When a trainer gets to a certain level of expertise and has many years under their belt, they tend to settle into a comfort area with a specific toolbox that they pull from when they work. For all-positive trainers this can mean abstaining from all aversive techniques, with tools being heavily relying on markers, targeting, luring and shaping methods, and a portable soap box to preach against the unnecessary use of aversive training to proof problem behaviors. On the other end of the spectrum are trainers who work primarily with pressure and aversive techniques, and may have tools that include things like remote collars and limiting food rewards, and often a pocket full of articles on dominance theory. These are the two extremes of the dog training and behaviorism spectrum. Trainers that lay along the spectrum somewhere in the middle, known as “balanced trainers”, take tools and methods from both ends based on their personal philosophy that they have settled on in their career. The commonality between all these types of trainers is that they have all nestled down into a comfort zone with a handful of tools, methods, techniques and philosophies that work best for them, and they stick with them in their own training projects, but also with the clients that they take.
Don’t get me wrong, all these philosophies and tools produce results. An all-positive trainer can, in theory, rehabilitate an aggressive dog, and a pressure-based trainer can, in theory, take a fearful dog and build their confidence, so I am not intending to discredit any particular philosophy. The issues comes in when a trainer – a unique individual with unique ways of looking at the world and working with animals – comes in contact with a client, who is also a unique individual with unique world views, and the two philosophies do not line up. Maybe you are an all-positive trainer who has a client that does not have the time or patience to counter condition a dog who is trying to maul their children daily. Or maybe a pressure trainer has a client that can’t stand the idea of a “shock” collar on their fur baby. What do you do? Many trainers will simply turn away clients whose preferred methodology does not line up with their own, and who could blame them? Every trainer will do their best work with a client who meshes well with them both interpersonally and also philosophically, but how often does that happen? Do we just pick and choose who we work with after the first consultation when we get an idea of who we are working with?
The reality is that, as any professional working with people will find, the majority of individuals we work with are not going to see exactly eye-to-eye with us. A competent trainer has their own personal comfort zone with tools that work for them when they work their dogs, but will also have access to the entire spectrum of training techniques to apply to both their clients and to dogs who require something special that we are not accustomed to. Each dog is very different, with different life experiences and genetic predispositions, and as such they cannot be trained in a cookie cutter way as so many trainers hope they can. To limit your experience pool to animals and people who will reiterate what you already know is doing a disservice to yourself and the community you serve.
Instead, be a well-rounded and balanced trainer. This trainer lies somewhat center on the spectrum. They begin teaching a dog with pure positive techniques, then add in correction and more aversive techniques when they are required, and they do so without hesitation. Some dogs require aversive techniques from the get-go, while others can never use aversion due to their temperament and histories. A thorough trainer is comfortable on both ends, even though they (like all of us) have an individual preferred ratio between positive and aversive. I loathe the idea of using pure-positive techniques alone for weeks on a dog that can be more-or-less cured with a single aversive correction, but I absolutely can, and if the dog and client requires, I will. Likewise, I do not like the idea of using pure pressure techniques on overly sensitive dogs or ones that are likely to redirect aggression onto their handlers, but I can, and I will if the situation and handler requires it. There is no clean cut formula, and what is best for the dog is always the most important consideration, as well as what you know their handler will follow through with. If you know a dog needs aversive techniques to proof or extinguish a behavior, but their handler is unwilling to do so, then you must be flexible and experienced enough to know how to achieve the same results in a pure-positive way. The same is true for the other side, some pure-positive techniques require a very skilled and technical approach that many clients just don’t have the ability or patience to uphold, and so sometimes aversive techniques must be integrated in order to ensure compliance and ultimately a solution to the dog’s behavior problems – which is why we are here in the first place.
A good trainer is one that can see from any philosophy and be flexible (and humble) enough to admit when a technique they prefer is not working. Some dogs are very easy and straight forward, while others require trial and error after trial and error to get it right. A competent professional trainer will not give up until that magic formula has been reached, even if the methods they end up using are out of our their comfort zone, or even out of their preached philosophy. A good trainer cannot be too rigid, because we are working with unique creatures – dog and handler alike.
Perhaps most importantly, a good trainer will have the interpersonal skills and tools to explain to the client WHY we want to use the tools we prefer. Most clients are simply uneducated on what it is we are performing (which is why we are there in the first place), and being able to educate them in a confident and understanding way is sometimes all that is requires to have them see things our way. Some clients, though, absolutely will not deviate from what they think is right and will fight you every step of the way. We have two choices in this instance, either we fire the client, or we open up a dialogue and find out why they feel the way they do, and what can be done to find a mutually agreed upon plan that you know will work, and you also know the client can commit to. The reality is that you are the professional and the client needs your expertise, so they need to recognize that some part of their training method is not working, or else you would not be there. So being able to communicate kindly and educate your client on why we use certain methods or tools is really the most important tool in our toolbox. Too many trainers are so stuck on their own small range of comfort that they can either convince the client or they fire them. This is doing a tremendous disservice to the community you serve, as well as your own development as a trainer and behavior specialist. Learning to work with situations, people and dogs that we are not entirely comfortable with is the greatest way to expand our knowledge and skills, and the challenge should never be shied away from.