A conversation with Erin Moore, Vancouver BC Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Pawsitive Connection Dog Training
“I like dogs more than people” is one of the more common reasons dog pros list for choosing a canine career path. That’s understandable, says Dog Walking Academy Vancouver instructor Erin Moore. As she points out, spending your workdays with dogs can be much easier than spending them with humans: “Dogs aren’t judgmental, they seem to have the unconditional love thing down pretty well, and as a result being in their company has a way of making us humans feel better about ourselves.”
But as Erin also points out, until dogs grow opposable thumbs and master the skills of dialing up a dog walker and writing monthly checks, working with people will always be part of a dog walker’s job. Fortunately, we already have the knowledge we need to handle this part of the job with grace. As Erin says, “The trick is to remember that positive reinforcement works with people, too.”
Reinforced Behavior Increases
We know from learning theory that any behavior that’s rewarded increases in frequency. This is true of dogs: A treat for a sit or a ball thrown for a recall mean a better chance of getting the next sit or recall you ask for. But it’s also true of us two-leggeds. We’re more likely to show up at work if we’re being paid, more likely to give our money to businesses that treat us well, more likely to do things for others when we’ve been shown appreciation for our efforts.
A skilled professional dog walker actively watches for opportunities to reinforce dog behavior she likes: A polite sit at a door or curb, a recall or voluntary check-in from an off-leash dog, eye contact from a dog on lead, etc. Erin encourages dog walkers to think about ways they can reinforce the humans who touch their businesses, too.
Fortunately for dog walkers, dogs are great at learning to follow different rules with different people. If you’ve ever lived in a household with a dog and another human, you’ve seen their skill at differentiating. Dogs quickly ascertain who allows jumping and who doesn’t, who will let them pull on leash and who won’t, who is cool with couch snuggling and who maintains a “paws off” policy.
Still, our jobs are made easier when clients are on the same page with rules like sitting for leashing up and off, waiting at doorways, walking politely on leash, and the like. If you have occasion to note your clients working on these things, be sure to reinforce with a compliment about how their hard work is paying off great dividends in their dogs’ behavior.
Erin encourages dog pros to actively look for what clients are getting right. “You’ll always be able to find something,” she says, and when you do, “Tell them ‘way to go’ often and repeatedly.” It could be working on a particular behavior, getting their dogs out for exercise on the weekends, or switching from a choke collar to a head collar. The point is, Erin says, the more we praise and reinforce, the more rapport we build, the more likely clients will be “open to hearing a kinder, gentler, or better way to interact with their dogs” should the need for that conversation arise. It also means plenty of padding for discussing other challenging situations, such as an injury or emerging behavior issue.
Reinforcing Referral Sources
If reinforcing behavior means it’s more likely to happen again, it’s never wise to let a referral go unnoted. Whether it’s a client or a colleague in the dog world such as a vet, fellow dog walker, pet supply store owner or employee, trainer, etc., an unreinforced referral is a missed opportunity to help create future referrals. Plus it’s just bad form not to say thank you, as our mothers would no doubt agree!
Erin recommends being ready. It’s great to fire off a quick thank you email or text, but for larger impact, have branded thank you cards at hand. In this digital age, a hand-written card sent through the mail can make a real impression.
Speaking of making an impression, find ways to provide an occasional jackpot for referrals. We all know the power of a jackpot (a particularly yummy treat, a large number of treats, or some other larger-than-usual reward) to help mold dog behavior. You can jackpot a veterinary clinic with a surprise pizza lunch for staff on a busy Monday, or a fellow dog walker with a gift certificate for a foot massage, or a client with a basket of dog and human goodies. Going big to thank someone for a first referral or to reinforce continued business sent your way is a great way to keep that referral behavior strong.
While relationships with dogs may often be easier to navigate than those with humans, Erin encourages us to remember that “the people are our clients, not the dogs.” It’s people who make the choice to hire a dog walker and to tell others about their choice. And it’s other dog lovers running dog businesses of their own who choose to tell their clients about this dog walker or that one. As Erin says, “There’s no way around it; we have to work with people if we want to spend our days working with dogs.”
That’s okay, though. Luckily for us our skill sets with dogs can be used with humans, too. A little positive reinforcement goes a long way, no matter what species you’re dealing with.