A Tale of Two Trainers

At first, Steve’s story sounded pretty typical: a family with three small children had lost control of their dog.  Murphy constantly grabbed, chewed and swallowed toys, sippy cups, socks, and anything else that wasn’t nailed down.  He ignored basic obedience commands.  The family’s impressive efforts to manage the environment ultimately failed.  When Murphy was loose in the house, they spent most of their time chasing after him and prying things from his mouth.  Unable to control him, they reluctantly resorted to putting Murphy outside or in his crate almost all the time.  Then one day, he bit the nanny as she went to pull something out of his mouth.  He did no damage, but his place in their home was now in danger.  I get calls like this all the time, but one thing was different about this family.  They had already spent thousands of dollars on intensive dog training.      

A year or two before seeing me, Murphy had spent several weeks in a “boot camp” program, where he lived in a kennel and learned to do an obedience routine that included heeling, sit, down, and stay commands.  The trainer did the work on a mat, where the path for the routine was marked off in tape with each station marked differently for the behavior Murphy was expected to do in that spot.  Steve got a demonstration, a video tape, and a prong collar when he picked Murphy up. 

It doesn’t sound like a lot of instruction, but Steve reported that – even a couple of years later and with minimal practice – Murphy still performed the behaviors perfectly…as long as he was on leash.  That, of course, did nothing to solve Steve’s family’s problems with Murphy.  Fortunately for Murphy, they were willing to try again. 

I took Murphy home with me for a week.  He needed to decompress.  Getting in trouble all the time at home had made him pretty jumpy.  He lived in our home like one of our own dogs; not in a kennel.  I spent the first two days just gaining his trust.  After that, he spent hours with me in my cluttered office while I did paperwork.  We constantly worked on recalls, leave-it, and drop it with lots of yummy rewards for Murphy.  He turned out to be an exceptionally easy dog to train.  We also worked on desensitizing him to collar grabs and having his mouth handled.  When he went home, the difference was so great that Steve’s mother-in-law remarked “that man took your dog and brought back a better one that just looks like him.” 

We followed the board and train with two weeks of day training to proof the commands Murphy had already learned, to teach and proof a “place” command in the kitchen, to get him to come inside when he didn’t really want to, and to go to his crate on command.  I did lessons with all the adults who interacted regularly with Murphy, including the nanny and Grandma.  Everyone complied with the program and did the homework.  Murphy responded wonderfully.  He spends most of his time in the house with the family now and everyone is much happier. 

I didn’t succeed where the other trainer failed because I’m more skilled at training dogs.  The behaviors the other trainer taught Murphy stuck.  I succeeded because I tailored my training to the owners’ needs.  I’ve seen other people who have worked with this trainer, and I know that he offers the exact same training to everyone.  Transitioning from using the commands on leash to using them in the home probably seems like common sense to him.  He probably finds it really frustrating that a lot of clients can’t seem to make it work.  He probably complains about it to his trainer friends on listservs and Facebook.  His clients – of course – don’t know how to make the transition because he doesn’t teach them how, but he probably doesn’t realize that.  He’s teaching them what has worked for him.    

This is an extreme example of something that I think all dog trainers are guilty of to some degree.  We teach our clients what we would do, but that’s often not what they need.  Most of us get into this field because we’re passionate about it (it’s certainly not to get rich).  We want to share that passion with our clients and introduce them to the world of dogs as we see it.  The problem is that most of our clients are never going to see it the way we do.  Instead, we need to learn to see life with their dog the way that they do, and find ways to give them what will make them happy. 

I’ll follow this post up with some of the ways that I’ve made the mistake of teaching clients what’s important to me instead of what’s important to them and how I’ve improved.  I hope that others will chime in with their experiences – whether as trainers or as students – on this topic.