I, like the many of you who saw the recent viral video of dog being hit by a trainer, was angered and found it extremely uncomfortable to finish watching. Being a behaviour consultant myself, it was actually worse for me to watch through everything even with mute on. As most people were focused on the human behaviours and cowering response from the dog, I understood and was going through every single fear and stress signal displayed by the dog, from the ears all the way to the subtle changes in it’s body language. If I were to describe the situation from the dog’s POV, it was going through a life or death situation.
Putting aside anger, i could understand the trainer’s feelings at the point of time. From my perspective, the behaviour of the trainer doesn’t seem like it was a part of his usual training style, to me it looked more like a display of frustration and anger. In this line of work, you need to try your best to treat the dogs that come to you. With any training on aggression, the initial stages of the training is the most crucial and yet stressful period for both dog and handler, therefore I rarely do much focused work with dogs in the beginning, I prefer to observe, let the dog behave how it usually does while building bond first. Easier said than done, the risk of getting bitten can also put the handler in a stressed state which greatly affects their response in times of danger. Getting bitten often as a trainer does not help, in fact it may eventually develop into trauma, in which the instinctual response of a living being in danger would be fight or flight.
As with working with animals and people, handlers need to be mentally prepared and understand that things often won’t go according to plan, this is when stress begins to add up. In addition, canine training is not a well respected job, most people may be able to understand the difficulty of a groomer or vet, but not many may understand the amount of work required to train or work with a dog. Most owners tends to give a list of areas for the trainer to work on, and honestly a majority of them expect things to be in perfect order after training, almost like a shopping checklist if I may say so. The first thing that naturally comes to mind is; would this be the fault of the trainer to believe that they can fix dogs, or the fault of the public believing that this is the job of a trainer? To be fair, it can affect each other both ways. I can’t speak on behalf of how other trainers work, but I’d usually put in effort to explain to owners that what they are taught to believe about trainers are not going to happen if they wish to work with me. Dogs are sentient beings with a mind and intellectual ability of its own, no one has the right to tell you that they can achieve a certain standard with a dog without actually trying, going through and finishing the treatment first. This applies to humans including children, no ethical teachers or psychologists should guarantee you 100% success in any education or treatment, you have to try to see where you land, then adjust your mindset and expectations as you progress. But of course, if we just want to eliminate a behaviour without caring about what the dog feels, it is actually an easy task, the fear just needs to be stronger than the undesired behaviour, this is the basic law of response, you don’t need any expert to teach that. A couple of years back, I remembered an owner whom I expressed that the dog required at least 6 months of treatment to see effect, the owner agreed but ended up asking why the dog was not fixed after just 2-3 months of practice and requested for me to provide a “better option”. This is no longer a problem with appreciation of someone’s job, instead a problem with pushing responsibilities. Breeders are always the good guys and problem is with the trainers if the dog isn’t “fixed”, since nobody care about genetic traits, bloodline and proper upbringing, which is the main cause of behavioural concerns in the first place. This is also why we see more successful businesses with boot camps and training methodology that promises quick fix, just press a button at the right time and viola, problem solved! To me as someone who specializes in behaviours, this is not teaching. Forcing a behaviour is not teaching, the dog doesn’t have a choice but to avoid the fear that is stronger than the undesired behaviour. Nonetheless, the public prefers a quick fix, then when repercussions appear, the next trainer in line will be responsible to fix the damage.
Do bear in mind that I’m not siding with anyone here, I’m just sharing what most trainers are going through and how the general public perceives them. I am actually fortunate enough to meet understanding owners more often than not. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the accumulation of stress, we work at least twelve hours a day, and after work I’m still trying to reply to clients from recent lessons, all the way back to those that I worked with since 12 years ago. I get depressed when dogs get sick, I lose nights of sleep when a client chooses to hurt me with words, my mood is affected when I see a dog in distress, I’m a human being after all. The accumulated stress needs to go somewhere, and just like dogs, when I am showing frustration anyone could suppress my response with fear and intimidation, I may stop showing the frustration to that person but it doesn’t change how I feel, the stress will only accumulate and I’ll possibly explode one day. Anyone can just say that if you are not happy then don’t do it, in my opinion it is not about being happy, it is about enjoying working with and helping dogs, but that doesn’t mean one cannot feel any stress when working with a challenging case. You don’t just ask a vet to stop being a vet because they are easily stressed out, they dedicate their life to helping dogs and being stressed is just a part of the job.
BUT, that doesn’t mean that a stressed handler should vent it on who they have decided to help in the first place; DOGS! When I’m stressed, I take a break, eat nice food, watch a movie, travels, playing with Amber. I do also play games when work ends.
At the end of the day, just like how I advocate to train dogs; it is all about building relationships. We can learn to manage and divert stress to appropriate activities, it doesn’t need to be suppressed.
Dog Trainer | Amber’s Cottage | Behaviour Modification