I Tried It and It Didn't Work!

One of the last things a dog trainer wants to hear from a client is: “I tried it and it didn’t work.” When this happens, it can be tempting to start wandering in the “let’s try something else” desert. But there is a better way to handle this inevitable call that will save you and your client a lot of grief.

It’s hot out there!

It’s hot out there!

Desert wandering in dog training refers to looking for reasons that are unlikely to be the cause of common problems, or looking for alternate solutions to a problem that wasn't given ample time to resolve with the most efficient training plan. This is an example of desert wandering: a newly adopted 3 month old puppy is eliminating in the house. You provide and coach through the standard house training plan. A week later the guardian calls and says “it isn’t working! We need to try something else!” The trainer then strays from the original plan and starts looking for other reasons the puppy might be eliminating in the house. Is it her thyroid? Too much protein in her diet? Maybe try CBD oil or decreasing water intake? Or maybe she is a “special breed” and they are “harder to train,” and so on. The more efficient way to handle this phone call is to perform what my teacher, Jean Donaldson, refers to as the CED check. 

As trainers, it behooves us to have standard operating procedures when coaching our clients.

As trainers, it behooves us to have standard operating procedures when coaching our clients.

The CED Check

CED stands for: compliance, execution, diagnosis. When a client calls and says, “it’s not working,” the first thing I do is a CED check. We’ll continue using the house training plan as an example. 

Compliance

The first thing to look at is compliance. Is the client carrying out the plan at all? Are they confining the dog when they can’t watch her like a hawk? Are they going outside with the dog every single time and rewarding her for eliminating? Are they slipping up on management? Is the dog roaming free in the house when her bladder is full? This is one of the most common compliance slip-ups. 

Execution

If my client says they are doing everything according to the plan, the next thing I look at is execution. Are they doing it right? Are they becoming frustrated and shouting at the dog when she has an accident inside? Are they praising and rewarding at just the right moment (immediately after outdoor elimination?)

Compliance and execution errors are not necessarily the owner's fault. This could be due to it just being a difficult new mindset for the client, their expectations weren't adjusted before training, or they need more coaching of "how to" than they received.

Diagnosis

So, you’ve confirmed the client is following the plan. You’ve reinforced what they’re doing right and coached them on the next piece. You’ve showed them how to do the training and watched them do it correctly. Your no-fail house training plan has been in place for 2-3 weeks and there are still accidents. The final thing to examine is, did I diagnose this correctly? Maybe this puppy is afraid? Maybe she has a urinary tract infection? In a newly adopted puppy, 99.9% of the time it’s a house training issue but there’s a small chance that something else is at play. When you’ve exhausted your compliance and execution checks, look at your diagnosis. But remember, for an efficient and skilled trainer, the challenge is not selecting what to do, the challenge is doing it and doing it right. 

Our clients are not dog trainers and it is our job to coach them (using positive reinforcement) so they can carry out our plans and achieve success. Efficiency is of the utmost importance when it comes to pet dog training. Since dog training is an unregulated industry, if a trainer fails to get results, clients are likely to move along to the next one. What should have been a simple house training protocol using tight management and cookies has now turned into a puppy being electrocuted or having her nose rubbed in it every time she eliminates in the house. Aside from the well-researched fact that punitive training methods come with a high risk of fall out, punishing a dog for going to the bathroom in the house does not teach them to go outside. It teaches them not to go in front of you.

A dog being punished for eliminating indoors showing signs of fear: ears pinned back, mouth closed tight, whites of eyes showing.

A dog being punished for eliminating indoors showing signs of fear: ears pinned back, mouth closed tight, whites of eyes showing.

So when you get the “I tried it and it didn’t work” call, perform a simple CED check before you throw in the towel and start wandering in that hot desert. You’ll thank yourself later.

Additional Resources:

Is Your Dog Trainer Who You Think They Are?

Guest blog written by Nickala Squire, CTC, owner of Carefree Canine.

With a few exceptions based on locale, auto mechanics are required to obtain several licences specific to their work.

There are hefty education requirements as well as licensing requirements for veterinarians to legally practice medicine. A board certified veterinarian must have completed at minimum, 7 years of education in a few different contexts as well as pass multiple examinations.

According the NITC, “plumbers need to be certified to ensure that unnecessary plumbing failures or accidents are drastically minimized” and must have at minimum 2 years of experience before working on their own.

Even hair stylists report to a board of cosmetology and if doing more than shampooing, must be licensed.

So in this day and age of consumer protection via both education and examination, it boggles the mind that dog trainers have no minimum requirements to take consumers’ money. You read that right. There are no minimum education requirements, no standards of care or standard operating procedures, not even a requirement to be transparent about what will happen to a customer’s furry family member during training. As Jean Donaldson bluntly but eloquently put it in her keynote speech for the 2019 BC SPCA Animal Behaviour Science Symposium, this is comparable to a veterinarian attempting to neuter a cat with a spoon, complaining they can’t figure out how to do it, potentially injuring the cat, but still getting paid and accepting clients.

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You may be thinking “that’s hyperbole, a veterinarian could seriously injure or kill an animal without education.” Here’s the kicker though, dog trainers do injure, emotionally scar, and even kill on a consistently frequent basis. If you can stomach it, go to Google right now and type in “dog trainer abuse.” At the time I’m writing this, I get 72,200 results in the ‘news’ section alone. You have to go back quite a few pages to get anything that isn’t recent. These stories continue to happen because anyone can proclaim they’re a dog trainer (or less accurately, “behaviorist”) and do whatever they want to your dog.

Imagine a guy named Billy decides one day that based on trial and error with his family dogs he’s figured out dog training methods guaranteed to work! He sets up his new business and begins teaching people how to force their dog’s head underwater while the dog gasps and struggles for air, to resolve digging holes. He instructs people that for aggressive dogs, teaching them to respect people is key. Teaching “respect” is done with a special collar that they are to hang the dog with, until the dog can no longer fight back either because they are busy gasping for air or because they are no longer conscious, either are fine. For both your sake and my own, I won’t go on.

Sadly again, these are not hyperbole. The two “techniques” I described are still used very frequently by popular trainers, organizations, and fairly recently the former example could be seen on TV by a “dog psychologist who rehabilitates, not trains” (quotations because this is an inaccurate marketing ploy.) There are trainers who use force, intimidation, fear, discomfort or pain, and trainers who arrange the environment so they only need to use things the dog wants such as play, food, access outdoors or to furry friends, etc. But there’s also a massive spectrum in between with combinations of both. The examples above may be on the far end of the spectrum, but they’re not even as outlandish as real training techniques being sold, such as peeing on the dog for marking or spitting in dogs’ mouths to resolve aggression. Seriously, the dog training industry is a mess.

It gets worse. There are an impressive amount of dog training schools and certifications programs out there. You would think this is good news, but unfortunately the instructors have the same requirements to teach dog trainers and dog trainers in general. That is: none. A trainer in training can spend $50,000+ on a rigorous program to learn inaccurate information and harmful techniques. But boy do those letter titles and certificates look impressive to clients. This is not okay for anyone involved; the duped trainer, the duped client, or the innocent dog who was already struggling.

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Differences in opinion or approaches aren’t inherently bad, they can lead to great progress! Problems arise however, from the following:

  1. Lack of transparency. It is not ethical for a business to say they will do one thing, and do something completely different. This comes back to comparisons such as your mechanic saying they’ll replace a part of your vehicle, but actually just duct taping the old piece back on. Or your veterinarian saying they’ll eliminate your dog’s painful joints with the least invasive method, but performing a lobotomy in the back room to make the dog unable to express their pain instead. When a dog trainer says their leadership energy is changing behavior, look closer. I’d like to see one of these trainers change behavior on a green dog with a confident temperament without touching it, including via the use of electric shock collars.

  2. No consumer protection. Imagine your dog trainer told you they’d solve your dog’s problem of jumping up on visitors, and since they said it doesn’t hurt, they shock your dog via a special collar every time the dog jumped. Training was remarkably fast and now your dog doesn’t jump on people, but they do bark, cringe, and raise their hackles. Months or years later you have family over and your once uber-friendly snuggly loving dog lashes out and bites. The bite requires stitches and antibiotics or worse. Can you expect the dog trainer to fork up for these medical costs? The scientific literature does say after all that electric shock is likely to cause stress and anxiety that can lead to aggression. Nope, not a chance. You can always sue though right? If you can even find a lawyer willing to take the case, good luck winning. This is not true of other, regulated fields with standard procedures for common issues based on evidence of efficacy.

  3. Lack of education. We have too much research to contain in a single blog post that together proves beyond a shadow of a doubt it’s unnecessary to hurt or scare your dog to train them. There’s also plenty of research showing that this is actually harmful to the dog’s welfare and the side effects are likely to create or exacerbate aggression later on. Does your hairstyle put you or the public in physical danger? Unless you’re a modern Medusa, I doubt it. Regardless of what methods someone uses, they should understand how those methods affect behavior. If a trainer on either side of the spectrum doesn’t understand how this all works, they are likely to make mistakes. Mistakes that, depending on the issue and/or the methods used, can cost dogs their lives and children their faces.


It is not alarmist to say that the dog training industry is a minefield right now. What can you do? Tell your friends, tell your family, tell your local politicians. We need regulation. We need licensing. We need legislation. We ban entire subsets of dogs based on appearance faster than we ban training techniques that are proven to increase bite risks. Most importantly though, don’t become a victim. There are great dog trainers out there who do rely on evidence based techniques that will not harm your dog and will get results.

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I recommend the following organizations if you are looking for a trainer:

  • CTC or Certified Trainer and Counselor via the Academy for Dog Trainers. Graduates have gone through a rigorous 2 year program to prove their knowledge of dog behavior, training, coaching owners and are required to show their practical skills. Even if you can’t find a local trainer, remote coaching is an option more effective than many realize. Check out their directory here.

  • KPA or Karen Pryor Academy graduates go through a 6 months course to learn the principles of operant conditioning, necessary to build behavior. They excel with dogs needing obedience and manners or dog sports & tricks. Here is their directory.

  • PPG or Pet Professional Guild members pledge not to use aversive collars or inhumane techniques, a great starting point. They have a directory here.

  • If you’re a do-it-yourselfer there is a great general course on dog training here plus more specific topics and training plans here.

Reinforce, Then Coach

In dog (and human) training, research has shown us that rewarding good behavior is much more efficient and has less risk of fallout than punishing bad behavior.

Learning a New Skill

I am in the midst of learning a very new skill: roller skating. 8 wheels under my feet at 38 years old is more than a little intimidating. When I practice by myself, these are some of the thoughts that run through my mind: “you’re too old for this,” “you’re no good at this,” “why can’t you just get this part right,” “you’ll never be good at this.” These thoughts consistently make me feel like giving up and have never helped me to improve, so I decided to hire a teacher. 

Enter my positive reinforcement skate teacher. Now, when I stumble, here is what I hear: “you are doing awesome,” “last week you fell three times, you haven’t fallen once this week,” “you’re getting better every time you practice.” These comments make me believe in myself and inspire me to keep trying. They function as positive reinforcement. 

Photographic evidence of my new learning endeavor

Photographic evidence of my new learning endeavor

What is Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training?

Positive reinforcement trainers may also use the term “reward-based” training. Positive reinforcement is defined as “adding a stimulus to increase the frequency of the behavior that preceded it.” The comments my teacher makes in our lessons make it more likely that I will keep practicing and reach my goal. In dog training, the same concept applies: add something the dog loves (usually food) after the dog does the behavior you want to see more of. Voila! You get more of that lovely behavior in the future!

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Reinforce, then Coach the Next Piece (Don’t Criticize!)

My dog training mentor and teacher, Jean Donaldson, taught me to “reinforce what you want to see more of and then coach.” This applies to training dogs but more importantly, coaching humans to train their dogs. No matter how much a client might ask for criticism, criticism serves to punish (a.k.a. reduce a particular behavior). It ignores anything reinforceable and therefore doesn't guarantee a better, or even correct response next time. If I start by pointing out what a client is doing wrong with their dog, they will likely become nervous and have some of the similar self-sabotaging thoughts that I used to have when learning to roller skate. Focusing on what not to do is not very helpful when learning a new, highly physical skill.

When clients feel criticized and are punished, they often give up. Criticism is much more salient to humans than compliments. Someone could get 10 compliments about their new shirt, but one negative comment will stick out and either create self doubt or just hang over them like a nagging headache. When clients are reinforced for the parts they are doing right, they'll do those parts better and more often. After I’ve pointed out what a client is doing right, they feel good and I can then gently coach them on the next piece. It might look like this: “I love how you kept the food lure right at Fluffy’s nose! Now, next time I want you to deliver the food the moment Fluffy’s lands in a sit.” Reinforce what they got right, then coach the next part.

Laura Witkowski of  Good Wolff  training with Asha

Laura Witkowski of Good Wolff training with Asha

Why Positive Reinforcement?

There is loads of research to back the reasons modern dog trainers choose positive reinforcement training over old school aversive training methods or a combination of the two (a.k.a. “balanced training”). My personal favorite benefit is that it fosters a relationship based on trust. Through years of positive reinforcement training, my dog is always eager for training sessions because they are rewarding and fun. In our relationship, there is never the threat of pain, fear, or coercion. Our dogs are only with us for a short time and what we do with this time matters greatly. Read here for a guideline on how to find a credentialed reward-based trainer near you. See additional resources section below for more information on positive reinforcement training.

Additional Resources

This post is a part of the "Train For Rewards Blog Party 2019", with Companion Animal Psychology. Click the image above to see all the #train4rewards posts!

The Cost of Competent Dog Training

There is a common misconception that dog trainers “do it for love.” While we love what we do, we also have to earn a living.  Getting competent at our craft involves a big chunk of time, money, emotional bandwidth, and effort. 

These organizations provide excellent resources to trainers and dog guardians.

These organizations provide excellent resources to trainers and dog guardians.

What Happens Behind the Scenes?

During the 60-90 minutes that a trainer sees you for a consultation, you are paying for their time and information. However, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes, before and after you meet in person.

Certification and Education: Anyone can call themselves a dog trainer but modern dog training prides itself on qualifications, certification, and continuing education. Once certified, your trainer is hopefully continuing their education by attending workshops and seminars. While the cost of these can vary, they are certainly not cheap! Ask your trainer what they are doing to stay up to date on best practices. 

Maintaining a Small Business: Many dog trainers, including myself, run a small business and act as the sole employee. Some one-time and monthly fees that I personally take on include: purchasing an LLC, business insurance, website and domain fees, scheduling capabilities, business cards, and promotions. Don’t forget gas and car maintenance! 

Case Review and Prep: Before your session, you will likely be asked to fill out a questionnaire summarizing your dog’s history and the challenges you are facing. This information helps your trainer make the most of your time together. Your trainer will review this in detail, and start a rough draft of additional questions to ask as well as the beginnings of a plan to get you and your dog on the right track. 

Write up and Training Plan: Ideally, you will receive an email that summarizes everything that was covered in your session. This includes punchy graphics and handouts that will help solidify everything for you. But the real time-consuming effort goes into building a training plan for your dog.

Food Purchase and Prep: Hooray, you’ve hired a qualified trainer who utilizes rewards, so you will be using food! Sometimes dry treats will cut it, but to really motivate your dog, your trainer is going to pull out the big guns. This is typically meat or cheese, chopped into tiny pieces, or a squeeze tube stuffed with wet dog food. A lot of time and effort and messy hands goes into this part! 

And keep this in mind:

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There’s a lot that goes into your session with a dog trainer! Refuse to settle for anything less than competence and transparency.


Disclaimer: When I reference “dog trainers” in this blog, I am referring to dog trainers who have received certifications and formal education in evidence-based training that utilizes rewards. For more information on how to choose a dog trainer, read here