Last weekend I attended a dog training seminar/workshop with my two favorite dog professionals, Sarah Wilson and Brian Kilcommons. Titled “Dealing with Difficult Dogs” and put on with the help of the Longmont (Colorado) Humane Society’s amazing behavior department (headed by Aimee Sadler, a phenomenal trainer in her own right who has made Longmont’s program training and socializing shelter dogs the best in the country), the seminar used shelter dogs and focused on the husband-and-wife team’s separate strengths: Brian’s difficult dogs are pushy, confident, “dominant,” and aggressively reactive. Sarah’s specialty is with shy or timid dogs, and less-aggressive reactive dogs—what she calls “deficit dogs.” Both focus on communication and connection, and both, thank Dog, focus on helping pet owners train their own dogs.
I know many dog trainers who have great training chops. They can take just about any dog and work magic before your eyes. I’ve learned a lot from them. But when they try to explain what they do to the novice pet owner, or show owners how to get the same results, or even explain to the audience how what they do works, they often choke. They just don’t have the “people chops” to create lasting change. Brian, and especially Sarah, do. And that’s one reason I will travel long distances to see them in action whenever possible. I had seen this seminar before, last year. But I knew if I attended again it would be slightly different, and I’d learn more. I was not disappointed.
I probably attend 1-3 dog training seminars and workshops every year, though the number is fewer this year because of the poor economy. I will occasionally attend lecture-only seminars, but I’d love to not have to. I need to spend what little money I have for “continuing education” on workshops that give me the best bang for my buck. Going to hear a dog trainer lecture—with nary a dog in sight—is usually a waste of my time, though the better ones of these have video accompaniment showing lots of footage of the speaker “walking the walk,” and a presentation style that leaves you wanting more. The lamest ones, I’m sorry to say, are strictly Powerpoint or someone promoting his or her book. Really? I could have read the book and saved myself the travel expenses, thank you.
(Actually, the lamest presentation by a so-called dog expert I ever saw was a traditionally “hot” young woman with her “world-renowned trick dog.” She underestimated her audience, a diverse group of canine professionals, who have more skills than she did, and worse, her dog would do nothing if she wasn’t shoving treats in the dog’s face. She simply had no visible relationship with the dog. As she tried to talk in between tricks, the dog ignored her “stay” command and wandered around the room, urinating on the floor and sticking its head into people’s purses or bags, searching for food. At one point, it put its paws on a table and stole some treats that were there. The entire time this was happening, the presenter was halfheartedly asking the dog to “stay” and shrugging and smiling like it was funny.
It was excruciating to watch. She seemed like a perfectly nice person, but her shtick didn’t impress. At all. "Nice" and "hot" were not what we paid to see. Note to presenters: if the dog you bring—your supposedly well-trained dog you have a bond with and have spent years training-- won’t listen to you while you talk, the audience won’t either. Yes, crap happens, but it was obvious this woman had not prepared for her presentation, which is disrespectful to the audience.
To top it off, more than half of her presentation was self-promotion, though not of her work. I consider it an epic fail.)
Sadly, many more so-called “professionals” hold workshops and seminars around the country every year and never work a single dog, or only show their highly-trained dog in action. I understand why sometimes having multiple strange dogs to demonstrate on might not be feasible (venue won’t allow it; seminar or conference too large; shelter dogs not available; audience doesn’t expect it; time constraints; etc.). But those tend to be lame excuses. More often than not, I suspect, it is a lack of confidence on the speaker’s part that he or she can “walk the walk” in front of the audience. I personally feel that some of these speakers plan their presentations so that having dogs there is not feasible—on purpose.
Why would they do this? Why not work some dogs at your dog training seminar? For some, it’s the aforementioned anxiety. For others, it’s because they know their methods do not fit neatly into a seminar format (this is especially true for the “positive only” crowd, a large—and unfortunately—powerful group who will, to the detriment of most dogs, do just about anything to avoid dogs getting any unpleasant information), or will not “show well.” I can excuse a tiny portion of this nonsense because I do not organize seminars or workshops and realize I don’t know all the logistics. Like I said before, I do occasionally spring for presentations wherein dog trainers simply talk about training and don’t actually do any. But I am less and less inclined to do so than I was 5, or even 3, years ago.
Mostly, these days I don’t pay unless there’s going to be some play. Ideally, the speaker will work multiple dogs that he or she does not know—and it’s better still if they are not the audience members’ no-longer-green dogs. Even better, the professional will let audience members work dogs while they offer feedback. To me, the true test of a good canine and human teacher is one who can take heretofore unseen dogs and show you the process of training in a short amount of time.
This is what Brian and Sarah do. And I respect the hell out of them for it. And I pay to see them whenever possible, because not only do I always learn a little something new, I want to support their efforts to improve the quality of training dogs get. I also want to support their methodology, which combines clear instruction with appropriate feedback—both positive (lots) and negative (enough). In their hands, dogs have “light bulb moments” rather frequently. It’s a joy to watch. It’s as positive and fun as any training you’ll ever see—and it’s incredibly effective.
Bonus: Sarah has umpteen videos on YouTube of her—surprise!--training dogs that are not hers. Many can be found at her phenomenal website and forums for dog owners, MySmartPuppy.com, and a great many are free.
It’s time for those who make a living training dogs and people to “put up or shut up.” If your methods are superior, show me. And don’t just show me with your already-trained dog of a breed commonly owned by dog trainers. Show me with a timid Chihuahua, an adolescent Basenji, an out-of-control, pushy Shepherd mix from the shelter. My demand to be shown especially applies to trainers who believe that all dogs can be trained with one tool, or in one way, or who ignore the laws of Nature and go out of their way to completely eliminate stress for the dog.
Show me you working the dog and getting results. Show me how you’ll translate that instruction to a novice pet owner without confusing scientific terms, grandstanding regarding tools, cockiness, a holier-than-thou attitude, and the assumption that pet owners are unworthy. Show me how your way will start getting results for novice pet owners in MINUTES, not days or weeks, and without incredibly detailed rules that novice pet owners will never adhere to. Show me how you’ll make the owner exclaim, “Wow. I really CAN do this! And now I WANT to!”
Dog training is NEVER a “quick fix.” It takes time and effort to see results, though many pet owners want them to appear as if by magic. This is not reality, and it’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about fun, effective methods that are doable, start to work right away, and that inspire confidence in owners to keep at the business of training so that they can have the dog they deserve.
Because results matter. Show me.