Some dog trainers refuse to have lengthy phone conversations with potential clients; they want to sell their services and keep the initial chat as brief as possible. While that’s understandable and maybe even commendable from a business point of view (besides, who really wants to be on the phone for an hour?), I don’t mind spending a bit of time getting to know someone’s concerns, what they’ve tried so far, and their goals. I find that it actually benefits the business as well, as it gives me time to establish rapport, which greatly increases the chances of the caller becoming a client.
While most conversations are pleasant enough, some are difficult at best. I recently got a call from a woman who had a five-month-old Labradoodle and two young kids. Predictably, the dog was jumping and nipping at the kids. The family wanted the behavior stopped, yesterday. Pretty typical stuff. Then the woman went on to tell me what she had tried so far: a spray bottle; “clamping the dog’s nose;” and, finally, “hitting him as hard as I could.” I was silent for a beat, processing that last one. She continued on to explain that when she hit him, the dog thought she was playing, and just got more amped up. I was silently grateful that the dog hadn’t been traumatized. I maintained a calm, friendly tone as I told the woman I could hear that she was very frustrated; that I was sure it’s difficult to deal with two young kids and a rambunctious dog; and that I knew she didn’t want to have to resort to hitting the dog that way. She agreed completely. We chatted a bit longer and, thankfully, she ended up setting up an appointment.
After I hung up, I suddenly burst into tears. It’s not a reaction I’ve ever had before—in this business, I hear about disturbing things on a regular basis, and I deal with it. Maybe I was just having a rough day. The thought of someone hitting a dog “as hard as they can” is pretty awful in itself, but that hadn’t been the only troubling dog-related behavior I’d heard about that day. That same morning, a trainer friend had told me about two young men—big, burly guys, from her description—who had a young Aussie mix puppy with them at a basketball court. The pup was behaving very well, lying calmly at the edge of the court as they played. My friend was walking her two dogs in the surrounding park area, being careful to maintain enough of a distance so as not to be distracting. At some point one of her dogs barked, and the puppy stood up and trotted off a few feet to investigate. One of the men immediately yelled at the puppy to get back there and lie down. The pup skulked warily back toward him, but apparently it wasn’t fast enough. The man grabbed the pup by the collar and dragged it across the asphalt, yelling close to its face all the while. My friend didn’t feel she could safely intervene, but she felt terrible, as did I, just hearing about it.
These are certainly not the worst examples of the abuse dogs suffer at human hands—believe me, I’ve heard a lot worse. But this type of thing happens so often. These are just two more examples of the kind of low-level abuse that goes on daily, in millions of homes, in the name of training. And the truth is, most of these owners are not terrible people; they’re frustrated with their dogs’ behavior, and don’t know how to get compliance any other way. It’s ironic, because just like the dogs, they just don’t know any better. Just as we train dogs gently and kindly, we trainers have to keep our cool with owners regardless of the awful things we might hear, in the hopes of changing the person’s behavior.
In any helping profession, it’s easy to get burned out. All we can do is to keep on having respectful conversations, and keep on putting the education out there. And so, that one emotional outburst past, I go back to keeping my balance on the fine line of hope that at some point the tide will turn and positive, gentle training methods based on cooperation and communication will become the norm.