Several years ago, John’s mother bought him a good quality electric keyboard.  It is a really good keyboard and it has all kinds of odds n ends to make it flashy.  John liked the keyboard.  I LOVED the keyboard.  I loved the keyboard so much, that I went out and started piano lessons so that I could learn to play it.  I learned a lot of things in my music lessons that are really relevant to dog training, and I thought I would share.

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I learned a lot about dog training from playing the piano!


If I heard it once, I must have heard it a thousand times; if you practice the wrong thing you will get really good at doing it wrong.  I head this when my husband was taking voice lessons and I heard it again when I started taking piano lessons.  Yes, practice is important but if you make the same mistake over and over again, you just make your mistake permanent.

This is true for dog training too.  Eco and I are cleaning up our heeling right now with the intent of going into the ring in the winter to do obedience and rally-O.  We have practiced really sloppy heeling for about three years, so we have a lot of tidying to do.  It is very hard to remember that we are going back to basics because we have perfected sloppy heeling.  Now I am only asking for one good step together, but some of the time I get excited and forget and if we get one good step, I throw caution to the wind and take ten steps and by about the fifth step we are back to making the errors we are really good at making.


When we got the keyboard, I learned a very important lesson the very first day we had it.  Four hours is too long to practice the piano.  By about three hours and forty five minutes.  In fact if you practice playing the piano for four hours, you can expect your elbows to swell up, your fingers to go stiff and numb and forget fine motor activity for the next three days.  When I started piano lessons, I asked my teacher how long and how often I ought to practice.  Ten minutes twice a day she replied.  Ten minutes?  Heck I could do that between brushing my hair in the morning and eating breakfast and not even have to get up any earlier!  And I could absolutely fit it in while dinner was cooking after work.

Dogs are a little bit like this too.  If you feel a crushing need to train for four hours a day (and who doesn’t if they are dog trainers?  Likely this isn’t true of non dog trainers!), you need more dogs.  Lots more dogs.  For most skill based behaviours, dogs work best for short periods of time.  I realized this recently when I was coaching a novice handler in a class recently.  She was trying to get one to two hours a day of practice in.  I only work my dogs for twenty to thirty minutes at a go, and they are experienced dogs.  My puppy only works for ten to fifteen minutes at a time.  Ten minutes, twice a day, until you get the hang of things is likely more than enough.  If you are working on behaviour modification for a behaviour problem, this may not hold true, but in general, keep it short and sweet.


I started piano lessons when Jean Crétien was prime minister of Canada.  His wife, Aline, began taking piano lessons in her fifties when M. Crétien was first elected as prime minister.  In fact, she began taking Royal Conservatory lessons and by the time he left office she had completed the bulk of their classes and courses.  I figured that if the wife of the prime minister could play the piano starting in her fifties, why shouldn’t I be able to start the same thing as an adult?  And maybe, if I studied long enough I could play some of the works of Mozart or Liszt, or some other classical composer I had heard of.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 4, 2017: Monument to Ivan Pavlov
Ivan Pavlov is one of my role models. He was a scientist and he made some incredible extrapolations that lead us to a better understanding of learning and behaviour. He came from Russia and studied behaviour in the early part of the 20th century. I would love to see the world in such a way that the mysteries of behaviour were revealed through my work, just like Dr. Pavlov did!

As a dog trainer, we should try and be aware of the movers and shakers in our field.  We should know who is suggesting new ideas and who is writing and blogging and videoing about dog training.  We should know both who is proposing innovative ideas and who is sticking with the old ways.  It is also helpful to find someone local who can mentor you and who can be a good role model for you.  Pat Miller, Ian Dunbar, Patricia McConnell, Cesar Milan, Brad Pattison, Victoria Stillwell, Suzanne Clothier, Nicholas Dodman and Susan Garrett should all be familiar names to you if you are serious about getting into the training game.


When I first took piano lessons, my teacher gave me a children’s book to learn.  The first week that I took lessons, I learned to work my fingers independently and play a simple scale.  The second week, I learned to move my fingers over one another and reach the more distant keys.  Each week I learned to play different elements of more complex pieces.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning the foundations of more complex work.  One day, my teacher gave me a completely new piece of music and asked me to play what I read.  To my surprise, I was able to play a fairly complex piece of music.

This holds true in dog training.  The recall is a fine example of a complex behaviour that is made up of a series of simpler behaviours.  Your dog has to orient on his name and find you.  Then he has to disengage from whatever he is doing and come towards you.  If you want your dog to sit in front of you when he gets to you that is another simple behaviour to add to the chain.


Backchaining is the process of learning all the elements of a series of behaviours, and then rewarding the last of the behaviours and practicing the last behaviour over and over again, until you feel really confident about that.  Then you practice the second to last behaviour and the last behaviour and get your reward.  Then you practice the third to last, the second to last and the last behaviour and get your reward.  When I was learning pieces of music to play on the piano, I would backchain them all.  One day my teacher asked me to play a new piece of music that I had never seen or heard before.  I looked at the sheet music for a minute and then asked her how she wanted me to start.  From the beginning she said.  I asked if she minded if I did it a little differently the first few times through, and she asked what I wanted to do.  I explained backchaining to her and she began to laugh.  She had been in a graduate program in music before anyone had taught her that little trick, and she learned how it was that I was learning so many pieces so quickly; I just played the final bar until I was smooth and then the final two bars and so on.  My reward was hearing the music come out the way that it ought to sound.

Backchaining is a useful but seldom used method in dog training.  Especially when a dog is being asked to learn a complex sequence for competition or for service work, backchaining is highly useful.  If you want your dog to learn to fetch the paper for you, you would simply teach him all the elements of the behaviour; go to the door, wait till you open it, wait till you tell him it is safe to go and find the paper, find the paper, pick up the paper, carry the paper back to the door and then hold the paper until you tell him to give it to you.  Then when the dog knows all the elements individually, you would practice only the part where he holds the paper until you ask him for it.  Then you might leave him on a sit stay where the paper is normally delivered, walk back to the house and call him to come and then give you the paper when you ask, and then give him his reward.  After practicing this stage for a period of time, you would ask him to sit and stay at the location that the paper was delivered, and go back to the house.  Once you were in place you would cue him to pick up the paper, and wait for the rest of the sequence to occur, and reward him for giving you the paper when you asked.  You would keep adding to the chain of behaviours until your dog was doing the whole thing in one smooth sequence without prompting from you.


When I first started playing the piano, I felt like an octopus.  88 keys, ten fingers, two hands, three pedals, two feet, and sheet music felt awkward and uncomfortable.  I felt like I was in some sort of a battle with the keyboard.  Gradually over time, I learned to master about 64 of the keys (nothing I ever played required the very high or very low notes), both of my hands, all my fingers and the sheet music.  Then we moved, and the keyboard didn’t get unpacked, so my musical career came to a rather abrupt end.

During my short time in music class I learned something really important that I try and remember every time I get a new student in my training hall.  Kinaesthetic skills take time to learn well, and I must break elements of  the skill out so that my students can be successful.  If the student is feeling overwhelmed by a clicker, a leash, the treats, the dog and all the other dogs and trainers in the room, I ask myself which elements can I isolate so that the task is easier for the student.  We use tethers so that the students can learn clicker skills without having to juggle the leash.  We use treat bowls because they are easier for the student to reach into than a bait bag or a baggy.  Sometimes I let a student practice with one of my own dogs so that they can experience first-hand what it feels like when all the elements are in place.

Reshetiha, Nizhniy Novgorod Oblast, Russia - 02.25.2017 - Siberian Husky sled dog race skijoring competition. Skier man skiing with Husky dog in harness.
Skijoring, the sport of cross country skiing while your dog pulls you looks like a tonne of fun, but you will have to relearn to ski, and handle your dog at the same time. Dog training is at its core a kinesthetic skill, and it requires that you are patient with yourself as well as with your dog while you sort out all the techniques!

One of my mentors advised me many years ago to try a new skill each year; martial arts, horse back riding, playing the piano or tennis.  It doesn’t matter what discipline I try, each time I try something new, I learn again that my muscles don’t do what my instructor’s muscles do, and what comes naturally to my instructor won’t come naturally to me, just as what I do with a dog won’t necessarily come naturally to my students.  This year, I returned to riding after fifteen or twenty years away from the saddle.  I learned again that I have a lot to learn, and what comes naturally to my instructors and mentors doesn’t come naturally to me.  As the fall gets colder, I think about what I might try next year.  Sailing?  Maybe.  Or oil painting?  How about calligraphy?  There is something for me to learn about dog training in all of them; it remains to be seen what that might be.



Originally posted June 2013

When I was about twelve, I wanted to teach the family dog some tricks.  The process of connecting with an animal and imparting information fascinated me as much then as it does now.  We had a dog in our family named Thurber, and she was my constant companion, and I wanted to do more.  My aunt had a titled Golden Retriever, and I was mesmerized by the work they did together.  I asked my aunt how she trained her dog and she suggested that I use a chain collar to tell the dog when not to do something and a piece of food to tell the dog when she had done something right.  That was all the coaching I ever remember getting, but it made a big impact on me.  I taught that dog many tricks; most of them involving jumping over or climbing onto things.

As an obedience instructor today, I have a lot of parents asking him about getting their children involved with dog training.  Indeed, dog training and children can go hand in hand, but it is the unusual and rare child who is as interested in it as I was.  Most kids are looking for some early successes and don’t persevere through the early stages where the dog doesn’t know what is happening and neither does the child.  This can be even more difficult when the child and the dog are in a classroom full of adults and other dogs.  The pressure to succeed can often result in frustration for the parents, the kids and the dog.

We LOVE to include children in our classes, and it works best when the adults help to tailor the activities so that the children and the dogs are successful, such as at this socialization party.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

How can we make this more successful for the kids?  For a while we ran a family class which was a levels class just for families and their kids.  Sadly, not enough families could come out to make this worth carrying on with.  We would go along nicely with four or five families in class for eight or twelve weeks and then it would dwindle and get taken over by families who wanted their dogs to meet and like children but who weren’t bringing children to class.  Certainly there are schools who run classes specifically for children but there aren’t too many of them.

As an animal trainer who also works with horses, I think we can learn something from what we do in the horse world.  It is accepted that it is not a good idea for an untrained, inexperienced young rider to be mounted on an untrained, inexperienced young horse.  Instead, we prize those rare ponies who are well suited to teaching youngsters to be confident around and on horses.  We start the kids in lessons where the pony knows what to do and the kids can learn from a horse who already knows the work.  When the kids are proficient on a well schooled calm and older pony, we give them a more challenging mount or more difficult work on the same horse.  When they master that, we give them a bigger horse, and bigger challenges.  By the time a child is about twelve, he can if he has been taught carefully and properly begin schooling younger horses and by the time a child is about fourteen he can begin to teach young horses to be ridden.

This child is being set up for a successful riding experience by pairing her with a safe pony and supervision (she is on a long line to help her to successfully control the pony).  She is wearing the appropriate safety equipment.  The pony is the right size for her and he is calm and well behaved.  We aren’t asking her to control a large unruly and untrained horse.  Ideally, this is what we would do when we pair a child with a dog in an obedience class!  Image credit: davetroesh / 123RF Stock Photo

This is how I recommend that we help youngsters to work with our family dogs.  When mom or dad starts the training, and teaches the dog the skills and then helps the child to master the skill with the dog who already knows what to do, then the dog and the child can develop skills together.  When the child has mastered the basics, then moving forward to more complex and interesting work makes for a more successful experience for both the dog and the child.

In practice what that means in our classes is coming to class and learning to click and treat effectively.  Then take the skill of clicking and treating home to your kids and help them to master that part.  Even very young children can be successful with you clicking and they treating.  By working WITH your kids where you click and they treat does a lot of things.  It teaches the dog that the click predicts the treat.  It helps with your timing.  It involves the children with you and the dog in an activity.  Later you can change roles and let your kids click while you treat.

When you have mastered clicking to mark the behaviour you want, you can teach your dog to do a lot of different things; sit, down and come when called are really easy and useful behaviours to teach your dog so that your kids can participate in training.  When your dog will sit when you say “sit” and you can click when sit happens, you can integrate into your training.  You can start out by demonstrating the behaviour with your dog to your children.  Once your child understands the activities that you want your dog to do, then you can play a variety of games with the behaviours your dog knows.  Get your child to say “sit” when your dog sits, you click and your child can give the treat.  This teaches your dog to follow directions from your child (very important!) and you mark when both the kid and the dog get the right answer.  When your dog is following the direction from your child, you can start giving your child the clicker and you cue the behaviour for the dog.  This gives you a chance to coach the timing of the click so that your child clicks at the right moment.  When your child has had a chance at the cueing, the clicking and the treating separately, then they can start working on all three at once.  I like getting kids to do five of the same behaviour in a row, before we start working on second and third behaviours.

Once the kids get the hang of the process with behaviours that the dog knows, then I like playing a game of call and response; I tell the kid what behaviours to use, and they ask for the behaviour from the dog and click and treat.  When the dog and child are successful with five or six different behaviours in a row, then the kids are ready to start teaching new behaviours.  The dog should by this time understand ten or twelve behaviours, so the dog understands the process of learning.  It is really important that the kids understand that they are marking the right answer for the dog before they start trying to shape new behaviours with the dog.

I have a dozen or so throw away behaviours that I use to help people to learn to shape.  Throw away behaviours are behaviours that don’t really matter a lot to me; tricks are throw aways, and if the dog doesn’t learn them exactly right it is not a big deal.  Throw away behaviours are not the sorts of behaviours that the dog’s life depends upon, like come when called or lie down and stay.  Lying down with your head on your paws is a great throw away behaviour for kids to play with.  The child cues the dog to lie down, and then instead of clicking we just give the dog a treat; the click ends the behaviour, and we want the dog to stay lying down.  Then your child can wait till your dog drops his head towards his paws, and click at that moment and then treat.  If your child is sitting in front of your dog while he is lying down, then your dog will likely keep lying down.  Help your child to offer the treat low between the dog’s feet to help your dog to continue lying down, and if he gets up, then help your child to recue your dog to lie down and then help your kid to continue to click only when your dog drops his head down to his paws.

Notice here that the parent needs to spend a lot of time training, supporting and coaching in order to make this successful for both the dog and the child.  Training, supporting, and coaching set up your dog and your child to be successful and start to work independently.  You cannot do this for either your dog or your child, but without input they are likely going to flounder especially in a busy classroom.  Once your child has trained a few throw away behaviours or tricks with coaching, then it is time for the parent to step back, and supervise but not do it for the team.  These first steps of training independently need to be successful to keep both your child and your dog engaged.  It is also important to recognize that there is no imperative to work for a whole hour in a class-if your child and your dog are comfortable working for ten minutes and then they need a break, then let them take a break; it is not worthwhile to keep them working when they are no longer interested.

This is the sort of trick that little girls teach their dogs to do.  The dog has to learn somethings first; lie down and stay for instance.  If we help the dog to learn the behaviour and then teach the kids how to get the dogs to do what they know then the dog and the kids can both have a great experience!

Small successful steps lead to a long lasting bond between your dog and your child, but you also have to put the training in context.  This is true for adults in training classes too; “what is the point?” is always an important question to answer.  If you have been working on sit with your dog and your child, then make sure that you use that behaviour with your dog and your child in the context of their day to day activities.  You could for instance start getting your dog to sit before your child puts the dog’s breakfast down.  Or you could get your dog to sit before your child throws a ball or a Frisbee for your dog.  It is really important to make training relevant to both your dog and your child.

Often when parents ask if we include kids in class, they forget that we are dealing with three learners in class; the adult, the dog and the child.  Few training classes are really geared to meet the needs of a child learner, and dropping a child into an adult class is not fun for the child, the instructor or the dog.  We cannot expect the child to learn in the way that adults do, and when we pair the child up with a dog who doesn’t understand the work either, then the adult, the child and the dog go away frustrated.

When parents work with the school and take the dog through the work before they take the child through the work with the dog who already knows what to do, this makes it much easier for everyone.  Communication between you and the instructor about your goals in bringing your dog and your child to class can really go a long way to being successful too.  As an instructor, I want to know about your training goals and be a part of your successes.  From time to time a child appears in my classes with their parents and the parent steps back too early, and the whole experiment falls apart.  Not only is the child turned off one of the most magical activities that I was blessed to experience in my childhood, but the adult and the dog are frustrated too!

And what about the child who takes a class and is successful?  When the child and the dog move through the world together and they come up with an idea together, they can explore that with a common understanding of how to communicate about what they each need.  Then the child gets what I got as a child.  A magic relationship with another being.  That is what I wish every child could get when they come through my classroom.



Originally Published August 2013

Imagine what it might be like to live in a completely behaviourally random world.  You go to the cafe and order a latte, and the cashier asks for your hat and coat.  As a cooperative citizen, you give it to the lady who throws it in the trash, as she calls out “NEXT” and turns her attention to the person behind you in line.  You move down the counter to pick up your latte, and the barrista, comes out from behind the counter and grabs you and begins to waltz you around the Salvador Dali cafe and throws open the door and turfs you out onto the sidewalk.  On the sidewalk, a bear in a business suit offers you a Rolex, cheap from inside his waistcoat and when you say no, he pulls out some flowers and hands them to you and approaches someone else on the street.  Still wanting a latte you go back into the store, only to find that it is now filled with pink balloons and you cannot make your way to the counter.  After much struggling, you catch the eye of the cashier and mention your latte and she says “no latte today, m’dear, only champers and cheese” and hands you a plate of candied almonds.  Nothing you do can change the maelstrom of activity you have found yourself within.  How would you feel?

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Living in our world as it is depends on understanding things like the rules of the game, that gravity controls what floats and what doesn’t and who people are.  When things stop being predictable, then it becomes very difficult to learn what to do.  Salvador Dali had a talent for showing this concept visually in a playful and interesting way, never the less, few people would want to play checkers on a board where the pieces persist in falling through the board and where time expands and contracts independently of what the players do.   Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

When we work with dogs, they are forever looking for the way through the maze; the way to control their environment, the rules of the game.  There are lots of games you can play and learn the rules through experience, and training is one of them.  Yesterday, I worked with a lovely young terrier who is trying to figure out the rules.  When she barks, she wants attention, and as a youngster, it worked well.  She can make her person do all sorts of things by barking.  Not wanting to disturb people, her person will come in to her and pick her up, or give her treats or tell her to be quiet or point a finger at her or tell her to lie down.  Like trying to order a latte in the Salvadore Dali cafe, everything changes at every step of the game.  So how can we make training an experiential fun game for the dog?

Think about games and activities that you have learned through experience.  If someone invites you to play Scrabble and you have never played before, it might run like this.  Your opponent will give you a hint or a clue or a starting point.  Perhaps they will start by giving you a tile tray and some tiles and ask you to make some words in your tile tray without showing the words that you have found.  Then your opponent will put down some tiles and the board and explain how the scoring works.  Then it is your turn and you can take your letters and place them on the board to make a word that intersects the first word.  You do this and your opponent scores your word for you and then it is his turn again.  He makes a word that intersects a word on the board and you work out the scoring together.  Turn by turn you learn the rules of the game, what strategies work and which strategies are ineffective.  This is exactly how dogs learn when we train using operant conditioning.

Coming back to my terrier friend (she really is a friendly dog who is just trying to make sense of her world), what we set up for training was a contingency that allowed her to learn some rules through experience.  The first thing we did was use a tether to limit where she could go; we set up a playing area so to speak.  Then we clicked and treated to remind her that the game was starting and give her some information about the game and how it would work.  Then we used four basic rules; if she was quiet, her person would stand close to her and wait.  If she was barking, her person would take one step back for each bark, until he got to the far end of the room.  After barking started, if she were quiet, her person would come back one step at a time.  If she lay down, her person would click and treat.  At first, she didn’t know the rules so she did a lot of different things to see what would happen.

When she barked, her person would step back.  This frustrated her and so she barked louder.  When her person was about twenty steps back, she stopped barking and he stepped forward.  Then she barked again and he stepped back.  For about five minutes, she learned how her behaviour affected the behaviour of her partner.  Then abruptly, she lay down.  Her partner came in and fed her a treat.  And she barked.  He backed up.  She stopped barking and stood up.  He stepped closer.  She lay down, he gave her a treat.  A very simple, but very predictable game, in which she controlled the behaviour of her partner.

This is how I think the best training works.  The trainer decides on the game for the day.  The trainer decides on what the contingencies are.  Then the trainer allows the dog to work out the contingencies.  The dog gets to decide if he wants to play or not and if the trainer has done his job well he has set up rules that make sense to the dog and the dog wants to play.  In order to do this we have to understand some things about the game and about the dog we are working with.

If I have a dog who LOVES liver, but doesn’t love cheese, then it doesn’t matter what I want the dog to do, cheese is not going to help him to learn the rules of the game.  Likewise if the penalty is something the dog doesn’t care about, then using that as a penalty isn’t going to work.  If in the scenario that I presented above the dog was afraid of the handler and barking made him go away, the dog would learn that barking resulted in something he wanted and he would do more barking.  I see this all the time in training.  The person thinks that their dog should like something, and they offer it as a reward, and the dog when working out the rules figures out that he will get something he doesn’t want to have if he does a particular behaviour.  This isn’t about the dog not wanting to play your game; this is about the dog not wanting what you have to offer.

Sometimes the task we are asking the dog to do is of no interest to him.  If we ask a herding dog to go sit in a boat and retrieve ducks, no amount of liver is going to make that as fun for him as taking him out to herd sheep.  In the best training the activities we do with our dogs are of interest to the dog.  That said, there are always parts of the game that we might not enjoy; I hate setting up the board in Scrabble, but if I don’t do that part, I cannot do the part that I like doing.  Manners are an example of activities that your dog must do in order to get to do things he likes better.  Behaviours like greeting with four on the floor, taking treats gently, and keeping quiet are all behaviours that the dog must learn in order to be able to do things like playing agility, herding sheep or retrieving ducks.  Teaching good manners allows us to do more fun things with our dogs later and also allows us to establish that the dog doesn’t live in a random world where nothing he does affects the world he lives within.

Luring is a tool that I often see in the training game that can be quickly and dangerously misused.  Imagine if in my Salvador Dali coffee shop, the cashier kept holding out that latte that I wanted, but I could only get it by following her around.  I might tolerate a lot of Rolex selling bears and pink balloons to get my lattte, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy the experience a whole lot more.  Luring should be only used with caution and with respect for the dog.  When a novice trainer discovers that he can make the dog sit by holding the lure over the dog’s head, it is a short and dangerous step to using the lure to get the dog to do things he might consider otherwise risky.  Consider the dog who is not confident about getting onto a piece of agility equipment.  The trainer puts the lure on the equipment, and the dog is then in a conundrum; he can get the treat, but he isn’t learning to control his environment any longer.  He is conflicted because he wants the treat, but he has to do something that he considers dangerous to get that treat.  He doesn’t learn to play the game as much as he learns to balance the conflict between what he wants and what he doesn’t want to do.  Luring is even more dangerous when it is used to get the dog to interact with people or dogs he isn’t sure of, because he may at that point become aggressive.  Luring, properly used tells the dog how to position his body, but that is all it should be used for.  If the dog is concerned in any way about what you want him to do, pairing the thing he is concerned about to the thing he wants is a much safer bet than making his interaction the contingency that results in a treat.

26398277 - owner training puppy dog with treat
Luring is a tool that can lead the dog into the Salvador Dali Cafe.  It is best used to help the dog understand how his body ought to be positioned, but if it is abused and used to coerce the dog to do things that are uncomfortable or risky, then the dog loses control over how he interacts with the world and then he can end up in situations that don’t make sense to him or that actually put him at risk.  In general, targeting can achieve the same results, with fewer risks.  Image credit: simsonne100 / 123RF Stock Photo

As soon as worry comes into the game, then it is not fun anymore.  Then it is time to play a different game; a game that will allow the learner to figure out that he is safe and that the world is a good place to interact with.  When the dog is worried the game should simply be “see that scary thing?  It produces treats”  This game is great when it is played with the frightening thing far enough away that the dog can cope with his fear.  Only when fear dissolves can you switch back to a game of “if you interact with the thing you are worried about, you will get a treat”.

When we think about training as a game, we can set up a series of rules and outcomes that the dog can be successful at.  Teaching dogs to be confident is contingent on the dog being repeatedly successful.  If the dog is successful over and over again, the dog starts to think that he can do many more things than he used to be able to do.  Perhaps the worst thing we can do to our dogs is create a random world where they cannot control what they live with.  Overwhelming dogs with repeated conflicts or failures results in a dog who lacks confidence and who doesn’t want to participate in training games.  If your dog feels like he is living in the Salvador Dali coffee shop, don’t be surprised if he stops participating in the training game, or if he becomes tense or fearful or anxious.  Just writing about the Salvador Dali cafe is difficult because none of it makes sense and there is no control over the outcomes.  When there is no control over your world, learning is inefficient and upsetting and pretty soon you have a dog who just doesn’t want to participate any more.



Originally posted in April 2011

Imagine for a moment that you were commissioning an architect to build you a house.  You want a very special house; one that will allow you to do some very special things.  Imagine for a moment all the things that YOU want for your house.  In my house, I would like a big woodstove, and a kitchen with great counter space, and new appliances, and an indoor/outdoor swimming pool within a greenhouse with big sliding windows so that in the summer we could have the air flow through but in the winter we could take advantage of passive solar.  I want a VERY fancy house.

Now, given what I want in my house, it is going to need electricity.  Imagine for a moment, that my architect, who has come highly recommended by all my friends, who has built lovely houses before, has decided that he will not work with electricians.  Or electrical engineers.  Or anyone in the electrical industry.  And he won’t read the legal code that electricians must adhere to when they do their work.  He has his own ideas about electricity and in his architectural drawings, he is going to lay out the electrical system HE wants, regardless of what might be accepted in the industry.  Now, granted he has added some improvements to the way things normally work, but in other buildings that he has been involved with, there have always been hang ups during construction while the building inspector goes through and makes all the changes to what this architect has indicated on the drawings-because the architect, while he may think his methods are better, is actually doing something that a lot of dog behaviour consultants, veterinarians and trainers do that we ought not do.  He is practicing outside of his area of competence.

Architects and electricians must work together and neither can do the job of the other.  I am not a vet or a vet tech, and the vet is not a behaviour consultant.  We each have our own jobs and we must work together to help our clients succeed!  Copyright: temis / 123RF Stock Photo
Architects and electricians must work together and neither can do the job of the other. I am not a vet or a vet tech, and the vet is not a behaviour consultant. We each have our own jobs and we must work together to help our clients succeed! Copyright: temis / 123RF Stock Photo

Architects need to know some things about electricity, electrical set ups, and the electrical code.  Architects have to follow guidelines when making building plans.  But architects are not electricians.  And here is a piece of news.  I am a dog behaviour consultant.  In fact, I am a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant.  I did not go to school to become a veterinarian.  Or even a vet tech.  I know enough about dog health to tell you when you need to go to the vet, and I know enough about dog biology and health to be able to carry on a very informed discussion with a veterinarian about a dog in our care.  Here is the thing: I need an invite from the client to do so.

If I hired an architect to build a house for me, I would insist that the various professionals that I hired were able to work together.  The architect needs to be able to work with the engineers, the contractors, my lawyer, and my accountant.  The other professionals need to be able to work together too.  The day of the one stop jack of all trades professional is gone. The same is true of the people who help you with your dog’s behaviour; they need to get along in the sandbox with your vet, your daycare, you dog walker, your groomer and your breeder.  We don’t need to go out for dinner together, but we DO need to find a way to work with one another, recognizing one another’s strengths and specialties and consulting one another opening.  Your vet did not study behaviour in school and likely has not trained as many dogs as I have.  Your daycare is unlikely to have given very many dogs haircuts and your groomer should not be drawing blood and doing bloodwork on your dog.  We each know something about the work that the other does, and we can each contribute something to your dog’s wellbeing in the other places that your dog is going, but we each have a specialty and we need to respect one another’s specializations.

So when you are working with a professional for the improvement of your dog’s quality of life, put the professionals you use in touch with one another.  And beware that those who are not playing nice in the sandbox with one another may not be able to help you in every way possible.  The best outcomes for dogs happen when we are all on the same team.



Originally posted in October 2010

About once a month, someone from outside of the training school calls me up asking how to become a professional dog trainer.  About twice a year, these folks are nice animal lovers who don’t own dogs!  In the spirit of helpfulness, I would like to talk about how to become a professional dog trainer.  It really isn’t any harder to become a professional dog trainer than it is to become a professional anything else.  You need a solid education in the field along with some experience, and where necessary, you need to write qualifying exams.  For example, if a doctor got the sort of call I get from a very nice person who wanted to become a doctor that I get, I imagine that the conversation might go something like this:

“Hello, this is Dr. Mike.”

“Hello Dr. Mike, this is Sally and I would like to be a doctor.  What can you suggest that I do to achieve this goal?”

“Well, let’s start with volunteer experience.  Have you volunteered at a hospital or in a doctor’s office?”

“No, I want to be a doctor now.  I don’t want to volunteer.”  Or alternatively, “Oh, I would love to volunteer in your office, doing examinations and surgery!”


If you want to be a professional dog trainer, likely an image such as this comes to mind; playing with a group of well behaved dogs all day long while you earn a living. That may happen, but that is only one tiny aspect of the dog industry. Most of us have to have impeccable people skills. Copyright: mezzotint123rf / 123RF Stock Photo
If you want to be a professional dog trainer, likely an image such as this comes to mind; playing with a group of well behaved dogs all day long while you earn a living. That may happen, but that is only one tiny aspect of the dog industry. Most of us have to have impeccable people skills. Copyright: mezzotint123rf / 123RF Stock Photo

This is the sort of conversation I have with people who want to be professional dog trainers.  They want to start where I finished up!  I have to admit that I started out as a dog training instructor the wrong way round, but back in the day, when I started teaching, there were few options other than the way that I started.  I started out by purchasing a dog and spending two years learning how to train her.  After that, I borrowed two dogs from a room mate and took them to classes.  I showed all three dogs in matches and trials.  A few years later, I got a second dog and trained him.  Then when my boyfriend at the time had a dog who was aggressive, I worked with that dog and started a little training club for me and my friends.  After a year of volunteer coordinating, I charged a small fee to join our classes.  I taught this way for the next seven or eight years and then I opened Dogs in the Park as a school.  By that time, I had read thousands of articles, participated on a wide variety of internet chats and BBS’s, and had read hundreds of books on the subject, as well as attending workshops and seminars to learn more of my craft.  Once the school was opened, I went back to university and took some upper year behaviour courses.  Then I wrote and passed the Certified Pet Dog Trainer exam (now the Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed exam, through the Counsel for the Certification of Professional Dog Training-www.ccpdt.org) and was grandfathered into the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants as a clinical member.  This is not how I would recommend that you go about it now!

The first thing I would suggest that you do if you want to become a dog trainer is get a good feel for what the job is.  There are two basic types of dog trainers-those of us who take dogs in to board, known widely as pro-trainers, and those of us who are actually teaching people as training instructors.  Figure out which job interests you.  There are spaces available for each type of professional, but what you want to do is going to dictate how you go about developing your craft.  Pro-trainers tend to have a specialization such as working with gun dogs, or protection or detection dogs.  Instructors tend to have a solid base of pet owners to work with and then a few clients in the upper levels of a particular discipline.  A very small number of people train medical service dogs-the demand for these dogs is very high, and thus they are very, very expensive to purchase, but the overhead for the trainers is also very high and you will find that if you want to go into this field, you need to have a very extensive knowledge of disabilities and disability related issues on top of your training and teaching experience.  Explore the field carefully before you decide what you want to do, because if you do end up in this field, you will work long hours and many days without days off to make it work.

Next, train a dog through to a minimum standard.  I don’t mean teach a dog to sit after you have asked him three times, or after you have waved a steak under his nose or when you have physically forced him to do it.  Train a dog through a title, where a third party has looked at your dog, and has determined that your dog knows all the things he must know to pass a test.  If herding is your sport this means training a dog to the upper levels in that sport and passing at least a Herding Intermediate test, not passing the Herding Instinct Certificate.  The same is true of obedience (you should be able to train a dog through Companion Excellent at least!), retrieving (Master Hunter) and Agility (Agility Excellent).  If competitive sports just isn’t your thing, then train a Service Dog from puppyhood to placement, train a Search and Rescue Dog and work that dog.  If you haven’t done work with a dog to the extent that you have taught him to do tasks and done them with him, then you aren’t a dog trainer, plain and simple.  You should try and get out to three to five events per year where you can strut your stuff with your dog, and if you can get out once a month, so much the better.

This handler is competing with his border collie.  Sending a dog away from you is difficult to train and you can see the judge's clipboard on the right side of the picture!  The judge is marking the team on their work together.  Copyright: alfredhofer / 123RF Stock Photo
This handler is competing with his border collie. Sending a dog away from you is difficult to train and you can see the judge’s clipboard on the right side of the picture! The judge is marking the team on their work together. Copyright: alfredhofer / 123RF Stock Photo

At some point, you will need to start to get experience with a variety of dogs and in front of groups of classes.  If you are someone who describes yourself as someone who prefers the company of animals to that of people, you may want to rethink working as a professional in the field of dog training.  If you are intimidated by job interviews, then working as a pro-trainer for individual dog owners is not for you-because every dog you train comes with an owner who should and often will grill you about your credentials, the dogs you have trained and the titles those dogs have earned.  If you don’t love people to the core of your being and if you aren’t willing to bend and flex and change how you do things on a day to day basis, then training service dogs probably isn’t for you either-your clients in this case will need your very best efforts at understanding how they learn, and figuring out how to make things work for them.   Service dog training is the ultimate in customer service, and the stakes are high-do your job wrong or poorly and instead of contributing to someone’s quality of life, you will decrease it.  If standing in front of a group and explaining concepts and activities and making abstract ideas into the concrete doesn’t thrill you, then reconsider being a training instructor.  So with all those caveats, where can you start to get some experience?

Borrow dogs.  There are loads of dogs in your life who would benefit from training and at this stage you don’t need to take them to classes.  Keep training notes and get commitment from the owners to allow you to work for a specified period of time.  At this point in the process, there is little to be gained from fixing behaviour problems.  Learn to teach skills before tackling behaviour modification, which is a whole field unto itself.  If you are so inclined, work with shelter dogs-but beware that you will be limited in what you can teach them due to time constraints and the limitations that shelters put on volunteers who are learning to train.  You cannot learn to teach a dog to come from two hundred metres if you are not allowed to take the dog off leash, or to leave the facility.  Some rescues may allow you to do this, but they are not all that common.  The time to work with dogs in rescue and shelters is when you know enough to be effective quickly.  It is important to respect the dogs in rescue and not use them as guinea pigs for your learning.  When I hear about people using shelter dogs to practice basic training skills when they don’t have any background, I think that we are chipping coins into a pot of disrespect and disposal-this dog is a throw away item, and can be assigned to whatever person who comes along.  Go and spend time with these dogs by all means-but don’t learn your trade on the backs of the disadvantaged.

Dogs in rescue or shelters need help, and this may seem like a great place to start practicing your training skills, but if you make a mistake and teach a dog something unsafe such as jumping up, bolting or pulling on leash, you decrease the dog's chances of being successfully placed.  Once you have some good skills, volunteering at a shelter may help you to publicize your skills, but leave shelter training until you have the skills to really help.   Some newer shelters have train the trainer programs and these can be really great if you can get into one, but good programs can be hard to find.  Copyright: adogslifephoto / 123RF Stock Photo
Dogs in rescue or shelters need help, and this may seem like a great place to start practicing your training skills, but if you make a mistake and teach a dog something unsafe such as jumping up, bolting or pulling on leash, you decrease the dog’s chances of being successfully placed. Once you have some good skills, volunteering at a shelter may help you to publicize your skills, but leave shelter training until you have the skills to really help. Some newer shelters have train the trainer programs and these can be really great if you can get into one, but good programs can be hard to find. Copyright: adogslifephoto / 123RF Stock Photo

If you have come this far with your own education, it is time to invest (yes, that means spending money!) on some more formal education.  All the way along, you need to participate in on line discussion groups, read blogs like this one, and borrow or buy books, but at this point you need to get serious.  You need to spend the money to go to seminars, to get books and training equipment and sometimes to take university or college courses.  The investment in time and effort and money will only pay dividends, even if you walk away from the seminar thinking “well, there is something I won’t do”.  When attending seminars, I strongly urge students to NOT take their dogs at least at first.  Go to the seminars, listen, take notes, record if you are allowed to do so, but leave Fido at home.  Why you might ask?  Simply because Fido is not there to learn; you are, and he is not likely trained to spend eight hours in a day hanging out at a seminar.  From the standpoint of a dog, these activities are BORING!  If you really want to give it a shot, book a private session (yes, more investment!) with the speaker after the event.  Clicker Expo is on my list of must see events for all trainers at least once, and preferably twice.  Beyond twice, I don’t think there is much to be gained.  Suzanne Clothier seminars are good too, and so is her book.  Ian Dunbar is entertaining and worth the price of admission at least once.  Beyond these three, there is such an incredible amount of information out there that it is worth researching other speakers and considering them.  You should plan on attending three to five weekend seminars a year for the first five years of your career.  Minimum.  If you can get to one a month, that is even better.

If you are starting to think that this sounds like about as much work as a university degree, you are right.  It is about the same amount of time, effort and money to do a three year degree program as it is to learn to be a professional dog trainer.  And at this point in the process I am describing you haven’t made a nickel to show for your efforts!  You should however have a broad network of professionals who have helped you, who are willing to continue to help you and who can give you suggestions about where you might like to end up.  This is the time to use that network to find a placement for your “co-op” so to speak.  You need to find someone who is willing to mentor you through assisting in classes or assisting in protraining dogs in a given discipline. THIS is the part that I missed, and it is really the most important thing you can do.  When my students had problems that I didn’t know how to solve, I didn’t have a mentor to turn to (I do now, by the way!).   You may be fortunate enough to have two or more mentors or a school you have attended to help you get even more exposure and experience.  By this time you should probably also be looking at your second dog; and you should be very picky about what you are looking for in that dog.  That dog should be your business card and your thesis paper all rolled up in one.  That particular dog should help you to move from the point of being a student to the point of being a professional.  Look for characteristics that will help you, not challenge you; because you want to be able to train that dog to the extent that you can bring him to a job interview and count on him to show off what you can do. (tip; keep notes and video of everything you do in choosing, training and developing this dog!  You never know when you may be asked if this is REALLY your work!)

You should plan on being an assistant for one to three years depending upon how much time you have to do this, on how good you are, on how much education you have and on the mentor you have.  Your goal should be to be doing elements of the end job as you gain competency.  Some people will get to that point quickly and some people will take longer.  You need a mentor who is willing to coach you and give you challenging things to do and teach and you need to devote the time to making that worth your mentor’s time.  If retrieving is your discipline, that means volunteering to chuck ducks in the cold and mud for hours at a time, in odd hours and in your spare time.  If you are hoping to become a training instructor, expect to sweep the training hall, hold leashes and check off enrolment forms.  If you are hoping to become a service dog trainer, expect to spend a lot of your time cleaning kennels, walking dogs and helping set up training scenarios.  This phase involves a lot of grunt work and some of it unpleasant but in my opinion it is an important phase of development.  I learned more about horses from the time I spent cleaning stables than I ever did during my riding lessons, and the same is true of dogs and the dog industry.

At the University of You, you get to choose what you study, who you work with, and when you are finished.  When you are done though, you can have confidence in the validity of your education because you chose what went into it!  Copyright: mdorottya / 123RF Stock Photo
At the University of You, you get to choose what you study, who you work with, and when you are finished. When you are done though, you can have confidence in the validity of your education because you chose what went into it! Copyright: mdorottya / 123RF Stock Photo

Around about this time, you need to start considering what sort of certification is going to be most helpful to you as a trainer.  The Certificate of Professional Dog Training (www.ccpdt.org) is a really good bet; it has the advantage of being administered like a board examination, and there is no single course or career path to take to get there.  The path described above will help you a lot, with the caveat that you will need to get actual teaching time on the ground under your belt if you want to take that.  Different disciplines may have other opportunities too.  Because you will be attending the University of You-you get to figure out what is going to benefit you the most.  Follow this path, and in three to five years, you too can become a professional dog trainer.