these frustrations suggest that the clients are not hearing or incorporating what the trainer is saying, perhaps more influenced by their own concerns, beliefs, and feelings than the needs of the dog. While it is probably true that most people who bring their dogs for behavioral services do care about their dogs, often deeply, at times it can be hard to shift their focus from their everyday experience to the new information and skills that are being offered. At other times, feelings of inadequacy and shame about the problems they are experiencing interfere with their openness to learn a better way.

The client’s point of view

As a trainer, it is important to recognize that your clients might find it hard to admit they need help at all. In many cultures, and especially American culture, there is a strong value placed on independence, on accomplishing things in a self-sufficient manner. To ask for help with your dog implies that you have not been able to do it yourself and carries a negative judgment within society at large as well as in the minds of people who ascribe strongly to these values. In a parallel example, the cultural stigma associated with individual or family therapy has prevented people from seeking help in a timely manner or for difficult problems that have emerged. The same line of thinking can cause people to postpone getting the assistance that they need with their dogs, especially when it comes to behavior and training. These do-it-yourself attitudes seem to be changing, and proactive educational programs, such as parenting classes for children and obedience classes for dogs have contributed to a lessening of the stigma associated with getting help from another person. Even so, when human clients request help, they are often doing so from a place of vulnerability. This can influence every interaction until that person feels safer and more trusting of the canine

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