Confessions of a Dog Trainer

I’m no super hero – I put my fur-covered yoga pants on one leg at a time. Yes, I can teach a dog to do a cute trick, teach wanted behaviors and curb unwanted behaviors but I didn’t learn that overnight. I’ve spent a lot of time mastering my craft. I’ve read a lot of books about canine psychology and learning theory, and I spend every day sharpening my skills and practicing consistency. At a glance, it looks like I can work wonders with a dog and it probably seems easier than it actually is. I often hear my clients say that they can’t do it like I do it and sometimes they feel hopeless. Here are some things I like to remind them of:

I make mistakes too

If you’ve read one of our previous blogs, My Trainer Secrets Revealed,  you already know one important aspect of training is timing. To tell a dog that we like a behavior, we use a marker (either a clicker, sound, or word) at a very specific point in time to convey that the behavior was desired and that he’s earned a reward. Nine times out of ten, I click at precisely the right moment. I am pretty good with a clicker – I’ve even clicker trained a fast-moving chicken! But I had to practice in order get good at it. And what about that pesky tenth time? I may be a trained professional with years of practice, but I’m also human. Mistakes happen! One time, in an attempt to reward for good walking behavior, I accidently clicked a bark. I’ve clicked for dogs raising a paw when I meant to click for the sit that occurred half a second before. I’ve clicked too early and accidentally taught a dog to “hover” instead of sit. The good news is, all these dogs ended up learning the desired behavior. Mistakes will be made when training, no matter who’s holding that clicker. But as always, practice makes perfect and my job is to help you along the way.

Here’s something else that may surprise you: I can’t always predict the best plan of action upon our first assessment. Dogs, like people, have different learning styles. What works for one dog exhibiting a certain behavior may not work for another dog doing the exact same behavior. For example, when it comes to leash reactivity, some dogs learn to sit and wait a certain distance away from the stimulus until it passes. Other dogs do better keeping active and doing behavior after behavior to keep their brain busy until the stimulus passes. I can usually pinpoint which dogs will learn better with a certain technique but sometimes the dog surprises me and does better with an alternative method.

I know it’s hard to be consistent

Like I said earlier, we are human. Humans have a hard time with consistency, especially when dealing with the behaviors of another being. Unfortunately, dogs see the world in more black and white terms. I teach clients that behaviors must be ok 100% of the time or none of the time. Dogs don’t know that jumping on you in the backyard on Saturday afternoon is different than jumping on you when you’re dressed up for work on a Tuesday morning.

That said, I know that I am not consistent with the rules when Sully jumps on me in excitement. I also know that I am not consistent when it comes to Sully following the rules of loose-leash walking. Realistically, I know that it’s HARD to be consistent with a pet you spend so much time with. It’s easy for me to be consistent with your dog because I only spend an hour with him. That is way more manageable than doing this stuff error-free for 12 or 14 hours a day. But please remember – you’re not allowed to get mad at your dog for a behavior that you know you haven’t been giving consistent feedback on. At that point, it’s not because the poor dog is dumb, it’s because you’ve sent mixed signals as to what is expected.

My dog is not perfect and we still work hard

Sully knows quite a handful of behaviors and cues and continues to learn all the time, whether for fun or out of necessity. But at the end of the day, he is still a schnauzer who is not fond of children. We’ve done a lot of work! Now he reacts to kids only about 60% of the time (versus 100% when we started) and when he does react I can get him to calm down sooner. This is huge progress, but there is still a lot more work to be done. But once again, I am human and make mistakes. Sometimes unexpected events catch me off guard. And I also don’t have an endless supply of children to practice with. So yes, that number could be lower but luckily, training is a lifelong process and something we can always get better at.

I wasn’t born knowing everything

I’ve been in the pet industry for about nine years now so I’ve had lots of time to collect the knowledge I hold today. But I still don’t know everything! I spend a lot of time watching videos from reputable dog trainers from all over the world. I spend time with other trainers, like Matt Bryant, The Texas Dog Father in Katy, TX, or the training team at Peace Love & Dogs in Houston, Tx watching and taking direction. I meet quarterly with other CCPDT trainers in San Antonio. I ask questions and discuss dog news and methods with my two training besties, Jordan (who I used to teach puppy classes with, also known as my favorite blog editor) and Michelle (who works with Matt). I read blogs, books and articles. I attend conferences and take webinars. Not only do I enjoy learning more and sharpening my skills but it is required for me to hold my certification. Just as it’s important for your doctor to keep up with the most modern medicine and science, it is my job to keep up with the developing world of dog training. Doesn’t your pet deserve the best?

Training your dog alone can be frustrating and overwhelming, which is why having a support system is so important. So when you’re feeling discouraged and it seems like your training is going nowhere, take a deep breath. Remember, you are dealing with a living being, not a robot or machine. And know that I am here doing all the hard work and learning to pass it on to you!

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