We trainers often feel frustrated by unfinished cases and low client compliance—endemic issues in our industry—leading us to describe owners as lazy, uncommitted, unskilled, uncaring, cheap. Alternately, we internalize the failure and blame poor results on our own shortcomings. Neither explanation is fair nor helpful. We have learned to stop blaming the dog and just get on with training him. It’s time to leave behind feeling guilty and reproaching clients, pinpoint the true problems, and focus on solutions.
Coaching is the Culprit
The heart of the trouble is our coaching approach, our religious insistence on training people to train their own dogs. The concept sounds so right—of course owners should train their dogs, they’re the ones who live with them! But let’s step back and consider the practicalities of the idea and re-examine what our clients really need to know to live successfully with their dogs.
First, let me be perfectly clear: Anyone who knows my work in public class curriculum development and teacher instruction knows I’m adamant about giving owners the skills and knowledge to succeed at home and out in the world on their own. I am not advocating a return to past ages where we took dogs into kennels for two weeks and returned them ‘trained.’ I am advocating an approach that takes into account the realities of clients’ lives.
Why Coaching Fails Us
Coaching—most often a one-hour session once per week in which the trainer instructs and coaches the client on the training they are to do on their own in the intervening week—places too great a burden on the dog guardian. Yes, they should take responsibility for the animals they have brought into their homes. Yes, it would be ideal if they were to become enthusiastic hobby trainers. But in reality most owners lack the skills needed to do much of what we ask of them in an effective and expedient way. Nor are they interested in acquiring those skills. Clients don’t want to be dog trainers, that’s not why they call you. They’re often asked to form entirely new routines—to add time into an already crowded schedule of obligations, to learn and incorporate very different ways of interacting with their dogs, to do things in ways opposite to their habits. If you’ve ever changed a routine yourself or read data about humans and habits you’re aware of the magnitude of such a request and the low success rate to expect. For the client the efforts often result in embarrassment or feelings of failure. No one wants to tell the trainer they haven’t done their homework. Some clients cancel or postpone appointments to avoid it.
Other guardians turn their frustration on the trainer or the training methodology—it’s not working, ergo the trainer is incompetent or this positive humbug doesn’t work. It certainly can appear so. We’ve all heard the allegation that positive reinforcement is slow. Which is untrue—in skilled hands positive training is elegant, effective, and swift. But our clients’ hands are not skilled. In their hands, with our weekly coaching, progress must feel slow indeed. And a lack of progress dampens motivation for humans just as it does for dogs. Nobody wants to play a losing game.
Your Livelihood—And Everyone’s Reputation
Coaching in most cases is a lose-lose-lose proposition. It frustrates owners, leaves dogs without the help they need, and negatively affects trainers and the training profession. We argue for professional status while claiming we can teach clients to do the work themselves in 60-minute sessions once a week. If dog training is indeed so easy, why all the money and time spent on dog trainer schools, books, DVDs, mentoring, and certification exams? What other profession surrenders authority in such a way? Imagine a lawyer handing over case notes and encouraging you to argue your own case because, after all, you’re the one going to prison if it doesn’t work. It’s no surprise that we encounter clients who believe they know more than we do or who argue with us over methodology—we do not behave as though we hold the professional knowledge and skill set that we each work so hard to attain.
Coaching is bad business. Money is lost every time a case—obedience or behavior—is left unfinished, and poor word of mouth follows. When training isn’t finished old behaviors eventually resurface and new ones inevitably go on the decline, prompting clients to say “Well, we hired a trainer and it sort of worked for a while, but he’s still jumping all over people,” instead of “We worked with an amazing trainer, it’s completely changed our lives. Let me get you her number!”
Coaching is hard to sell. “We train you to train your dog!” is a terrible marketing message. People don’t want to pay money to be shown all the work they themselves need to do. Other common lines are “We’ll improve your relationship with your dog” and “We’ll teach you to understand your dog so you can give him what he needs.” Terrific marketing if your audience is other positive reinforcement dog trainers. But most owners don’t call a trainer because they’re concerned about their relationship with their dog or because they want to hear that everything going wrong is their fault—if they just understood the dog and provided properly for him everything would be fine. They call trainers because they have one of two problems—either the dog is doing something they don’t like or not doing what they want. And without an effective marketing message centered around solutions we’ll never have the opportunity to help improve those relationships and get dogs some understanding. Compulsion trainers, franchise chains, and TV shows compel so many owners not because guardians want to harm their dogs, but because these training outfits know how to market—they understand the desire for easy, swift resolutions.
Alternatives to Coaching
Can we offer clients an ‘easy’ button? Of course not. But we can do better than offering to teach them to do all the work themselves. We’re professional dog trainers, after all—it’s high time we started training some dogs.
One way is day training. The trainer trains the dog in the owner’s home then teaches the client the necessary skills to maintain the training for the long haul. A typical day-training program consists of an initial consult and then a number of weeks (determined by the trainer based on the needs and goals of the case) in which the trainer sees the dog several times, wrapping up each week with a transition session to show the client what Fido has learned and to ‘proof’ or transfer the training to the owners, including teaching them how to ask for and reinforce new behaviors, and what to do if they don’t get a requested behavior or if they experience an unwanted one popping back up. After the designated number of weeks, the package will also include some number (usually 1 to 3) follow-up sessions scheduled as needed to ensure long-term success.
On a side note: Don’t rule out board & train. Board & train has had a bad reputation among many positive reinforcement trainers for historical and philosophical reasons, but with skillful transitions and follow-ups built into board & train packages this can be an effective and lucrative approach as well. And though I share some trainers’ affront that owners would, as one trainer recently put it to me, “shove their dog off to a stranger as if it were a car that needed repair,” some owners really do find themselves at wits end and unable to cope. If you can train someone’s dogs and then show her how to protect that training, the relationship between dog and owner, and the way the owner feels about her dog, is likely to greatly improve. The dog can only benefit from that.
Day Training: A Triple Win
Day training sets up owners, dogs, and trainers to win. Cases are seen through to full conclusion—owners reach their goals, trainers experience the satisfaction of a completed case, and dogs get the help they need. The results owners witness in the transition session at the end of the first week translate into high levels of compliance. Why? Learning maintenance skills is far easier than training from the ground up because the dog already knows his part and the clients are strongly motivated to protect the progress they’re so delighted to see. Such achievements make buy-in for methodology easier to get. Many clients also love the convenience of having the training done during the day while they’re at work.
Day training is easier to market. You’re now able to offer convenience, expediency, and customized solutions for busy lives, all hot selling points in today’s marketplace. As one dogbiz client recently said to me, “It’s a lot easier to ask for money—and clients are much happier to give it—when I can offer to do the training for them!” Another advantage is that you need far fewer clients when you day train. Because each owner means an average of four sessions per week, day training earns you the same amount of money with roughly one quarter of the clients.
Coaching still has its place, primarily for issues demanding high levels of management such as housetraining, destruction, counter surfing, and the like. Coaching may also be necessary in cases where a dog is too fearful to work for you, at least until enough of a relationship can be built with the dog to allow a switch to day training.
Personal Trainer vs. Dog Trainer
R+ trainers need to move away from being personal trainers shouting words of encouragement while clients struggle under the weight of training their own dogs. It’s time to be dog trainers, doing the work that trainers are called for, hired to do, and for which they have the professional knowledge and skills. To do so is kind to owners, good for dogs, and a huge relief and opportunity for dog trainers. Strong teaching and people skills remain critical to success, yes, but what a joy to get to train dogs, see owners meet their goals, and know that you’re improving the quality of dogs’ lives, all while expanding your own income potential.