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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.