Training the Clients

Woman training her dog at the parkMost trainers agree that working with clients is the most important—and most challenging—part of the job. Even when the trainer does the training in board and train or day training situations, the work with the client remains the central ingredient to success. Transferring complex skills and understanding to a human is tremendously more involved than employing the laws of operant and classical conditioning to train a dog. It’s no wonder, then, that it is this part of our work that trainers most often struggle with.

What do they really need to know?
There is a temptation to share everything we know. To take clients on a tour through the learning theory quadrants, explain the process of D/CC in detail, or give them the ins and outs of CERs and DRIs. In short, too often we look to transform our clients from dog owners to junior trainers.

Instead, ask yourself two questions. In order to reach their specific training goals:
•    What does this client need to understand?
•    What does this client need to be able to do?

Your answers will be tempered by the training structure you’re using. Trainers employing the coaching model will necessarily answer somewhat differently than those training for the client through day training or board and train. Regardless, all dog pros should translate their answers to lay language and think beyond behaviors. Does the client need to understand that how often she treats her dog effects his focus on her, or that rewarded behaviors will happen more? Does she need to learn how to handle the distractions that occur all around us? Less really is more here—the more you try to fit in, the less well the client learns each thing.

How will you teach them?
This isn’t a question of how you will explain things. Telling is not teaching. Hearing is not learning. For a client to truly own a new concept or develop a skill means the ability to apply it to new situations without instruction. This requires guided experiential opportunities to use and “discover” the new concepts and skills you wish clients to have.

In our Master the Growlies seminars we walk trainers through a number of ways to create these situations with private clients. The following example could be used in any format (coaching, day training, board and train) to teach clients to work in the face of environmental distraction. In this case we’ll use Watch, but it could be any cued behavior.

The behavior is not the central priority here; handling distraction is the real goal. The behavior is the vehicle to teach this larger concept and skill. But if the larger goal is reached—that the client understands the role of distraction in her dog’s behavior and be able to recognize and respond to it effectively—the behavior is much more likely to be successfully proofed.

  1. Teach the Watch (There are many ways to initially teach or transfer an already installed behavior, but that that is a large topic in and of itself.)
  2. Have the client practice working with the dog in a low-distraction area inside the house. Guide and give feedback until the human-dog team is working smoothly together and reliably getting the behavior.
  3. Move the duo to a somewhat more challenging location, such as a backyard. Don’t talk about distractions or anything along those lines. Just cheerfully suggest moving into the yard to continue practicing.
  4. Chances are the client will find the exercise more challenging in the backyard than in the kitchen. At that point, a conversation about what has made it harder for Spot to respond and why is likely to have much richer meaning than a warning ahead of time. The context of immediate experience creates the basis for understanding, and you can then show the client how to work around distraction.
  5. Once she has her dog’s focus back and is again successful with the Watch, suggest that you now move to the front yard. But this time, before you go, ask your client to name the distractions she’s likely to encounter in the front yard and ask her how, based on the experience in the backyard, she plans to handle the situation.

In moving to the backyard and refraining from initially giving instruction, you create a teachable moment to introduce a concept and set of skills when they are most likely to take hold— in the context of real experience. And in this last step, you begin to hand over the reins. Notice how quickly we’re asking the client to begin making decisions and applying what they’ve learned. It’s critical to begin fading the prompting early on so that clients learn to act for themselves. Without fading the prompt (called “removing the scaffold” in educational terminology) clients are less likely to learn the skills and concepts we wish them to, to be able to apply them when we are not there to whisper instructions at their elbow.

Train for the real world.
We talk a lot in our profession about working at the client’s level and splitting complex mechanical skills down into smaller pieces. We also look to break behaviors down into more manageable pieces for people to work with. These are very important concepts, but we can’t forget in the process of using them that clients live in the real world.

For example, we love the idea of breaking down the Three D’s—distance, duration, and distraction. And we particularly like the notion of training first without distraction, then with a little of it, then a little more, etc. And that is certainly ideal. But dog guardians don’t live in a vacuum. We can’t wait to introduce distraction as the last D, and we can’t afford to assume that clients will always be able to avoid certain levels of distraction until their dog is ready for them. Life’s just too messy.

This is another reason to begin handing those decision making and application reins over early. Think about your sessions with clients as opportunities for discovery and application. Add as many experiential learning moments as you can so that clients are practicing encountering the kinds of challenges that will face them every day when you’re not there to give instruction. Working on Stay? Introduce distraction in the very first session. Show them how to respond. Then toss distractions in when they aren’t expecting it. Prompt as needed in the beginning, but look to fade those prompts quickly. If they don’t respond, waiting for you to tell them what to do, counter with a question: “What could you do next time I drop the tennis ball to help Fido be successful?”

Heavily reinforce all unprompted action. And think about taking your client sessions on the road when appropriate to work in the environments clients will find themselves in over the course of their daily lives with their dogs.

Emotions matter.
Factor client emotions into your training plan, particularly in behavior modification cases. As with dogs, strong emotions like fear can impede human learning and a successful plan must address this.

One of the sample cases in the Master the Growlies seminar is a leash reactivity case in which the client has become so sensitized to her dog’s reactions to other dogs that she has stopped walking him altogether. She’s just too scared to take him out. This is a situation in which day training or board and train is a real advantage. The trainer can work on changing the dog’s behavior, the dog gets out for his walks, and the client gets a needed break. (If coaching, I would recommend introducing some alternative exercise outlets until the client’s skills and confidence are built up.)

In the sample case, the trainer installs some basic behaviors (Sit, Watch, Find It) and then the client works on these at home while the trainer takes the dog for walks to proof the behaviors and work on the classical conditioning portion of the plan.

Very important to the plan is the gradual desensitization of the client to walking her own dog. Over many sessions she is led through steps one at a time. Only when she is ready (noted in this case by a relaxed approach to the activity—a positive Conditioned Emotional Response) is she graduated to the next. She practices with her Fido and a stuffed animal. She watches the trainer handle Fido with a therapy dog so she can see how poised her dog is capable of being. She practices with Fido and the therapy dog as the therapy dog handler.

Only when she is very comfortable does she take up her own dog’s leash with the therapy dog present. And the first time she and the trainer take it on the road the trainer handles her dog for her, narrating her decisions, then asking the client to suggest actions. Finally, she takes the leash with the trainer there to prompt as needed. By this time, however, the client is less likely to require that prompting. As with all other teaching, any prompting should be faded as quickly as possible to engender the client’s confidence in her own ability to walk her dog without the trainer present.

This example shows how central the human teaching plan is to the positive outcome of a case. The dog training cannot be overlooked; without a solid training plan, well executed, the client cannot succeed. But the dog training plan is only half of the picture. A thoughtfully designed teaching plan for the client must accompany it. Because whether you offer coaching, day training, or board and train services, careful attention to teaching people is central to dog training success.