Our Role as Dog Trainers

As well as our obvious role in training dogs and helping overcome problem behaviours, one of our biggest roles is in communication with clients. We have to act as teachers of people far more than as trainers of dogs and a lot of our counselling is done with people rather than dogs, especially where the dogs are exhibiting behaviour problems such as reactivity towards other dogs or people or in cases of separation anxiety where the dog has been “trained” to be dependent on the owner.

Our role is not to be judgemental or superior to our clients. We have more knowledge in our field than our clients do and are generally ( I say generally because I’ve seen dog trainers who aren’t) better dog handlers than our clients because we have handled dozens if not hundreds of different dogs in different environments than our clients have. We should be supporting our clients and advising them. That is what we are being paid for.

Recently, I received a call from a family who had a 16 week american Bulldog puppy who had started to become aggressive. From their description, the dog did indeed seem to have genuine aggression issues which is very uncommon in a puppy. My advice immediately was to take the dog to the vet to have it examined. Following that, I see the owners options as being limited to two.

1.They keep the dog and work hard to resolve the issues with a good trainer/behaviour consultant. This could be a long road with a lot of heartache.

2. They have the pup put to sleep after examination by a vet and the opinion of a trainer/behaviourist if they feel there is little they can do for the dog.

Rehoming the dog is not an option I would consider as the family would be passing on the problem to someone else and in many instances like this, the full picture isn’t given to the person or rescue organisation who are taking the dog.

I frequently receive calls from or work with people who have the wrong dog for them, have bought dogs from puppy farms and/or are not willing to do the necessary steps for their dogs. It isn’t my place to make them feel stupid, embarrassed or guilty about the choices they have made. A conversation might go like this

Caller – I’ve got a 14 month old Akita boy who has started objecting to the kids jumping all over the top of him. He growls at them and I tell him off for doing it

Me – Are you able to stop the kids from jumping on the dog? Or allow the dog to go out of the room when the kids get excited like that?

Caller – we want the dog to be in the room and get used to being with the kids.

I can’t and don’t say what I’m really thinking. I know some trainers who do. Unfortunately, if I do, I might alienate the client, making them less likely to listen to me and in return, more likely that their dog bites their child.

It’s out job as trainers to work with our clients with the dogs they have and keep our opinions to ourselves when they aren’t in the clients or the dog’s interest. We need to break down clearly what needs to be done and adjust our training protocols on the client’s ability to implement them, not on the dog’s ability to learn them. we can’t bamboozle the client with lots of information and procedures which they are going to find it difficult to do. we might feel we are giving good value by working with the clients once or twice and giving them loads of information and ideas for training, but if the client can’t remember it all or finds it hard to do, there is greater value in picking one or two things to work on per session and working with the client over three, four or five sessions. The value to the client is on what they are able to do not in the amount we are bale to provide.

Engaging your dog


One of the biggest problems I find when working with clients is the amount of time they spend engaging their dog when outside. For a lot of dog owners, they take their dog to the park, let the dog off the leash and then walk round and don’t interact with their dog for 40 minutes or so and then wonder why their dog won’t come back to them.

For those of you with the easier to train dogs or dogs who more naturally through breeding want to be with us, this tends not to be too much of a problem. When it does become a problem is when we don’t have a strong bond with our dog and/or we own one of the more independent breeds.

One of the things I teach is to make yourself relevant and fun to your dog. Front load your walks and training sessions. What do you mean John? I hear you say. I mean interact with your dog before you let her off the leash. Play with her with a ball or tug, hand feed her some treats or kibble for nice behaviours such as sitting or looking at you. When you let her off the leash, only let her move a few feet away and call her back to you. Play for another few seconds, or give her an ear scratch and piece of kibble and send her on her way again. Do this regularly throughout the walk, every few seconds for the first couple of weeks. After a while, she will be more likely to walk round be your side, rather than run off. If she sniffs something interesting, wait till you think she’s just about to finish sniffing, and call her to you. Repeat. Once she is getting better at this, you can start to give her a little more time between interactions with you.

We did this technique last night at our outdoor training session. Tai, who is a Shar Pei and tends to run off to play with other dogs was stuck to Anna’s side within a minute or so of starting.

If you don’t interact with your dog like this or in a similar way, your dog will see you are being irrelevant when you are out. She will have the opportunity to self rewards by sniffing and meeting and playing with other dogs, If you use these opportunities to reinforce your training, she will start to behave in a manner you find more acceptable. If she wants to sniff, ask her to sit and then use the sniffing to reinforce the sit. If she wants to play with another dog or is playing with one, recall her and then release her to play again. That way she doesn’t see you as the spoiler of fun but rather the one who gives her access to it. This is different from the NILIF (nothing in life is free) protocol.

Keep training folks.

Classical conditioning in dog training

Animals learn by two methods and dogs are no exception. Learing by association is called classical conditioning and was explained by Ivan Pavlov, which some of you might know as Pavlov’s Dogs. The link to the Wikipedia page on classical conditioning is here


if you are interested in learning more.

The second type of learning is operant conditioning, as discovered by B.F.Skinner, which is effectively the animal learning by trial and error. I’ll enter and entry in the future on operant conditioning but I’m going to concentrate on classical conditioning in this entry.

I worked with a couple today who have a small dog, Igon, who is fearful of children up to the age of 14 or so and reacts aggressively when they get to close. During today’s consultation, we had the assistance of their friends who brought with them their 3 year old son and 7 month old baby. we worked safely, at or beyond threshold, which is the distance at which the dog reacts. The dog was on leash the whole time, with us concentrating on, among other things, keeping a loose leash so Igon didn’t feel under and restraint. The 3 year old, Chris, was an absolute superstar and exhibited timing which I have spent years developing.

At first, I handled Igon, so that his owners could see what he was capable of with and experienced handler, before they ha a go of handling him. I had Chris and his Mum out of sight and then when Igon could see them, I fed him some treats. They went out of site and the treats started again. Over many repetitions, Igon begins to look forward to Chris appearing as it means he gets treats.

When Igon was a bit more relaxed and I had gauged his distance with Chris, we then had Chris toss him treats when he looked calmly in his direction. We were starting to use a little operant conditioning here, as Igon had to make the choice to do something before Chris would toss him a treat but classical conditioning is occurring at the same time. Dogs generally enjoy eating, it causes a release of feel good chemicals in the body. If we can associate that feel good feeling with children, or whatever the scary thing is, the dog we are working with will, over many repetitions, learn by association that children mean the delivery of high value rewards and start to look forward to the appearance of kids rather than fear it.

The key to any classical conditioning protocol to change an association, also known as counter conditioning, is keeping the dog at a distance (beyond threshold) where he feels safe.

In the same way as we can make positive associations, it is also possible to make negative ones too. Using aversive training tools such as rattle cans, choke or prong collars, e-collars, sprays or leash corrections to try to control a reactive dog causes an already fearful dog to associate more bad things with you in the presence of the scary dog or person. This makes us unreliable and untrustworthy in the dog’s eyes and damages our bond.

Classical conditioning is a powerful and useful tool if used properly and powerful and damaging tool if applied incorrectly.