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all articles by Lisa Lafferty unless otherwise noted.  Some previously published on K9Station (defunct) under author's previous name Lisa Giroux

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Deep Thoughts for Instructors of People Who Own Dogs

by Lisa Lafferty

Let's talk about the common ways people become instructors.

I, like many other trainers I know, began as a simple dog owner.  From the time I was two years old, my earliest memory, I loved interacting with all animals and enjoyed my canine friends in ways my friends did not.  I loved training them, watching them, developing a deep bond with the dogs that romped with me through the Ozark Mountain forests, me with a book under my arm, to find a large rock to sit on with my dog by my side while I explored the vast world of fantasy worlds inside my beloved books.  I taught my dogs to do all kinds of neat stuff and even won "Best Dog Trick" at the county fair a couple of times.  My dogs always were deeply attached to me and listened well.

As life went on, I worked at many different jobs, never finding a true calling.  During that time I discovered the world of dog sports.  The first thing I ever tried was agility.  When I woke up on the day of agility class, my stomach would jump with excited expectation.  I often would arrive early just to fool around on the sidelines and watch other dogs and trainers.  Me and my Molly dog progressed quickly through the classes.  This was back in the day when you did NO foundation work as done today--we just threw the dogs on the obstacles and went with it.

It wasn't long into my little agility career that I was asked to teach a beginner class.  I absolutely loved it.  I started attending seminars, reading SO many books, ordered training videos, attended some more seminars, started playing flyball, started teaching flyball, and at some point I realized that being with animals, training them, and being around other people that were as nutty as me was pretty darn awesome.  I decided to try my hand at teaching obedience classes and had some wonderful successes with my early classes, and made a whole lot of mistakes due to sheer lack of world experience.

I worked for Petsmart at the flagship store in Ottawa, Ontario for a year and a half, and boy did this teach me a lot.  I learned that the structured methods they used didn't agree with my beliefs, and I went off book with no thought or concern about what the managers might think.  I developed a lot of great techniques at Petsmart, and I even wrote a clicker program that was used for many years in stores across the US and Canada.  I saw thousands of dogs in that time and learned from every dog and owner.

I answered an ad for a Guide Dog school and quit Petsmart when I was hired to be Puppywalking Supervisor.  I managed a corps of volunteer foster families, evaluating and providing training advice for dogs aged 7 weeks to 24 months.  I followed roughly 600 dogs from the whelping box to success or failure at becoming a Guide Dog.  I encountered dozens of experienced Guide Dog Mobility Instructors that I learned from in a way most people never experience.  I learned who I was as a trainer, developed my personal style, and most importantly, I went into an array of homes and family dynamics while coaching the foster families.  I learned how to adjust my style and approach to get things done with the people.  I developed ways to motivate and encourage people to do the required job for us.  When dealing with a volunteer vs an employee staff, you MUST at all times walk a fine line of insisting on proper behavior, but doing so in a way that motivates rather than irritates. 

The experience at Guide Dogs was a rare opportunity for a person like me, eager to learn and expand and improve, to get a real-world idea of what it takes to get the job done as an Instructor of Humans Who Own Dogs. 

I have a few questions for you to ponder before we go further.  Please take the time to sit back and really ruminate on these. 

  1. As an instructor, what efforts have you made to learn how to train people?  Have you put the same effort in learning to train people as you did in training dogs?

  2. What efforts have you made to stay current on new knowledge as you continue in your job?  Do you attempt to get information from a lot of sources, do you read new books, do you attend seminars? 

  3. Are you prejudiced against certain methods?  Write down some training methodologies, and then make a Pro and Con list for each.  Can you discover actual evidence for why you agree or disagree with different methods and approaches? 

I find it interesting that in nearly every workplace, people are trained in Human Resources and are taught methods of training their staff.  Often there is a handbook of rules and suggestions for how to deal with staff, co-workers, and clients.  Yet, in our job, there is a serious lack of focus on the fact that we are not DOG TRAINERS.  We are PEOPLE TRAINERS.  Most of us came up through the ranks of experience, like me, and maybe we learned some ways of handling things with clients, but why is it that there is so much focus on the dog training science?  Why haven't we, as a whole, have nearly no resources on interactions with clients?

We put so much thought, effort and love into the dog part of our job.  Nearly every instructor I have ever met is a pretty darn good dog trainer, but I have met a whole lot of people who cannot effectively impart this knowledge to their students.  They have a background in Dog Learning Science and virtually no knowledge of Teaching People.

During my time at Petsmart and Guide Dogs, I learned a few things I hadn't realized before.  I will list some of the important mental adjustments I made from dealing with so many people.

Try to figure out what is motivating the people to work with their dog.  The fact of the matter is that a frustrated person (the most common client I had--a person who has a rambunctious, untrained young dog that is making life hell now that he's not so little and cute) is motivated by frustration, and often the obedience class or private consult is not a first step, but a step they take "because I don't want to have to get rid of him."  It is important to determine motivation of each student in order to determine the odds of whether or not they are actually going to do what you advise.  Frustrated people are usually not in a good frame of mind for successful training.  On the opposite side, people who attend obedience class because they enjoy working with their dog have a different set of motivations.

It has been my experience that it makes things easier if I ask myself, with each client, "what is their main reason for being here?  What is the chief complaint or the chief goal?"  With frustrated clients, the best way to help their dog through your instruction is NOT throwing a lot of theory and routine obedience behaviors at them.  Find out why they are stressed and focus on clearing up the biggest stressor FIRST.  Make it a point to discuss the fact that you don't just want to tamp down behaviors that are bugging them.  You want to help them make a complete turnaround, to realize the little dream they had when they got the dog...a best friend, and enjoyable companion, another little family member.  This might mean that you deviate from your "preferred" method to solve a problem.  I have often, for example, used compulsive or corrective techniques (something I don't normally teach) to squash certain behaviors to get the owner in a better frame of mind about working with their dog. 

Example:  I ran into a Sheltie owner in Petsmart as she was looking at muzzles and citronella bark collars.  I engaged her in conversation and found out that she lived in an apartment complex, and her barky Sheltie was reacting loudly to each and every noise in the hallway.  She was shopping the collar aisle thinking she could leave the dog alone while she went to work, with a muzzle on.   Not good.  A warning had been given that if she did not correct the problem within the week, eviction papers would be served.  I realized that we did not have time for my preferred method of changing unwanted behavior, which was to teach an alternative behavior while preventing rehearsal of the unwanted behavior.  We had to stop the problem, NOW, or the woman was going to have to re-home her dog or move, and moving was NOT an option.  This little Sheltie was looking down the barrel of a gun called Find a New Owner or Go to the Shelter. 

This would break the heart of the woman (who was actually considering living in her car in order to keep the dog) and would certainly stress her shy, reactive Sheltie.  So I made a decision.  I decided to stop the barking NOW, with an aversive method that I hate, so that the woman could get some breathing space about her place of residence and then continue to work with the dog with more positive methods to maintain the behavior.  I placed 20 pennies in an empty pop can, duct taped the hole shut, and went to visit.  We had a friend knock on the door.  Sheltie went nuts, I threw the can spinning on the floor, knocking into the dog's legs and scaring her to death.  She literally acted like she had been struck by lightning from God.  She ran under the bed and would not come out.  The person knocked again, the dog flew at the door, I threw it again.  Under the bed she went, terrified.  The person knocked again and the dog did not come out or make noise.

We chatted for a while and ignored the dog (who stayed under the bed the whole time).  We agreed to leave the dog alone in the apartment and proof her against barking while the owner was gone.  We walked quietly into the hall and sat down and waited for about 15 minutes.  When I heard the dog sniffing under the door, I knocked loudly.  Sheltie went nuts and I shook the can hard and threw it into the door.  Silence.  We knocked again.  Silence.  We entered the apartment and Sheltie was in her hidey hole.

I left the woman with instructions on keeping a can nearby at all times, to never let it make noise unless she was using it for training.  She was instructed to shake the can just a little if the dog reacted to noises or knocking.

I communicated with the owner by phone during the next several days.  She had to shake the can a couple of times, and the dog increasingly hid under the bed.  The can wasn't used for several days, but each time the dog heard a noise in the hallway or a knock, she went under the bed.  I instructed the woman to ease up on the can and start using verbal hints instead.  Dog hid under bed with each experience of barking and hearing the woman say "no bark."  The dog stopped reacting by barking entirely within about 48 hours of the first training session.

I then instructed the woman to tell the dog "good girl" and toss a treat and make happy jolly conversation.  We also set up "I've gone to work and you are alone" proofing, and we never had to throw the can.  It took about three months before the dog recovered from her traumatic "the door is evil" experiences, but she got over it.  During this time I showed the woman how to train the dog to whimper and sneeze on cue.  She would say "talk to me," reward, and then say "no bark," and reward.  At this point the dog was pretty good with noises in the hallway but would still hide out with knocks.  It took a good six months for the dog to stop going for the bedroom sometimes, but she did stop.  Best of all she stayed with her owner for the rest of her life, and the owner became a really good trainer and observer of her dog.  She also learned how to prevent the problem with future dogs.

Another example is a training problem that, ironically, involved a cat.  My friend Bettina owned a bed and breakfast that was in her home.  She already had one cat, but when she added a second cat, problems began.  Her first cat had easily been trained to stay off the counters with a simple, "get off there" and putting the cat down on the floor.  Her second cat was a Mission Impossible, Tom Cruise style counter-surfer that could open the breadbox.  The first cat, wondering why she had ever stopped in the first place, became an EXCELLENT counter-surfer. 

Nobody who goes to a bed and breakfast wants to know a cat is walking all over food preparation surfaces.  Bettina confined the cats away from the kitchen and living room, effectively separating them from family life--not an ideal solution for anyone.  Bettina missed her cats and they missed their family time.

So, she asked me...what can I do?  I asked her if she was willing to use an aversive experience to get her cats back into the home.  She said yes.

We spread aluminum foil all over the counters and covered it with little pieces of two-sided tape.  We let Tiger, the new cat, have roam of the house that night.

Long story short, Bettina heard a ruckus right after she retired to bed.  She rushed to the living room and found a Tiger cat doing laps around the kitchen, living room, up the curtains and down the mantlepiece with a large piece of aluminum foil chasing him that he couldn't outrun.  He eventually dislodged the foil and ran and hid.  It is truly amazing how agile and speedy a cat can be.  He covered nearly every square inch of the furniture, walls, curtains and floors in about 4.5 of the worst seconds of his life that night, and to our knowledge, he never tried it again.

Kissa, the first cat, was apparently listening behind her door and never took the bait.  She was a pretty smart cat.  She gave Bettina some really dirty looks for a few days, and when she saw me after that, she would do that irritated skin flinch when I stroked her back.  You cannot tell me that Kissa didn't learn from Tiger's experience.  You could see it in her eyes (death to you, bitchface human, that was simply undignified!)

In both examples, I used methods I didn't really approve of for general use to solve the problem. Both methods were effective and efficient, though, and most of all BENEFITED THE ANIMALS AND THE PEOPLE.  The Sheltie, a dramatic case, got to remain with her person and became a well-trained, well adjusted dog.  The cats got free roam of the house again and we resolved Bettina's sadness at not having the cats around.  In both cases, the ends really did justify the means.

Another general example is the stoppage of really rough mouthing from an adolescent Labrador.  He came to my general obedience class at 10 months of age to learn Sit, Down, Stay, Come, Settle, etc.  If I had not asked his owner about his home behavior and what frustrated his owners the most, I never would have known how badly his mouthing problem was.  He didn't do it in class because he was more interested in the other dogs, so I never saw it there.  Because of my routine question to each student at class 1, I found out that the owners, a somewhat elderly and sort of frail couple, were basically being terrorized by him mouthing pants, skirts, robes, hands and arms during nearly every interaction with them at home.  He would grab at clothing and hands on walks.  He had nearly caused falls several times and the owners couldn't even enjoy petting him because his ONLY approach was to mouth.  Did I mention he was a Labrador?  Very typical behavior for a rowdy male Lab.

 We did an extra lesson together alone where I explained the anti-mouthing technique described on this site in Help!  My Puppy Bites!.  I gave them a handout with the instructions in bullet points, and I did a lot of work to get the reluctant husband on board with the training program.  He really didn't want to be bothered, but I brought him around.  He was a shy man who didn't enjoy the intense discussion at all.  I think mostly he just wanted a magic button to fix the dog that did not involve hanging out in a room with a bunch of other nutty dogs and their nutty people.  Pretty much impossible to provide that, so I gave him the simplest and least talky instructions and tried my best to let him know that I could be trusted and that I could help him.

They went home and put the list on the fridge and made a consistent effort to do as they had been advised.  The Labrador, true to his nature, responded immediately to the boundaries and rules and happily changed his behavior.  The couple started to enjoy walking their dog and hanging out with him.  The Labrador boy started to have a really nice life, the life his owners had dreamed of...walks in the park, trips to a field to free run, good learning and fun at obedience class. By the end of the class they had a dog that was attentive and pleasant that would still mouth a little but would respond to direction to stop.  He turned out to be an awesome dog, and that sweet couple will always bring a smile to my face when I remember them.

Had we not fixed the frustration, they couldn't have completed class.  They would never have been able to train with the mental frustration they were experiencing.  They had already made his walks MUCH less frequent, which was causing the dog to go bonkers, and they were using the crate too much, which made him even more bonkers.  We set that dog free to a good life by just asking the right questions.

So, my advice on this matter?  Figure out the motivation for their hiring you.  They had a reason for calling you.  Get to the bottom of it.  Ask them, "If you could change anything at all, if you could wiggle your nose and make things different today, what would you change?"  Your primary motivation as a trainer should be to get that owner to enjoy working his dog.  You have to relieve the owner's frustration as immediately as possible.  As soon as you can change turn that owner's frown upside down when they think about their dog, you have conquered your issue.  An owner that is enjoying their dog is more likely to want to do the work. An owner that does the work gets an even better dog.  A good dog is more likely to stay in the home for life.  BOOM, Bob's yer uncle, you did your job.

Human Learning Styles

There are seven basic ways that people prefer to learn.  Most people have a preferred style, with ability to learn in other styles too...but some people have a very poor ability to absorb in some of the learning styles.  This is important when you are thinking about how to teach.  You cannot depend on handing someone written instructions, or being able to demonstrate and have someone imitate you.  In most cases these things work, but you need to appropriately "diagnose" when a student is having trouble because you are presenting the information in a way that the person has difficulty absorbing.

  • Visual (spatial):  Prefers using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.  This person might do poorly if you only give verbal instruction or give them a handout that is only written, with no photos or illustrations.  People like this do very well when you demonstrate a skill in front of them, or show them pictures and videos.

  • Aural (auditory-musical): Prefers using sound and music.  Does not really apply to your job as a dog trainer.

  • Verbal (linguistic): Prefers prefer using words, both in speech and writing.  Many people are good at this and you will find that good verbal instruction is a key point of teaching.  This is the kind of person that you can explain a technique using descriptive language, and they will "get it" right away.  They might be less good at watching a demonstration and imitating you.

  • Physical (kinesthetic):  Prefers using body, hands and sense of touch.  You will get quite a few people in your classes that benefit from a hands-on approach.  With folks like this, they may struggle with applying verbal instruction, but benefit from having you guide their hands or move them into place.  If you see someone that is hearing you but  not getting it, switching to some sort of hands-on method is great.  Just make sure that if you wish to guide them physically, you ask first!  "Can I just take your hand for a minute to show you the timing on cueing that sit?" 

  • Logical (mathematical):   Prefers using logic, reasoning and systems.  I find that a lot of really book-smart people who have lots of formal education under their belt have developed this trait to a high degree.  Sometimes it gets in the way of concrete learning in a dog obedience situation.  They will have already given a lot of thought to the matter and will have a firm opinion of what's true and what isn't, based on things they have seen on TV or read in a book.  These people do not want to simply be told a method, and then try it.  They often over-think things, wanting to go through the whole reason/background/logic on the method.  In the process they often miss out on the simplicity of behavioral science.  For these folks, you need to have a good explanation for WHY you are doing what you are doing, and you need to be ready with an answer that isn't just "I've always done it this way and it works."  In order to get these logical learners to trust you, you have to present a logical progression.  Giving people like this hard numbers (do 20 reps a day) and explaining how a behavior progresses from small to large, so to speak, will help.

  • Social (interpersonal):  Prefers to learn in groups or with other people.  Fortunately, a lot of people are like this and mesh well with a group obedience class.  Separating your class into pairs of handlers or groups of three and giving them an assignment to "do 20 sits each, watch and critique each other" while you move around the room to each group is a really great technique for teaching classes.  People like this thrive on getting to demonstrate skills in front of the class and getting feedback from their peers.

  • Solitary (intrapersonal): Prefers to work alone and use self-study.  Many introverts fall into this category and this can be troublesome for their learning curve if you have set up classes to be so social-directed that it makes them uncomfortable.  People like this might keep their mouth shut during class but approach you either before or after classes to ask their questions.  Often these types of people do absolutely FANTASTIC work, have incredibly good understanding of what is wanted and should be done, but are not interested in the whole "we're a gang of fun people learning to train our dog."  If you encounter a person like this in your classes, they will tend to hang in the background, not say much in the group, and will look like observers rather than participants.  Do not let these people slip through the cracks just because they are introverts!  Set up exercises where people go off on their own and practice, dispersing away from one another with directed exercises.  If you have a discussion at the beginning of classes where you ask everyone to speak about their dog (I do this quite often), you will notice this person is less demonstrative than the others.  Sometimes a person like this will benefit from you taking special care to take them aside.  They will appreciate you giving them things to read and study between classes.  Again, very specific instruction about their daily routine, given to them alone, will present opportunities for the person to feel comfortable asking questions.

Ideally, your classes should offer a combination of teaching techniques to try to reach as many people as well as possible.  Offer good verbal instruction.  Handouts should have illustrations, pictures, and references to online videos.  Powerpoint presentations, which are GREAT by the way especially for the first class, should offer pictures and video along with text and lecture.   Break up long lectures with physical activities, such as actually practicing a skill with their dog. When you demonstrate a skill, be able to explain and show each segment of body language and hands-on techniques from beginning to end.  Provide opportunities for people to "show off" their skills, but also provide small groups or split-off individual sessions within the classes.

  1. People have different strengths in their own personal learning styles.  Try to figure out the person's learning strengths as quickly as possible.

  2. Find out what bugs them the most about the dog's behavior, and do everything in your power to quickly and efficiently resolve that problem.  Tell them you want to make life easier for them immediately, and give them SIMPLE and CLEAR instructions on the exact steps you want them to take. 

  3. For example, telling someone "you need to be more consistent on this" is a very vague instruction.  Your student might think that "consistent" means twice a week.  Rather, give them hard numbers and exact daily instruction.  Telling a student that needs a recall as soon as possible to perform a certain number of repetitions each day, and giving them a grand total for how many successful repetitions the dog has under its belt for the week, works very well.  If need be, provide a training log with a comments section, and review everyone's at the beginning of each class. I tell my students to fill a small treat bowl with 20 delicious treats each morning, and use them all up on recall throughout the day.  Then I remind them that this means that in 7 days, they have done 140 repetitions of successful recall.

  4. Show your students how to set criteria.  For example, tell them that for this week, the goal is to get the dog to stay for 30 seconds while you are 10 feet away.  Provide written goals at the end of each handout and reinforce the goals verbally, while demonstrating the skill with your own dog.  Have a picture on the handout of the end goal.

  5. Debunk their opinion that you are some sort of magician who is just unreasonably good with animals.  You might be great with animals, but in reality it's just a set of skills that anyone can develop.  Take care not to show off too much with your own demo dog--if you show complicated skills, explain the process of how they got that way.  People often get frustrated and put their instructor on a pedestal when they see amazing, well-trained dogs.  Coming across as humble and a hard worker will help your students have faith that they, too, can accomplish cool stuff with their dogs.  I love it when I compliment a great trainer on their amazing dog, and they answer me with something like, "She may be able to lie down and stay for the whole lesson while I teach, but she is 8 years old and it took a lot of work to get to this point."  Your students will love this, too.

  6. Make yourself available 15 minutes before and 15 minutes after class. My favorite method is to have a table and two chairs.  I arrive early, sit down and do paperwork, and if someone shows up early I can sit them down with me for some solitary time.  The same is true for after class.  People can be introverts, or they can have questions that they regard as embarrassing to voice during a group session.  My favorite format is to allow 2 hours for each class, with 1.5 hours for group instruction and 15 minutes before and after for private questions.  This format may lessen the number of classes you can offer in any given time, but the extra time not only benefits your students, it benefits you as an instructor and prevents tangles when classes arrive and leave if you are teaching one class right after another.

  7. Always have extra treats and an extra collar and leash.  People forget stuff all the time or figure that they are OK with the equipment they have instead of the equipment you suggest.  I have had consistent problems with people, despite specific instructions, showing up with choke collars, harnesses, and flexi-leads instead of the simple buckle collar and 6 foot leash that I like them to use in class.  They also interpret my instructions of "bring delicious mind-blowing treats such as cheese, hot dogs, chicken, etc" to mean "bring hard milk bones."  Just be prepared to make things easy for yourself and your students.

  8. Bring paper towels and a spray bottle of cleaner.  NEVER FORGET THIS.

Difficult Students

Occasionally, you will have someone in your class that seems to be trying everything they can to frustrate the group and you.  The most common presentation of this is a person who wants to monopolize group discussions, quotes popular media opinion on dog training that disagrees with what you are doing, shows off with their dog or allows their dog to behave in such a way that it bothers the rest of the group.  The most common type that I run into is a person who seems to want to prove that they don't need me, that they are smarter and more logical than me, and want the rest of the class to know too.  Sometimes it feels like they are just looking for an oppositional viewpoint from everything I say.

It is easy to get upset and frustrated with people like this.  Often I feel like their primary motivation in class is to show off and get attention.  But, at the core, these people really do want to train their dog.  They have spent their money to get your opinion. 

For this reason, if I run into a student that seems determined to undermine my authority, I usually say this, "Well, you're here because you paid me for my opinion as a professional.  So, since you paid me for it, I feel pretty obligated to give it to you!  I want you to have success with your dog and I know some good ways to get it.  My opinion on that is..." 

I will also discuss things like shows about dog training, famous people who do it, etc.  I always have a segment in my first class that covers this subject, as I find that TV shows and popular personas have really damaged public opinion of the truths in dog training.  "The thing is that they have to encapsulate a story arc in half an hour.  They also have the primary motivation of getting people to watch their show.  This means there is a big difference between the things you are seeing and the realities of how it all spins out before and after the camera is filming."  Honestly, it is really frustrating that as a teacher, I have to spend so much time de-bunking stuff people have heard and seen in this information age...but it's a reality, and we can't ignore it.

Having said all of this, as in dog training, it is important to PREVENT the difficult/oppositional student from getting to have the rewarding experience of gratifying themselves by bullying you in class.  It is then important to give them opportunities for attention that are more appropriate for group classes.  Praise and attention is important for people just as it is for dogs.  Give people like this the opportunity to share and lead using your training techniques sometimes.  Ask them to describe what they did and how they did it at home, BEFORE they get the opportunity to interrupt your schedule.  Separate your class into individual practice far away from one another, and then call attention to the person and ask him or her to show the class the cool thing their dog does.  The important thing for everyone is that you control the class.  So let them do what they love to do...just set things up so that it's a benefit rather than a hindrance.  You will be amazed at how quickly you can gain this person's trust and admiration just by reacting in a positive way rather than a negative one.  Just like with dogs, you can encourage good behavior in your students with prevention of unwanted events and praise for the "right" way to behave, too.

Setting Criteria

Just as if I am training a dog, I always set criteria for my classes and I keep these criteria in mind at all times.

  1. Keep people happy with their dogs so they want to work with them.  This is by far the most important thing.  Resolve immediate frustrations, acknowledge the people's struggles and go about helping them find a solution that makes them enjoy life with the dog a little more.  If your people can't stand being around the dog, do you think they will then go away from your classes and want to do the work you assign?

  2. Keep the dog in the home to go on to live a long and happy life.

  3. Create an environment that keeps people looking forward to and enjoying a safe, comfortable and fun environment.

  4. Teach people a firm foundation of the facts of learning theory and techniques they can use to troubleshoot training issues that crop up throughout the life of the dog.  Create good basic dog trainers!

  5. Teach owners how to get their dog to "settle."  I do this by assigning half an hour, on leash, where the dog just chills out with their owner.  I start them in the house while the owner is watching TV and move on to more distracting environments.  I want owners to be able to take their dogs wherever they go and be able to relax and enjoy their time!  whether it be a softball game, another person's home, waiting for someone at a bench at the dog park--"settle" is a crucial skill.

  6. Make sure each dog has a solid recall.

  7. Make sure people can implement loose leash walking.

  8. Teach rudimentary sit, down and stay and give instructions on how to continue improving the skills.

When you have a set of goals that you wish to accomplish, it allows you to design your whole program more effectively and efficiently.  You use criteria to accomplish dog training--use it in your class programs too.

Running Dog Training as a Business

I love training dogs and I love teaching classes.  I absolutely HATE the organizational stuff that goes along with it and I often avoid doing things right.  I have not been as successful as I should have been when it came to actually making money on classes, not because of lack of skill as a dog trainer and teacher, but because I am a bumbling idiot when it comes to scheduling, writing things down, making lists, keeping track of things, etc. 

If you are trying to make actual money as a job by teaching classes, you need to set up your business so that you can do so.  Looking back, I wish I had asked for help from my husband and my friends, to make better systems that were easier for me to use.  I wish I had set things up as a business first, and worked with that goal as a bigger priority.  Don't just jump in with both feet and expect things to work out.  At tax time, you will get a BIG shock, like I did.  Buy ledgers.  Pay taxes as you go rather than waiting.  Write everything down in an official record book and don't be tempted to surround your computer with haphazard post-it notes (like me).  You will always regret it later when you need to find a phone number or remember a dog.

Expect payment in a lump sum and be strict about it.  Price your classes high enough to suggest their value, and low enough that the population can afford them.  This can be a fine line to walk, actually.  I charged much more while living in Ottawa, Ontario, a large Canadian city, than I ever could now that I live in the Arkansas Ozarks.  If you price things too low, people will not perceive your classes as serious, and will not feel as motivated to continue attending.  Price them too high and you will turn away people and dogs that really, really need you.  Never give away a class for free.  Even if you have to use the barter system, charge them SOMETHING or you will regret it.

If you are teaching at your home, be sure that your home insurance knows, and is OK with it.  You may have to pay a little more for this designation, or you may be told that your insurance is NOT ok with it at all.  This is a reality that many of us face and just decide to just "go for it" and not tell our insurance provider.  The problem is that if you do that, you can literally lose everything if someone gets hurt on your property.  If you are teaching at a rental facility, please do buy a small insurance policy to cover any mishaps or lawsuits.  It's unfortunate that we have to think about this stuff, but it's a very real risk you take if you do not prepare for the worst.

So, my advice to you if you want to make money with dog training?  Throw away your excitement about the dog training end and set up your business so that you make money.  If that involves consulting with someone to help you, DO IT. 

I would also strongly advise that you get a second cell phone that is strictly for the dog business.  Trust me, you will thank me later for this.

Are You Enjoying Yourself?

If, like me, you started off as a dog sport competitor and evolved into being a trainer, teaching classes seems like a natural progression.  For me, it was a wonderful way to learn, meet people, enjoy helping people, etc.  But it cut into the time I could spend with my own dogs, and after many years of working in this field, it has become difficult for me to enjoy teaching.  I guess you can say that I am jaded to the point that I decided to put more effort into writing and an online support network, rather than working directly with people anymore.  I suppose that I am sick of having to buck against the ignorance and mistakes that people make--I am so tired of having to convince folks of basic truths that seem so easily understood.  I am tired of working so hard to convince folks that they will get a good dog if they are thoughtful, tired of trying to cheerlead people into keeping their dog, tired of trying to "change the world" by holding classes. 

I was no longer having a good time, no longer looking forward to the new dogs and people, no longer having fun thinking of all the resources and help I could dream up for clients.  So, I stopped.  After 25 years, and after developing an illness that causes me great physical pain, it was just too much.  I'm still trying hard to give back to my community by writing these articles and providing as much help as I can.  It's just evolved into something different.

I have been around a lot of instructors that feel the same way.  It starts to snowball, you get successful, and man it's hard.  It's hard to hang in there for the long haul when you have a family, want to work your own dogs, and have a head full of how to reach your students.  I encourage you to allow yourself breaks, significant ones, breaks where you put a message on your answering machine that you will not be returning calls for X amount of weeks or days, etc.  This is another regret that I have--not realizing when or how to take a breather from the very serious job I did.  Don't be afraid to sign out for a while.  You will be happier and sharper at your job.

The Competition

If you have a thin skin and can't stand hearing rumors about your abilities and can't tolerate other people criticizing you, you might want to choose another field.  I can only express my own experiences, but I have been on the giving end and the receiving end of bad gossip from the competition.  I have found myself discouraging people from using certain local trainers, in a way that isn't as careful or professional as it should be, and I have certainly been gossiped about by other trainers. 

Just be aware that all dog trainers think they are right and most think that others are WRONG.  It's going to happen to you, and you will probably be tempted to do it.  In this day and age not only are you risking a lawsuit by giving negative feedback about another business, you also risk losing your reputation in the business, because anyone can pick apart your actions.  Do things based on your love and care for people, dogs and your community--and be ready to get criticized for it anyway!







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Lisa & Kerry Lafferty  /  ozarklisa@gmail.com  /    Mountain Home, Arkansas