When did you decide to pursue behavior as a profession?
There were really two times this came up for me. In the early days of my training career (in the 1970 and ’80s, so really prehistoric!), I worked with a lot of mentors and was fascinated by the way they worked with difficult behavior problems. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of trainers whose skills I respected. But back then, dog training methods were very old-school and behavior problems were being “treated” with punishment, and the dogs who didn’t respond well to those methods were written off as “born bad” or “bad wiring.” Even as a compulsion trainer, I was always proud to be able to use minimal force to get good results, but the behavior mod techniques I was being taught were pretty heavy-handed, and I didn’t feel good about what I was doing. And the actual failure/recidivism rate I observed really squashed my enthusiasm for behavior work.
In my 40s, I started to experience some unpleasant effects of training, including shoulder, back, and neck pain; this was directly related to all that wrestling with bigger dogs. But the thought of giving up working with dogs was unacceptable to me. Long story short, I found more modern training methods, and once I began learning that, it was really a short walk back to behavior work. Since training and behavior are so closely comingled, the new mentors I worked with introduced me to a better way, and I saw better and more long-lasting results that really seemed to make the dog a better “person,” not just eliminate an inconvenient behavior. Because I spent a lot of my early professional career in high-tech doing systems design and project management, I was already trained to follow structured methodologies, which lends itself beautifully to creating effective training and behavior modification plans. When I got laid off from my high-tech career of 25 years with a bunch of severance pay, the decision to start my own business and take up dog behavior consulting full time was practically made for me!
How did you get started in your behavior education?
I’m very much an autodidact in this field. Once I got on the path to “crossing over” from old-school dog training, I became very excited about the techniques and results I was seeing. During that time, coincidentally, there were tons of seminars and workshops being offered in my area, so within about a two-year period, I attended literally hundreds of hours of training by people like Pat Miller, Patti Ruzzo, Nicole Wilde, Jean Donaldson, Cheryl Smith, Terry Ryan, Ian Dunbar, Trish King, Kathy Sdao, and so many others. During that time, George and Alta Tawzer started producing quality videos of positive dog training and behavior modification seminars and workshops, and I spent a small fortune on those. Getting out to the seminars also helped get me connected to other trainers who were on my track or skilled in areas I desperately wanted practice in, so my circle of friends and mentors shifted in that direction.
How did you get started in developing practical skills?
I was fortunate to have many great mentors over the years, and completed a number of formal and informal apprenticeships in areas where I needed help. Some of these were club trainers who had access to many dogs and encouraged me to get my hands on as many dogs as I could. One memorable exercise involved working with “finger- painters,” unruly dogs who pooped in their kennels and then walked, sat, and rolled around in it. You’ll never learn better timing and defensive leash-handling skills than when you’re trying to keep a poop-covered dog off of you! My learning style also makes it easy for me to learn practical skills from well-written texts, and Pat Miller and Terry Ryan were always my go-to people for that. And of course, having the opportunity to set up practice sessions with other trainers was a tremendous help!
How did you know when you were ready to take on private clients?
I didn’t! I offered my services as a trainer and worked very hard to stay within my level of competence. Since I didn’t have a training space of my own, all my training clients were privates, and some of them had more complex problems than I could have known about before signing up with them. Back then, I didn’t have too many opportunities to refer out locally, as most of the trainers in my area were either less experienced or were using coercion as their primary training modality. And there were no veterinary behaviorists back then, so I had to rely on my own knowledge and skill, and the patience and generosity of mentors and others who offered their assistance and advice.
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
Early on, I focused so much more on my dog training and behavior knowledge and skills than anything else, but my formal training in human interactions was nowhere near as well-developed. Well, when your primary business focus is working with family dogs, you learn pretty quickly that the human part of the family is a pretty critical component, particularly when you’re working with complex problems in which the people may be a significant contributor or even a facilitator. My early experience was working as a club trainer, and I also spent a lot of time volunteering in animal shelters, so the dogs were largely disconnected from an owner, and almost always, a household. So, if I had to go back and do it all over, I probably would have gotten more training from therapists and social workers (who happen to be some of my best clients these days!) in human-relations skills.
Any particularly challenging times where you questioned your decision to pursue behavior as a career? What did you do to overcome them?
Although I was getting better results than before I crossed over, I still had loads of frustrations regarding poor “client compliance,” and in fact spent a lot of time with fellow trainers commiserating about this very thing. But I had a couple of “A-ha” moments when I came to understand that a lot of my “non-compliant” clients either didn’t understand what I asked them to do, or couldn’t do it for some reason or other. I did a lot of soul searching and decided that if my learner didn’t understand what I wanted, or couldn’t do it for some reason, then I only had myself to blame. From that point on, I took as much responsibility for making sure that what I asked of my clients was as clear and consistent and doable as what I asked of their dogs. A lot of my remaining “judgy-ness” about clients and their expectations fell away, and life got a lot better for everyone after that! This also propelled me in a more positive direction in my own education, as it challenged me to learn more and more skills, giving me a wider range of options to offer my clients, and the ability to offer them a truly customized experience, and better and faster results.
The other biggie for me was struggling to make forward progress with some of the more complicated cases, resulting in frustration for me and my clients, and financial pain for me. Although I always had a training plan, I’d find some complex cases would fall into doldrums as the dog would plateau somewhere, or the client would get bored, and we’d wind up repeating steps and losing track of where exactly we were. This was also a financial bummer to me, because I’d get caught up in cases that never ended, meaning I was not able to take on other new work. It was then that my long-forgotten project manager persona kicked in and I remembered something that had been drilled into me since practically childhood: “Fail to plan, plan to fail.” So I did some more studying and came up with a behavior case management method that works for me. It keeps me focused on ensuring each step of the plan is completed before moving on to the next, improving my effectiveness and efficiency. My clients get better results, we complete our programs in more reasonable timeframes, and I’m able to book more work because less of my work time is wasted. When we talk about these issues, we always like to focus on ourselves as “helpers” and almost avoid the subject of having to make a living at it, which is sad, because I know too many good trainers and consultants who have left the business for financial reasons.
What resources are available now that you wish you’d been able to take advantage of back in the day?
Current technology really makes for a superior learning environment for consultants. I can remember working with mentors many years ago, and the dog would do something weird or unusual and the mentor (whose experience and observation skills were far superior to mine) would exclaim “Did you see that?!” And sadly, I hadn’t, and because it wasn’t recorded, it was lost forever. Today, the universe is loaded with video clips of every kind of dog doing every bit of behavior that you can watch repeatedly, forward and backward, slo-mo and freeze-frame. Small, high-quality video cameras are inexpensive and integrated into almost everybody’s phone. In my business, we’re making more and more extensive use of video, for evaluating dog behavior, our own performance, and in marketing!
Remote education is far superior to what we had when I was coming up. College-level courses are available online in flexible formats. Individual webinars are available on every subject under the sun. We even have at least one comprehensive online course that provides consultants of all levels with a great overview of the entire consulting experience, IAABC’s Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles and Practice. And of course, having professional organizations like IAABC to provide direction and practice standards makes a healthy environment for consultants to build solid skills, knowledge and ethics.