Gaining client compliance is an ongoing struggle for dog trainers. It’s no wonder in this age of over-scheduled living; it’s hard enough to learn a new skill set and change habits when you have plenty of time on your hands. Here are five pointers to help clients get more from your services in our busy times.
Less Is More
Educational research makes it clear that less is more. The more you tell me in a given sitting, the less I will retain. So keep it simple — one to three things maximum during a training session.
Most trainers proudly wear the badge of “Behavior Geek,” but we have to realize that our fellow non-pro dog lovers don’t have our same giddy love of tech talk, our extensive libraries of behavior books and DVDs, and our love of seminars and conferences. They just want to live with a well-behaved dog. So work to excise all extraneous instructions, notes, and concepts — get right to what will help make the most difference for your clients, and keep it as simple as possible.
Put Training in Context
It’s hard to learn something new, especially when you’re already busy and the something new requires adding activities to your established routine. Asking clients to set aside time to practice repetitions of a behavior is likely, more times than not, to have disappointing results. Wherever possible, create opportunities for clients to practice in relation to real life. Rather than exercises in a vacuum, give clients ways to do setups or to work “on location.” For example, if a client is seeking a solid down-stay, give them ideas for how to practice that throughout their day — while they check email, or chop vegetables for dinner, or watch American Idol. When the training is relevant to real life, rather than a set of repetitious exercises, clients are more likely to participate.
Employ Premack’s Principle
Teach clients to recognize training moments. This is simple Premack — using something the dog wants to reinforce something we want. The old “Eat your veggies then you can have your cake” trick. To live with a dog is to be surrounded by training opportunities. Teaching clients to recognize and use them can be a powerful way to change how clients interact with their dogs, and a great way to get them practicing on a daily basis. Help clients create an appropriate list of “desserts,” things like having their leash unclipped at the park, a well-stuffed Kong handed over, a door opened to the great outdoors. Then identify the “vegetable.” A sit perhaps, or any other behavior the client would like to see more of.
Make It Easy
The easier you make training for your clients, the more compliant they’re likely to be. You can break things down into small steps, follow the Less Is More principle, provide written notes to refer to, etc. But the only way to really make it easy on your clients is to do the training for them. And I bet you they were hoping you would, just as they were hoping the plumber would fix their leak, the lawyer clean up their mess, the hairdresser cut their hair. In fact, my guess is that the average client is a bit disappointed to find out that they’re going to be paying a dog trainer to learn how to do the training themselves. In what other industry would we put up with such a practice?
If you are in a position to offer day training or board and train, you, your business, your clients, and their dogs will be more successful for it. As the skilled expert you’ll get the training done in a fraction of the time, and it’s more likely to stick. You’re in a much better position to install behavior, to replace unwanted behaviors with new ones, to proof, to fade lures if you use them or shape quickly if you don’t, to move dogs to an effective variable reinforcement schedule. You’re in a position to do this because you have the skills and experience and because, unlike most of your clients, you’re interested in doing it. Most clients just want it done. And there’s no shame in that — just as there’s no shame in wanting your plumber to fix your leak, even if you could have learned to do it yourself. Or, for a more direct analogy, we don’t expect parents to homeschool, and we don’t think any less of them for choosing not to.
If you’re not able to day train or offer board and train for practical reasons, try hybridizing your coaching by spending a portion of each session actively training the dog yourself. This will help move things along more quickly and you’ll be able to concentrate more on teaching clients life-with-dog skills such as battling distraction, rather than losing precious time teaching the mechanics of installing behavior.
Make Expectations Clear
Be clear with clients about their role in the training process, and how that role relates to outcomes. If you train in the coaching model, clients need to understand that their training results will be in direct proportion to the amount of work they put in. If you day train or offer board and train, impress upon clients that transfer sessions, in which the dog learns to do his new “tricks” for them and they learn how to maintain the progress you’ve made, are critical to seeing any results from the work you do.
Back up these explanations with policies that protect you and help the client get the most from your service. For example, make transfer sessions mandatory. Be clear in the written contract — and verbally walk clients through the policy — that cancelled transfer sessions will be charged and rescheduled. Explain that this policy ensures they see the best results possible from the training process, that without the transfer sessions the money they’re spending will be for naught.
When a client calls to cancel, remind them of your policy: “I’m so sorry the week has been so stressful. We can of course cancel, yes, but before we do I just want to remind you of the cancellation policy we discussed. Remember that I’ll have to charge you for the appointment and we’ll need to reschedule right away to make sure Fido changes his behavior for you, not just me. So are you sure you can’t make the appointment work?” Nine times out of ten clients will change their minds and find something else to remove from their schedules. We all have those weeks when we need to get something off our plate for a little relief; don’t make your service the easy thing to jettison. It’s in your clients’ and their dogs’ best interest that you don’t.
Doing as much as you can to make the training process easier — keeping training simple and based in real life, enforcing clear expectations for client participation, and doing as much of the heavy lifting for clients as you can — will help them to get further with the training process. This means better human-canine relationships and happier clients and dogs — and happier trainers, too.