Yesterday I was talking to a local dog trainer friend about her work with a rescue organisation she volunteers with. The woman gives hours of her time every week, year in, year out to this organisation, has had some amazing results with the fearful dogs she works with, is beloved by the humans she deals with, and yet felt she had been lambasted by members of the dog training community because she isn’t a certified dog trainer yet.
We talked for some time about her skill set which is not only varied and deep, but also valuable with the cases she works with, yet she had no real conception of just how good she is and the difference she is making. I realized she was suffering from a crisis of confidence brought about by the judgement of other people in her field. I sat down and asked her a few pointed questions;
“Do these people who judge you pay your wages?”
” Do these people work hands on with any of the dogs, foster them, transport them, feed them, help them to get rehomed? When there’s no camera or photo opportunity?”
The answer to both questions was of course no, because most people who are busy doing actual good, week in, week out, have little time to criticize the work of others.
I asked her who her REAL clients were and she told me she saw the dogs as her clients, as I myself always have, and so I asked her then, ” Are your clients happy with your work?”
Of course they are, the dogs adore her…she’s a good dog trainer and has helped saved countless lives that would otherwise be lost. They don’t care how she phases out some reward, shapes a behaviour, when she uses the clicker or even if she has a clicker. They just care that she’s present, helpful, loving and gets the desired result in a kind way. The dogs just know that she is there for them, and thats all they need and want.
The humans that judge her probably spend more time analysing what technical part of dog training she does wrong than they spend actually training a real dog. It’s sad, but a story I often hear.
In listening to her yesterday it brought my own experiences sharply into focus and made me think of how I came to do what I do today.
I was very fortunate to have an introduction into this arena through my sister Melanie, who started Desperate Dogs in the UK many years ago. A passionate dog lover and instinctual dog handler, my sister is still the very best pack leader I have ever seen. I marvel at her ability to control and lead twenty dogs on a pack walk, off leash, multiple times a day. That pack will consist of anything from German Shepherds to Bichons, poodles and chihuahuas. They all coexist peacefully and play beautifully together.
When I decided I wanted to learn how to handle my own dogs’ problem behavior, I went first to my sister who allowed me to watch and learn, and then become more and more hands on, before going off to learn more from other handlers and behaviorists, some famous, some not so much.
I gained much knowledge from my diploma courses, every seminar, every book that I read, and combined that with hands on experience and formed a base line of protocols that formed the starting point for what we do at Desperate Dogs today.
Nothing though, but NOTHING, was as valuable an education as the work that I did with shelter and rescue dogs, and they are the ones I have to thank for the knowledge we put into practise today.
I cut my teeth on some of the worst cases I have ever seen; completely out of my depth at times at the start, working with dogs no one else would touch who were destined to be put down, I just felt that they had nothing to lose by being my guinea pig. In all but one case, I am sure they would agree with me…
Yes, I made mistakes and wrong calls; my dogs paid the price as I fostered many of these cases in my own home, my kids paid the price for the reduced time I gave them, constantly listening to my frustrations and having to always help some poor pathetic creature that I brought home every time I visited a shelter.
And yet…I learned an incredible amount from all of those dogs, as did my family. We all learned compassion, the value of service to other beings and more about the highs and the depravities of mankind’s behavior than anyone should, really.
Nothing in any course curriculum could have ever prepared me for the sight of a dog so fearful at being left again that he jumped through a plate glass window three stories up and almost killed himself.
Nothing in any book that I ever read gave me the instincts I needed to deal with a dog tied up with barbed wire around her neck that had grown into her flesh; she was starved almost to death and was being used as a canine scarecrow on a ten foot wire when she was ‘liberated’ from her field in Hoschton.
Nothing in any seminar could have prepared me for the long term view we had to take when dealing with the extreme case of our dear old Ava, whose story has graced this blog previously.
No continuing education units will ever be as valuable as the knowledge that problems have been solved and that families are still living with the very pets that they maybe sought to get rid of.
I don’t have a PhD in dog behavior. I don’t print a list of credentials after my name a mile long from every course I ever took, every club I belong to or every trade association I pay to be a part of.
Instead, I ask every one of my clients to send me a testimonial if they are satisifed with the work that I have done, or act as a referral should I have a prospective client with their exact same problem, that way, the client knows if I can do the work or not, rather than having to take my word for it.
Too often in clubs and organizations, some fool is putting together a mission statement, a code of ethics, a list of ‘approved’ practises for its members to follow, and anyone who veers away from that ‘approved path’ becomes somewhat of a persona non grata. Thats how the whole ‘Mean Girls’ premise starts with divisions, ex communicating and back biting, all rather tawdry in my view.
In dog training and behavior, there are many professional organizations all over the world, mostly dedicated to the welfare of dogs and the education of their owners.
I used to belong to the biggest one worldwide until all of the in-fighting and back stabbing that I heard soured me so much that I decided not to renew. Listening to it all, with their boardroom antics, I wondered how any of them had time to actually help any dogs?
I was about to join another one recently, slightly more tailored to what I do, when I realised that some of the names on the members list included people I know to be scared of handling dogs, other people whom I know to use choke chains and pinch collars as a means of control, and some people who have a squillion credentials but can’t solve basic dog behavior problems. I was brought up to believe that we are judged firmly by the company we keep and so decided to forget that also.
Some of the very best dog trainers and well known behavior experts in the world, especially some of the TV trainers, don’t have a million credentials, they mostly just learned, as I did, from the dogs they worked tirelessly with until they hit on the right result and developed a way of dealing with dogs based on the information and experiences they gained from them.
If you are looking for a dog trainer, or a plumber, or a good restaurant, or a contractor, DON’T be blinded by credentials. As master ethologist Dr Patricia McConnell says, they just show that we are ‘teachable and trainable’. They say nothing about our ability or our business practises.
With dog problems, if you’re looking to hire a professional, consider going to the shelter and asking their advice about who they would recommend. Obviously look at websites, but take time to ask for referrals/testimonials and question past clients about the results they got using this person. Dogs aren’t robots, no two cases are ever identical; is the trainer/behaviorist good at thinking outside of the box? Are they obsessed with rules more than results?
If you are looking to get into this industry, and why wouldn’t you, it’s an amazing thing to do with your life, I would urge anyone to most definately get educated as there is no substitute for depth of knowledge….. but start by being willing to get your hands dirty and by being hands on. I learned far more about diet by picking up poop than I did at one of the nutrition seminars I attended.
Volunteer at your local shelter and be willing to foster if you can, it’s an intense learning experience, I guarantee it. Watch other trainers or dog handlers and watch the dogs’ reactions to them; the dogs will tell you all you need to know. If it’s kind and it works, borrow it. If its not kind, don’t go there…
Lastly, never allow yourself be judged or ruled by anyone but the Almighty Himself and your own conscience, which are, lets face it, one and the same. If you follow those, you will never go wrong.
If you follow these, your work and your contribution, will always be good enough.