What Do Dog Owners Want?
August 26, 2008 7:11 PM   Subscribe

Help me to be the best dog trainer possible to my clients! Tell me what you look for in a dog trainer, and what you hope the experience will be like. Tell me your best and worst experiences. I teach group classes in basic and advanced obedience, work with owners whose dogs have serious behavior problems like aggression and anxiety, and everything in between, so all feedback is helpful.

I was inspired by ebellicosa's excellent askme. I give my clients a feedback form, and often hear their thoughts either firsthand or secondhand through colleagues in the dog world or through friends of friends, but that's mostly positive. I'd like to hear what doesn't work, too.
posted by freshwater_pr0n to Pets & Animals (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My wife has gotten a lot of good feedback from people associated with this newish certification from the Animal Behavior Society. John Wright, who's currently the chair of the applied end of things, has written some fun books.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 8:54 PM on August 26, 2008

My dog is a rescue. We got him from a scary city pound where his family dropped him off. He'd been there nearly a month and he was rail thin. He has anxiety issues. Our vet recommended we treat the anxiety with dog training classes. Doggy has done well.

I need a trainer who stays calm when dealing with an anxious dog. Please don't blame the dog because he was not trained when he was young "when training would really take". I understand that, but unless you are giving up on my dog and dismissing him from class, please let's stay positive and discuss what will/may work with him.

I like a trainer who is more about training me to train my dog than she is about training my dog. I like a trainer who models really good dog-handling behavior. It will irritate me if you 'teach' me to handle a dog a certain way, and you never do it that way yourself. In regards to the lesson plan, give us specific tasks to work on at home. Feel free to recommend food, and training treats, but please don't make me uncomfortable by trying to sell them to me in class. Answer questions with regard to the lesson, but don't allow the class to be derailed by one dog owner or let the class devolve from training to chatting.

In group classes, if there are dogs who aren't dealing well with each other, address that. If one pooch is aggressive, involve the whole class in the process of dealing with it. I'd actually like to know how to handle an aggressive dog, to watch how you do it, and I'd like to learn how my dog and I should behave around an aggressor.

On more practical matters, I like a trainer who keeps good notes, who knows what we were working on last week, and has reviewed all that before class time begins. Class is only 45 minutes long, lets not waste it.

Thanks for asking this question. It's great that you want to be the best you can for your clients. Good luck!
posted by toastedbeagle at 9:02 PM on August 26, 2008

Stay current with behavioural research. Be flexible. Be patient. Don't be Cesar Millan.

What I look for in a dog trainer may not be what your clients look for but: I want to see someone who keeps educating themselves with workshops and seminars and who takes classes themselves with their own dogs (any dog trainer who thinks they don't need to take classes is someone I avoid). I want someone who competes and titles their dogs (since that is where my interests lie). I want someone who doesn't think they know all there is to know just because what they've always done is what has worked - the fact that some things work does not mean they are optimal, and humble trainers who learn from the dogs they help train are the best trainers. I want someone who is educated in, and understands, modern behaviour modification methods, and who is open-minded. I want someone who understands that dogs are all individuals, and who can adapt to different needs. I want someone who may have a solid set of personal philosophies about dog training, but who also changes as our knowledge changes. I want someone who genuinely loves, does their best to understand, and who respects, dogs. I want someone who understands that they are training the owner, not the dog. I want someone who understands where their purview begins and ends, and where other peoples' purviews begin and end (I do not go to training classes for veterinary advice any more than I go to my veterinarian for training advice), that said, I also want someone who is aware of current AVMA (or other nationally-relevant body) recommendations about things like vaccines, and who understands things like titers and minimal vaccine protocols. I want someone who is aware of their strengths and limitations, and who knows the strengths and weaknesses of other trainers in the area (if I want competition obedience classes and you only teach pet classes, tell me that, and tell me who DOES teach what I want - that makes me more likely to come back to you when I need a puppy class next time, and it makes me more likely to refer pet owners to you).
posted by biscotti at 9:06 PM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Largely more of the same...

Be flexible. Don't preach. Be patient when your clients preach to you.

Understand that some people are afraid of their dogs. I'm sure you see clients who are stuck training the dog because no one else will - even through your student is the only one who voted no on the family dog question. They showed up and they deserve your help even if they do not like the dog. Recognize that some people have spouses who will only go so far and you have and their dog will have to work within that limit. Recognize that people may have already done some things with their dog that are working for them and you need to build on that, not criticize it. (If you clients have been reading books or watching TV, you can always say, for instance, "Victoria Stilwell isn't in our class today. If she was we could ask her what she would do. Why don't we try....")

Don't assume people know things. Someone who has their first dog, dog eats a sock and they think he's a strong chewer and needs the uber Kong. Not their fault - they just don't know.

On the tedious practical matters, even though you went through this when they signed up, the first class should remind people about all the teacher stuff - What your policies are for weather? How will people know if class is canceled? How will cancelled classes be rescheduled? Do you allow pairs (couples, parent & child) to bring a dog to class? If not, help people understand why not. Talk about homework. If you use treats, talk about treats (for instance, why crunchy treats are not such a great idea in class.) If you're doing a CGC class, make sure people understand the paperwork.

Videotaping can be a tremendous tool. If you have that option, and you have clients who don't hate cameras, it's worth thinking about. (Of course, if you're training in a dressage arena with floor to ceiling mirrors on one wall, the camera isn't necessary...)

If it is all possible in your classes to give people a chance to work other dogs and see their dogs worked by other people, that's great stuff. (I realize how difficult for you as a small business person - there's enough going on with all those people and dogs and safety first.)

Whether your dogs have titles or not, your clients need to see what you and your dogs can do. I like it when trainers tell funny stories about their naughty dogs - this kind of humble humor doesn't go over well with everyone.

Some dog owners, as you may have noticed, swing wildly between seeing their dogs as little people who have favorite TV shows and imagining that poor little fearful Boots is utterly unable to learn. If you can get a handle on and manage how people think about their dogs, that will really help your clients and their pets.

With intermediate students who are successful with a few techniques, give 'em a new trick. Prohibit treats and luring. If they don't use food, make them use treats and luring. See if they can get their dog to respond to voice commands with their own eyes are closed. Just ask them to mix it up.

I, personally, hate graduations and all the mess with dogs in kerchiefs but it is clear to me that most people love it. Don't forget to make your clients feel like they've accomplished something, even if all they managed was to bring the dog to most of the scheduled classes. A little bit is better than nada.

In my opinion, talking about anxieties in that way can be tricky - better to address the things the dog is doing and the things that trigger the behavior. But if you have a vocabulary that's working for you and your clients with issue dogs, then my opinion is of zero importance.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:29 PM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

We recently finished a basic obedience class with our rescue pooch, and while it was overall a pretty good experience, here are some things I wish had been different (and I also second everything toastedbeagle says above):

One owner brought his daughter, age 6 or so. This was fine when she was with the dog and dad, focusing on the class, but at times she would ride her scooter back and forth behind the row of owners and dogs. This made my pup very anxious and she became fearful of the kid. When she growled when the kid suddenly popped out from behind a pillar, we were both chastised. The trainer never did ask the kid not to do any of those things; I can understand wanting dogs to be able to obey even in the face of distractions, but I don't think that the basic class is the place to learn that - it's hard enough with all the other dogs around.

My dog was also fearful of a couple of the young, really boisterous dogs, who would jump up and even try to mount her. I had to ask the owners to hold them back; the trainer pretty much ignored the behaviour.

I had heard about classes with a play or socialization time for the dogs afterwards, and I thought that sounded like a good idea; ours didn't have that, so the only dog interactions were in the somewhat intense training atmosphere. I think it would have helped my shy dog to have some fun after class.

Now that I think about it, I wonder if it wouldn't be better to have a class just for adult rescues and pound dogs. I think their needs are different from the puppy classes.

Since the class I've learned a lot about dog body language, and how we can use our body language to communicate (like in the works of Turid Rugaas); this is something I've been finding effective and wish my trainer had given us some of that information.

Thanks for asking this question - best of luck with your classes!
posted by TochterAusElysium at 10:41 PM on August 26, 2008

When we went to dog training classes with our puppy they were run by two trainers. This let one trainer show stuff to the group while the other managed whatever sort of chaos was going on in the background so as to minimise distraction. This could include taking away a dog or a disruptive dog (and/or owner) in order to work individually in a separate room. The trainers shared the role of being at the front of the class.
posted by rongorongo at 4:57 AM on August 27, 2008

I do not hire dog trainers. My sweetie is an excellent dog trainer and she also trained me to train our dog via her method.

We use non-standard hand signals because we have a very sweet dog from an aggressive breed. We do not wish other folks to know the keys to the castle.

But we are firm, (mostly) gentle, and very disciplined. Our Akita is very well behaved and lives with 2 cats (one likes him, the other doesn't).

When I encounter a trainer, I look for trainers to be like Ian Dunbar. (link to a flash video) The trainer need not be Ian Dunbar, but I want the trainer to have a solid idea and understanding of:
- Dog social expectations
- Probable dog perspectives on humans and on training
- Current behavioral research
- Training dogs with positive feedback

I also want dog trainers I encounter to be able to respect alternate systems to their own (as long as they're effective) and to have some humility (even if it is not displayed) humility.
posted by kalessin at 5:23 AM on August 27, 2008

I had a dog trainer who kept trying to up-sell me (various books, etc.) I felt I was already paying her for her expertise and didn't enjoy constantly having to say no thank you (actually, she didn't last after that).

Not that it sounds like you're doing that, but I did just want to throw it out there...
posted by cestmoi15 at 2:37 PM on August 28, 2008

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