Helping People Enjoy Their Dogs

It was clear to anyone watching them that the little dog and his owner loved each other. Despite all her frustration and her ineptitude, the little dog’s owner was trying her very hardest to help him. And despite all of his anxiety and stress, the little dog was trying to work with her.

And they were failing miserably.

Photo by Rosa Money

Photo by Rosa Money

They had been failing together for five years. The owner would take her little dog to classes and agility trials and seminars. She went from one trainer to another, collecting a plethora of habits and ideas along the way. A patchwork of training methodologies and theories clung to her. She tried and tried and tried, and her dog tried his hardest too. And they failed, and they failed, and they failed again.

The little dog was on edge all the time. He tried to listen to his handler, worked his heart out for her really, and yet when it all got to be too much he couldn’t help lunging and barking. He truly couldn’t control it. The stress would spill over and he would crash and burn yet again. His owner would drag him away, raging and out of control.

When I took the dog’s leash in class and began working with him, his eyes cleared. His movements slowed and he started taking treats less frantically. He took a deep breath and shook off. I demonstrated the exercise for his owner, and when I went to hand the leash back to her, her little dog didn’t want to go. He tried to follow me away from his owner, and I saw the embarrassment and frustration and guilt cross her face in a raw and naked moment that broke my heart.

The owner had the best of intentions. The dog adored her. But the pure relief of working with someone who was clear with him, who listened to and respected him and his limits, and who was not themself on edge, was more important to him in that moment than those five years of pain and hard work that his owner had put in.

This is the challenge that professional dog trainers face.

Any trainer worth his or her salt can take a dog’s leash and help that dog. We can read your dog and adjust the exercise to perfectly suit his needs in the moment. If we’re any good, we can do this so quickly and make such minute adjustments that you won’t even realize that we’ve just split our criteria in half and upped the rate of reinforcement by 50%. You may not even be able to see the tiny changes in the amount of pressure we place on your dog, turning our body slightly to the side or moving a few steps away from a stressor. This stuff is automatic for us, because we’ve been doing it for years and we understand the dance that true training entails.

It looks like magic. And it’s meaningless, unless we can help you do it too.

The little dog’s owner was on edge and jumpy herself. She automatically tightened up on the leash and administered constant tiny little jerks on her dog’s collar (a technique she’d learned years ago) whenever she got nervous. The more she tried to control her dog in these situations, the worse he got. She took him to classes and trials constantly in the belief that if she didn’t continuously expose him, the little dog would backslide. She delivered treats quickly and imprecisely, not to mention far, far too infrequently to provide the amount of information her dog required to feel comfortable. Her dog was miserable. She was miserable. And they both loved each other, through all the misery and frustration.

This is the challenge of a professional dog trainer, then.  Not to make myself look good, but to give you the skills you need so that you can do that too. Paws Abilities’ motto is “helping people enjoy their dogs,” and that is my primary mission as a professional trainer.

So what could I do for the woman and her little dog? Frankly, I could be kind. I could be as patient with the owner as I was with her dog. I could help her change her behavior in tiny little bits. Just as a rehomed dog with a patchwork history may take months to trust a new owner, I would never expect a client who has worked with so many other trainers to change her ways all at once, or even to trust that changing her ways was the right thing to do. Instead, I could show her the possibilities and help her set manageable and realistic goals.

Professional trainers sometimes forget that human behavior can be shaped in the same way that we shape animal behavior. If you are dealing with problematic behavior in your dog, you owe it to yourself to find a trainer who will respect you every bit as much as they wish you to respect your pet. And if you’re working as a professional trainer and cannot remember to be as kind to your human clients as you are to their dogs, frankly, you need to find another profession. The principles that shape solid animal training: shaping new behaviors through successive approximations, building solid foundational skills, adjusting our criteria based on the individual in front of us, and using a high rate of reinforcement to cement understanding, are all equally important when teaching people.

I first worked with the woman and her dog two years ago. I did not forbid her from taking her dog to classes or trials, although I gently recommended against it and commended her when she chose not to put her dog into these stressful situations. I did not yell at her when she jerked on the leash or forgot to treat her dog, but instead gave her easy suggestions to follow that were incompatible with these training mistakes. I was empathetic when she admitted that she found training frustrating and disheartening, and adjusted the exercises in the class she was in so that she would leave each class feeling joyful at the success her dog had made.  And she still failed, but less often, and her dog still blew up sometimes, but less than he used to, and he recovered from these situations much more quickly. And they both learned to relax just a little bit more, and to trust one another just a little bit more.

This woman has floated in and out of our classes several times in the last couple years. She’s done some private training with me too. Recently she contacted me with a success story, and we celebrated her achievements. She still pushes her dog too far sometimes, and sometimes she forgets how to give him the information he needs. But she tries, and her dog tries, and they love each other. They’re much further along than they were two years ago, and they’ll be further still next year.

Training a dog is easy for those of us who have done it for any length of time. Professional dog training is difficult. Finding the compassion and patience to provide a safe, nonjudgmental space in which novice handlers can learn takes real skill, empathy, and ongoing education.

16 responses to “Helping People Enjoy Their Dogs

  1. Excellent post! Trainers need to remind ourselves we are training people and dogs. We need to use positive reinforcement and patience with both species.

  2. Wonderful wonderful post – thanks so much for reminding us to be kind to the human at the other end of the leash as well. In the end they own the dog and he is their responsibility…

  3. What is your recommendation for finding a good trainer?

  4. This was the most astute and compassionate commentary I have ever read regarding dog training. I have only been a dog trainer for two years on paper but you made me realize I have been one a long time. I have felt that emotional tug between dogs and their owners since I can remember. Sometimes I see it when I am passing some one in the street or at the pet store. I feel compelled to help but people do not always want advice from a helpful stranger or even when they are paying for it. It can be so difficult carrying around all this knowledge. The way you have written this down is so amazing and beautiful. It made me cry because I completely understand every single word. It was as if some one finally write about my life as a dog trainer. I can only imagine how much this passage has helped others, dog owners as well as dog trainers. Thank you for this, I will continue to help people and dogs one day at a time one dog at a time.

  5. This is amazing and moving. You are so articulate and precisely put words to something I struggle with every day. Your suggestions for shifting focus to the other end of the leash are really helpful too. I’m posting this on every professional dog training forum I can. Thank you! –Sarah

  6. Excellent, excellent, excellent! I posted this on my business Facebook page for my clients. I have had so many cases where clients have told me that other trainers have been cruel to them and their dogs and they had given up. Your heart has to be in this business, you have to care about the people and the dogs and you have to listen to everyone’s needs if you are going to help. It does get frustrating at times but as long as you know in your heart that what you are doing is right, and you are treating the dog and the human with respect the payback is priceless. People love their dogs, if they did not care they would not call a trainer. As trainers we have to understand that and listen, always listen because if you don’t listen to the client’s needs you might as well walk out the door. Thank you so much for this from one trainer to another it means the world.

  7. Ki's teammate

    Very insightful. Thanks.

    I remember at the Clicker Expo many years ago, I stepped outside for some air. There was a man in the courtyard with his little dog. He had a clicker book, a clicker, and a bag of treats. He was doing it all wrong. A “positive” trainer came out, sized this up in a snap, and headed over his way. She told him forcefully and in great detail all the things he was doing wrong. She stalked off, happy that she had cleared up the problem. The man sadly packed up his things and his out-of-control little dog and left. It was the most heartbreaking thing I have ever seen in thirty years of dog training.

    Positive training methods start with how you treat humans.

  8. Thank you. That was good to read.

  9. Reblogged this on and also, dogs and commented:
    I don’t normally reblog, but this is a post that I’d like to be able to re-read without having to hunt it down again.

  10. Figuring out how to reach humans can be tricky. So many notions get in the way.
    A while ago I realized that dogs like working with me — not only due to high-value treats/toys and my novelty — but due to clarity of communication, High rate of reinforcement means You Are Getting It Right. And you can figure out What Is Right. [And that criteria is being split out for progressive shaping towards the desired behavior.]
    Humans do enjoy the compliments and stickers/candy I hand out, but sometimes it is tricky to reach folks. Gently showing them options *is* helpful.
    Yet another compassionate post, Sara. You do a great job of putting pictures into words. And you write about another issue Dog Trainers should be aware of.

  11. What a fabulous entry!! Thank you for taking the time to write this and share with us :)

  12. So well said! We are in the relationship business. Not the obedience business. No one will care how much we know, unless they see how much we care.

  13. One thing I used to find belittling and demoralising, (looking back knowing what I know now as a client of many classes) is a trainer who takes your dog from you, normally without even asking if it’s ok to do so and why they are doing so, and making you feel incompetent, and then speaking to others in the class as they often do, usually something along the lines of ‘terrible handler; see how the dog doesn’t do xxx with me or does do xxx with me’ and not for her. I would never let a trainer take my dog from me now without being clear what was going on, but I’m with a respectful trainer who will always ask first and explain. However, I see it going on in different places and I feel sorry for the owner. Even if they are struggling, they need respect. It’s fine line to play between trying to sincerely help out, making the owner look rubbish (those trainers shouldn’t be in the job they do), taking control of an emergency situation or coaching the owner independently – all depends on the trainer and situation. There were many times I was in tears or close to tears in classes over various things – looking back now, they were a direct result of bad teaching. Great article,

  14. Wonderful article. I always try to find compassion, empathy and patience for my clients. If we don’t, we don’t help the dog. Every dog is an individual and must be allowed to go at their own pace. Same goes for the humans. Coaching dogs and their owners requires much more than demos and instructions. We must work within their comfort zones and gradually raise criteria using positive reinforcement. Thank you for writing this. I will share on my FB page for my clients.

  15. Truth speaks for itself. Well done!

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