Be Kind To Your Trainer
I hope this post is not too self-indulgent, but I know so many colleagues who are struggling at the moment that I believe awareness needs to be raised. Compassion fatigue and burnout is common in this industry, so I hope this may help others to understand what trainers and behaviourists experience and will go a little way towards fostering kindness and compassion. Most people get involved in dog training or become dog behaviourists because they want to work with dogs. Many outsiders envision the job as playing with puppies and changing dogs lives for the better. What most people don’t consider, is that dogs and puppies come attached to humans and it is actually the human part of the equation that we as trainers spend the most time interacting with. Classes and consultations are focused on teaching owners how to train and interact with their dogs – while we may occasionally step in to demonstrate an exercise with a dog and are constantly observing all the dogs in class and looking out for their wellbeing, 90% of our energy goes towards instructing and interacting with the humans. For many of us, this does not come naturally. Often people who are drawn to working with animals are introverts – we feel comfortable and relaxed in interactions with non-human animals, but find interactions with people slightly anxiety-inducing. Teaching and interacting with clients in groups or one-on-one can be intimidating for someone who is naturally socially reserved and while many of us become pretty good at it, being good at it requires an enormous amount of emotional energy. Behaviourists and trainers are also usually empathetic people – being able to observe body language and constantly evaluate an animal’s emotional state accurately requires one to be sensitive to how others are feeling. This part of our job’s is so important, that much of our training is aimed at enhancing these skills, so that we are sensitive to the subtlest changes and shifts in mood. Because humans come attached to dogs, we also end up becoming sensitive to human body language and emotional states and pick up quickly when people are unhappy, annoyed or tense. During every class we have to balance the emotions and moods of a variety of people and their dogs – and we have to find a way to be sensitive to these moods, without allowing it to throw us off our game, affect us personally or damage our professionalism in a class situation. We deal with a huge range of dog owner personalities which can also be quite challenging: We have people who are there under duress, because their wife, husband, mom or dad insisted that they train the dog, when they don’t really think it is necessary. We have people who have trained with old-school methods in the past and resent “treat training”, but attend anyway, because we are the closest training school. We have people with physical limitations or emotional challenges who need careful and gentle handling. We have people who want to have the opportunity to train their dogs, but don’t want instruction from us, because they have their own ideas and want to do their own thing. We have people who are in complete denial over their dogs’ issues or totally inconsiderate of other people’s or other dogs’ needs in the class. We have those who got a dog “to teach my child some responsibility” or view us as an extra mural children’s activity and try to drop off kids and dog for us to deal with alone. And, of course, we have those who want our services, but do absolutely everything to avoid actually having to pay for them. Then we have those golden clients who train their dogs because they recognise the value in doing so, those who love their dogs and want to ensure that all their needs are met, those that respect us and what we do and trust our guidance. Those who stay for years, just because it is so much fun and because of the bond they have with their dogs. These are the clients who keep us going and the ones we must remember when our energy is running low. Being a trainer or behaviourist also requires constant problem solving. We may plan to teach a set of exercises in a particular lesson, but find that for whatever reason that day a few clients or dogs are struggling and are not up to what we had planned. We always have to have plan B (and C & D). We have to adjust our plans according to the dogs and owners that show up that day and we may have to adjust a specific exercise for a particular dog or person who something is just not working for. This requires constant “thinking” on your feet and endless contingency plans. At the same time, we are constantly aware of the expectation of “quick fixes” that many clients have from watching unrealistic “reality” TV shows and the worry that these unrealistic expectations will lead the client to find an aversive trainer, if we don’t “get the job done quickly”, to the ultimate detriment of dog and owner. We also live with risk: People and dogs are not robots and we cannot control or predict everything they will do in any given situation. While we may be as responsible as possible, people can do silly things – they can ignore our instructions, they can be in denial or they can deliberately misrepresent the nature of their dog’s behaviour problems, putting us and others in class at risk. Dogs are not perfect and any dog, if put in the wrong situation at the wrong time could potentially use aggression to get out of that situation. We can never switch off and take people or dogs’ safety for granted. In some cases we have to make the hard decision that a dog may not be safe to have in a group class and tell people things that they don’t want to hear. While we may be there to resolve dog behaviour problems, many times in consultations we end up being leaned on as support for the human family. While we are not human psychologists, we often find ourselves exposed to the tough personal problems people are experiencing and absorb a lot of their emotions in trying to help them with their dogs. Often the dog’s problem is a symptom of something greater in the family and we have to carefully and sensitively work within extremely tricky situations to try and help. The difference is that unlike human counsellors, we do not have the support systems in place to “debrief” or receive professional counselling which is mandatory in human equivalent fields. Most of us also do not earn enough to afford the luxury of private counselling on an ongoing basis for this purpose. Trainers and behaviourists have another burden which many people don’t consider – the burden of perfection in our own lives with our own dogs. While logically we know that no dog is ever going to be perfect, just as we are only human and will never be perfect, many of us feel that we are judged professionally on the behaviour of our own dogs. Many trainers find even minor issues with their own dogs utterly devastating, because they feel their knowledge and experience should have prevented them from ever making any mistake in this area of their lives. When they “fail” in their personal lives with their dogs in any small way, the guilt and embarrassment can be over-whelming. Finally, the love that we feel for the dogs that we deal with comes at a cost. We go into this profession, because we love and care for dogs – this means that when we see dogs that are not being treated well or who are destined to live miserable lives, because despite our best efforts, people do not take our advice, it haunts us. We feel genuine sadness and it can be hard to walk away and let go. So, be kind to your trainer. If you are lucky enough to find a science-based, force free trainer who genuinely loves dogs enough to put money, energy and time into getting a proper formal education in the field and to pursue the profession full time, please consider that this is not an easy profession. It is all-consuming, financially unrewarding and emotionally draining, despite the fact that it is our passion. To those golden clients who keep us going and make it all worthwhile, thank you!