It Always Works, Except When It Doesn’t

I think that there is a danger in any profession of moving to a point where you know so much, that you have a hard time believing that you may be wrong.  There, I said it, wrong.  It’s a hard thing to be, and a harder thing to admit to being.  We work so hard to stay on the cutting edge, to be “positive” to be “force-free”, to find out all the latest learning theory and have every training tool and trick in the book at our disposal.  But how well do we utilize our knowledge?  Are we continually challenging ourselves, or are we using said knowledge to discount the very real issues and feelings that other people and animals are having?  This is an area, like the edge of the map, “here there be dragons”.  Because we “know” from the research, from the statistics, from the science, that what we are doing and recommending works.  The kind of training we do does work.  It can change lives, when applied well.  It can save lives, when applied well.  It always works, with every type of animal, any species, except when it doesn’t.  Then the inclination is to take the easy route, and say, “Well, the client didn’t follow through” or “the client didn’t do it right”.  We have moved from our force training mantra of “the dog is just bad”, to our positive training mantra of “the client is just bad”.  These are the dragons, and they serve no one.  The dog doesn’t get trained, the client doesn’t enjoy their relationship with their dog, the trainer gets a reputation for being “soft” or a “cookie pusher who can’t work with THESE kinds of dogs”.   No one wants that.

If our clients are failing, our coaching is failing.  Our clients call us because they aren’t professional dog trainers, and they can admit they have a problem and ask for help, let’s not turn on them for being exactly what they have presented themselves to be!    Let’s take a long look at our skill set, and determine where we are failing our clients.

Because we know it works.  Except when it doesn’t.  When is that?  When a dog is so over threshold that he is unable to take treats, whether from fear or arousal, this is an untrainable situation.  When a dog has so much other, more salient,  environmental input that he can’t or won’t focus on the marker, or the reinforcer, or the handler.  When the handler is consistently unable to mark or reinforce in a meaningful window of time, for whatever reason.  When the dog has such a strong reinforcement history for the behavior with specific people (usually the handler!) or at specific times, that there is little to do in that training situation unless you change and control the environmental options significantly before trying to elicit, let alone teach, an alternate behavior.

We are very experienced, we select environments to work in, reinforcers to use, and set ourselves and our dogs up for success.  Yes, it ALWAYS works, in the right situation, with the right reinforcers, and the right environment.  It typically works with client dogs for us, because we are novel, skilled, and have no previous reinforcement history with the animal, givnig us the opportunity to be very selective about what we reinforce from the very beginning.  We as trainers take this for granted, because much of our observational process and planning is spent on adjusting the environment, stimuli, reinforcers, limiting access to those things, or using them to our advantage. We know how to find the foundation skill, and fix it first, before layering new things on top of it.  We can see what the animals are finding reinforcing, and how they are choosing to get to the reinforcers.

Our clients are inexperienced, they don’t see body language, they don’t have the environmental observation ninja skills of trainers who do this every day!  Their timing isn’t always great, their dogs know they get attention for jumping, mouthing, whatever we’re trying to help them “fix”.  They don’t understand that really excellent training is proactive, and it’s too late to explain, in many cases!

My vow is to honor and respect my clients, as much as I do their animal friends.  To respond with empathy and active listening when they tell me “it doesn’t work” and to try to discern what’s happening and WHY it doesn’t work, not blame them for not working hard enough, or not knowing enough.  It’s not my place to judge, I am here to observe, assist, teach, coach, and set both the dog and the handler up for success.  If it isn’t working, I’m not teaching it well.  I choose to admit when I’m wrong, take responsibility for that, and work to make it right, for the good of the human animal bond, and the quality of life of all my clients and students. Let’s work to slay the dragons.


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