Have you ever heard the saying, "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar"? It's a way of explaining that you get more in life by being sweet rather than bitter. This little saying is something that all of us dog trainers could benefit from.
As positive reinforcement based dog trainers, we are often so focused on dog welfare that we resort to using punishment on dog owners. It's important to remember that the majority of owners know next to nothing about the various training philosophies out there.
I, like many people, got into this profession because I love dogs. I did not do it because I love people. Historically, I'm pretty introverted. Yet ironically, in order to help dogs I had to learn to love (or at least like) their people. Thankfully I was able to do this because I got a great education that emphasized the importance of the "people factor."
We must transition to using positive reinforcement with owners, in the same way we do with their dogs. Even if it doesn't seem like it, there is always something to reinforce. You can even start with the fact that they contacted you for help. Out of all the trainers out there, they dialed your phone number. Reinforce it!
From time to time, I am appalled by the rudeness of some folks. Even more so when that rudeness is directed at someone who is paying us to help them.
It's important for me to remember that there was once a time when I bought Cesar Milan books and thought my dog was trying to dominate our household. Did any of that mean that I did not love and care about her? Of course not. It only meant that I did not know any better. I needed someone to teach me. Once I knew better, I did better.
Do you remember your favorite teachers from school? I certainly do. They were often warm and engaging, funny and most important of all, they treated me like a person. They never made me feel dumb. You know what? I always learned something in their classes. When we berate people on behalf of their dogs, they (quite rightly) go on the defensive. It's almost impossible to learn anything or try something new when we're feeling bad about ourselves. We shouldn't put our clients in that situation. It's unfair to them and to their dogs.
In many industries, consumer experience tops the priority list. Why isn't this always the case in dog training? In large part, it's because we feel so deeply for dogs, we empathize with them to the point that our hearts break. This is what drives us to be helpers and to want to make the world a better place. However, as long as we see dogs as victims and owners as perpetrators, we will be pushing away potential clients. Sadly, we may be pushing them toward the shock jock down the street, because hey, at least he seems like a nice guy!
Fortunately, I am seeing this topic getting some attention in the grooming world. In a recent "Groomer to Groomer" article Khris Berry writes,
We must never forget, the pet-owning public knows nearly nothing about what we do and how we do it - it's up to us to educate clients about our process, our limitations, what we can and cannot do, and what we ask of their pets .... We are the professionals in this industry - let's softly educate our clients...
A groomer friend of mine uses the phrase, "Humanity over vanity." She often uses it when explaining to clients that yes, she can brush out all those mats in their dog's fur, but it reaches a point where it is in the best interest of the dog to do a complete shave-down. The owners usually don't like it. They don't want a bald dog. Luckily for the dog, my friend has principles and she will not cause a dog to suffer in the name of a hair cut. Along the same vein, we as trainers are perfectly capable of doing our work without causing our human clients harm.
How do we address this issue? First, it would behoove us to remove our super hero capes every once in a while and take a breather. Self care is so important in our industry because we desperately want to save all the dogs. When we try to do this without taking care of ourselves first, we experience burnout.
Being burnt out is a sure way to keep treading the path of poor client relations. How can we prevent burnout? We take days off. We have non-dog related hobbies. We create boundaries and enforce them. One of my favorite resources for learning about self care for animal care professionals is Jessica Dolce's website, click here to check it out.
We should also keep in mind that dog training is a completely unregulated industry in the US. Owners have been getting conflicting information from us for decades. No wonder they're so confused!
If nothing else, please know that you will help more dogs if you endeavor to like their owners. I bet you'll be a little bit happier too.