Dog Training Clients: An Incremental Approach

10626546_463010330506319_7041660628777951542_nIn dog training, professional trainers develop incremental plans to address a dog’s behavior problems. If we want a dog to reliably come when called, we don’t begin by asking him to come back to us during his first trip to the dog park. The challenge is too difficult, like attempting calculus before mastering algebra. Instead, we build a strong response to a recall cue in an area with low distractions, and then gradually create more challenging scenarios using parameters like distance, level of distraction and degree of prompting from the trainer.

Adhering to an incremental plan when training dogs is challenging. It’s even more challenging to apply the protocol to our clients, the dog owners.

Because of the vast maze of poor quality information on dog behavior and dog training, both in print and online, many clients come to trainers confused and misinformed. They think their dog is dominant. They’re afraid they’re not the alpha of the household. They don’t understand why their dog cannot “behave” when they want them to. They use equipment like prong and shock collars to control unruly dogs.

And then, at some point, they contact a force-free trainer. Whether they stumble upon us by accident, through research born of desperation, through a friend, or perhaps not knowing the difference between training methods, they take that step. And it’s a big one. Calling a person, paying for an initial consult, and taking time out of the day to discuss training are hugely expensive behaviors. For whatever reason, they elected to spend time and money on a force-free trainer.

Too often, this initial step goes unnoticed. As trainers, we come in to asses the dog, the household environment, and develop training and management plans to address the dog’s behavior problems. But what about the owners? If they’re coming to us after digging through the muck of popular dog culture, they may be in for some turbulence.

Our training requires many clients to undergo a paradigm shift away from traditional, coercion-based dog training methods. They might have years of practice and reinforcement from popular media figures that the only way to control their dog was through force, intimidation and pain. They might have family members and friends who still use these methods. Imagine not only shifting your own paradigm, but dealing with potential isolation and disagreement with those in your social circle for doing so? And imagine having to undergo this shift immediately?

For many, it’s overwhelming. It fosters resistance on the part of the client and frustration on the part of the trainer. All the while, the dog fails to make efficient progress.

What if the force-free training community took a more compassionate approach to clients whose paradigms may not align perfectly with ours? What if we gave clients incremental plans to adjust to force-free training? What would that look like?

1) Initial priorities

There are some things clients will need to start doing, right away, in order to implement a force-free training protocol. They must swap prong and shock collars for harnesses and head halters. They must cease any punishment that involves coercion, intimidation or pain. They must agree to a management plan to keep their dogs from rehearsing unwanted behaviors. And, if their dogs are fearful, clients must understand how fear works and how to keep their dogs under threshold.

This is not easy, and can become the place where the trainer-client relationship begins to falter. Because humans have limited time and limited mental real estate, trainers should invest their initial behavioral dollars into these priorities to ensure successful case resolutions.

2) Small Successes

If clients are not accustomed to force-free training, they may be skeptical as to whether a prescribed protocol will actually work. Evidence of small successes is imperative to spark and maintain client motivation to stick with the program. Trainers should identify and mark these successes for clients, however small. Homework should include some fun, simple exercises so clients enjoy the training process and also gain confidence in their ability to stick with the program long-term. Even something as simple as teaching hand targeting can do wonders for client motivation.

3) Understanding the behavior change process

With management under control and the initial priorities in place, trainers can now help their clients understand how the training process works. They can educate their clients, in person and with supplemental materials, about the difference between operant conditioning and classical conditioning, as well as the importance of timing and mechanics when training At this point, clients should already be seeing some success with their dogs, and should have sufficient motivation to delve deeper (it’s up to the clients how deep) into the training process.

4) The details

At this stage in the plan, clients should have the following in place:

  • Rapport with the trainer
  • Management and force-free protocols in action
  • Evidence of training success, however small, with their dog
  • Some knowledge of how dog behavior modification works

In other words, clients have a solid foundation on which trainers can continue counseling, educating, and refining as they help their clients reach their dogs’ behavior goals. Without this foundation, clients can feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and lack faith in their ability to modify their dogs’ behavior through force-free methods.

Professional trainers would never ask a dog to complete a complex chain of behaviors without an incremental plan. So why ask it of our clients?

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at