In our one-on-one work with trainers we are often asked to help bring down the number of unsolved behavior cases—by which I mean those clients a trainer sees once or twice, maybe more, without resolution. In such cases clients don’t meet their goals, dogs are not helped, and business suffers. I have said in past columns that you cannot start and build a business on word of mouth alone, and that is true, but having a strong reputation is nonetheless important. Bad word of mouth can really hurt a trainer. Each unfinished case means another dog owner who possibly says, “Well, I tried using a trainer, but it didn’t really work,” instead of “I hired a trainer and the change in my dog’s behavior was amazing. Here’s her number, you have to call her.” Another concern with unfinished cases is the degree to which they contribute to burnout—few things are more discouraging than knowing you could have helped a dog but not having the opportunity to do so.
What, then, can raise a trainer’s volume of unfinished cases? Blame a near-universal discomfort in closing sales for larger packages, or even the outright lack of training packages in place of week-to-week sessions. Also, the scope of the training plan itself can be the problem. Enamored as trainers are (and rightly so) with learning theory and technically correct solutions, they often forget that successful pet dog training rests upon pet dog owner training. Behavior modification plans have to fit into clients’ daily lives in order to be successful—don’t ask or expect the average client to rise to your level of skill or interest in training. Just as with dogs, set your clients up for success by working at their level. A number of guiding principles help in this work.
Unless safety is at stake, don’t insist that owners do more than they want or need. With his or her extensive knowledge, the trainer always sees the potential in a dog. He knows just what he would do if the dog were his, and this can bring him to push further than a client may be interested in or really need.
Say a retired couple lives in the countryside with their dog, who is fearful of children. If the dog’s only contact with kids is a yearly visit from the grandchild, the couple may feel frustrated with an extended desensitization and counter-conditioning program and eventually let the training fall by the wayside. Instead, a good management plan for that one weekend of the year will serve everyone—the clients, the dog, and the trainer.
Similarly, consider the different needs of two households with food resource guarders—one, a professional couple with no kids, another a busy family. While the latter calls for full treatment along with careful management, the professional couple may be perfectly happy following a work-to-eat regime while they’re at work, and crating Fido when he has chews. Don’t forget obedience issues, too—there are times to teach a nice heel or loose-leash walking and times when an anti-pull harness or head halter more than meets a client’s goals.
While you may not have as many sessions with management clients as you would with full treatment, you will receive the clients’ good will and potential referrals. Also, the success they experience with your instructions means they’re more likely to call you back for other needs now or in the future.
Help Clients Set Realistic Goals
Sometimes clients are the ones who overshoot. When a client comes to you hoping for quixotic results, catering to their fantasy goal, even if you do so with the best of intentions, only sets everyone up for failure. Don’t be afraid to be straight with clients about what is possible and what is not.
Start by getting at the heart of what a client wants, then help them to reset their expectations. What does ‘problem fixed’ really mean to them? For example, a Papillion pup going 8 hours without relieving herself is not an achievable goal. But if you push and find that the central issue isn’t so much that the puppy is peeing (“It’s a puppy, after all,” the owner concedes), but rather the damage to the client’s home, you can put together a plan for housetraining that includes immediate rug protection.
Once you know what the owner wishes for, balance wants with needs. A client who dreams of a flawless recall must devote the resources necessary to meet this goal. Does she have the time, skill, money? It is your job to make sure. If you see a disconnect, help rescale her definition of ‘problem fixed’ to match what she realistically can achieve. Often, this is a good time to think in terms of management. If an owner will have just the one Saturday walk each week to practice recall, a long line would allow for greater freedom to exercise outdoors in the meantime.
The goals of owners are frequently based on what they feel is expected dog behavior. A complaint about an adult female refusing to play with other dogs at the park does not require training but education. Once your client knows the behavior is common, even typical, she no longer feels her dog is acting inappropriately.
Develop a Human Training Plan, Too
A solid behavior modification plan is all well and good, but don’t forget to design a training plan for your human clients. What skill sets and knowledge do they need, and in what order, to successfully train their dog? (Or to maintain training already learnt.) What are your goals for the client, and what will you be reinforcing? What are you willing to overlook? Remember, your client does not have to be a professional trainer—he just has to be able to meet his specific goals. Armed with answers to these questions, write up a series of exercises to set your client up for success.
Treat The Humans as Well as You Treat The Dogs
One great thing about positive reinforcement training is the attitude it engenders toward dogs. When they do something we don’t like (or don’t do what we want them to), we don’t think them bad or stupid or willful. We simply lay the problem out: The dog is doing X; I want him to do Y. What will I do to help him be successful? I love this problem-solving, blameless approach. It is kind and effective.
When it comes to human clients, rather than jumping to value judgments—the owner is ignorant, uncaring of his animal, purposefully wrongheaded—apply the same thought process you would for a dog. The client does X; I want him to do Y. Or: he believes X; I want him to understand Y. What will you do to help him succeed? This is part of your human training plan.
Practice patience, just as you would with dogs. Changing and proofing behavior takes time and this is particularly true of the human species, so build in benchmarks to remind yourself and the client of progress made. Praise anything you like, ignore or redirect what you don’t.
Don’t Under-Train Your Clients
Yes, you want to simplify where possible, but don’t under-train either. After the initial consult, the majority of each session should be practice time for the client so she can benefit from ample feedback and build strong muscle memory. It’s crucial to see fluency at each step before moving on. Skills and knowledge built on shaky ground set clients up to train poorly on their own. If an owner is not mastering a certain skill or exercise, take a page from Bob Bailey and simplify what you are asking for by breaking it down into smaller steps. Always be willing to adjust your human training plan, just as you would with dogs. If even a solid ‘sit’ isn’t happening, reassess, and, depending on the situation, consider working on timing exercises without the dog, simple luring practice, exercises to build dog-client focus, or whatever other baby steps might be helpful.
Use Tracking Tools
Tracking tools, such as progress charts or logs, can be useful in keeping clients focused and may save you a great deal of time. Ask clients to keep track of data you want them to focus on. For a tough house-training case you might have the client write down the number of indoor accidents, rewarded outdoor potties, and unrewarded outdoor potties. This serves as a reminder that she is supposed to reward outdoor eliminations. It also provides you with data that would otherwise have to be collected through careful interviewing. If you see that very few eliminations were rewarded in the yard, you have your likely culprit for slow house training and know where to redouble the client’s focus. If the problem continues, reassess the situation to learn what is making it difficult for the client to take advantage of the outside potties, and find a new solution.
Try a Universal Cue
One solidly proofed behavior is worth ten that require a treat in the hand. Consider whether your and your client’s goals could benefit from a universal cue. Trainers are fond of teaching multiple commands—sit, down, stand, leave it, stay, watch, let’s go, come, wait, and so on. But, and perhaps you have come across this phenomenon, private and public class clients often settle on one cue and use it for everything, gravitating toward whichever command their dog does best. The reinforcement provided by the dog’s compliance lead them to use and more heavily rely on that particular behavior— an example of operant conditioning at work. A trainer’s first instinct is often to correct this, to insist on using ‘leave it’ for leaving it and ‘wait’ for wait, ‘stay’ for stay. The thing is, these universal cues actually work well for many people.
Few dog owners hire trainers with anything as grand as ring obedience in mind, or anything else, for that matter, that requires adherence to strict rules. So let’s break them. If a dog has a jumping problem, why teach ‘sit’ and ‘off’? A strong ‘sit’ does the trick, since sitting and jumping at the same time is a physical impossibility. Sitting is also an effective incompatible behavior to lunging and other undesirable activities. ‘Let’s go’ and ‘leave it’ are excellent universal cues—you can use either one for not picking up trash on the ground, not lunging or moving towards another being, breaking attention and redirecting it to yourself, etc. They can be powerful commands in working with everything from dog-dog aggression to poor focus.
A universal cue means that there is only one thing for owners and dogs to learn and practice, resulting in stronger, more reliable behavior from both the client and the dog. And owners are more likely to experience success with training.
The Final Word
Ultimately, it comes down to this: Too many unfinished cases can stymie a business. Which is why devising training plans that takes into account the client’s goals as well as the reality and restrictions of her life is a win-win-win: for the clients, the dogs, and your business.
Many thanks to Gina Phairas, our incredible Case Consultant, for her invaluable input on this article.