The founder and director of the Academy, Jean Donaldson, has a particularly brilliant pedagogical tool. Whether she’s delivering a webinar, crafting an article or chapter, or creating some stand-alone content for the Academy’s core curriculum, she makes sure to answer the question “if they learn nothing else, what is the one thing I want them to take away from this lesson?” Setting up a key message helps build a framework for the lesson and ensures her teachings have that punchy, clear, and concise quality that she is known for. Each paragraph, each page, each slide, and each module leaves her audiences satisfied that they see the whole picture she is painting, and they see it clearly.
Successful dog training is due in no small part to the successful coaching and instruction of the human clients we work with, so the Academy program allots considerable time and effort to the theory and process of teaching and coaching. When our students get to the module on teaching, Jean draws back the curtains on her use of “if they learn nothing else”. It is, as she points out in yet another clear educational module, useful at every level of information production from class instructions to client homework to drafting website text to structuring webinars.
For the twentieth anniversary of the Academy, the Academy’s staff decided to pull together their favourite and most compelling “if they learn nothing else” messages for the students of the program. All staff are professional dog trainers with outside businesses, and all contribute to the educational experience of our students. However, each bring a different message and a different perspective for our student body.
Jean is the school’s founder and director. She also marks most of the written assignments our students must submit and pass to move through the program. Jean supports students and graduates with case coaching and academic coaching as well, and her rigorous attention to critical thinking and ethical training sets the bar for all Academicians.
If I could teach our students but one thing it would be to train using an incremental plan. One big advantage is that training this way requires knowledge of the usual-suspect plan parameters and when to incorporate which. In turn, this not only allows for effortless plan construction but suggests splits once one is training. Training plans can feel really constraining if one has been primarily pleasure training, where there is not efficiency pressure the way there is with an at-risk dog and fed-up client. But a sound, vetted plan optimizes the balance between incremental and efficient, and keeps RoR where it should be. The alternative–reinventing the wheel from first principles case after case after case, often without parameter fluency–, while romantic, is grindingly inefficient at best and incompetent at worst. So we emphasize that, when they’re messing around for fun, they can meander about at will. But when they’re taking someone’s hard-earned money to resolve problems in the real world with time constraints and limited client resources, it’s time for a training plan.
Sarah is a student coach and mentor, and provides most of the video coaching for our students. All Academy students must submit video for a set of increasingly difficult training tasks, and Sarah’s fantastic coaching provides both feedback to ensure the students gain proficiency in the mechanics of dog training and a playbook for how our graduates should coach their own clients.
Take full advantage of the video coaching. The video submissions are an opportunity to be coached on, and therefore improve, your training mechanics. The Academy training methods may be different from what you are used to, but we strongly encourage you to jump in and give them a try. You’ll get very useful feedback. For example, we’ll remind you to always be aware of rate of reinforcement. When you are losing the dog it is almost always a rate issue. You’ll hear this message over and over: Train fast and shorten your inter-trial latency. We’re also coaching you to be proficient at production training, which is extremely efficient. It may feel awkward at first but following a plan and the Push Drop Stick rules, both key elements to production training, will take your abilities to a new level. And once you’re a sophomore, approach the free-shaped retrieve assignment as an adventure. It was purposely designed to be a challenge. Once you’re through the retrieve, you will be able to shape any behaviour with confidence. This exercise is not a race to see how fast it can be installed. To get the most out of it, find a dog who does not readily pick items up. The more challenging the dog, the more you will learn. And finally, recognize that the coaching you are receiving is a model for how you will coach your own clients in the future. Coaching laypeople is critical to this business. Clients are not trainers; it is important to acknowledge their efforts. Every session reinforce one or two things that your human client is doing well.
Kristi is a student mentor and coach, and runs special projects for the Academy. She leads the Academy’s Husbandry Project, and also manages several other Academy-led research projects. Kristi handles the Academy’s weekly Wednesday webinars, ensuring that this ongoing content is interactive and fun while meeting students’ educational needs, and collecting an ever-growing stable of wonderful guest presenters.
If I could teach the participants in our program just one thing, it would be to identify, accept, and be realistic about their own fear of dogs. We all have it: I do, you do, all the staff here do, your friendly neighbourhood dog guru does…everyone. Fear of dogs is perfectly natural, just like a dog’s fear of thunder or fear of painful veterinary procedures is natural. But even though it’s natural, we don’t seem to accept it in ourselves. We pretend we’re not scared of normal dog behaviour, which leaves us in a bit of a quandary when the dogs around us are aggressive, tense, jubilant, forceful, or whatever button they happen to push. If we see ourselves as not scared, but dogs scare us, then our minds make a simple but incorrect leap: the dog in question must be scary. Acknowledging that every dog pro and every dog student gets a racing heart about at least some of the stuff that dogs do allows us to take a step back and view dog’s behaviour through a more careful and scientific lens: normal dog behaviour (even aggression and even rough play) isn’t pathological or dangerous in cases where standard ethological benchmarks of safety are met by the dog. There’s a danger in allowing our heartrate to be the barometer of a dog’s safety.
Lori directs the Academy’s public-facing media, producing and curating educational content aimed at both the dog-owning public and the pet services community. She also welcomes new students into the Academy and provides assistance to students navigating the program’s two-year, multi-level curriculum. Lori is in charge when the Academy hosts seminars such as the two multi-day sessions with vet behaviourist Daniel Mills held in the summer of 2018.
I’d want them to understand that gaining skills such as client counseling and empathy building are as important as learning the technical skills involved in training. It’s so important that our clients feel heard and understood and as professionals, we owe it to them to let them know we are on the same team. For so long, dog training as a profession has attracted those who say they like dogs better than people, and as part of their Academy experience, I hope that students come away recognizing the importance of the human end of the equation. And that they do so with the understanding that this cannot be ignored and that it must be cultivated and nurtured. The benefits in doing so exist not only for each client and individual trainers, but to the industry as a whole, as it helps legitimize and validate our profession.
Casey oversees the application process and handles student records. She is the first point of contact for the many interested Academy applicants. She also coaches students and oversees the process whereby senior students and new graduates gain coaching skills by assisting new students. Here, Casey models with remarkable care both the problem-solving skills and client-centred approach we expect from our graduates.
Until I experienced it firsthand I didn’t fully appreciate how powerful–and more importantly, efficient–it is to work with upset dogs under threshold. It’s a tricky concept to grasp as a trainer, and even trickier to explain to clients. I suspect that’s because it’s counterintuitive to conventional wisdom about how fears are conquered: by testing limits, pushing past the pain, faking it until you feel it. But it turns out that all the magic happens in the invisible space below threshold, where the dog notices the Scary Thing but still feels completely safe, and it can take some creative problem-solving to pull this off. My best client script has been to ask them to consider how many times their dog has been exposed to a scary version of X stimulus–whether it’s a kid on a bike, a large dog, the nail clippers, or being alone at home. It’s usually in the dozens, if not hundreds. Our job going forward is to start with a clean slate and expose him carefully and repeatedly to safe versions of X stimulus. Insist on this without compromise, and your clients will become believers as well.
Erik is the computer virtuoso behind the Academy. He is the administrator of the Academy’s comprehensive online learning platform, The Dog Scientific. He also handles the technical aspects of the application process, and with his rare and unique combination of technical skills and dog skills, is working with the Academy on some exciting new tech-based applications for the future.
The one piece of advice I would like to give to students (especially the ones that are just about to graduate and take clients) is this: make it as easy for your clients as possible to be compliant. When you get your first “X is not working” and start asking questions to figure out what is going on, you will discover that most of the time “X is not working” really means “I’m not doing it”. Your clients aren’t lazy, they just have other priorities in their lives. They are not dog trainers, so what is effortless and fun for you is tedious and a burden to them. Set them up for success, not failure. Make their to do list as short as possible. Then make it shorter. Go for the simplest solution that could possibly work. This might feel disappointing in the beginning. The solution you choose for your clients will often be different, and less ambitious, than what you would choose for your own dogs. But soon enough you’ll find real joy in your client’s relief at an efficient and easy training protocol that works for their lives and their dogs. And just as importantly, your professional reputation will benefit, as you focus on helping real people in their own messy lives.
Kelly is the Academy’s artist-in-residence. She creates the visually appealing hand-outs, logos, and other graphic design elements that give the Academy its image.
Design matters. Don’t skimp on visual communication for your business–whether it’s your logo, handouts, website, business cards or social media posts. They should be persuasive, informative and perhaps most importantly–beautiful. You’re losing clients if they aren’t, no matter how great a dog trainer you are. There is a science to this art–science that a professional designer understands. So don’t be afraid to hire one! It’s a small investment that will yield big results.
Claudine heads the Academy’s French Connection. She reaches out to Francophone students and communities, spreading the word about both the Academy’s program and force-free training. She works hand-in-hand with Lori to translate Academy articles and educational posts, and liaises with Francophone students as needed as well.
Pick your battles when working with clients. Prioritizing is so important. And that does not necessarily mean prioritizing what you want and would expect as a trainer (or even personally). It means prioritizing what is important and what will help your human clients, in their own reality, and right away. Unless welfare or safety is at stake, the person in front of you should dictate what should be addressed and/or trained. Our goal is to alleviate their burdens and make the training process easier on them. We need to be able to walk a mile in our client’s shoes, to normalize what needs to be normalized and to be able to verbalize it properly and nicely, without judgment. Pick your battles and prioritize what is best for the person in front of you. Then make a plan for it, and then stick to it.
The Academy is celebrating 20 years of educating the finest dog trainers with the most forward-thinking, comprehensive, science-based, and ethical curriculum we can. Follow our Facebook and Instagram to see more and join in the festivities.
Sarah Pennington, Jean Donaldson, Lori Nanan, Casey McGee, and Kristi Benson at Graceland in 2018.