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The Perfect Dog Training System... and the Humans who **** It Up

Updated: Mar 23

In which I criticize behavior consultants, board & train trainers, R+ training, balanced training, and “cookie cutter” training in general.  




 


As a full-time professional dog trainer who is perhaps often too emotionally invested in their field, this is a topic that I spend a lot of time thinking about - both because I simply find it interesting and because I actually (cue Pokemon theme song here) want to be the very best I can at what I do. I am going to attempt to address the idea of “the perfect dog training system” and the fact that there is such a huge variety of methodologies and training services on the market. I myself have spent at least a year regularly participating in every version of a dog training service that exists, and as I work with clients now, I always take careful note of their experience with past trainers and how the programs affected them and their dogs. 


Hopefully this doesn't spoil anything too much, but I personally pride myself on being an extremely flexible trainer. With lots of tools in my toolbox, I always attempt to think critically about the case in front of me and match them to the custom protocol that I think best suits them specifically, as opposed to defaulting to assumptions and lazily telling the same tale to 10 different dog families regardless of what they’re asking me. I obviously have a list of general principles that I believe to be extremely important, and I have favorite techniques, but I don’t let that stop me from investigating what it is that the client needs most - both on that day in particular and in their life in general. 


“Cookie cutter dog training” is very common in this industry. And it makes sense because, of course, the idea of “the perfect dog training system” sounds so comforting at face value. “Every dog just needs to learn how to do these 6 skills and be corrected like this on this collar if they make a mistake.” This sounds so wonderfully simple, so practical, so doable... 


“Every dog just needs to be treated like this, because it is instinctual to them, and then they will know peace and be calm.” What wonderful marketing! The key to dog communication can be right at your fingertips! “Our trainers all know the one true dog training secret, and once you train with us, all of your problems will be fixed.” This one is more of a vibe about general behavior - maybe in this example, the trainer talks a lot of pack mentality because dogs are pack animals, or the trainer over-stresses the importance of owners being the dog’s “facilitators” because actually no, dogs are primarily scavengers. 


Take a second and think about the human psychology industry. In human therapy, there is CBT, DBT, psychoanalysis, humanistic therapy, EMDR, parts work therapy…. Then there is psychiatry to new age psychology and everything in between. And we’ve all encountered different types of humans who have benefited massively from one approach but not the other. If we can’t even find a One True Way for humans, who can speak to each other in detail about the problems they experience - how could we make a behavioral One True Way for a species that is fundamentally different from us? 


And they’re not just a different species than us. They’re a species whose behavior has been massively complicated by selective breeding designed to augment and diminish certain behavioral traits, as well as selective breeding designed to enhance certain aesthetic traits without care or attention to the health and behavior effects that came with that genetic package. And then there is the environment and lifestyle, which could fill a novel with examples itself. Dogs are kept in apartments in busy cities; dogs only go outside on a leash; dogs are kept in suburban homes with almost no exposure to the outside world; dogs are kept in crates except when it’s time to train for competition; dogs are allowed to acquire all of their calories through a food bowl twice per day and are given zero outlets for their natural tendencies; puppies are kept from the outside world until fully vaccinated… The list goes on. My point is that any system that heavily references an abstract idea of dogs’ instincts - especially if it sounds kind of mythical and story-like - should be reviewed with heavy skepticism. 


Now, I’m going to address a version of a cookie-cutter trainer stereotype, because I know at this point that many “behavior consultant” style trainers are going to be itching and exploding with a comeback to this… “But all animals respond to the basic principles of learning theory!” 



THE MISTAKE OF THE BEHAVIOR CONSULTANT 


In case you aren’t familiar with this service, a behavior consultant’s work typically involves a lot of talking with the client. They gather a detailed history of the dog and their behavior issues, followed by an analysis of the likely “function” (or motivator) of the unwanted behavior. Homework exercises are typically very focused on certain contexts, often employing techniques such as counter-conditioning particular triggers. These sessions are oftentimes virtual, for the convenience of the client and the trainer. 


Stereotypically, a behavior consultant barely handles the training dog themselves, if at all. Also stereotypically, many behavior consultants pride themselves on their techniques being backed by behavioral science that has been applied to other species. 


I myself do this style of session sometimes. Some clients want and need this structure to understand and get a grip on certain problem behaviors. Some dogs are so fearful that overcoming their fear of me enough that I can do the exercises with them properly would not be a time-efficient tactic. Some behavioral issues are very pinpointed, and so the extreme degree of focus and structure sometimes makes perfect sense, in my opinion. I’ll talk more about why in “the mistake of the board & train trainer” section. But here’s my critique of some people who almost exclusively work like this: 



DON’T UNDER-TREAT IT 


This uber-focused lens often misses issues that would be obvious to a trainer who simply spent ten minutes alone with the dog, scientific protocol be damned. And taking a history of the dog does not always cut it, due to the fact that the history is from the perspective of the owner. 


A simple example that I come across fairly frequently is that a dog presents stress and anxiety in response to seeing something. The behavior consultant prescribes detailed counter conditioning protocols under threshold, meaning being careful to keep the dog calm during sessions while being exposed to the stimulus of interest. The behavior consultant doesn’t greet the dog, walk him for 10 feet on a leash, or observe him hanging out in a new place, and so they don’t realize that the stress and anxiety is actually an augmented form of demanding behavior - pulling for access to resources, pawing at the owners, staring at something until being given access to it, etc. In other words, you can essentially end up with a pathological-grade temper tantrum if this behavior goes awry. And even though it started out as wanting access to the thing, it now is just a clusterf**** of stress. 


But the problem in this example is actually global and related to the entire way that that dog navigates the world. The owner only recognized the issue in terms of specific scenarios when it is causing problems, and so that was what their intake history was focused on. An extremely pinpointed counter-conditioning protocol is going to be an uphill battle when the behavior is tied to the dog’s overall mindset in life. 



POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT TRAINING WON’T ALWAYS SAVE THEM


These pinpointed training plans often under-prepare the client for the inevitable imperfect situation. Clients are instructed to simply avoid scenarios where the dog is going over threshold and barking, pulling hard on leash - whatever the problem is. The idea is that this is a temporary solution until the training protocols kick in and fix the problem. However, this stage of encountering imperfect scenarios can last awhile - and maybe forever, if the training is not sticking. 


That client usually needs coaching in live time on how to handle their dog properly in that unideal scenario, period. To overlook this is a huge mistake, in my opinion. 


I often work with clients dogs who exhibit issues of over-arousal and do dangerous amounts of pulling, jumping, mouthing, and biting. While these cases can ultimately result in well-behaved pets, defensive handling protocols are crucial for the client’s success and safety in the meantime. I’m going to take my hot take to the next level here - are you ready? To clarify, I’m referencing techniques such as the specifics of picking up a drag line and handling a leash very tightly in order to take an over-aroused dog into a timeout without getting bit. Another example would be using your leash to quickly move a reactive dog away from a trigger in order to better de-escalate a bad situation. 


It is typically booksmart-heavy force free trainers that don’t understand the value of these handling techniques, because they are not positive-reinforcement based training methods. From my experience, this lack of understanding often stems from a lack of practical experience in environments such as boarding kennels or shelters, leading to a deficit in knowledge of different personality types and necessary handling skills, particularly for “harder” dogs. (I mean not just difficult dogs, but “hard” as in the opposite of a “soft personality.”) 



THE MISTAKE OF THE BOARD & TRAIN TRAINER 


I’m posing these two kinds of trainers against one another because, in my mind, they are opposites. The board & train trainer prioritizes working one-on-one with the dog, without the client even there. They address the behavior of the dog by adding structure to their entire life as well as during focused skill-building and counter-conditioning sessions. Board & train programs are often finished with a limited number of private lessons where the owner is coached.



BUT DON’T FORGET THE HUMANS! 


Those who focus mostly on teaching the dogs often fail to appreciate how much learning the humans also need. I have met many trainers over the last decade that “like dogs, not people,” and I have to say that if that’s you, unfortunately, that is going to be a barrier on your ability to train other people’s dogs successfully. (And my recommendation would be to collaborate with a trainer who enjoys coaching people in order to maximize your programs’ success.) 


The human client needs to understand how much work they will need to do after the training program, before they even sign the dog up for the program. Board & train trainers often fail to ensure this commitment, and then things fall apart as soon as the dog goes home. I have met many clients who paid for board & train programs and attended the lessons, but their trainer failed to effectively explain to them how to transfer their dogs’ new skills into the problem situations that they were having. Goals were not properly set or understood. The training was untargeted, and the go-home instructions were unclear. 


This can be viewed as the opposite problem as the behavior consultants, though both examples are typically lacking hands-on coaching in difficult situations.


Many board & train trainers also often give overarching lifestyle recommendations without full buy-in from clients, because the client doesn’t understand or appreciate how it all works. In other words, many board & train trainers train dogs (say that three times fast) like they themselves are going to own them. The dog behaves well, and the trainer says, “Great, I fixed it! I trained the dog. I am a dog trainer.” You, trainer, are not the dog’s owner. It is a mistake to operate like the dog will live with you forever. 



LIKEWISE, SO MANY TRAINERS DON’T UNDERSTAND THAT THERE ARE MANY CLIENTS WHO CANNOT CONSISTENTLY DELIVER A PROPERLY TIMED CORRECTION


This problem includes attempting to indoctrinate clients into a training system that uses correction or punishment when the client is seriously lacking the understanding and coordination to follow the instructions they are given. And I’m not even talking about trainers who are using harsh corrections that elicit fear from the dog. I’m talking about medium to mild corrections doing psychological damage to a dog because the owner is completely inconsistent about the delivery and timing of those corrections. 


So, you end up with a dog who was taught for example to avoid breaking the “place” command, and if they break “place,” they are given a collar correction in their board & train program. They go home and the owner pops their collar only half the time that the dog gets up, or they deliver a correction so late that it doesn’t make sense anymore. This happens even with owners who have the best intentions; they simply lack the ability. 


I have witnessed the results of this firsthand, and it is truly heartbreaking. Seeing a dog who is sitting in place gambling if they will be rewarded with affection from the owner or a collar correction if they break their stay is nothing short of messed up. There are clients who cannot say a marker word and hand a cookie over with the correct timing to save their life. In my opinion, it is obvious that those clients should be restricted from many types of correction, even if that training system would be more ideal for the dog if implemented perfectly and consistently. 


And many board & train trainers miss this. They are so eager to get their hands on that dog themselves that they overlook the implications of the humans’ incompetence. 


[As a side note - I have gotten flak from the positive reinforcement community about handling my own personal dogs in a way that is different from how I coach many of my clients to handle their dogs. For example, I do very minimal amounts of ecollar work with clients, but my shepherd wears an ecollar almost every day (because my backyard is unfenced). Hopefully this section helps clear that up.]



DON’T OVERTHINK IT 


I’ve also come across a few facilities that make every issue a board and train grade issue. Your dog jumps on people? You want your dog to learn how to sit? The answer is a $3,000 program where you can’t see your dog for multiple weeks. I don’t think I need to explain why that’s silly. But it’s a real thing! 



WHAT DO THE PEOPLE WANT? WHAT DO THEY NEED? 


You need to work with clients where they are at. Some people need to ask a million theoretical questions, and some people need multiple hands-on walk-throughs in situations that feel like real life. Some people need things modeled in emotional terms in order to understand how to operate. Some people need specific homework with quantities and charts. Some people need to be coached on integrating things into natural routines as soon as possible. Some people need you to jumpstart the training by working the dog extensively yourself, perhaps in front of them so they can observe your handling. 


And if the recommendations don’t match what the owner is capable of pulling off, no amount of conceptual understanding, belief, or buy-in can change those core logistics - the handler’s coordination, the home environment, and the resources available for the dog. These things need to be taken into account. 


And everyone’s definition of success is different - which comes back to that fact that You the Trainer are not going to own this dog. Perhaps an owner is looking to fix one little thing, even though you observe a list of problem behaviors in front of you. You have to work with the owner’s comfort and commitment, and so what you might consider a “band-aid solution” might be the only thing that they want. In other words, a single private lesson that ends up practicing over-reliance on food lures might leave a client overjoyed, even though the training is not up to your own standard of perfection. Spending excessive time trying to overhaul the dog's entire life and the human's mindset to align with your vision of ideal behavior would likely be a mistake. It wouldn't stick. 


Sometimes what clients need most is time. I have had many success stories that started out with a client who was uncomfortable with the technique or tool that I thought would be best, so we didn’t do it - because I’m not in the business of  coercion. We tried modified techniques with minor success, and sometimes we stay on that slow path because that is where everyone works best. With some clients, I later proposed revisiting the technique they initially feared. After we agreed to try it, things went great, and they lived happily ever after. Not believing in cookie-cutter training also means understanding that not everything is a guaranteed fix in a matter of weeks.



BUT NONE OF US ARE PERFECT


I'll admit that having such an eclectic approach (as I sometimes do) can take you off the rails on occasion. None of us are perfect. Another thing that endlessly confirms for me that there is no one single true and perfect approach for training is that I regularly encounter people who approach dog training completely differently than I do and get the same results. I think that viewing alternative techniques with an open mind and being comfortable asking for a second opinion or occasionally completely referring out cases is also imperative to being a good trainer. 


And don’t forget that everything written here is generalization (based on my own real-life experiences).


Alright, enough theory. Go train those damn dogs. And their people, too. 

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