What They Don't Tell You About Professional Positive Reinforcement Training

This post is part of the #Train4Rewards Blog Party  Follow Companion Animal Psychology on Twitter/FB/Web - it's one of my favorite go-to places on the internet, and I think you'll love it, too! 

The 2019 Train for Rewards Blog Party

*When I wrote this, I wrote it from a dog training perspective, but this abSOLUTEly can be true for horses, cats, bonobos, first graders, etc.  

I haven't written here since January. I've been busily writing an educational memoir that focuses primarily on what it's like to really be a dog trainer, one who came from a background where we alpha rolled dogs, bit their ears (I cringe at thinking that) all under the guise of "love," keeping them "safe" and most of all, obedient.

And how as a young girl, I knew it was wrong, but it took a long time to unlearn.

I'm not alone.

I was mentoring a Victoria Stilwell Academy student, Zoe, in 2016. As Zoe was finishing her program she asked me, "What do I need to know going in?" I reminded her of all the technical stuff she'd need to know for any tests she'd have to take for certification, but that's when she stopped me.

"No, not that," she said. "What do I need to know. The stuff they didn't tell me in class." 

There is MORE to being a dog trainer than sit, down and stay, and Zoe knew it from the jump.

So I wrote her a book, the same one I'm working on now. 

Here's the thing: If someone jumps into this industry because they love dogs, or they want to advocate for dogs*, the thing they don't tell you is that every facet of our lives as professional dog trainers has the potential to become a magnifying glass for stress signals, learning theory, communication, boundaries, all of it, in every single area of a professional and a personal life experience. And for some of us, that's amazing.

For others (read: spouses!), maybe not so much.

Being immersed in the world of positive reinforcement can create a perfect mirror: A mirror that when held up forces you to look back at every mistake made prior to making the commitment to using science, data, and learning theory. These last three years have been a meditation on forgiving myself for trespasses made in the name of "alpha", "training" and "respect," and I know I'm not alone. Sometimes this is a hard pill to swallow, and it's so easy to get stuck back in that place, especially if your personal journey as someone working with animals in a positive reinforcement circle did not start out with clickers, treat bags and learning theory. Most surprisingly, just like with our relationships and glaring mistakes we might have made with the dogs in our past, we have to look at other relationships, too, those with people. And that, for me, is sometimes painful, difficult and embarrassing. And again, I know I'm not alone. 

Positive reinforcement training for domestic animals is a balancing act, one the best trainers and consultants are truly bilingual. First, we take what a dog is saying with her furry body. We can't just read the dogs and report back - we have to be able to read the dog: How much pressure can we, or should we, use? How nervous is this dog, how confident, how trainable, how excitable, how everything is this dog?

And then we have to take that information, put it through the Translatomatic 3000, and assess the owner. 

How nervous is this owner? How much does he resist positive reinforcement? How on-board is he with data, science, and yes - cookies? How do we talk to him about the dog he loves in a way he can understand and execute the right plan? How do I translate this just so?  Is humor right for this guy? Is blunt force the way to go? Is talking to his wife better? 

Then, and only then can we feed this information back through the Translatomatic 3000, take out sciencey-lingo, add pizzaz, jazz hands, and relay the info back to the client.

All in 15 seconds.

(Sometimes I feel exactly like these robots: Failing with my translations.)

There is sexism - in a field dominated by women, we still deal with sexism on the daily either online, in a client's home, or on stage. I've watched men talk over women on stage, women with doctorates in animal sciences, steamrolled by men who turn and wink to the audience as if their bullying was a joke.  I've had grown men tell me my job is cute, minutes after I was crying with a client when she made the decision to euthanize her beloved pet. We haven't solved sexism, even in a field that is nearly 90% women. They don't tell you that, either. But we're working on it. 

There are healthcare considerations if one is to be a self-employed dog trainer or a contractor. In many cases if we don't work, we don't get paid, which makes things like the flu, broken bones and pregnancy much, much, much harder. Again, working on it - but this is absolutely something that should be considered.

OMG - SO MUCH PEE. And humping. To be honest, humping and pee are the dynmaic duo of awkward laughter in professional training, and if you can't handle being peed on, cleaning pee, eating a sandwich while talking about pee, poop, or worse, then at least consider a different path. I had no idea how much of my professional conversation load would be on the subject of urine and penises. Penisi? Peni? Moving on. 

There is misinformation galore regarding breed types...and if someone loves dogs as much as dog trainers love dogs, we can be pretty, pretty, pretty nasty to people who disagree with us. Be wary of comment sections, particularly in hot button topics (like anything with Pit Bull in the title). 

...and there is the Internet, which is the very embodiment of a high-wire act. Some info is great (she says, writing a blog post on THE INTERNET), and some is so very damaging to dogs and people it makes me want to cry. And, here's the thing - I've said some of those wrong things fully believing they were correct, learned differently, and that stuff despite taking it down, still gets shared on THE INTERNET. The internet is truly a double-edged sword that plays such a role in culture, society, and yes, positive reinforcement animal training.

Image of Google
Google with Caution.

And once you see stress in a dog, it's hard to NOT see stress in a dog. Dogs at the dog park, dogs on walks, dogs being dragged by their owners on the sidewalk when the dog is just trying to sniff a flower. It makes my heart break in two when the connection is lost when the dog is just another thing to do - "Make coffee, drop kids at school, walk dog." And if you know what you're looking for, the dog park will be a difficult place to go after learning what stress signals are. I've had to pay my friend to take my dog to the dog park because my dog loves it, his buddies are there, and we live in a city. Yet, I can't go without taking behavior modification medication because there are so many dogs there who do not want to be there. It's tempting to run up to the dog's care taker, grab them by the shoulders, and present a 15 slide presentation on stress signals - but that's not how this job works. You have to know when to open your mouth, and when to zip it. Yes, there will be things that are really, really hard to watch. And there is very little you can do.

And I was so ill-prepared for that realization, too.

But why do we still do this if it's so hard, a job where it might sometimes feel like we are fighting dragons all day? 

That's personal. For me, there are the connections, the good stories that warm the heart, the dogs that make you bust out laughing so hard your stomach hurts, the people who hold your hand and say, "Thank you," the people who send holiday cards and become true friends. The people who come to classes and work hard, the dogs who come to classes and work hard, the community, the tribe, and yes, the smell of dusty dog fur. There are even owners who you might think are going to give up, but they go the distance for their dogs.

Moments like this, pure joy, contentedness, and magic. 

My daughter and her BFF, Captain Love

All of it.

There are moments that will stick with a trainer in positive reinforcement. For me, one moment is observing a young autistic boy who was unable to communicate with anyone, except he would consistently light up and talk every time his dog came into the room. He'd pick up her favorite thing - discs - and play with her. The dog would bounce and demonstrate happiness, as did the young boy. Then the dog would disappear, and he'd shut down again, become so insular he couldn't communicate. She'd come back in and his internal light-switch would come back on. It's the relationship and the understanding in moments like that will never leave you, and acts like armor the next time someone is too busy staring at their phone while you are talking to them about training their dog, or acts as a shield when the dog in front of you has been mistreated by a family who thought they were doing all the right things.

But that moment is frozen in time, a resource, a spark of joy, a little piece of magic here, truly here, really here. I can recall that magic anytime I feel the world is burning and things are out of my control. I can conjure magic, a magic that can only occur when a relationship is built on trust - them trusting me, and the dog trusting them.

And that's pretty damn cool.


  1. You are speaking from my heart, really. No one's prepared me either.

    1. Right? I love my job, I wouldn't trade it for anything. I'm really, really lucky and fortunate to be able to do this professionally.

      However, there is a lot in this line of work that come from left field.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.